Monthly Archives: January 2016

How Boing Boing adapted to the social web

boing boing

A question started bugging Mark Frauenfelder in November of 2014: Could you take marijuana onto a plane in a state where it was legal? Would the TSA let you through? Earlier that month, Alaska had joined three other states and the District of Columbia by voting to legalize marijuana use for citizens over the age of 21, but given that the drug was still banned at the federal level there were all sorts of murky legal questions yet to be answered, this being one of them. So Frauenfelder, a co-editor at Boing Boing, once considered the most popular blog on the internet (by the rankings of blog search engine Technorati), approached Caroline Siede, a frequent freelancer for the site, and asked her to tackle the question. “So she did her usual thing and reported the story out, which involved calling Homeland Security and finding out what the deal was,” he told me.

The outcome of that research, a 1,300-word article preluded with a full-width image of a plane superimposed with a marijuana leaf, reported that whether you can carry legal marijuana onto a plane is often up to the discretion of the TSA agent, but in many cases you’ll be fine. While this information certainly was interesting, what I found more interesting as a media journalist was that a decade ago you wouldn’t have found anything like this article on boingboing.net.

For as long as I’ve been reading it, Boing Boing’s tagline has been “a directory of wonderful things,” and for much of its history it was just that: a directory, one that almost always pointed you away to other websites. A 2005 blog post outlining how to send submissions to the site states, “Don’t send in stuff without links. If you saw something cool on TV or received something interesting in email, you need to either find it on the Web or publish it on the Web before suggesting it. Boing Boing publishes links — so if there’s no link, there’s not much chance we’ll link to it.”

But here was a post that, while containing links, resembled less a blog post and more a feature-length article, one specifically designed for others to link to. And it wasn’t a fluke; Frauenfelder told me he has a steady stable of freelancers he turns to to produce original content. “They’ll hit me up with ideas, and I’ll decide whether we should do it,” he said. “Some of our other editors occasionally introduce me to someone they know who has written a book or something and wants to write an essay for us to help get word out about their book.” Boing Boing, he said, publishes at least one of these original articles per day, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. Though it still publishes plenty of short blog posts meant to draw attention to outside content, Boing Boing certainly can no longer be described as merely a directory.

***

A version of the Boing Boing print zine

A version of the Boing Boing print zine

Boing Boing’s origin story is by now well documented. Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair launched it as a print zine in 1988, and it eventually reached a peak circulation of 17,500 copies before it was abandoned in the mid-90s in favor of a website. According to an article in Fast Company, it was after Frauenfelder pitched a magazine editor on a story about a then-fledgling company called Blogger that he got the idea for the site’s bloggier iteration, which launched in 2000. During that first year posts were authored almost exclusively by Frauenfelder, but he would soon be joined by a coterie of co-editors who are now all partial owners in the site: Cory Doctorow, a Wired contributor turned novelist and digital rights activist; Xeni Jardin, a journalist and NPR correspondent; and David Pescovitz, a researcher at the Institute for the Future (a fourth editor, Rob Beschizza, joined much later).

Its readership quickly grew. In a 2003 interview, Doctorow bragged that Boing Boing was receiving half a million pageviews a month. That number soon rose to several million. Hosting costs ballooned to about $1,000 a month, all paid out of pocket until the blog started accepting advertising in 2004. Within a few years, it was a seven-figure business.

So why was a blog that merely aggregated links, mostly to content pertaining to non-mainstream geek culture, so popular? To answer this question, one must first consider how the internet operated a decade ago. Back then, if you wanted to regularly read a news website or blog, you had basically two options.

The first was that you could subscribe to its RSS feed. RSS was a great tool (I still remember the epiphany I had when I signed up for Bloglines, an early RSS reader, and immediately grasped its utility). You could subscribe to as many blogs as you wanted, and rather than having to constantly reload each one to see if it had been updated, all new posts were delivered directly to your feed. In many cases, you didn’t even have to click away to read the entire post. But as great as RSS was, it had extremely low adoption rates, so much so that bloggers would hold an annual RSS Day to try to raise awareness that the functionality existed.

The second method, and by far the most common, was to simply bookmark the site in your browser. But this quickly became unwieldy once you bookmarked more than a dozen blogs, which meant that, despite the existence of millions of blogs by the mid-2000s, it was incredibly difficult for most of them to build a consistent readership.

Hence the utility of link blogs like Boing Boing. They became a major mode of discovery for more obscure blogs and content. Nearly all of these curation blogs — from Boing Boing to Slashdot to Laughing Squid — had some sort of submission form for artists and writers to submit their content. The lucky few who would get featured on these sites were rewarded with thousands of new readers (I had a blog back then and I would see between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors after receiving a Boing Boing link). Readers were happy because someone else was doing all the hard work of surfacing the best content.

You know what happened next. Facebook debuted its news feed and began allowing media organizations to launch their own pages. Twitter entered the scene with its own high-metabolism feed. Suddenly you could not only easily subscribe to blogs and news sites, but also to the individual authors who wrote for those sites. Where RSS failed to catch on, social media succeeded. Now, anyone could be a curator of content.

At the same time, mainstream news companies, which were starting to get serious about generating web traffic and wanted to attract shares from all these Twitter and Facebook users, began to ramp up their own aggregation. A journalism grad used to cut their teeth by starting at a weekly newspaper and then working their way up. These days, they’re just as likely to snag an entry level gig at a New York media company and spend their days repackaging GIFs and videos first surfaced on Reddit. This is why you’ll see upwards of 60 news sites posting the latest John Oliver rant every Monday. And these new curators weren’t as scrupulous about giving credit as their blogger ancestors.

“Many 22-year-old interns do not care about attribution,” said Scott Beale, the founder of Laughing Squid. “There’s no repercussion for them either. They’ll be at some media organization for six months, give no attribution, and then move on to the next job.” When they do give attribution, he said, it’s usually just a link to wherever they found the content, which often isn’t its original source. “We’ll actually do the research and track down a video or image to the person who created it and give them credit.”

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Laughing Squid, like Boing Boing, established itself as an early curation blog, focusing largely on art and geek culture. And as the independent blogosphere deteriorated and gave rise to social platforms and VC-funded news startups, Beale has tried to resist adopting traffic-boosting strategies that he feels would cheapen his blog posts. “The basic structure of our blog posts is essentially the same” he said. “If you look back at our oldest posts, you’re going to see the same things. Headlines have never been sensational. We don’t insult our readers’ intelligence. We don’t tell readers how to think or what to do. Take a look at the blog posts out there. How many of them use headlines that tell people that something ‘will restore your faith in humanity’? It’s a trick they use. We don’t do it and we never will. These things come and go — and they do all come and go — while we keep doing our thing.”

***

Boing Boing wasn’t resting on its laurels as this new internet emerged. As the blog entered the late aughts, it began to test out new offerings. It launched a gadgets vertical headed up by former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson. It debuted Boing Boing TV, a daily video show hosted by Xeni Jardin which did things like interview tech execs at the Consumer Electronics Show about the latest gadgets. The editors hosted a regular podcast, called Boing Boing Boing. Many of these projects were either shuttered or rolled back into the main site. “The videos were incredibly time intensive,” said Frauenfelder. “You get bogged down with post production, editing it, going on location. When you compare the number of views we got for a video to the traffic for blog posts and articles which cost us much less time and money, then it became clear that video wasn’t a good investment.”

The editors applied the same cost-benefit analysis to their podcast. “It was hard for us to actually get enough listeners to make it worth doing,” he said. “For a while our listener numbers weren’t being counted properly. We thought we were getting 50,000 to 100,000 listeners per episode, but really it was closer to 8,000 listeners per episode. Podcasting ads pay about $20 per thousand downloads, so making a couple hundred dollars to do a podcast that takes all together eight hours to create isn’t worth it when we could spend those eight hours doing text-based content.”

In 2014, on Boing Boing’s 25th anniversary, Rob Beschizza published a commemorating post on the site. In addition to promising a “renewed focus on original features,” he announced a new homepage design, one that would steer away from the reverse-chronological presentation that was the hallmark of most blogs and place more focus on featuring original content the editors didn’t want buried in the stream. This new Boing Boing, at least on the homepage, looked more like a magazine than what we would traditionally consider a blog. “We had been doing [curation] for so long,” said Frauenfelder. “It can get a little monotonous to do that nonstop, and original content was something that was personally rewarding for us.”

The blog still devotes significant space to shorter items. While the features and the aggregation posts draw about the same amount of traffic overall, Frauenfelder has given up trying to predict when a particular article or post will do well. “We could put a ton of work into a feature article we love and that we think is important, and it will get like 7,000 views. And then we’ll post something silly that’s a one-line joke and link to someone else’s story, and it’ll get 600,000 pageviews.”

One thing I wondered is why successful blogs like Boing Boing and Laughing Squid chose to stay small. Other early blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gigaom took on VC investment in their efforts to scale. Even Gawker’s Nick Denton, who long resisted outside investment, recently sold a sizable chunk of equity. “Sure we could get investment if we wanted it,” said Beale. “But we see companies destroyed by it too. You give up a lot of control and then there are demands put on you by people who don’t know anything about your company.” He pointed to Gigaom, a tech site that ran out of money and laid off its entire staff last year, as an example of what happens when a media company can’t scale at a rate that would satisfy investors.

Frauenfelder was similarly disdainful of the idea. “We were just paying bandwidth out of pocket before we started selling ads, and then we became profitable right off the bat in 2004,” he said. “We’ve never been interested in getting funding to grow it in a big way like those sites because it’s just not sustainable. There’s no way they’re making enough money from advertising to pay whatever their burn rate is. There’s an obscene amount of money they have to pay for their office space and salaries. We all work in our home offices and spare bedrooms, and everyone makes a living on the advertising income we bring in. I am just looking at these huge companies that rely on a lot of VC money, and they’re unsustainable, artificial things, and they’re going to die off.”

If they do die off, they’ll end up in a graveyard alongside the millions of tiny blogs that have shut down over the past decade as users migrated to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Sure, some will find homes on Medium or Tumblr, but many bloggers these days don’t feel the need to go beyond the 140 characters afforded to them. As for the remaining holdouts, those writers who continue to pen screeds at their own obscure web domains, bloggers like Frauenfelder and Beale will continue to scroll through their feeds looking for the nuggets worth featuring to a larger audience. “At some point I just really realized there aren’t very many independent blogs left,” said Beale. “The more obscure ones that I subscribe to on RSS, they’ll just suddenly announce that they’re stopping and can’t do it anymore.” Meanwhile, Facebook just announced it’s reached 1.59 billion users. The blogosphere is dead, long live the blogosphere.

 Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com

Image via Mark Frauenfelder 

How this blogger became one of the most influential voices in tech policy

Mike Masnick

Mike Masnick

In May 2003, the legal website The Smoking Gun posted a short item titled “Barbra Sues Over Aerial Photos.” Kenneth Adelman, an environmentalist who takes aerial photographs of California’s coastline for the benefit of scientists and researchers, had inadvertently captured an image of singer and actress Barbra Streisand’s home. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleged that by posting the image to his website, Adelman had provided a “road map into her residence” and “clearly [identified] those routes that could be used to enter her property.” On page 9 of the lawsuit it states that “there is no telling how many people have downloaded the photograph of [Streisand’s] property and residence on their computer.”

In the coming weeks it would emerge that, up until the lawsuit was filed, the image of Streisand’s house had only been accessed six times, two of which were by her lawyers. And because of the engendered press from the lawsuit, it was then visited more than 420,000 times in just the first month after it was filed. Not only did Streisand later lose the lawsuit, but it had produced the very result her lawyers had set out to avoid: drawing attention to her property.

The entire imbroglio, humorous as it was, may have ended up a mostly-forgotten historical footnote if not for a seemingly unrelated incident that occurred two years later. A website called Urinals.net, which posts user-generated photos of urinals, had received a legal complaint from the Marco Beach Ocean Resort claiming that, because Urinals.net had mentioned the resort’s name in one of its photos, it had infringed on the company’s trademark. Mike Masnick, a blogger who covers issues dealing with intellectual property, wrote about the complaint on Techdirt, a website he’s run since the late 90s. At the end of the post, which is only a few hundred words long, Masnick reached this seemingly innocuous conclusion:

How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.

Masnick didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just coined a term that would continue to endure to this day. On the neologism’s 10th anniversary last year, Gizmodo commemorated the event by documenting the most egregious examples of the Streisand Effect in action — examples that included the Church of Scientology trying to suppress an embarrassing video and Beyonce’s attempts to remove unflattering photos of herself from the internet.  

Few of us ever get the chance to coin a phrase, much less one that enters the popular lexicon. The reason this one didn’t get lost in the ephemera of the internet is that Masnick by that point had spent more than half a decade establishing himself as a must-read source on all things tech policy. Whether it’s intellectual property, telecom and broadband policy, or digital rights, Techdirt has been at the forefront of these issues, covering them with a brand of fiery opinionated journalism that has made him no shortage of enemies. If there’s a consistent theme to be found in his work, it’s that large technology and media companies often wield their power to benefit themselves at the expense of consumers, and it’s only by shining a light on their abusive behavior that it can be stopped.

In recent years, Masnick has been one of the most prominent figures in a growing activist movement that advocates for digital rights issues ranging from net neutrality to open source technology. Most importantly, he played an instrumental role in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA for short), a bill introduced in 2011 that was broadly supported by the media and entertainment industries. As Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who advocates on internet freedom issues, put it to me, “I’m not sure anyone did more to educate the public about SOPA than Techdirt.”

***

In its earliest iteration, Techdirt didn’t go by that name, nor was it even a website. In 1996, Masnick enrolled in Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management to obtain an MBA. “I was on the East Coast in the middle of nowhere, not near a major city or anything,” he told me. “I was hoping to get a job in the technology field after graduating, and I thought that actually writing about current events in technology from a business perspective would help me in getting a day job.” At the time, he was a big admirer of an irreverent UK newsletter called Need to Know, and so the newsletter he launched, called Up to Date, adopted a similar approach. “It technically started as the newsletter for the technology management club at the my business school,” he said. “I had been elected the president of that club, so that gave me an audience of 75 business school students. And with the first newsletter I put a little note at the bottom that said, ‘If you’d like to subscribe, send me an email.’”

Within three weeks, Masnick had over a thousand subscribers, and for the first seven or eight months it was simply a newsletter he sent roughly once a week. At some point, he decided it should be a website, so he spent much of his last semester in business school teaching himself how to build one. This is around the same time he became obsessed with Slashdot, the tech forum that is now considered one of the earliest blogs. After settling on the name Techdirt, he and a friend tried to install the open source code that Slashdot’s editors had released, called Slashcode Version 0.3. “It was a mess,” he said. “A friend and I took it and we spent months trying to get it to work, and we finally got it working in early 1999.”

Though not exactly a mirror image of what it is today, the early Techdirt still explored many of the themes that would later form the bedrock of its current worldview. Masnick became close to a grad school professor of his, Alan McAdams, who had served as senior staff economist with President Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers and provided witness testimony for the government in United States v. IBM. “He was ahead of his time,” he recalled. “This was ‘95 or ‘96, and he was really interested in open source and what that meant for the economics of software. He was very focused on broadband implementation and talking about getting fiber to the home applied universally.” Today, we call this broadband universal service, and it’s an achievement for which nearly every developed country strives.

I find it interesting how many of the earliest blogging pioneers, some of whom are now household names, didn’t consider themselves early adopters when they first started writing for the web. John Gruber, the writer behind the tech blog Daring Fireball, said recently that “when I got started in 2002 I had this sinking feeling in my heart that I was just way too late to the game.” Daily Kos, which is known as one of the earliest netroots political blogs, debuted a half decade after the term “weblog” was first coined. Similarly, Masnick thought by the time Techdirt hit the web in 1999 all the important tech policy issues had been dealt with. “The original encryption wars had already happened before we started. The DMCA” — Digital Millennium Copyright Act — “was already in place before we started. The Communications Decency Act was already done before we started. So I felt like I’d missed many of the big important things.”

He was wrong. The early 2000s would see the rise of the Michael Powell administration at the FCC and consumers trading in their phone lines for broadband internet. The internet’s transformation to Web 2.0 — first coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 — produced a Cambrian explosion of new content as millions of internet users suddenly gained access to publishing platforms that required no coding skills and were free to use. Network neutrality. Comcast v. BitTorrent. Viacom v. YouTube. SOPA. Smartphone adoption. CISPA. All had the potential to drastically shape how we use the internet for decades to come and all were aggressively covered by Techdirt.

It was in 2000 that Masnick first tried to turn Techdirt into a sustainable business. After grad school he’d moved out to Silicon Valley, and while there it dawned on him that many of these companies would benefit from the kind of analysis he was performing on his blog. “We called it Techdirt Corporate Intelligence,” he explained. “We helped companies better understand the issues we were covering. We were basically writing mini Techdirts for those companies — just writing a newsletter about different news and events that might impact our clients’ businesses.”

For several years, the corporate intelligence offerings were the only method by which Techdirt made money. In 2005, however, the site experienced a sudden explosion in traffic, and a year later it was able to diversify its revenue with ads. This was around the time Masnick began to revisit the very idea of what it meant to be a blogger. “For the first few years on the blog, I had this really stupid rule that I struck to that every post had to be only a single paragraph,” he said. “I couldn’t really dig in. It was only a few years in when I was like, you know, there’s no reason for this artificial limitation, and I can clearly write more.”

This new Techdirt began to cover issues in more depth, and those alarmed by abuses from ISPs, telecom companies, and patent trolls would turn to the blog as a tool for exposing these abuses, in some ways making Masnick a kind of unofficial spokesman for this burgeoning activist community. In 2009, the U.K. government proposed new legislation that would install a “three strike policy” and restrict repeat offenders of online piracy from accessing the internet. The singer Lily Allen then launched a blog, called It’s Not All Right, in support of the Digital Economy Act, and its chief aim was to shame online pirates. But shortly after the blog went live, Masnick was informed by one of his readers that Allen had reprinted, in full, one of his Techdirt articles without attribution, and he took to the web to point out her seeming hypocrisy. His blog post ricocheted around the internet, forcing Allen to dash off a quick apology. But then, two days later, another Techdirt reader alerted Masnick to a much more explosive example of hypocrisy: For years, Allen had been uploading “mix tapes” full of other artists’ work without their permission. The resultant ridicule was so fierce that Allen quickly deleted all her blog posts and announced she would no longer participate in the debate.

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That same year, Masnick traveled to Cannes, France to speak at a music industry conference about new business models for artists. The 15-minute presentation, the video of which was uploaded to the web, focused on Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor and how he ditched his record label to experiment with several (ultimately successful) methods to get his fans to pay for otherwise free music. Though Masnick wasn’t the first person to highlight business models that rely on distributing free content, the speech struck a nerve and was covered by hundreds or blogs and news publications around the world (later that year, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, a book by then-Wired editor Chris Anderson, debuted on the New York Times despite being distributed for free online).

By the turn of the decade, Techdirt was a central repository for all news relating to tech policy, and Masnick was one of the most prominent figures in a growing but-still-mostly-unorganized movement that cared fervently about issues relating to digital rights. And thus he was perfectly positioned in 2011 when House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar S. Smith, a Republican from Texas, introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act with 12 co-sponsors, four of whom were Democrats. The next day, Masnick published his first post about the bill, titled “E-PARASITE Bill: ‘The End Of The Internet As We Know It’” He would go on to write over 520 more.

***

For those who opposed SOPA, those early days after the bill was first introduced were grim.

Marvin Ammori served as general counsel for Free Press, an organization that advocates for net neutrality and other open internet issues, from 2007 to 2010 before leaving to teach law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He decided he didn’t enjoy teaching very much, however, and moved back to DC to launch his own law practice focusing on internet freedom. Since then he’s worked with pro-net neutrality coalitions, large tech companies like Google and Apple, and Engine Advocacy, a pro-startup organization. As the SOPA battle began to heat up, Ammori told me, he spoke to one of his contacts who worked in the Judiciary Committee. “They told me point blank that there was no way we were going to win on SOPA,” he recalled. “It’s clearly going to pass. There are 40 co-sponsors in the Senate. At the same time, my friends in Silicon Valley were getting calls from their friends in Hollywood saying you guys have to back off on SOPA, we’re going to win, there’s no way we’re going to lose this one.”

But by this point Techdirt and a growing number of tech blogs, many of which typically didn’t spend much time writing about policy, were providing drumbeat coverage of every new development relating to the bill, and there were signs that a seemingly arcane piece of legislation that wouldn’t normally generate much interest outside of the Beltway was attracting notice from a growing number of Americans. Within weeks, a coalition of major tech companies that included Facebook, Twitter, and eBay had come out against the bill, and soon you began to see political movements ranging from the libertarian Right to the liberal Left announcing their opposition.

Suddenly, anti-SOPA stories were appearing almost daily on the front page of Reddit and as trending topics on Twitter. More often than not, those posts linked back to Techdirt articles.  “After SOPA failed, a Harvard Law Professor named Yochai Benkler wrote an analysis of the SOPA fight,” said Ammori. “And it was really the story of Techdirt. Things would pop up in different blogs and Masnick would give it attention and then the eyeballs were moving in whichever direction Techdirt was sending them.”

Ammori argued that Masnick has found success because he managed to run a tech policy blog that didn’t read like a tech policy blog. “Being able to explain arcane legal and technological issues to a blog audience is not easy,” he said. “Doing it day in and day out on lots of different issues is something he’s able to do, and I think no one else has been able to do it quite as well.”

“I read Techdirt every day, sometimes several times a day,” Corynne McSherry told me. “And I think everybody in this space relies on Techdirt regularly.” McSherry is the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, litigating free speech issues against what she refers to as “copyright maximalists.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, is likely the most well-funded and visible organization that fights on digital rights issues, and during her decade there McSherry has watched as the movement has gradually matured into what it is today. “I feel like there’s been a sea change,” she argued. “DC remains difficult to engage with if you’re not inside the beltway, and while it’s still true that lots of negotiations and discussions and horse trading go on behind closed doors, I do think Congress is more aware than they used to be that there could be a massive public outcry that they would have to deal with.”

Case in point: On December 15, 2011, the House held a hearing to address several of the issues raised against SOPA. As recounted in The Fight for the Future: How People Defeated Hollywood and Saved the Internet – For Now, the book by Edward Lee:

Reddit, the news-linking social network, put a link on its home page to the live stream of the markup from the House Judiciary Committee website. Reddit’s link helped to drive a great deal of traffic to the Judiciary Committee website, making the markup one of the most watched in recent memory. It was a spectacle…

…Far from being open to compromise, the sponsors of SOPA appeared to be digging in their heels. They rejected nearly every amendment that was offered to provide more due process to protect against erroneous claims. EFF live-tweeted the entire markup, while Techdirt live-blogged it. The hearings were a complete spectacle, in a frightening way.

The bill didn’t die that day, but it was clear the tides had turned. What may have been the final death blow occurred on January 18, 2012 when Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other websites participated in an internet “blackout” in which their websites became inaccessible save for anti-SOPA messages:

blackout

 

Two days later, the New York Times reported that Congress was shelving the bill. Congressional leaders vowed to one day return to it, but this was a clear victory for opponents. “The Internet Wins” declared a Techdirt headline. Never one to rest on its laurels, the blog continued to publish six more posts about the bill that very same day.

***

With the benefit of four years of hindsight, it seems clear that the SOPA victory signaled a legitimate shift in power. In early 2015, after more than a decade of internet advocacy for net neutrality, the FCC classified broadband providers under the same regulations that govern telephone networks, thereby allowing the agency to ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. After years of successful lobbying, telecom and cable companies had definitively lost the fight.

That’s not to say Masnick feels his work is done. He still posts about new efforts to resurrect SOPA. Techdirt still covers issues with copyright abuse and defends encryption technology. He now has a team of freelance bloggers who help him produce dozens of posts a day, and, unlike most other news sites on the web that are seeing fewer homepage visits as more and more of their traffic comes from places like Facebook and Twitter, Techdirt saw its ratio of direct traffic rise from 30 percent in 2014 to 38 percent in 2015 (“direct” traffic is usually a sign of a more loyal readership). Yet Masnick still runs his blog with the same mindset as when it was just a newsletter sent to 75 business school students:

“I kind of operate under the assumption that nobody sees what I write,” he said. He recalled his days working at his college radio station. “There’s this interesting thing when you’re on radio and you’re speaking into a microphone out into the world, and you have no idea if anyone is listening. And so I always went under the assumption that nobody was. To some extent my blogging has been sort of the same way. I just assume nobody is reading, and I’m a little surprised when anyone does.”

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com

Image via Dennis Yang

How novelists are monetizing their short fiction through Patreon

Speculative fiction writer Kameron Hurley

Speculative fiction writer Kameron Hurley

Tim Pratt cut his teeth writing short fiction. The science fiction and fantasy author spends most of his days now working on novels — his website bibliography says he published three in 2015 alone — but a little over a decade ago, when he was still in the early stages of his writing career, he would regularly write short stories for small zines with names like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In 2004, a short story he wrote for a small press anthology was chosen by Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon to be reprinted in the annual Best American Short Stories, which is arguably one of the most prestigious and venerable anthologies for short fiction. This feat was especially impressive when you consider the fact that the anthology series has historically printed very little genre fiction. “I’m a competent novelist,” Pratt told me in a phone interview. “I’m getting better. But I’m a really good short story writer.”

So why did he abandon the format to focus mainly on longform fiction? The answer boils down to economics. There are few publications that publish short fiction and fewer still that pay well. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, a trade organization for genre writers, considers a “professional” rate for short fiction to be 6 cents per word (any freelancer will readily tell you this is nothing close to a living wage). Major New York publishers are reluctant to publish short fiction collections, mostly because they don’t sell very well, so it’s common to see even established authors turn to the small press when they want to publish short stories. “It got to the point where most of my time went toward writing novels,” Pratt said. “I would still occasionally write short stories, but only when I was commissioned by an editor to write for a themed anthology or special issue. That’s cool and I like doing that, and for a while I thought that was a way I could keep my hand in, but the thing is, almost all of those have some sort of restriction; for a themed anthology I might have to write a story that’s Lovecraftian or one that involves robots. I miss that thing I used to do when I first started out where I would just spontaneously generate ideas and try things and see where they’d go.”

tim pratt

Tim Pratt

But then several months ago Pratt noticed that more and more artists he knew of were signing up for a site called Patreon. The platform was co-founded in 2013 by Jack Conte, a well-known YouTube musician who struggled to make a living on YouTube ads and wanted to develop a way for an artist to leverage their fan base for financial support. Unlike Kickstarter, which is geared primarily toward raising a lump sum of money for one-off projects, Patreon allows fans to provide ongoing support for creators who regularly produce new work. There are two forms of “patronage” on Patreon: a fan can either pay a certain amount per month or per artistic creation. The site simply charges the agreed-upon amount to the person’s credit card. Many YouTubers, for instance, configure it so their fans pay a set amount per new video.

Though it has nowhere near the scale of larger crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Patreon has seen growing adoption among indie artists and creators; it’s particularly popular with YouTubers and podcasters who use it to supplement their advertising income. One of its most high profile users, the singer and artist Amanda Palmer, launched a campaign in 2015 and today generates over $31,000 per “thing” from 6,300 patrons. In a 2014 blog post, Patreon announced that its patrons were paying out over $1 million a month to creators, and that figure has likely grown significantly since then.

Pratt had already seen some success funding his novels on Kickstarter (I wrote about his efforts back in 2011), so he figured Patreon might provide an opportunity to create short fiction regularly and fund it with a steady stream of income. “I tried to consider how much time I could devote and I figured I could probably write a story every month,” he said. “I could find a weekend or take a break from other projects.” So he launched his Patreon account and blasted it out to his email list and social media followers. Right now, he has 121 patrons who pay roughly $536 per story, which is about what he would be paid from an anthology or magazine. “Now, I’m once again carrying around a notebook and jotting down ideas that occur to me,” he said. “And now I have enough short story ideas to last me for a couple more years.”

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If this model becomes more widespread, then it could significantly alter the cost-benefit analysis that any author applies to writing short fiction. Kameron Hurley, a speculative fiction writer who has published five novels and won two Hugo awards, is constantly inundated with requests from her fans for new short stories. “There is no money in short fiction,” she told me in a phone interview. “You’ll spend 30 or 40 hours on a short story, and you’ll get paid $200. It’s just not worth your while. People would ask me, ‘Hey Kameron, why don’t you write more short fiction?’ Well, short stories were a nice way to get my name out there in the early 2000s, but then I realized I’m getting $200 for an incredible amount of work. I started doing a lot of copywriting work, and I charge $90 an hour for copywriting. If you look at the costs and benefits, you realize writing short stories doesn’t have any financial benefit and it doesn’t make sense.”

So when Hurley launched her Patreon page in 2015, she had one goal: “My bare minimum was $500,” she said. “If I could get that much for a story, and if I could resell it as a reprint or as an original to the short fiction markets, you’re starting to make something that resembles a fair wage.” One reason she found Patreon to be particularly appealing was that the reward fulfillment is easy; you simply provide the piece of short fiction your subscribers are paying for (it’s become quite common for those who have completed successful Kickstarter campaigns to complain that they underestimated the time and money that would go into fulfilling all the reward tiers they set). Whenever Hurley is ready to publish a new story, she simply uploads multiple versions — PDF, EPUB, and MOBI — to Patreon, and it alerts her subscribers so they can download it. While there are more involved rewards if you pay more (for $25 per short story you get one printed chapbook mailed to you per year), she doesn’t anticipate the fulfilment to be too onerous.

Before launching her campaign, Hurley polled her fans (she calls her followers “Hurley’s Heroes”) to ask whether they’d rather pay a certain amount per month or per new piece of work; they chose the latter. So she put together a short PowerPoint video explaining the project and then began promoting it on her social channels. Though she generated a few subscribers from Facebook, Tumblr, and her website, Hurley got most of her traction from Twitter, where she has over 6,000 followers; whenever someone new would subscribe they’d often announce it to their own Twitter following, and it snowballed from there. “We hit $500 within a week, and $800 within three weeks,” she said. “After the first story dropped it jumped up to $1,200, and it’s now up to $1,600.” About half of the 340 subscribers pay the bare minimum of $1 a month. The rest pay $3 or higher, with over 60 patrons paying more than $10 a story.

What does this mean in practical (read: monetary) terms? “It’s meant I can turn down some freelance copywriting jobs,” she explained. “Instead of writing marketing emails or website copy, I just spend my time writing stories, which is what i really want to do. So that’s how it changed my day-to-day life.”

One question that has yet to be definitively answered is whether a short story uploaded to Patreon should be considered “published.” Though the $500 Pratt receives every time he uploads a short story is comparable to what he’d get from a magazine or anthology, the story is only seen by the 120 patrons who subscribe, and he’d ideally like it to reach a larger audience. But not all short fiction publications take reprints, and even those that do often pay significantly less for them. “Some are a little more open to it, saying if it’s a sufficiently small audience, we’ll still pay for it,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t worry about it that much, because I’m getting $500 for the story anyway at this point, so if I’m going to get paid less, that’s fine.” In 2014, a writer named Andrea Phillips polled several magazine editors as to whether a Patreon story would be considered published, and most said that it would. At the time we spoke, Pratt said a magazine editor was considering publishing one of his Patreon stories as a reprint

Before you set out to launch your own short fiction Patreon campaign, first take note that the two writers I profiled here were already established prior to setting up their own. “It is certainly easier to attract a crowd if you already have a crowd,” said Pratt. “Even when people already know who you are, crowdfunding is still tricky. This is probably not a great way to build an audience.” Hurley agreed: “The people who do the best do tend to be the folks who have some sort of following,” she said. “They’re a blogger, a writer, a musician. They already have a core audience who they can go to and who will help socialize it for them.”

And though Patreon has had a not insignificant impact on their incomes, both Pratt and Hurley agreed that it should remain just one of many irons to have in the fire. “Whenever I talk to people who ask about freelance writing, the first thing I tell them is to have multiple revenue streams,” said Pratt. “Do not have just one editor who likes you. Don’t just write for one magazine or one company. Because things are going to go away. So for me, [Patreon] is just one more thing. When you combine this, novel sales, editing gigs, and freelance work, all these little trickles add up to helping me keep a roof over my head and food on my family’s table.” But even if the pay is supplemental, it’s brought these writers one step closer to a career many aspire to but never achieve: making up stories for money.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com

Images via roundtablepodcast.com and fantasy-magazine.com