Flattr is a micro-payments system that allows its users to give small sums of money to bloggers, musicians, free software authors, and anyone else whose work they value. You create an account and distribute a minimum of two euros per month (less a 10% commission taken by Flattr) to sites you value. The money is divided equally among all the sites you flattr in a given month. You can also opt to give individual sites more. If you don’t flattr anyone your monthly sum goes to charity.
Now the system is by no means perfect. It depends on large numbers of people signing up, of course. And so there is a danger that it will seek to secure monopoly rents if and when it becomes the standard means to delivering micro-payments. Furthermore, the commission is at the moment quite steep, though the company assures us that they will endeavour to bring it down as the volume increases.
But it strikes me to be a promising approach to solving a real problem: how do we create an internet ecology that supports independent producers? This is a serious and highly consequential issue in political writing, where large corporations and wealthy individuals have traditionally subsidised content creation.
Much of this money has come in the form of advertising – this gives rich companies important leverage in their relationship with the media they support. Journalists sometimes insist that advertising pressure has no bearing on their work and in a narrow sense this might be true. But the Daily Herald, Britain’s bestselling and most loved newspaper in the 1930s and 1940s was eventually strangled by its inability to generate advertising revenues commensurate with its vast circulation. If you think that such things don’t matter and that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, then allow me to introduce you to the Sun, the paper that the Daily Herald became once it was sold off and re-branded. The paper that helped build the British postwar consensus later helped destroy it – advertiser pressure played an important role in achieving this turnaround.
Rich individuals and institutions also spend money with the express intention of creating and maintaining a favourable climate of opinion. Think tanks, foundations, and individuals receive all manner of direct and indirect support from the powerful. And the powerful expect their money to be put to good use. They want to see it being translated into media coverage that suits them. The large foundations created by American industrialists, for example, have supported academics and groups in civil society that accepted the essential soundness of the existing political and economic settlement. This in turn has been crucial in establishing the limits of responsible reform. This amounts to promoting what one of their critics, Donald Fischer, once called ‘an ideology of sophisticated conservatism’.
The state, too, spends considerable sums in order to influence the ways in which it is perceived. The Pentagon alone manages a vast public relations budget, which it uses to establish leverage over myriad media outlets, from Hollywood movie producers to newspaper journalists and broadcasters.
So both market forces and the direct intervention of wealthy patrons – patrons which include the state – skew media coverage in important, though rarely discussed, ways.
This needs to change. Or rather it needs to be challenged systematically in ways that reach the great majority of the population. In my view the best solution would be a system of public commissioning. Each citizen would have some power to support inquiry and to secure wider exposure for the results of inquiry. The news agenda is too important to be left in the hands of individuals who depend on the support of powerful and opaque institutions. To put it another way, the road to freedom passes through democratic reform of the media. To rely on the media we have at present is to evade the responsibilities and satisfactions of self-government. Media reform, by delivering us from a state of intellectual tutelage, is the very stuff of enlightenment.
But public commissioning is some way off. The existing media don’t want it. States don’t want it. The rich certainly don’t want it. The public, for the most part, haven’t even heard of it. Indeed they are rarely invited to contemplate the deep structure of the systems of information that surround them and orient them in the world. Furthermore there is no shortage of noisy competition from people with proposals for reform and demands for revolution. Though media reform should be central to the politics of any mature capitalist society it scarcely exists in the public sphere. Indeed the forces that prevent meaningful discussion of the media are the forces that prevent capitalist society from evolving into something different.
Flattr provides private individuals with the means to support independent voices in the media. It is direct and it is reasonably efficient. There are transaction costs but they are much smaller than any other method I am aware of. Those who currently try to present an alternative frame of reference to that provided by the paid media do so with little expectation that they will be paid for their work. This is difficult for them. But if a genuinely accountable and transparent media is to be established – one that can not only comment on but also challenge mainstream claims and assumptions, then we will have to do more than make encouraging noises about citizen journalism.
And if people who are conscious of the need for media reform adopt it then it could become a staging post on the way to more fundamental changes in the politics of communication. It is little more than a toy at the moment – it will make a few euros a month at most for most of its users. But it is the best way you can support this site.
And that has to be something of world-historical importance.
Alright, so, enough about Flattr and the sordid demands of self-promotion – have you read my book yet?