The Problem with Patreon: Nazis, Harassers, and More

Patreon is the single greatest thing to come into being to support the ongoing needs of creative people by allowing those who want to ask for financial contributions that allow them the time to make art, music, podcasts, videos, and much more from people who most want to support them. Rather than the tip jar of old or a PayPal link or what have you, Patreon is about direct patronage. Give $X per thing (video, cartoon, song) or $X per month, and that person or group will make those things.

This is a fantastic idea embodied in a site that's celebratory. I kind of love everything about Patreon, and used it myself for over a year (collecting around $3,000) with my podcast The New Disruptors. It's a pretty frictionless way to provide ongoing patronage, and establish a wonderfully direct conduit between people who make ideas and things and their audience. I know dozens of folks for whom Patreon pays the rent up to paying most of what they need to make. Some "superstars" are on the system, too, like Zach Weinersmith, who gets over $8,700 a month for creating cartoons in addition to his other revenue sources.

But Patreon has a problem. It hasn't drawn a bright line about what constitutes acceptable kinds of things to fund. In not drawing that line, it is allowing people who engage in and perpetuate in hate crimes, online abuse, and other forms of harassment to have a forum from which they raise money that lets them perpetuate their ideology. And yet. Where do they re-draw that line to exclude them without throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

I'll focus on two cases that are extreme; I'm sure there are many more, but these two highlight the problem.


Andrew Auernheimer ("weev") is a notorious Internet troll who took credit for orchestrating and being involved in an array of harassment against others, until he decided he could troll everyone again by denying any involvement later. He is a literal national socialist, with a large swastika tattooed on his chest. Most of his public utterances are beyond the pale of acceptable speech in most online forums, and yet carefully calibrated to fall within the provisions of constitutionally protected speech in government-controlled venues. Pando published a superb interview with him in Lebanon that links to a lot of the background as well. It neither overstates him nor plays down his worst attributes.

He became a darling of some because the US government prosecuted him for a ridiculous hacking charge involved AT&T's unsecured iPad account system. He should never have been charged, prosecuted, or convicted, and a judge had him released because of a technicality involving venues. However, that doesn't mitigate the hateful ideology he pursues against both individuals and groups. And he has a Patreon account which raises a modest sum (under $300 per month) as well as promotes his crypto-currency addresses for contributions.

In his Patreon campaign, he carefully avoids blaming Jews and using racial and other obscenities to stay within the ostensible rules. It takes a moment's searching to find out his actual sympathies and the behavior he engages in elsewhere. He notes that he's been banned from another service.

The Sarkeesian Effect

Two rabid individuals, Jordan Owen and Davis Aurini, use Patreon to receive funds for every monthly update video they make about their movie, The Sarkeesian Effect. Their backers currently fund them at over $9,200 per monthly video.

Owen and Aurini's behavior is well documented. They believe "social justice warriors" (SJWs) have a specific agenda to change society and are succeeding, particularly in the area of game journalist and game development. We Hunted the Mammoth, a site that exposes and dissects the Men's Right Activists (MRAs) movement has a large number of articles about Aurini. Both Owen and Aurini regularly post long videos talking endlessly about Sarkeesian and others.

Their campaign raises more specific issues than Auernheimer's: his threats are of a general variety; their campaign focuses on a single person, who is absolutely in the public eye and clearly qualifies as a public figure. Yet they have kept the tone of their Patreon campaign calm and almost professional. Yet they slip at times:

The lie that Ms. Sarkeesian has perpetuated is that there is no legitimate criticism of her views whatsoever and that anyone who disagrees with her is harassing her.  This, among many other falsehoods, will be debunked in our film."

This skirts the line on personal harassment, but seems to fall just short of it.

As with Auernheimer, it takes no effort at all to determine the nature of their typical behavior outside fundraising.

Should Anything Be Done?

Here's the tough part: should Patreon be considering the behavior of people except on their site, in what is stated or posted there? There are absolutely other Patreon campaigns that tiptoe on the boundaries of topics that I believe strongly in. Under what standard can those campaigns be evaluated without taking a political or personal stance?

Jack Conte, Patreon's founder and half of Pomplamoose, responded around the end of September on Twitter to concerns about The Sarkeesian Effect. Among other things, Conte wrote:

please try to understand. This is so hard - as a society, we must let the fringe have a voice - it's so important, even if we disagree
who doesn't deserve an opportunity to speak. Even murderers get a right to a fair trial, right?

I find myself trying to sort out whether Jack is right or not. As a neutral platform that doesn't have an opinion about the nature of the content that creators make, it is a horribly slippery slope — even when you have a literal Nazi — when said national-socialist troll isn't posting hateful ideology that violates the rules of the site.

Patreon's terms of use has these three items about content that is posted:

  • Defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as, but not limited to, rights of privacy and publicity) of others.
  • Publish, post, upload, distribute or disseminate any profane, defamatory, infringing, obscene or unlawful topic, name, material or information.
  • Use the Service for any purpose, including, but not limited to posting or creating content, in violation of local, state, national, or international law.

Kickstarter has a quite similar policy on these aspects, though more broadly defined:

We prohibit projects that are illegal, heavily regulated, or potentially dangerous for backers, as well as rewards that the creator did not make. … [later in the list] Offensive material (e.g., hate speech, encouraging violence against others, etc).

For the Owens/Aurini updates, it's possible some of the posted content violates point two, but they may be exceedingly careful again about material posted to Patreon as updates versus what they unleash on their own followers.

Patreon isn't required to either apply a legal standard ("a fair trial"); they're not the government. Free speech isn't absolute in the public sphere, and it's not a requirement for an inclusive online service designed to help people create things. The flip side is that marginalized people, whose opinions are disliked, do find it hard to speak online because the Internet is so largely a commercial space. The positive parts of Reddit and 4chan are that they allow legitimate speech that is difficult to hear a place to flourish and challenge; they too often also permit activity that is blatantly over the line, and that's their fault.

As a result, any approach that limits unpopular points of view that aren't actually violating the principles cited above would remove points of view that you, dear reader, and I also think should be expressed (even when we don't support their stridency or specifics): on one side, anti-SJWs and people who admire Timothy McVeigh without specifically advocating for repeating his behavior; on the other, say, people who believe the police are criminal gangs in America or believe the Tea Party is an evil force that will destroy America.

Far below a legal standard of proof, there's the question of whether Patreon is encouraging speech and behavior that is detrimental to the Patreon community and larger society. I would argue that it is: that in supporting fringe opinion, you can differentiate between activities that intend to incite harassment or harm on others, whether specific individuals or entire peoples. As a Jew who has friends directly and regularly attacked by the component of the gaming community that agrees with Owens and Aurini, I see specific harm that has and could come of such opinions.

And yet. As I gathered the materials for this post, I kept asking myself: can Patreon vet behavior by its creators outside the scope of its site? The answer seems to be yes, but then one has to ask the limits. There are sex-positive and other kinds of creators on the site, yet Patreon bans pornography with a number of specifics, including "anything we forgot to put on this list but makes our users uncomfortable." If those creators are squeaky "clean" on Patreon, but have explicit material elsewhere, should their Patreon campaigns by canceled, too?

I am so not a believer in the slippery slope in most cases, yet I find myself on one. Patreon has to navigate these troubled waters, and is likely up to their neck in the same conundrums I am. It has to draw the line somewhere, and its current mark seems to enable those who wish to cause distress or harm to others. Can that line be moved without destroying what makes Patreon great?

The Latest Articles and Podcasts

As usual, I've been a busy boy, especially regarding podcasts. I have three podcasts I want to launch, and when the The Magazine finishes its run in three weeks, I'll be gearing up to work on all of those. In the meantime, I'm recording all over and filing articles like mad, too. (I've got three more articles queued up that should run later this week at Macworld, the Economist, and Six Colors.)

Recent articles:

Recent podcast appearances:

  • Random Trek, "Collective" from Voyager, back in August. This is Scott McNulty's bold project to randomly go through every episode across all Star Trek series and movies.
  • The Incomparable has split up its radio-play specials into bite-sized servings as The Incomparable Radio Theater! Listen to me as Nicola Tesla, with as good a Serbian accent as I can muster, in Two-Fisted Tales of Tesla (show episodes 0.2 and 0.5). You can also hear me with an exceptionally plummy accident in 0.1 as a character in The Fog.
  • Jason Snell and Dan Moren had Jacqui Cheng and me as guests on Clockwise episode 63 (Nov. 20). It's a strict 30-minute format. In a separately available bonus question, I explain the joys of the Bed Buddy.
  • Jason and I recorded a new episode of The Periodicalist, my irregular show about the future of publishing. In "Episode IV: A New Beginning," we talk about how a company with all the advantages of IDG fell into the innovator's dilemma, me shutting down The Magazine, and Jason booting up several new efforts in his new career.
  • On the Incomparable's main podcast, I appear in episode 220, "Authentic Cop Mustache," discussing webcomics; and episode 221, "Do the Hand-Wavy Thing," rounding  up the recent Doctor Who season. Listen to the extra for episode 221, "Gerbils and Tamagotchis."
  • I appeared on MedaTwits, a PBS videocast/podcast, on Nov. 14 to talk about new models for long-form journalism.

Show Me the Numbers: Serial's Data Transfer Costs

Serial is the most accessed podcast ever from iTunes, according to Apple. By November 18, it was downloaded and streamed 5 million times. The show claims some 1.5 million listeners per episode, of which nine have so far been produced. That would mean nearly 9 million downloads or streaming sessions (assuming people went back to listen to the whole thing) from non-iTunes sources, which seems high, but would also indicate a better distribution of means by which people obtain podcasts, which is good for all podcasters!

David Carr, the lead media reporter at the New York Times, wrote that the episodes were downloaded "at a cost of nothing," which may refer to what it costs to deliver or what listeners pay; hard to tell. But I'd like to guess at the amount. What does it cost to deliver that many episodes?

Let's take the notion for simplicity that roughly 13.5 million downloads or equivalent streams occurred evenly over three months, or 4.5 million downloads a month. Episode 9 is typical and roughly 30 megabytes (MB). That's 135 terabytes (TB) per month. (Yes, some months would be more and others less, but still good for estimating.)

Via Amazon S3, Serial would have paid $12,000 a month or $36,000 so far. Amazon charges on usage, not on a monthly basis. (It charges for storage on a monthly basis, but all the podcast files together aren't even half a gigabyte.)

But, as my information technology friends tell me, that's way too much to pay; instead, Serial is using a content distribution network (CDN), which is designed to take media files and feed them out a bazillion times more cheaply and efficiently. Serial's CDN, Highwinds, doesn't publish its rates and any CDNs only offer private estimates, but MaxCDN has a rate schedule. Serial would pick the 150 TB per month plan, which runs $6,144 per month plus 4¢ a GB over 150 TB ($40 per extra TB). That would be over $18,000 so far. CacheFly has a bandwidth calculator, and reckons a bit over $3,700 per month for 135 TB, or about $11,000 so far.

If Serial has cut an excellent deal, piggybacking as one expects on This American Life's downloads, it's probably paying the least possible, and that sub-$4,000 per month figure seems accurate. But in public radio, that's the same cost as part or all of a full-time entry-level-or-above position. If the show becomes more popular, the costs go up as well, where conventional radio distribution has a very high fixed cost and none of these sorts of high variable costs for extremely popular programs. Some podcast and audio hosting sites, like Libsyn and SoundCloud, absorb some or all of the bandwidth costs — but they're still paying the piper, even if they bill $0 to the podcast producers.

Over time, the price of data transfer has dropped relatively quickly, but it doesn't plummet nearly as fast as hard drives or hosted storage. In 2006, Amazon charged 16¢ per GB for downstream transfer (its servers to the Internet); in 2014, it's 33% lower, or 12¢ per GB. In the same time, hard drive storage dropped from 60¢ per GB to 3¢, or a 95% drop.

Increasingly successful podcasts will need to budget serious sums that, as listenership grows and prices slowly drop, might stay constant for a while, and be a significant line item in the budget.

A T-Shirt Celebrating The Magazine

With our friends at Cotton Bureau, The Magazine is offering a limited-time-availability T-shirt to commemorate our 28-month run, which ends next month. The color is from Issue #1. The back shows our three-diamond "end of story" icon and our run date.

This shirt is an American Apparel Tri-Blend Tri-Black with long-lasting ink — I've got others from Cotton Bureau using this method, and they remain vibrant and stand up to many, many washings.


Mediatwits: Long-Form Journalism

I appear on today's Mediatwits, speaking from my experience at The Magazine. The show's description:


Long-form journalism is seeing something of a resurgence on the web. While many people believe digital media has pushed people toward short, bite-sized listicles, deeper stories continue to resonate when they hit the right audience. Plus, online publications such as Atavist, The Verge and even BuzzFeed regularly publish long-form pieces.

Have Red Pen, Will Travel: Hanging up My Shingle

My labor of love for the last two years, The Magazine, will finish up with its last regular issue on December 18. It's possible we'll do special issues or other work in the future, but we'll end subscriptions then. I'll be resuming my full-time freelance career, and have been ramping up where and how much I write already.

But I'm also considering part-time or full-time editorial jobs that would allow me to stay in Seattle, or editorial consulting work on setting up platforms or production flows. I'd love to bring my experience in podcast hosting and production, electronic periodical publishing, print publishing, and managing app development to a site or publication that's trying to chart a course forward in all those directions.

I've been writing professionally since 1994, starting with trade publications, and, by 1998, contributing to mainstream news and business print and online periodicals, like the New York Times, Wired, Business 2.0 (columnist), Popular Science, and the Seattle Times (columnist).

Since 2005, I've written regularly for the Economist, contributing heavily in the last four years. Since 2010, I've written 350 online items for the Economist, mostly for its Babbage blog (now retired and archived) about the intersection of technology and science with culture. I have also contributed business and arts stories. I appear regularly in its Technology Quarterly section (in print and online), had my story featured on the American edition's cover in March 2013, and twice had my stories on the cover of the Technology Quarterly section. (Some links to articles are at the end of this post.) With the shift away from blogs at the Economist, I now contribute regularly to the online sections for Business & Finance and Science & Technology.

I've also had long-time homes at Boing Boing and Macworld. I regularly write both news and long features for Boing Boing, while I've contributed reviews and features for nearly 15 years to Macworld. I recently signed up to write a weekly security and privacy column for Macworld about issues of interest to Mac and iOS users. For nearly 20 years, I've written and contributed to TidBITS; I wrote the code for their content-management system and consulted deeply on the launch and first year of their user-supported journalism subscriptions.

At The Magazine, I started as executive editor just after its October 2012 launch, and bought the publication from its founder, Marco Arment. I've produced every issue since #3, meeting an every-other-week production schedule as a staff of one with contract help for over two years. We'll finish out with #58. I've edited over 200 features, most of them long-form, and many of them reported, working closely with writers, photographers, and artists.

As part of The Magazine, I planned and executed the successful crowdfunding of a hardcover anthology, with 1,200 advance buyers before the book hit the press. I hired designers, and carried out every stage of production: funding, accounting, programming a user reward management system, creating and releasing digital rewards, working with the printer, and managing the logistics of shipping books to 50 states and dozens of countries.

I'm also a long-time podcaster, with my first series in 2006 (about Wi-Fi). I'm a regular guest on the sci-fi/fantasy podcast, The Incomparable, and just concluded a nearly two-year run of The New Disruptors, a podcast about creative people using new tools to connect with audiences and own their work from conception to distribution.

I can write, edit words and audio, interview, design, and manage. I believe I'm good to work with, and I can provide references from people I've worked for as well as people who have worked with me. I love collaboration.

Some of the clips of the last couple of years that I'm most proud of:

A Kickstarter Failure, But Books Available Immediately

The crowdfunding campaign to produce a second anthology of work from The Magazine failed to fund: we reached about 60% of the target, but I believe getting people on board was trickier this time for a variety of reasons, including that we are about to halt regular issues of the publication.

However, we have a couple hundred copies remaining of our Year One hardcover anthology that were printed in April of this year. It's a great collection of about 25 stories across a huge range of topics. It's cloth-covered book with a dust jacket, and a full-color interior. We'd still like to create a second anthology, and selling down our inventory of the first-year collection would go a long way to letting us figure out that plan.

The cost is just $25 including shipping within the US, and it ships immediately (via Amazon fulfillment). That's the price offered in our first Kickstarter, and a discount off the cover price. (We're working out international shipping now.)

I'll write a full post-mortem about this campaign in the near future. More lessons learned, but not bad ones at all.

Recent Articles

I've been writing quite a bit more these days in addition to writing more blog entries in a few weeks than I probably have in years. Here are a few of my recent articles:

When bigger isn't better: New technologies threaten DigitalGlobe's commercial satellite-imagery business (Economist, November 3)

Ghosts in the machine language: The latest high-profile hacks result from benign neglect, and won't be the last (Economist, October 24)

Bribing the users: Apple Pay may not be as successful as Starbucks in changing America's payment habits (Economist, October 21)

FCC fines Marriott $600,000 for jamming hotel Wi-Fi (Boing Boing, October 3)

Security cruft means every exploit lives forever (Boing Boing, September 25)

Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and… Google Fiber? (Six Colors, October)

A week of Apple Pay: Chips, PINs, and… signatures? (Six Colors, October)

Continuity and Spotlight highlight the need to closely examine where our data goes (Macworld, October 23)

How Newsstand failed The Magazine, and what Apple should do (Macworld, October 30)

Transmit for iOS 8 Provides File Transfer Everywhere (TidBITS, October 15)

Untangling the Amazon/Hachette Dispute (TidBITS, August 11)



Tim Cook Shares and Uplifts Us All

In a country in which you can be fired solely on the basis of your sexual orientation and on a planet in which some nations will imprison, beat, or kill you for it, Tim Cook publicly writing about being gay is a powerful thing. And it has nothing to do with Apple as a firm; rather, it's that he's the chief executive of one of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet, one that does business in almost every country. He didn't just say in public what he says was known more privately; he wrote that he was proud to be gay, "among the greatest gifts God has given me."

I was in tears reading his essay, not for myself, because I have a lot of checkboxes ticked off in my life that let me sit above the routine harassment, discrimination, and abuse that many people experience every day, and that deny them partners, security, housing, jobs, and happiness. I thought about the high rate of suicide that afflicts people who identify in the LBGTQ continuum, and of Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign designed to give them hope and find mentors and peers and support. I thought about friends that have come out over the years, and the issues they faced in their families and among peers.

Tim Cook is saving lives by taking something that wasn't secret (as he describes it), but wasn't public, and letting the world in. He may not change a single mind about the acceptability of his orientation; i don't think that's what it's about. What it does is give hope and inspiration for people to be themselves, with no top on their aspirations. Barack Obama in the White House didn't solve anything to do with racism; in fact, some people are more deeply entrenched in their bigotry because we have a black president. But the fact that it happened, that it's no longer off limits — that's what unbounds the future.

By having someone powerful to point to, the powerless can identify and take heart, and that shakes the power structures in which shame and oppression harm all of us. There is so much more work to do; so much more injustice to fight and fairness to persist in insisting upon. But it's nice to have such a big line marked in the sand, and stride across it.

I read two wonderful, personal stories in the tech press about Cook's public announcement. One is by Casey Newton at The Verge:

It is one thing for the media to whisper to one another, or to post on their blogs, that the CEO of America’s most valuable company is a gay man. And it is a quite another for the man himself to step up to the microphone, with confidence and grace, and tell us himself. We knew Cook was gay; what we didn’t know is how he felt about it. Or, at a time when being gay is still very much a political act, what he planned to do with it.

Now we know.

Kara Swisher, arguably one of the most influential technology journalists in this country, and the co-founder with Walt Mossberg of re/code, has been public about her orientation for some time, and wrote about her complicated feelings over the years about how to discuss her expectation that Tim Cook was gay. She considered in 2013 asking him at the D conference, "What’s it like to be the most powerful gay executive in the world?" She opted against it:

I thought: Would this just be a sandbagging grab for attention? Why exactly did I care? Did it matter to his job if he were public about his sexual preference? And, while it is always a good thing to have another iconic gay person be public, wasn’t it his choice as to when that would happen?

It's a really beautiful essay, and she relates her own experience thusly:

It’s hard to explain to someone who has not had to come out what prompts that feeling, after living in the closet for a lifetime. While everyone searched yesterday for some kind of dramatic reason for the Cook declaration, it’s a fairly simple equation, even if you are out to friends, co-workers and family, as Cook apparently has been:

You get tired of lying. You get tired of hiding. You get tired of not saying.

I hope this makes a difference in the lives of people today — that it makes those who fear their own identities more confident to express them, and that people who could be their allies stand firmer in their support. I hope, but don't know, that Cook's essay is a watershed moment; history will tell us that. The spread of marriage equality at this point in time was something I never anticipated.

The best part, perhaps, was trying to explain to my children, ages 7 and 10, why I was sobbing over Cook's words. They understand some of what it's about, but with them growing up in Seattle in a polyamorous household and with friends who have two moms or two dads (or divorced parents with same-sex or more complicated partnership arrangements), they don't understand why it's a big deal. They're inside our privilege bubble, but also (at these ages, and I hope forever) don't differentiate other people by personal characteristics.

To them, Tim Cook is fine whatever part of himself he's shared with he world. "That's great," they said, and then asked about new iPads.