Readers / Subscribers / Collectors / Patrons

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka
0x25cb
April 9th, 2021

My previous post was about how cryptocurrencies function like content and how investing in tokens is in some ways like being a reader of a magazine. Both of these relationships are mediations between creators (a terrible word) and consumers or fans. Many digital platforms have lately been trying to form new relationships between creators and consumers, where it's donations on Patreon, subscriptions on Substack, or buying NFTs on SuperRare. The consumer provides some form of support (usually monetary) in exchange for various forms of access to the creator.

It's worth breaking down a bit how these different relationships work. Through its subscriptions, a magazine like The New Yorker offers access to a packaged group of writers and voices in various formats: articles, print magazines, crossword puzzles, podcasts, and videos. We subscribe to The New Yorker because we want to be in touch with those specific voices, and the magazine offers a convenient bundle. The subscription is a rather abstract exchange: We don't know how much money goes to the specific writer we like; we just know that it supports the whole organization, which we affiliate ourselves with as readers.

On Patreon and Substack, the relationship is more direct. Patrons or subscribers are paying directly for some form of content from the specific voice. Particularly with Substack, it feels like a subscription to a magazine of one writer. Those economics can work out very well because the now-accepted price for a solo newsletter is similar to that of an entire print magazine. Yet the relationship is less abstract. I know where my money's going and I know what the writer is going to do with it, and I want to be more closely affiliated with them, so I'm willing to pay a higher price relative to content.

Newsletters or Patreon posts are a stream of content that consumers follow over time. NFTs function more like art exhibitions: creators put out a few in batches, or one at a time consistently, and collectors buy up ownership rights for much higher prices than a reader might pay to consume the same content on Patreon. It's a different business model and relationship, relying on wealthier, more committed followers to offer support in more intermittent, higher-value ways. What those collectors get is more intimacy or affiliation with the creator, because they can assert a right to something that no one else can.

An art collector buys a painting because they want to have the artist's presence in their life, to meditate on the one work on their wall over time, not to receive intermittent updates or a stream of new weekly creations. It's a limited transaction, even though it's usually high-priced. The affiliation with the artist is relatively one-sided, though the collector might, via a gallery, get invited to openings or dinners. Ownership of a painting (or NFT) can be a ticket into rarified spaces beyond that specific artist — partly because it's simply a display of wealth, and other groups want your collecting attention.

The patron relationship is different once again. Patrons are not just consuming a work via reading or ownership; they are supporting the work's creation and participating in the creator's process to some degree — committing to buy a work in advance, perhaps, or donating studio space or resources. (Not like getting their portrait painted; more like being an early investor, an insider.) The rewards of patronage are status, close affiliation, creative input, and a kind of equity: Your investment might turn into profit or your social capital might increase — though acting too cynically can make the opposite happen.

I think content — in the form of writing, journalism, commentary, research — needs more forms of collector and patron relationships, where upfront investment and commitment is rewarded and more unique projects are enabled. These relationships reward the creators with independence and relative freedom and deeper understanding (ideally) from their audience. Subscription is certainly a sustainable business model for many forms of media, but it does not necessarily suit all forms of content or experimental work, which collectors and patrons are ideally suited for.

NFTs can provide the support for the collector and patron relationships, as can the kinds of tokens that Mirror is supporting, like $ESSAY or Emily Segal's $NOVEL. I want to see blogs, series, and think tanks funded by tokens and NFTs rather than just readers and recurring payments, with rewards for both creators and patrons.

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