Raw numbers can’t convey the excitement of releasing STEAL THIS FILM II at the end of 2007, but here they are anyway: in the first 4 days there have been approximately 150,000 downloads (we haven’t checked how many views there have been on bittorrent.com, Stage6, Joox, YouTube, Google Video and everywhere else the film has been uploaded, hard since there are multiple copies on each) , around 5000 seeders at any one time on The Pirate Bay’s trackers; and approx. $5000 in donations.
That last figure is especially pleasing, not just because it represents cash in the bank for our next project, GHOST SHIFT, part one of the series THE OIL OF THE 21ST CENTURY, but because each of these people has personally chosen to support us completely voluntarily — and in most cases, donated significantly more than they would have had to pay for a DVD or a cinema ticket. While a rough calculation (the numbers are rough, we’re not statisticians!) suggests about one in a thousand people seeing the film choose to support us, we are seeing an overwhelming proportion of donations in the range $15-40.
The Few, The Generous Few
This means we have solved one of the ‘problems’ thrown up by STEAL THIS FILM I, in which we asked for donations of $1, and received thousands of them. PayPal took round about 30 cents of each of these, and after the cost of transferring to our bank account, that left not so much of the generous donations to work with in the real world.
We addressed this problem in STEAL THIS FILM II’s release by suggesting (but not requiring) donations of $5 or more, and incentivising the already-existing generosity of the P2P community by offering a ‘mystery gift’ for donations of $15 or more. (The mystery gift really is cool by the way.)
What we discovered is that (as one of my colleagues put it) people want that gift. Over 90% of people donating are deciding to go over the artificial $15 threshold we set. But I don’t think people literally ‘want that gift’; I think they want an excuse to be generous!
Some comments about this. In STEAL THIS FILM I, we envisioned millions of viewers of which a large-ish proportion would donate small amounts of money. What we actually got — and were delighted to get — was millions of viewers of which a small proportion donated a small amount of money. Even this early in the day, the STF II experience shows something that is obvious in retrospect: the people who are choosing to voluntarily support us are passionate about the STEAL THIS FILM project (not just about the documentary per se, clearly, but about the future it suggests). And quite naturally, those few people are prepared to go rather further than a $1 donation.
STEAL THIS FILM AS DISEASE VECTOR
Who are the 1/1000: what characterises them and sets them apart from others? It’s difficult not to be reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s <em>http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/index.htmlt</em>:
Potterat […] once did an analysis of a gonorrhea epidemic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, looking at
everyone who came to a public health clinic for treatment of the disease over the space of six months. He found that about half of all the cases came, essentially, from four neighborhoods representing about 6 percent of the geographic area of the city. Half of those in that 6 percent, in turn, were socializing in the same six bars. Potterat then interviewed 768 people in that tiny subgroup and found that 600 of them either didn’t give gonorrhea to anyone else or gave it to only one other person. These people he
called nontransmitters. The ones causing the epidemic to grow — the ones who were infecting two and three and four and five others with their disease — were the remaining 168. In other words, in all of the city of Colorado Springs — a town of well in excess of 100,000 people — the epidemic of gonorrhea tipped because of the activities of 168 people living in four small neighborhoods and basi-cally frequenting the same six bars.
Who were those 168 people? They aren’t like you or
me. They are people who go out every night, people who have vastly more sexual partners than the norm, people whose lives and behavior are well outside of the ordinary.
Now, I’m not saying that STF II supporters are going around giving anyone gonorrhea; but I’m interested whether there’s any other relationship between the 1/1000 who donate and the 168/100,000 (basically the same ratio) who spread STDs in Colorado Springs. Perhaps it’s a proportion of people who just really, really like STEAL THIS FILM — but as much as that would be nice to believe, I’m more inclined to think it’s a group of edge-surfers trying to do what they can to help move things along.
Trying to understand more about the relationship between The League Of Noble Peers and the 1/1000, I came across the idea of Guanxi for the first time. From the wiki linked to the book Guanxi: The China Letter, this definition:
Guanxi is a Chinese term, generally translated as “networks” or “connections,”… a useful reminder that trust, understanding, and personal knowledge can be vital components of economic relationships. Most guanxi relationships are based on individuals’ having something in common… may be the fact of having attended or graduated from the same school, having the same place of employment, working in the same industry, or coming from the same village or region. In addition, guanxi relationships may sometimes be established through gift giving or personal favors…. Guanxi relationships often have a strong emotional element, something easily overlooked by outsiders.
The essence of guanxi is that each relationship carries with it a set of expectations and obligations for each participant.
Now, this isn’t the first time someone has noticed the relevance of Guanxi to network culture. In Guanxi: The Art of Relationships, Microsoft, China, and Bill Gates’s Plan to Win the Road Ahead, ‘good’ Guanxi is defined as
trust (respect and knowledge of others), favor (loyalty and obligation), dependence (harmony and reciprocity, mutual benefit), and adaptation (patience and cultivation).
The fact that Guanxi is considered key to Gates’ ‘winning’ ‘the road ahead’ might make it a lot less attractive on the face of it, but I still think it’s an interesting way of understanding what is happening with our 1/1000. STEAL THIS FILM has helped to build what you might call an ‘affective bridge’ between ‘us’ (The League) and ‘them’ (the viewer), a reciprocal relationship that can express itself in a variety of ways: copying and redistributing, recommending personally, blogging, donating, hosting a screening, and so on.
Through the act of knowledge-sharing, ‘they’ are inspired to support ‘us’, trusting us to make more (or at least another!) film and release it in a similar way. What we learn from the (not infrequently moving) messages that come with the donations we’re receiving is that the 1/1000 are passionate about what they’re supporting. This is why it was a mistake to ask for $1: in fact, the 1/1000 were prepared donate far more to something they really cared about.
ALL IN TOGETHER NOW
One of the most important things to observe is that in the course of this interaction, the distinction between us and them breaks down to some extent. While there is a core group at the center of the STF project, people really become part of it when supporting it, whether they’re sharing it on Bittorrent or donating $10. That’s really how we’re looking at it. There is no STF without those promoting it, advertising it, and distributing it. In this sense, we’re already a million miles away from the distribution systems of the past, which never implied such a degree of intimacy, such a blurring of distinction, between what was once called ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’.
One of the questions that has been asked repeatedly since the filesharing ‘revolution’ is about how artists will get paid after the media-as-commodity model is done and dusted. In STEAL THIS FILM II we (roughly) claimed that ‘the future doesn’t care about your bank balance’, and in a couple of senses that’s true: what’s going to happen is going to happen regardless how it afflicts those who bank on the current status quo in media — and we don’t think that being able to answer a business case for a thing is the most important condition for doing it, at all. Some people act like it’s all that matters.
That said, we’ve been personally involved in thinking about ‘remuneration’ for some time. And what we think the STF II experience shows is that there is hope after filesharing. More than hope. It even seems possible at this point that STF II might go into profit.
There are caveats. We lost money on the third day of distribution because PayPal, pretty much the only game in town at the moment when it comes to accepting donations from users, unilaterally declared us to be ‘in violation’ of their ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ because we were ‘promoting illegal activity’. Of course STF II doesn’t do that and once we pointed out to them why, they restored our account. But we lost a few hundred dollars in the interim. The current state of taking online payments is just woefully unfit for purpose. The commissions are too high and the level of service too low. Someone needs to step into this arena with a new attitude, though whether that is possible in the laundering-obsessed post 9/11 world is another matter.
Secondly, while the 1/1000 are our future, and we’re infinitely grateful for their existence, we still think it’s possible for them to become the 1/500, the 1/200 or even the 1/100, given the right encouragement and cultural atmosophere. (If we were speaking of the 1/200 right now, we’d have already covered half what we spent on the film.) Fifty years ago, Everett M. Rogers developed a theory of ‘diffusion of innovations’, that is, how new things spread through a society. His 1962 book was based on Depression-era rural sociology, such as how Midwestern farmers adopted hardier corn.
Rogers found that 2.5 percent of people in society were what he called ‘innovators’ in their contexts: brave visionaries, pushing change forward, for whom trying something new requires little justification. This leads me to wonder if the 1/1000 we’re currently encountering is the ‘bleeding edge of the ‘innovator’ group in media. Of course, we can’t be sure that the model we propose is the one that will prevail in the future, and the problem is that until we have a critical mass, other new potential innovators will not join it. (Other documentarists, for example, still see the STEAL THIS FILM model as ‘idealist’ and ‘interesting’ but fundamentally impractical: they are still betting the farm on traditional distributors paying them to show their works.)
After a critical mass is achieved, the benefits of using this model are clear. As my friend and fellow Peer Alan Toner writes,
there are nearly 5,000 seeds for the three different files containing [our] film, providing an effective speed equal to that obtainable by any motion picture studio employing global server co-location like Akamai and local caching services like Google, not bad for a bunch of amateurs working from the grassroots!
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL PIRATE
Combine this with direct donations in which none of the viewers’ contribution is lost in defunct, superfluous, wasteful, physical product and no middlemen (!) and you have an overwhelmingly positive picture likely to prove exceedingly attractive to second-wave pioneers. What may surprise those who think that ‘we pirates’ against artists making money is that we’re working on ways to make this economy work right now. My friend Peter Sunde (Brokep), from The Pirate Bay, has been hard at work with his development team on an offering he hopes to roll out at the end of January: it will make it much easier for people to give donations and (hopefully) take some of the power away from PayPal.
‘I think that people will pay if there’s a simple solution,’ Peter says. ‘The payment solutions of today are not built for the new, network economy — they’re built around the old one. As we move away from the old economy, we’re here without a new payment solution.’
Brokep sees this, then, as a question of ‘payment models catching up with the distribution models.’I couldn’t agree more. The League Of Noble Peers are also working on a parallel system, and after discussions with The Pirate Bay, Mininova and Bittorrent, we also think it will have some part to play in making it easier for us to support each other making cultural works. (Sorry to be so mysterious, but Peter doesn’t want to say more about their project pre-Beta and we won’t say more until we’re at least past the first phase of development.)
What is also necessary is a spreading of the ‘generosity virus’, not just for STEAL THIS FILM (although boy, could we use it!) but for all independent creators who’ve dispensed with the restrictive, punitive, retrograde commodity model and chosen to work with a new, more far-sighted paradigm. In these first days of distributing STF II, we have learned that by setting aside the artificial barriers of DVDs, cinema tickets and pay-per-download, the way is cleared to a new world of voluntary, supportive donations. The sooner we all stop moaning about how ‘no one is going to make any money’ after P2P, we can get on with encouraging each other to look after our cultural environments. No one is saying we’re there yet, but like the man said, we’re beginning to see the light.
Many ’small’ creators have protested that ‘we can’t all be STEAL THIS FILM’ — that is, we can’t all get sufficiently well-known to be able to garner enough donations to make a project financially viable. To an extent, this is true, although we suspect that a lot of creators make quite desultory attempts to market their works online. We can tell you that you can’t rely on Digg (only 1,500 hits from a front page article this time), Reddit (ignored us entirely), Slashdot (ditto) to alert people to your work — and in a sense, why should you? They’re just small interest communities that are artificially promoting stories into wider, temporary, public view. We have the feeling that these mechanisms are fairly brutal and subject to gaming, corruption and so on. ‘Preference formation’ — how we discover new stuff, stuff we like and will recommend to our friends, is incredibly important, because it precedes everything else, informs everything we may want to get involved with and support. Someone needs to get onto this now. As much as we need a better, (non-profit?) payment system, we need to think afresh about how to bring new material onto our personal and community horizons. No more Top 100s and Front Pages: these are just hangovers of mass media that needed massive numbers. We don’t: if we get only 1.8% of our current viewers (that is, those we have had in four days) to support us at the current average, we break even with STEAL THIS FILM. If we get Rogers’ 2.5% of ‘innovators’, we’ll actually be able to put something in the bank. And then it’s surely only a matter of time before others decide it’s time to bet their farms; and then we will all be winners, infinitely culturally better off than we have been able to imagine until now.