The begging culture of the Internet – THIS IS NOT A TEST #21 (transcript)

Published May 16, 2015

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B.B. King died yesterday. He was 89 years old, so it wasn’t exactly a tragedy, but it just reminds me that the creative people who I grew up with and who I was shaped and formed by are all dying off. And I know to a young person now, B. B. King isn’t anybody. It’s like someone telling me about Charles Lindbergh when I was 15 years old. I don’t care man, all that shit that happened before I was born doesn’t mean anything. Right? That’s how we think when we’re young. But I saw B. B. King play once, when I was a young, budding guitarist, and I thought, “Jesus Christ…” I mean that’s all I thought: Jesus Christ. I was in awe. It was all feeling, man, 100% pure gut feeling. When I was a kid my dad took me to see Roy Clark play, and man, that cat could play the guitar too – and the banjo and pretty much anything with strings. Fast fast fast – he played the guitar so fast, and I thought, “How the hell can anyone play that fast?” But that’s all I thought. I didn’t think, “Wow, this is great music.” Because just like those weedely weedly weedly million notes a second fretboard tapping creeps who took over rock and roll in the 80s, it was all technique and no substance. Or all chops and no gravy, as Harry Connick Jr. would say.

But guys like B. B. King – man, five notes. Just give him five notes and the motherfucker will be scratching at your soul. No joke. So long B. B. King. Take it easy now. Isn’t that what music and art is for? To make us go, “Jesus Christ!” Whether it’s in awe or disbelief or confusion. Shouldn’t that be what we expect from any art? N.W.A. weren’t exactly musicians who could make tear out your heart with a few notes, but when I heard that Straight Outta Compton record for the first time all I could say was Jesus Christ! What the hell is this? What’s happening? I miss that feeling when it comes to music. I know I’ll feel it again one day, but I also know it’s a rare and wonderful thing when it happens. So, anywho, speaking of creativity, let’s talk about it a little bit. On with the show, yeah?

Kickstarter, Patreon, tip jars, donate buttons – some days when I’m bouncing around the web it feels like I’m idling at a freeway entrance ramp and the entire web is a cardboard WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign. As an arguably creative person myself and someone who made a living as a musician, I’m all for creative types getting paid for what they create. And in order for a creative person to get paid they have to sell their work, that’s the way it’s always been. How they sell their work has changed a bit over time, and you’d be hard pressed to say that things were better back when kings and emperors employed composers and artists, or when artists made their livings on handouts from “patrons.”

There’s just something about this culture of begging that we live in that rubs me the wrong way. I’m talking about begging on the Internet, not on the street. That’s a different subject. But I have to say – since I mentioned begging on the street – that as a society, as a civilization, it’s tragic that there are even people who are in a position where they need to beg. That sort of begging is not a comment on the worth of the person begging, it’s a comment on the society they live in. I don’t care why you’re begging, no one should have to be in that position in a country where so much wealth is sloshing around in the pools of the billionaires, sloshing out over the edges, soaking into their Kentucky Bluegrass lawns. No one should have to beg or be hungry or live in a tent or a refrigerator box downtown. I don’t care what the reason is – bad luck, mental illness – I mean, even if someone just doesn’t feel like working – that person should not have to beg. But yeah, that’s a different subject. Some other time.

Internet begging is a different beast, but only a little bit different. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the people who started the Internet, and some of its early users, debated whether commercial traffic should even be allowed. They were on the wrong side of history there, weren’t they? But it’s not as if they could have forbid or restricted commercial traffic anyway. Technically. It was inevitable, and in the early days of the web people certainly sold things, mostly software. But I never saw people asking for money just because they managed to put up a website that you somehow managed to visit. The idea that everyone should pay them for providing whatever they’re providing really gained steam when the use of PayPal became more widespread, shortly after the big dot com bust of 2000. PayPal made it easy to beg by providing its users with cut and paste donate buttons they could add to their websites. I never understood the rationale of people who put those donate buttons on their sites. I guess I don’t understand he thinking that goes on there. What makes someone believe that a visitor to their website should give them money. In exchange for what?

None of the sites that sported these donate buttons were providing anything original, or even anything they produced or paid to have produced. Fan sites were a thing back in the day. You rarely see them anymore, but for a while they were everywhere. If you Googled (or AltaVista-ed or Dogpiled or Yahoo-ed) a celebrity name, the first listings would always be fan sites, which were basically pictures of the celebrity or the show or whatever the subject was along with some usually two year old news about the subject. That was a fan site. And that’s where the donate buttons really took hold. They were asking for you to pay them money to build or maintain the sites, which had almost no value and consisted of 99% “borrowed” material. I remember seeing one site where the site owner claimed he needed our donations to pay for “hosting and scanner bulbs.” Scanner bulbs? I’ve had a lot of scanners, I’ve never replaced a scanner bulb. And this site may have had 200 pictures of whoever on it. It wasn’t like the guy was digitizing a library, he was scanning pictures torn out of magazines.

But the scourge of the donate button spread quickly, and soon you saw it everywhere: on poetry sites, blogs, forums – everyone wanted your “donation.” “If you liked these poems please consider donating…” What if I hated them? Will you send me some money to reimburse me for my wasted time? Where’s the button for that? Forums, or anything that required a membership, had an even better scheme: paid membership. Usually tied to some functionality or benefit that isn’t available to non-paid members. Paid membership can actually make some money for a forum, unlike the donate buttons which I’m convinced never made any money for anyone. But then the forum probably provides a service or some kind of community to the user, so I don’t really consider them to be a form of begging. But still – I question the motives of anyone who starts a forum as a business or a money making opportunity. First of all it’s a foolish thought, because the odds that you’ll ever make a penny of profit are about ten million to one. Second, online forums or communities are usually passion-driven, meaning they require someone who loves the topic the forum is built around to keep them going. If that person burns out, the community burns out. Unless the forum has a hundreds of thousands of users, then it can probably survive a burnt out owner. You know, unless they pull the plug on the thing. But in general the shelf life of Internet communities is notoriously short.

Now – I’ve run a number of forums, and on one of them I did have paid membership for a while. But I stopped it because it made me feel like a creep and a beggar. And I was – I am – providing a service on that forum, but the bottom line is I’m providing that service because I want to. And to my way of thinking, if I want to do it, I have no right to ask other people to help pay for it. So the paid membership was short-lived over there. I’m probably weird or abnormal for feeling like a creep asking people for money, and that weirdness or abnormality is probably why these things bother me and I’m standing here talking about it right now. But I’m not completely weird, because I have no problem demanding money for the job I do every day for a company. That seems like an equitable deal to me. They need a service and I provide it. If I quit they would have to find someone else to do what I do for them. I’m not like a poetry website or a Helena Bonham Carter fan page that no one would miss if it disappeared. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Setting up a website rarely benefits anyone, even if the site is widely used. The way to gauge whether a site is essential or not is to ask whether someone would have to recreate the site if it disappeared. In most cases the answer is no. So while people may come and visit, the site isn’t essential and when it disappears – which most do – no one will really be put out by its absence. I ran an artists and writers site that was pretty popular in a subculture kind of way. A million people visited it every year, and one day I just took it down. And do you know how many people cried or complained when it disappeared? None. I heard from a few people here and there over the course of a few months, but it wasn’t like I pulled the plug on the site and my inbox was flooded with passionate pleas to return the site. It was there, people used it, then it was gone. Like everything else in the world.

I never had a donate button on that site, or any of my sites. I never really exploited that site as I probably could have. A million visitors a year is chickenfeed compared to the big sites, but it’s a million miles ahead of most sites, which get a few hundred – or even fewer – visitors a year. Making money from the site wasn’t a thing, it wasn’t something I thought about or considered or planned for. It didn’t occur to me, is what I’m saying, because – I don’t know why. I think I may have been on the web too early, and all of that hippie shit that the founders believed rubbed off on me. Or maybe I just don’t like begging. Well, I know that’s true.

Is advertising begging? You know those Google ads you see on a lot of websites, or the Amazon ads. Some sites are so overrun with ads you can barely see the contents of the pages, such as it is. Some of those sites were created specifically to make money from those ads. You know those three sites that come up any time you Google a song title and the word “lyrics”? Those exist strictly to catch the pennies from the display ads. Those pennies can add up, but what is the real purpose of a site like that? I mentioned that there are three of them, but I was understating, there are probably 50 or 100 of them, each vying for your penny. And each, by the way, a copy of the other. If you’ve ever seen an error on one of those sites, Google the error itself. You’ll find pages of results for it. Every one of those sites is a copy of the next and they all just go on scraping the same inaccurate text from each other and it’s all just an empty pile of shit. Someone wrote that in 6 or 7 years most of the activity on the Internet will be robots. Like, the vast majority of activity. Robots posting spam, robots scraping sites, robots looking for other robots on robot…I believe it, based on how much bot traffic I see in analytics for my sites and the sites at work. The bots will take over the Internet and they want those pennies, so they’re going to shut you and your puny donate button down. Watch. It’s going to happen.

Anyway, I use some Amazon referral links on one of my sites. Text links, not ads. I use them because, well, because Amazon created a system to pay us for referrals, and because they are not obtrusive like ads. I only use them in a couple of places, and they are relevant links to books being mentioned in the text, so it’s not as if they’re just some random ad popping up in your face. That’s my justification anyway. You can actually make some money with those referral links. Not retiring on the beach money, but paying for the costs of your websites money. I imagine if you had a big enough site or a network of sites you could make the retiring on the beach money. But you see, that’s making money for connecting a seller and a buyer. You only get paid for that Amazon referral if the person from your site buys something from Amazon. So you’re providing a customer to Amazon, you’re providing a service. You know, of a sort.

Begging is different. Begging is the asking of something for nothing. There’s a writer – I won’t name him, but if you run in certain circles you’ll know who I’m talking about. Now this guy…all he does online is beg. Every day he begs, and every day he has a new tragedy and a new emergency. Reading his blog is like reading hundreds of days of poverty and misery and suffering. And begging. This guy has a medical problem, or a number of medical problems, I don’t know. But he lives with some pain, I know that. But he’s able to type, I know that too. And he’s able to call newspapers to come and do articles about how he’s destitute and being thrown out of his house. He’s working shit, is what I’m trying to get across here. He’s working every angle to get people to give him money. He’s mega-begging.

Like I said near the beginning of this, I think it’s shameful that anyone in this country needs or wants for anything. It should embarrass us all to see amy one of us suffering needlessly. And most of the suffering happening out there is happening needlessly. But here we are, you know. This is the world we live in. So you have to do something. I have to do something. I don’t want to work for someone else, but I do, because I know I have to do something. And I can tell you, brothers and sisters, that I too have been destitute. I have been broke – real broke, not, oh-dear-my-savings-are-getting-too-low broke. Broke like empty pocket broke. More than once. And it’s horrible and it’s frightening and you suffer. But – and maybe this is my weirdness or abnormality again – but it never occurred to me to ever beg when I was in those situations. I’ll tell you though that I did consider crime. Is crime worse than begging? It doesn’t seem so to me. Crime is kind of a resourcefulness and ambitiousness isn’t it? It isn’t lazy, to go do crime, that’s for sure. It takes some industriousness and skill and planning. You know, a good crime.

But I never begged, and maybe that’s why I can’t understand a beggar. The writer with the beg blog, every year or so I’ll be reminded of him and I’ll say to myself, “He can’t possibly still be doing that thing on that blog where he begs people to send him $8 through PayPal so he can buy a sandwich…he can’t really still be doing that.” But whenever I check, he is indeed still doing it and it hasn’t changed a bit. He’s a funny guy though, he’ll insult the readers of his blog for not sending him money. Like, “All I needed today was $22 for gauze and a small Dominoes pizza and a three dollar bottle of wine and this is an emergency but no one came through for me. Now I lay here starving and shivering and…” You get the picture. For years he’s been doing this. Literally years. Internet begging.

Which isn’t even what I intended to talk about here tonight. I was going to talk about PATREON. I mentioned Kickstarter, but maybe I shouldn’t have, since that’s not begging, that’s selling. There’s usually a product at the end of the process. Or at least there’s supposed to be. I’ve paid in to a bunch of Kickstarter campaigns, and usually you get what you’re supposed to get, but sometimes you get nothing. The person takes the money and you never hear from them again. In my experience that usually happens on “creative” Kickstarters, rather than people trying to raise money to build a gadget or make a movie or publish a book. The one’s I’ve been burned on are people looking for money to do or complete some creative task. Like, oh, I don’t know, a writer saying she needs a couple thousand dollars to finish a book. I should have seen that burn coming, since writing a book doesn’t cost anything, but I was giving her the benefit of the doubt, since at the end she was going to do a letterpress version of the book and that’s what I signed on for. But a year passed, then another year. And another. Nothing. Oh, I shouldn’t say nothing, since she did send us a URL to watch her lay around her apartment. Live. I never went to watch that, but I also never got a book, because apparently she never bothered to finish it. She’s still out there, still active on social media, and every year or so I send a message – “Where’s the book?” and maybe not surprisingly, I never hear back.

Which brings us to Patreon. What is Patreon? It’s a site set up to fund artists. I think. It differs from Kickstarter because there doesn’t have to necessarily be a product being produced, you’re just supporting someone who’s creative work you like. Also unlike Kickstarter, Patreon contributors often contribute monthly. They send the creative person money every month. The concept is supposedly based on the old patron model, where wealthy people would become an artist’s “patron,” and give them money so they can continue to create art or music. And honestly I don’t even think that’s such a terrible idea, people supporting creative people whose work they enjoy. But what really got me looking at Patreon was when this guy asked me to join his podcast network, and part of what he listed as a benefit of being in the network was he was going to start up a Patreon account and divide the money that came in among the podcasters. I declined to be part of his network for different reasons, and he seems to be a good guy and I wish him luck, but when I saw Patreon listed as a benefit of joining his network that turned me off immediately. And he’s not the only one – I read a Google community about podcasting and people talk about it in there, setting up Patreon to allow people to donate – there’s that word again – to their podcast.

And here’s the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa said – maybe if your goal in doing something is to make money and what you’re doing isn’t making any money, you need to do something else. Getting into something like podcasting or blogging or any kind of Internet thing because you see it as a way to make money – I just don’t understand that. “Hey, this podcasting is a thing, I should do that and then I can quit my job at the dog biscuit factory!” I see that more and more online these days and at the social media conferences – people who don’t have anything specific that they want to do, they just heard that this thing – whatever the thing is – makes money for some people, so they want to try it. Someone in the Google podcasting community said the other day, “The hardest thing for me is coming up with content.” And right there, for me, that’s the problem with 99% of everything, not just the Internet. People who decide to do something but don’t have any reason to do it. They don’t have anything to say. Don’t start a blog if you don’t have an opinion. Don’t start podcasting if you don’t know what to talk about. Don’t become another barfer of content. God I hate that word: content. Fuck you and your content. It isn’t content. It’s writing or talking. Content is what comes inside a package, or what’s in your purse. Content. Like a god damn hamburger or screwdriver or pile of junk mail. More shit clogging up the world. Content. Let me say right now that what you’re hearing is not content! What you read on my blog is not content. It’s what I think, what I see, what I believe. I am not a “content creator!” My blood is not content.

Maybe if your goal is to make money with podcasting or laying around pretending to write a book you should, you know, get a job instead. You shouldn’t ask me to pay you to do something. Do something, then make me interested enough to buy it. Interested enough to pay to subscribe to your podcast or buy your book or buy your art or music. Maybe if you can’t sell what you make, it doesn’t have any value. Everyone is not special. Everyone is not talented. Everyone can enjoy being creative – don’t let me give you the worng impression, and I think everyone should enjoy being creative. Have fun playing that guitar of painting those pictures of flowers. Have fun talking in to a microphone or writing a blog. But doing those things doesn’t make you an artist or a musician or a writer. Or even a podcaster for christ’s sake. Show me something. Give me something to hold on to. And don’t ask me for a penny until you do, okay? Can we make that deal? You precious, creative, valuable flower. I’ll pay you when you create something worth buying.

Ahh, I had a clear idea when I started this but I don’t know if I’ve hit on the right things here. See, I am not a good podcaster. Don’t send me any money. Even if I beg for it. Next time I’m going to talk to you about – oh god, what will I talk about? I have no idea! I need content! This is so hard! Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!


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