⚡ The Creator's Dilemma

What Substack can learn from Wikipedia

In our last essay, Bianca Aguilar argued: “Creatives shouldn’t be perpetuating existing systems; instead, they should be reimagining reality.” In today’s essay (our first longread!), Reboot fellow and Brown CS student Lucas Gelfond does precisely that.


the creator’s dilemma: what substack can learn from wikipedia

By Lucas Gelfond

In approximately 10 weeks, I’ll gain access to a Los Angeles Public Library ebook copy of Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore.” As I recently learned, the system for digital books is directly modeled after library paperbacks; I am #101 on a waitlist for 20 copies. This is not without reason — publishers and authors need to make money on book sales — but it fundamentally ignores the logic of digital media. Digital media’s promise lies in the infinite reproducibility of files with virtually no distribution cost; while lending a physical book would mean losing your access, sending a file literally creates more copies. 

This presents a problem for business — infinite supply would make ebooks worthless on an open market. Digital rights management, locking files so they can be opened by a limited set of owners, came about to solve this. 

Ebook waitlists are one of many adverse consequences of this artificial scarcity. Users who can’t pay for subscription journalism only have access to low quality news: in other words, “the truth is paywalled, but the lies are free.” Many academic journals are too expensive for academics in the Global South to access, the sum of which contain “the world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage” in the words of legendary technologist and activist Aaron Swartz’s “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” 

The economic systems we’ve devised to pay creators are walling off information from the public; for creators who are motivated by the promise of making things that reach millions, this is a difficult choice. 

Much of the recent discussion about artist payment models comes from an often uncritical tech press and financially entwined venture capitalists who fail to ask larger questions about access and whether the ‘disruptions’ to our media environment are desirable. When we discuss the creator economy we need to consider questions beyond compensation — who gets access to content, how content is produced, what type of content is incentivized — in order to take full advantage of the abundance digital media promises us. 

The purpose of this essay is to apply such an evaluative framework to four popular models for creation: paid subscriptions, government funding, non-fungible tokens, and commons-based peer production.

paid subscriptions 

Substack is best known for promoting a paid subscription model for writing. Subscriptions offer obvious benefits for creators; for those with devoted fans, it promises editorial independence and financial security in regular payouts. This said, writers deliver content to a smaller group of paying users (the “1,000 True Fans” model) versus a larger, nonpaying, and likely more diverse audience one would expect with ad-supported media.1

The model also incentivizes different types of content than traditional media. Individual writers compete for paying readers, so many differentiate themselves on the basis of personality and voice. As such, while the platform has some successful investigative journalism and general reporting, much of it tends toward personal narrative and commentary.

Substack’s use of writer advances may have limits as well. While they provide some creators with a financial cushion to go independent, it leaves out those who do not already have an audience, and in doing so may prevent new writers from less traditional backgrounds from starting careers in writing. 

One interesting alternative is a platform-funded Universal Creator Income (UCI), as spelled out by Li Jin and Lila Shroff. Unlike programs like Substack Pro or TikTok Creator Fund, a UCI could provide funding regardless of skill or background, focusing on emerging creators who might not have had an ability to create full time. While a UCI is an exciting concept, its uniqueness is in its universality, and it's unclear whether venture-backed companies would be willing to provide such a large quantity and range of creators with meaningful, continuous funding.

Some Substack writers embrace a third form of creator payment. Donations, which power newsletters like Feminist Giant and ChinAI, generate money for writers while keeping all their content free. The existence of such newsletters indicates some creators value the accessibility of their content over maximizing profits, and points to the need for alternative creation models. 

government funding

Another class of creator funding models would be implemented by the government, like a modern version of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, an effort of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Federal Art Project was unique in that it employed nearly 10,000 artists across the country, regardless of skill. Today’s policymakers could propose a modern incarnation of the Federal Art Project — rather than just murals, what about books, articles, or even software projects? 

A more commonly discussed proposal is something like Andrew Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” or other forms of universal basic income, a welfare program designed to provide all citizens with regular, unrestricted cash transfers to cover basic needs.2 Both WPA-style programs and a UBI would free creators from needing to compete in a market to sell their work.3 As such, these solutions could support a far broader range of creative works. However, each would also face immense political barriers and may be less feasible than non-governmental solutions. 

A third option is public funding for media companies like NPR and PBS. Publicly-funded media could operate without monetizing the content itself, enabling them to release their works to the public under a Creative Commons license. However, centralized media is likely to represent a narrower set of perspectives, perhaps those most amenable to government interests. 

non-fungible tokens (nfts)

NFTs are tokens that represent ownership of a specific asset, such as a song or art piece, without necessarily restricting access to it. The model has made recent headlines for extraordinary sale prices — Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” sold for the equivalent of more than $69 million USD in Ethereum. In the past, artists could find themselves in destitution even if their artwork began to appreciate in value; if it was already sold to others, the increases in value would not accrue to them. In contrast, artists make money whenever NFTs are sold, collecting a percentage of the sale price.

One implementation of the model is Mirror, a blogging platform that differentiates itself by minting each post as an NFT. Readers can crowdfund essays with ETH in return for a proportional cut of the NFT sales, and because the NFT only represents ownership, such works remain accessible to the public. 

However, NFT sales are likely to mimic power law dynamics and favor already established artists.4 In addition, NFTs still relegate creation to market forces, promoting the production of sensational, provocative content. The model is unlikely to support ‘boring’ creation like news reporting and creative maintenance — information that is necessary but seen as less ‘artistic,’ and thus less likely to fetch large sums on an exchange. 

another way forward: the commons

Subscription models, NFTs, government-sponsored creation and UCIs are all promising new ways of funding creative work. But each of these models leaves pieces out of the picture: What about content that requires the work of collectives, not single individuals? What about creation that is fully freed from the perverse incentives of government or market?

commons-based peer production

The P2P Foundation cites David Bollier’s definition of a commons as “a shared resource which is co-governed by its user community, according to the rules and norms of that community.” 

The commons, however, also refers to an alternate production process and a series of social processes and relationships that facilitate a commons “ecosystem.” The commons-based peer production (CBPP) process revolves around three institutions: a productive community, a commons-oriented market entity, and a for-benefit organization. The most prominent example of the commons and CBPP process is Wikipedia, a case study which offers a masterclass in collective production.

wikipedia: a cbpp case study

Wikipedia’s productive community includes both paid and volunteer contributors and editors to pages on the site. The site’s process is a cycle of open input, a participatory editing process. Users feel compelled to contribute because they have a reciprocal relationship with the site;5 they reap the benefits of the same Wikipedia they helped to improve. 

An entrepreneurial coalition, whether a company or a worker cooperative, provides employment to commons contributors and creates value to be reinvested in the community. It’s important that the commons itself always lies outside of the market; entrepreneurial coalitions create value elsewhere. For example, Wikipedia’s entrepreneurial coalition is the Wikia company, which produces fan-based wikis and sells ads on them. 

The third pillar of a CBPP ecosystem is a “for-benefit” organization, which oversees governance of a commons. It does not force volunteers to contribute or even direct their contributions; rather, the organization manages conflicts, fundraises, and aids the general capacity for common production. In Wikipedia’s example, this is the Wikimedia Foundation. 

differentiating cbpp

CBPP fundamentally differs from other models in that it is built on collaboration versus individual creation. A site like Wikipedia — factual, balanced, global — could not exist in any other model because it necessitates regular editing and improvement. CBPP even recognizes that some resources are ‘anti-rivalrous’ — the more people who use them, the stronger they become. 

In addition, because entrepreneurial coalitions do not directly profit from the commons resource, the production and development of the commons is not beholden to profit incentives; in contrast to subscription and NFT models, CBPP separates profit from production. The most edited Wikipedia articles are not necessarily the most scandalous or provocative, but rather the topics that the productive community is most interested in. That is, there is no clickbait on Wikipedia. 

To facilitate open access, fair attribution, and continuous collaboration, CBPP systems are best served by licensing under a CopyFair or copyleft license. Copyleft licenses, like Creative Commons6 often allow others to remix, redistribute, and even use works commercially if attribution to the original author is preserved. Copyleft creators can make money through merchandising and other models associated with the original work. Meanwhile, CopyFair licenses require commercial users to contribute some of the profits back to the original project.7

cbpp in practice

CBPP is more than just a utopian ideal. In addition to Wikipedia, versions of this arrangement have produced a wide variety of essential technologies, like Mozilla Firefox, RepRap, Linux, the Free Software Foundation’s GNU, and WordPress.

Additionally, while CBPP has existed on its own, policies like basic income which free up time for commons-producing activities may enable contributions from a wider and more diverse group.

Commons-based peer production is not a perfect fit for all types of creative production. It is necessarily collective, parts must be modularized, and its setup may take additional work. If correctly implemented, however, CBPP embraces the social aspects of creation and is built around openness and access. 

in closing

Discussion of creator payment models frequently centers on payment, assuming people are motivated solely by financial incentives. Creators value more than just money; they care about the type of content they’ll produce and how many people it will reach, sometimes more than pure financial gain. Financialized models of creator payment like NFTs and subscription models provide an important service for creators, but restrict the type of content that can be produced. 

As such, we should broaden our search to solutions that lie outside of these narrow boundaries, like a universal basic income, CBPP systems, and other infrastructure for creating outside of a market. When we don’t, we fail to recognize the importance of creative control and the joy of reaching a global audience with one’s work. When we talk about “creator monetization,” we shouldn’t lose sight of why we’re here. 

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I owe many people thanks for this essay. I’m grateful for the charming members of Future Economies Reading Group for introducing me to CBPP (+ @cyberia for reading a draft) and deeply indebted to/thankful for the kind and brilliant members of the Reboot community, specifically Jasmine Sun (for Zooming with me every morning this week to provide invaluable feedback, ideas, sentences, and support), the tech x biz group (including Khoi Le, Pau Wee, Maximilian Obasiolu, Yousef Ahmed, and Jet Li), Jihad Esmail, Jessica Zhou, Lila Shroff, and Ben Wolfson for sending me articles and giving me feedback on early drafts. I also want to thank Shriram Krishnamurthi for engaging with me about ebook lending on Twitter a few months ago and getting me to think more evenly about DRM. Much inspiration for this piece came from Lila Shroff & Li Jin’s piece about Universal Creative Income, the P2P Foundation’s “Commons Transition and P2P: A Primer” and Anna Wiener’s phenomenal “Is Substack the Media Future We Want?” and “The Public Domain Still Needs Idealism.”

Lucas Gelfond is a 2021 Reboot Fellow and a Computer Science student at Brown University. He’s also an incoming TA in Brown’s Socially Responsible Computing program and a member of Coding It Forward’s Civic Innovation Corps, where he’ll be a software engineer in the New York City Department of Urban Planning. Find more of Lucas on his website or on Twitter.

How did you become interested in CBPP and the open access movement?

I was really into 3D printing when I was younger. The whole ecosystem was centered around CBPP, although I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew to license all of my stuff under Creative Commons licenses and that the movement owed everything to RepRap. When I got more interested in tech activism and Aaron Swartz’s work, I started to think more about IP and open access, and I learned about the term and mechanics of CBPP for the first time in Future Economies Reading Group. 

Tell me about your experience in the Reboot Fellowship!

My conversations about politics/social justice and tech as an industry had been fairly separate before Reboot; my favorite part of the fellowship was befriending people who care about both in the same way. I was repeatedly blown away by the quality of the group and am particularly excited by the prospect of working with other fellows in the future to tackle some of these problems. 

What's one book you loved this year?

What Tech Calls Thinking” by Adrian Daub!


🌀 microdoses

Honestly, just check out all the links in Lucas’s essay. But if you need more:

Happy commoning,

—Jasmine & Reboot team

Disclaimer: I, Jasmine, am employed by Substack, one of the companies analyzed in this guest essay. The essay represents neither my views nor those of my employer.

1

Notably, most paid newsletters also release small amounts of their content for free; the net result may be more total free content, even if some is gated. 

2

Early experiments are under way to provide a universal basic income through cryptocurrency, although they are still in early development. 

3

Cities like San Francisco are already piloting universal basic income programs for artists.

4

Concerns about NFT sustainability are another drawback, although they are beyond the scope of this essay.

5

While not CBPP, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are an interesting cryptocurrency based proposal for group collaboration. DAOs allow communities to organize around a certain effort, transferring ownership and governance to whoever is contributing the most, and for people to receive compensation for their contributions. This formalized system, however, has its risks. To quote @dazucks: “Every community could evolve into a profit maximizing network; all ‘community’ values are eroded; economic self-interest spreads ever-further.”

6

Fun Fact: the code behind the original Creative Commons licenses was written by Aaron Swartz, the aforementioned author of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.

7

The P2P Foundation deems this “reciprocity” and the specific terms of this are quite ambiguous.