Patreon is what Facebook should have been
In a recent interview with CNN, a frustrated Mark Zuckerberg exclaimed that he never expected to spend so much of his time preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections when he founded Facebook from his dorm room in 2004, a pretty galling comment demonstrating the founder’s continuing naïveté and irritation with the landscape he finds himself operating in.

And possibly, proof he needs to go. 

His comments reveal that then 20-year-old Zuck had little to no long-term strategy for how to grow Facebook or even an understanding of who the platform is actually for.  

Arguably, this conundrum has been plaguing the company since the beginning.

Facebook is in a predicament: It created a social network for people, and then prioritised advertisers in order to meet the ludicrous overvaluation that stemmed from its IPO.

Every decision Zuckerberg has made since going public has been designed to keep investors and board members happy, sacrificing user trust with every dividend. Sources tell me that Facebook has for some time been trying to drive down its stock price over the last 12 months, concerned about the consequences for its business model, of having to deliver continuous growth. 

This is something Zuck should have thought about during its Lean Canvas phase: Who are your customers? What problem is this solving? And who says you have to grow at a particular rate?

If Zuck had spent more time trying to answer these kinds of questions in growth phase, Facebook could have been a very different entity. It could have been Patreon, a platform that has empowered users to put their money where their mouths are, allowed independent creators like myself to earn a living, and increase the value of our content over time. Instead Facebook became a life-support model for the political establishment and the dying business models of its media allies.

Worse, whatever happens next is more likely to resemble something out of the Joseph McCarthy playbook than anything that empowers users and independent publishers.

Facebook has been actively suppressing any publisher or person who threatens the dominance of establishment media outlets, (along with Google, YouTube and Medium). Anyone with political or financial views that don’t concur with the status-quo is likely to find themselves throttled, blocked or banned for various periods of time. 

And now with the news that Facebook has been collecting and storing the messages of its Android users, it is time for the company to down tools and have a long hard think about what it’s done.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Zuckerberg said part of the reason he created Facebook was to take communication out of the ivory tower.

“People trust people, not institutions,” he said.

Except that Zuckerberg went and partnered with some of the most powerful institutions in the world. As Wired’s excellent feature on Facebook’s two years from hell demonstrated: Rupert Murdoch has Zuckerberg over a barrel, along with every member of the political and corporate establishment that has been shovelling money into the service since 2004.

You cannot democratise information and communication while partnering with some of the world's most powerful companies, organisations and individuals hell-bent on controlling the message. You just can’t.

Did he think these investment decisions would not come back to bite him? That their millions didn’t come with strings attached?

There were a plethora of other ways Facebook could have developed over the last 14 years. For a start, it could have found a model that increased the value and power of journalism, instead of diminishing it.

And to those who say there’s no business model without advertisers like Cambridge Analytica: Facebook was worth a fortune before it started heading down this route. It created value simply by the sheer volume of its user base. There’s a business case to be made for a similar company, one that doesn’t have to make very dodgy business decisions to satisfy the greed of its investors, board members and advertisers.

If Zuckerberg really believes in Facebook’s initial objective: to empower users and take communication out of the ivory tower, then it should take a page out of Patreon’s book and create pathways for reader funded journalism that allow independent publishers and content creators to support themselves.

Patreon isn’t perfect, but over the last five years I have watched as it has defied the ‘freemium’ models of other social networks. It is proof that users will pay for quality content given the opportunity, (and an easy path to transaction). Patreon is the essential long-term crowd-funding tool of some of the most successful creators in the industry right now, from musicians to podcasters, economists to journalists.

It’s not a perfect platform. But it is lo-fi in ways I really enjoy. It has only done one major redesign since I joined 3–4 years ago. Its data isn’t super useful beyond tracking subscriber growth month-on-month. There isn’t a whole lot of transparency about how content moves around the network. And it doesn’t (yet?) offer groups the same way that Facebook does (which imho would massively amplify the opportunity to grow relationships, have a conversation and show off users’ work). But it is simple and easy to use. And you can follow people even if you’re not sponsoring them (essential in my opinion to allow people to continue to think about how they spend their money and who they support at any given time). Best of all: it doesn’t sell your data to anyone.

I like that it’s basic. I’m in no rush for any huge renovations. I’m just so pleased there is someone out there with a business model that is designed to truly democratise information and support independent creators.

I rely on Patreon to make part of my living. And it has delivered me more success than Facebook ever has. And while I’m not anywhere near my ultimate goal, my subscriptions have increased month-on-month. I’m making enough now that I certainly can’t stop. I only get out what I put in, but at least I know my content isn’t being throttled or hidden from people’s feeds. 

Patreon is what Facebook should have been (and could be). Which is probably why Facebook recently rolled out a Patreon style subscription model for a small group of creators. Unfortunately, once again, it hand-picked who was worthy of this beta, once again demonstrating how unwilling it is to let users decide for themselves who is worthy of their time and money.

It would only take minor changes on Patreon’s platform to grow into a proper Facebook competitor. Until then, I fear for the day Zuckerberg tries to acquire and then destroy it.

Claire connelly released this post 3 days early for patrons.   Become a patron