I’ve been running this site for about 7 years now. I’ve funded this site by performing comedy shows, and via speaking fees and book royalties. At the beginning of this year, in light of increased hosting costsI started to ask for reader support to fund this site. Today, I’m writing about how that’s gone.

(Click to view bigger)

An infographic showing the decisions made by half a million people asked to help

For anyone using a screen reader, or having a hard time understanding that graphic, here’s the synopsis:

I showed about half a million people a message asking for help funding this site. That message was at the top, the first thing they would see when landing on any page.

The message gave the person several options:

  1. Ignore the message;
  2. Click the X to close it;
  3. Click “No, thanks.” (which closed the message);
  4. “Become a Patron” (which took them here);
  5. “Make a 1-Time Donation” (which took them here); and
  6. “Read More”(which took them here)

The vast (vast, vast) majority of people ignored the message (over 90%), scrolling down to read the article or download the edugraphic they were looking for.

Of those who clicked, the vast majority clicked the X (about 70%) and closed the message.

About 500 people clicked to Become a Patron, Make a Donation, or Read More (respectively). Meaning only about 1,500 people of 500,000 expressed any interest in contributing (about one third of one percent of visitors).

And of those 1,500 who expressed interest, 67 actually made a contribution in the end.

The total of those contributions was $1,138.84 (after fees), or about half of the hosting costs of the site.

To sum up: without even factoring in paying the human behind the site (ahem — moi) a living wage for creating and maintaining it, the results of this experiment were not even close to getting the site to barebones financial sustainability. We couldn’t even cover the cost of the machines (ahem — our future overlords).

Yikes.

That does not paint a happy picture.

I don’t often write about the site itself here. I focus more on creating things, and making it as easy as possible for you to use them.

But I’m writing about this today for two reasons, but both of them are really one reason: transparency.

Being Transparent About Creating for the Interwebz, Generally

Let me start with an obvious point that a lot of people don’t realize: everything you use, consume, or benefit from online is funded somehow.

If you’re not paying for it directly (and even if you are, in a lot of cases), that funding is likely coming from:

  • Ads, which are using a whole lot of creepy data to manipulate you;
  • Selling your personal data, often to the corporations running the ads; and/or
  • A third-party organization, like a venture capital fund hoping to make money down the line, or a cause-based org trying to push an agenda.

There are tons of other funding sources, of course. But those are the big’ns. And all three paint a very different picture of “free.”

The reasons not to run adds or collect and sell creepy data are myriad. And the reasons not to accept (or even seek) outside funding from a third-party are just as varied.

But in any case, whenever someone creates stuff that is available freely on the internet (e.g., blogs, videos, podcasts), and chooses not to run ads or collect/sell your personal data, and isn’t funded by a third-party — the options left are limited.

In that case, people generally fund their work by some indirect means. For example, like how I perform live shows. Or have a paying job unrelated to the work they’re doing online (I know a lot of people like this, and their “job”-job isn’t something they ever talk about online, or mention in their bios). Or, I suppose, benefit from family money that supports them.

I’m sharing all of this because it’s not something that most people who do not create stuff for the internet (but consume it) think about, and it’s something that affects us all:

If you’re not paying a creator directly, you’re either paying for the “free” stuff indirectly, or the person who made it is. There is no third road.

Being Transparent About Creating THIS Site, Specifically

I created the graphic above, and I’m writing all of this, to be clear about this site, how I fund it, and how I don’t.

I don’t sell advertising space on this site, or collect/sell personal data, because I think both of those actions are unethical and antithetical to the goals of my work.

I also don’t accept or seek outside funding from a third-party organization. For me (and for a lot of others, I suspect), this decision is about creative freedom. I don’t want my output influenced or limited by a funding source, who would ultimately have veto power.

I’ve been able to fund my work by performing and speaking (as I mentioned above), and by keeping the costs low. All while having an income lower than a teacher.

This site is relatively cheap to maintain because I do everything myself, from the code to the designs to the writing. It’s just me and my laptop. And when I don’t know how to do something, I learn how online. I like doing this, but I also have to do this: I could never have afforded to pay someone to do the work that I do myself.

And I can support this site, and my other projects, on a shoestring budget because I keep my personal costs low (no car, plant-based diet, etc.).

So, in the case of this site, the “free” isn’t a trojan horse for ads or creepy data selling; “free” is made possible by low overhead costs + DIY + my performing and speaking.

To put it another way: in order to provide this site freely to you, it takes a perfect storm of costs on my end.

Forecast:

Hopefully all that made sense to you. Here’s how I’m making sense of it myself, in regards to some changes that I’m making now, and planning to make in the future.

I deleted the notice at the top of the site, but I’m not going to stop asking for help.

For me, my priority #1 here is to make it easy and pleasant for people to learn about things that are often difficult and unpleasant to learn about.

Spamming 544,970 with a message they don’t want to see, in order to show it to 67 people who do, isn’t something I’m comfy with. It cuts against that top priority.

For you marketer-type people out there, before you point it out: yes, I know I could have created a message that “converted” more people. I could have induced more scarcity / fear / guilt, used an asshole design tactic, and/or made it harder to ignore the message. But that’s not the point; that’s the problem.

I’ll find another way to continue inviting people to support the site, in a way that doesn’t break so many eggs, and work on rolling that out soon. I know some of you want to help, and I still need it.

I’m moving away from performing the IPM show to support this site.

This is a big announcement to smuggle into this post (at least it feels that way to me), but it’s important for me to say it.

When the hosting bill for this site went through the roof, I started to think differently about the show. It was hard to shake the feeling that I would need to perform more, and people would need to pay me more, to keep this site alive.

But that’s not how things work for me: I operate in the gift economy, and people choose what to pay me for a show based on ability or gratitude. So doing more shows doesn’t necessarily mean more money to support the site, unless I compromise my ethics on that front and start creating financial barriers. Or, to put it more bluntly, I can do 200 shows in a year and still not bring in a ton of money. Because a lot of those shows might be for schools that have $0 budget. This isn’t hypothetical: I did it in 2017.

So that’s why, in my mind, that feeling of “need to do more shows to afford IPM’s new hosting bill” was a red flag.

That’s the main reason why I want the work I spend on this site to be directly funded by the people who use it.

Here are the other reasons I’m going to stop doing IPM shows: I don’t have a talent manager anymore, I want to talk about social justice dogma (and that’s been a deal-breaker for a lot of people), and I’m gettin’ old and that’s a young person’s game, folks.

I’d rather cancel myself at seven strong seasons, than become Friends Season 10.

Rethink free.

This isn’t me asking you for to pay for this site. With this closing note, I’m really, really, really NOT trying to guilt you into supporting me. In fact, I’m not even going to give you links or make it easy for you to do that.

Instead, I’m make a broader plea: rethink your relationship with the internet writ large, and the creators your consume.

As I was crunching these numbers, and seeing just how bleak it was, it really hammered home how important it is for me to support the media I consume. Directly. And to thank the people who aren’t monetizing me in ways that I think are creepy, unethical, or annoying. So I’m doing that more now. And I’ll be doing it regularly in the future.

The evolution of the economic model of the internet, so far, has been in a direction that’s hurting us all. Fake news, behavioral manipulation, data extortion, vitriolic polarization and siloing, and more: they’re the fruit we harvest from the seeds of free.

I’ll end by quoting Yuval Noah Harari: “The idea of free information is extremely dangerous.”

  • The State of this Site (Or “Funding Online Work in 2018, an Infographic”)