For several years, my “day job” (the one paying my bills) has been performing comedy shows. Meanwhile, my hobby has been creating online resources, tools, and organizations for justice.
If you think that’s a weird combo, you’re not alone. I’m with you: it’s hard to wrap my mind around the truth that the way I make money is comedy, then I use that money to pay to do administrative-paperwork-email-non-profit-type stuff.
Usually, it’s the other way around.
What’s even weirder? Switching things up — and starting to fund my online advocacy work directly, not via comedy shows — seems less likely to succeed than continuing to be a working comedian.
And yes — I’ve heard of Patreon. People have told me about it hundreds of times, for years and years, every time I made that point.
A lot of the work I do is a great fit for Patreon. But I’ve been resistant to the idea of funding it that way. The reasons are a mix of ethics and personal discomforts, and are all tied directly to my work, and the change I hope it effects.
So why haven’t I done it?
How about we first get on the same page about what it is?
Patreon, in 122 Words
If you haven’t heard of Patreon, think “Kickstarter, but for ongoing creativity, instead of creating a one-time thing.”
(If you haven’t heard of Kickstarter — well, honey, this ain’t the blog post for you.)
To make that concrete, let’s consider the example of a comic artist who is looking to fund their work. They might try to fund their weekly webcomic by asking their readers to give them some money per creation or month, generally in exchange for more comics or exclusive stuff. Drip by drip.
An alternative way to fund their work would be selling a collection of their comics as a book. One big splash.
Patreon is perfect for the former; Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, or the other million crowdfunding clones), the latter.
“What do you do?”
It’s hard for me to answer “What do you do?”
If I interpret the question as “What do you do for money?” then my answer, historically, has been “I’m a comedian.”
This is because the majority of my income for the past almost-decade has been the result of performing comedy shows, and second to that is speaking/keynoting (which, 9 out of 10 times, I get booked for to be funny while delivering information).
But that’s not really the answer to what I do, it’s what I get primarily paid to do. Most of my time isn’t spent comeding — not just in general, but I mean work time.
Even in my busiest comedy stretches, I’m not mostly doing comedy. For example, last year I had a burst where I did over 60 shows in a month, spread across several states and countries. And even then, when I was on stage an average of twice a day, for over an hour each time, I was still not doing comedy most of the time.
What I was doing, mostly, is making things for the internet.
Between shows, I’d be back in my hotel room, writing, editing, doodling, coding, and creating things. Repairing a website that got hacked, or drowned with a burst of traffic. Responding to emails from people using curricula I’d written. Publishing a new version of an edugraphic I’d made.
This is really what I do, if I had to answer it as one thing: “I make things for the internet.”
I don’t, however, get paid for almost any of that work.
(The exception being book royalties, which come in fourth for me after comeding, speaking, and training/facilitating.)
So I don’t answer that way.
Because I know the question isn’t really “What do you do?” but “How are you employed?”
Funding Online Work is Weird.
Working online isn’t much different from conventional, IRL jobs in a lot of ways. But those two roads diverge when we hit the intersections of dollars and sense.
I wrote about this on It’s Pronounced Metrosexual a few months ago, where I shared lots of details and financial specifics about funding that site, and asking for help with the burden. You can read all that there, if you want, but here’s the gist:
Either you fund the work directly (from the people consuming/using it), or you do it indirectly. The second option here, the indirect path, is really a dozen different paths in itself.
For example, I’ve indirectly funded all of my online work through performing comedy shows for years.
That’s one path, but it’s not one a lot of people walk (for obvious reasons).
Others indirectly fund their online work through ads, affiliate links, sponsored content, grants, or corporate underwriting.
Indirect funding, regardless of how you do it, is not ideal. Because the dollars rarely make sense — at least to the average internet surfer.
And because most people don’t have an innate sense of what goes into creating online (a website, or video series, or comic strip, or whatever), or how websites work or what they cost, indirect funding creates a mental gap for the person using the thing.
Our brains don’t like gaps.
When faced with a gap, our brain will start drafting up a story that fills it in, leaps it, or hides it from view. We don’t even need to ask our brain to do this — it’ll start working on this problem without our input.
People know, on some level — whether they’re cognizant of it or not — that everything online needs to be funded somehow. So when they’re getting something for “free,” there’s often a Spidey Sense going off: “What’s the catch?”
And the catch is commonly a serious one: you’re exchanging personal metadata, and/or the ability to be manipulated, for whatever you’re not paying for directly.
But when there isn’t advertising, or sponsored content, or the other manipulation stuff, another story often fills the gap: the person or organization creating this thing doesn’t need money from me, indirectly or directly. They have plenty of money.
The better free thing is — the more complete it is, the more useful, the higher the quality, how shiny — the more apparent the gap. How is THIS free?
When people find something that seems really great, but isn’t profit-generating, and the Spidey Sense is quiet, one story can fill the gap:
Access is My Top Priority
All of the work is in some way connected to the idea that I want to move us closer toward a world where everyone is healthy, understood, educated, and safe. This is what I call global justice.
A core value of justice is access. And access is simply something I won’t budge on.
So that’s why, despite not being rich (but actually being poor working class, having an income lower than a teacher’s, and living with a millenial’s debt), all of the resources I create are freely available.
It’s not that I’m swimming in cash; it’s that I refuse to recreate financial barriers for others that I slam into myself every day.
I do everything I can to remove barriers from accessing and using my work. It’s what’s behind my decisions to do things like uncopyrighting everything I make (and open-sourcing the code), ensuring that my books available for free (and turning down book deals that won’t allow this), and working within the gift economy.
With all that in mind, when I was faced with the typical way people do Patreon (offering exclusive access to things they make to their patrons), I didn’t see it as a path I could walk.
And I didn’t know how else to do it.
Patreon, or patronage in general, already seems like an uphill battle. Even people who are offering exclusive stuff — access be damned! — aren’t able to make a living on Patreon. Making it more difficult, taking away the cookie that rewards someone for being your Patreon, was a daunting idea.
So I was left with a tough cookie I couldn’t crack: how do I do Patreon, but not make my work inaccessible?
Enter O.G. Patronage, Circa Shakespeare
Shakespeare had patrons. So did a lot of the famous artists you learned about in art class. And the famous mathematicians you were frustrated by in math class.
Back in the day, a lot of people who were doing things that weren’t contributing to the bare necessities (those simple bear necessities), but instead adding value to society in harder to quantify ways, were supported by patrons.
And Patreon wasn’t founded until 2013.
Patronage is an old idea.
But I didn’t consider it until recently.
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The Patreon way of Patronage, where creators see their patrons as super-consumers of their work — their “1,000 true fans” — is, however, quite new. And while that idea doesn’t map onto the work I create, and the values that guide me, the old idea does.
Experimenting in Patronage
In college, I experimented oh sorry wrong blog post.
In 2019, I’m making patronage my main experiment, challenge, and life-discomforting-vulnerable leap.
I’m inviting people to be my patrons like how Shakespeare had patrons (but I’m not expecting you to be a duke, as long as you don’t expect me to be The Bard): by being my employers, paying me to create for others.
I even made a whole site talking about it, asking people to “Be my boss(es).”
If it works, and I’m able to fund my work directly, I’m excited to see the effect it has on my life, and the ripple effect it might have for others in similar situations as me, following in my footsteps.
If it doesn’t work, and I fall on my face, and my bosses all fire me (or I never get hired to begin with), that will be a public and spectacular failure — one that will have a dramatically negative effect on my life — but it still might have a positive ripple effect benefit for others in similar situations as me, who can avoid following in my footsteps.
I like those odds.
Join me on Patreon if you want to follow along.