I want to be clear that I am not saying that Patreon and similar social supports are bad in any way. I support several! I think they’re good! I ponder having one myself! In fact, writing this post reminded me to go subscribe to another! What I want to noodle with in this blog post is: I think that since they’re fairly new, we don’t have an entirely good handle on the social intricacies of them, as a community. Certainly I don’t! And I would like to talk more about them. Please, please use the comments to do that if you also have thoughts, if you think I’m wrong or missing things, etc.! If you have good answers, I would like to hear them!
So. I can see three main reasons to support a Patreon (or similar, I’m going to shorthand it to Patreon). Project support: you like the specific thing that the person is doing on their Patreon and want to get the installments of it. Art support: you like the work they’re doing in general, and you want to see that work continue whether the specific updates/installments are your cuppa. Personal support: you think that the person is worth supporting whether they’re doing specific work at this exact moment–for hope of future cool work, in appreciation of past work, because this is an easy way for you to slip a personal friend a few bucks even though you think their art is kind of meh, “other.”
I don’t think that it’s necessarily clear to the person who has the Patreon what proportion of each of those things their supporters has in mind with their support. I mean, there are some accounts that have monthly support and are not providing updates/installments of any kind of backer reward, so they’re pretty sure that you’re not there for the project support! But in general I don’t think feedback is very clear on which things you’re there for. It also may not be very internally clear to you. Also! Also your proportions of type of support can shift over time. Friend doing a cool project can stop that project and start a new project you’re less enthusiastic about…but still you believe in Friend’s work. Or Friend can hit one of life’s road bumps, but you believe that they’ll get back on track and in the meantime you’re happy to support. Or! Friend was in one of life’s road bumps and you were supporting, but now they’re doing something specifically awesome!
So into this set of inputs comes several social problems. There is the Bored Now Problem. If you have a friend whose traditionally published books you were buying, and you get bored with them, a traditional publisher will not give them an itemized list of who has and has not bought them–but they will definitely see if you’ve dropped their Patreon. Do we have to follow indefinitely if we were mostly on a Project support basis and that is no longer interesting? Is the protocol to politely not notice who has dropped you? Is any feedback possible there, or do they just have to guess why people would have dropped? Can they ask, if they notice a specific or a general downturn in support? If they do ask, will they get honest answers?
Then there’s the Lurkers Support Me In Email With $5/Month Problem: if the person has started doing mildly odious things, when is that worth withdrawing your financial support? if you know they really rely on backers? if they’re more than mildly odious, deeply odious? does the answer change based on how much of your Patreon backing is skewed toward each of the categories? Do you tell the person why you’re not supporting them any more or just back away quietly? Does the answer change based on how much you’ve had a relationship vs. how much you’ve been an anonymous fan?
There is the What Did I Incentivize Problem, and I think of that a lot when I think about setting up a Patreon. I write flash fairly quickly. I could easily set up a flash-a-month Patreon. Do I want to make sure that I write at least one flash a month, every month? and that I prioritize them for a Patreon rather than for a professional market I would currently send them to? I already think about this for things like blog projects. I think about it when I consider pitching essays–I love essays, but I pitch fewer of them than I could, because I don’t want to get into a position where I’m resenting essays for taking time away from fiction that I value more. I want to be doing the amount of them that I value.
I guess I am currently concerned that a lot of people right now are in a place where they really really need the money from their Patreon and they cannot tell how important the specific project is to their patrons giving them that money. The feedback mechanisms are slow and have a lot of social awkwardness built into them. So there’s a lot of early-project feedback, sort of: “would you support me beginning a Patreon that was set up like so“–but this is basically never set up with a control group so that the artist can see what another group would support if it was set up differently. They can see what people did support and what they didn’t stop supporting but not where the priorities are.
There’s a lot of inertia in that system. And I feel like some of the people who most need the impetus to level up in what they’re doing also most need the money they’re getting from Patreon. Now…would they be getting impetus to level up from not getting paid? Quite often no. Quite often having zero dollars a month from their art/projects would be giving them impetus to do something far worse for their art/projects with their time, like…not art at all.
I guess what I’m trying to figure out is: for people who are setting up something like this, how do you build in checks and balances so that you don’t set it up with a feedback loop to reinforce the wrong thing? Do you set up a regular check-in with yourself to see how you feel about the balance of stuff that you’re doing? Is there any way to have trusted patrons you can ask? How do you manage emotions around who does and does not support your Patreon (knowing that people honestly may have trouble keeping track of who even has one and what they’re doing with it)?
And on the flip side, as a patron of these things, how do you know when and how to extricate gracefully? What are the protocols for what feedback you can give kindly? Even–especially–if that feedback is, “Y’know, this stuff is great and all, but I would still support your Patreon at this level if you were doing way less, so you can maybe relax a little”?