I’m not a humongous fan of Amanda Palmer’s creative output. I like the idea of it more than I like its execution. I find her creative processes and chances to be intriguing, and on the whole I guess I’m glad that there are people trying to push the envelope of the present day economic model for the arts, particularly since I’m also somebody who is hoping that there are alternate funding models out there that can work. I’ve bought some of her music; as I say, it’s more interesting than enjoyable to me, on the whole, but the stuff that’s interesting can be pretty interesting. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back in the day, and her “punk cabaret” thing is sort of a de-professionalized version of the the same idea. Sort of.
Ms. Palmer’s TED talk appears to be tearing up the Internet, and there are a couple of things I’d like to throw out there about it.
First off, I recently attended a seminar by a political theorist who is proposing that, along with liberty and equality, dignity is the third necessary precondition for democracy to work — that is, there has to be some way that the intrinsic worth of the participant is going to be preserved in the democratic process. This is interesting to me on a number of different levels, but for present purposes, I will say that it seems to me to be a big part of Ms. Palmer’s point. What she’s saying, essentially, is that if you ask for something in a way that affirms the dignity of both the person asking and the person being asked, rather than demanding in a way that assumes you’re asking from a position of authority or begging in a way that debases yourself as the petitioner, but that just says, “Hey, one human being to another, can you do something that’s in your power to do?” — that is, presents the proposed transaction as something mutual and participatory — then you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for, you’re also more likely to broaden your social network in some way through that person, that person’s social network is reciprocally expanded, and they are likely to feel like they got something of value out of the transaction. It’s a really lovely idea, no question.
I have no doubt that there are game theoreticians out there who will have plenty to say about Ms. Palmer’s model. My amateur’s observations are this:
Crowdfunding amounts to the thought I think probably every college student has ever had — “You know,” they say to themselves, walking to their next class, “if I could figure out a way to get a dollar from every person on this campus, then my tuition bill would be covered.” It’s a perfectly sensible thought if you can just figure out how to do it — why shouldn’t it be easier to get $1 from 40,000 people than to get $40,000 from a single source?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, it seems, why it isn’t easier, but Ms. Palmer starts out by saying, well, that’s the model that I followed as a street performer, and I did okay enough to see it as being fundamentally worthwhile. Here’s the thing, though — what she doesn’t tell you is that she did it in Boston. In order for something like that to work, you basically have to assume a certain size city, with a certain density of people on foot, and you have to assume a critical mass of a certain kind of person with a certain amount of cash on their person.
To put it another way, you couldn’t really do it in Bloomington.
Second, Ms. Palmer presents it as a model of “all you have to do is ask and anybody can do this”, and I’m just not convinced that it’s at all that simple. She at once talks about the value of expanding one’s social network through the average person on the street while also downplaying her own not-inconsiderable non-Average-Joe social network. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, is my point. That’s wonderful that she can get a Neti pot delivered to her at a coffee shop within 5 minutes of Tweeting the need for same; if only it were that easy for me to find Theodore a babysitter that way — but that’s just not my (or my wife’s) social network. Our networks are largely outside of Bloomington, which means they’re not terribly useful for immediate and personal needs — that’s what happens when you live in this kind of town for ten years, all your friends move away.
(Mr. Palmer — er, Neil Gaiman — also has a talk floating out there online that I intend to comment on soon. All in good time.)
All of that said, there is absolutely an art to asking, and fearlessness in reaching out really is the first step. I have found in my own projects that, if you’re hoping that somebody can give you $100, it’s better to ask for $400 and have them give you $200 because they really are happy to help than to ask for $100, have them figure you don’t really need the money if you’re asking for so little, and they give you $50. That doesn’t work in all cases, but it works in a reasonable proportion of them.
At the same time, there is no bigger draw to my blog than the materials under the tab “Greek Resources”. I have put them up for free, there are a lot of links out there to them, and I have tried to suggest over the years — Hey, if you think there’s a value here, then it’d be great if you expressed that value somehow. And, well, that’s generated all of I think $20 a year since I started putting them up. That’s fine; I’m not going to take them down, and I’ll keep plugging away at them eventually, but that tells me something about how Ms. Palmer’s economic model works — that is, there’s more to it than simply putting up what you got and asking people to pay what they can. Along those lines, the funniest moment in the movie Julie and Julia to me is when Julie’s complaining about what she spends on cooking, somebody suggests to her that she put a PayPal button on her blog, and next thing you know, gifts and checks just start rolling in. Yeah, it’s just not that simple, kids. Would that it were.
The Saint John of Damascus Society is about to try to crowdsource a particular creative project, or at least the first stages of it, and I will be very curious to see how it goes. I do have a particular social network made up of particular kinds of people I’ve gotten to know over the years, and while it can’t get me a babysitter, I will be very interested to see if it can generate support for something creative. We shall see.