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Flattr: Value (and) the Internet

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Giving credit and support to people who create content is not the easiest task. Even more so it’s on the internet, a big series of tubes, filled with everything, made by everyone. Flattr wants to change this. This is an introduction to how it was created, what it is and what its possibilities are.

The idea itself is about three years old, but was revisited in late 2009. The goal was to create a cultural flatrate on a voluntary basis. Give people the possibility to easily donate small amounts of money to the author of an article they liked, the photographer of a nice picture or creator of any other kind of content. The conditions: Only the one owning the content can collect the money, and both the donator and receiver have to be users of Flattr.

flattr logo

But isn’t there Paypal for that? It might be an option for others, but not for Peter Sunde, one of the founders of Flattr and previously The Pirate Bay. Paypal was deemed too big and too much of a hassle to give someone a euro for a nice webcomic page, and donating ten seems to be too much. Flattr takes the decision of how much you want to pay somewhat off your shoulders – You charge up your account with as much as you like and then decide on a monthly amount to spend, starting with two euros. This monthly allowance will, at the end of the month, be split equally between every piece of content you flattred. A mere 50 Euro will enable you to go for more than two whole years giving people something in return for the work they usually do for free. And the best part? As a registered user you can install your own Flattr button anywhere next to things you have created, and could get rewarded if other users like it and decide to click this button.

However, it’s not meant to be used as a steady source of income. As a so-called micropayment system, its aim is to make us reconsider the way we think about content on the internet. It is not just about the money – a dedicated blogger, who started out in beta, received about two euros in total from three people flattring an article he wrote  not long after his sign-up. He was very excited to receive actual money for something he would be doing for free anyway, and what’s more, that people thought that his content was worth paying for.

Although it is not primarily meant to be used by corporations, but single persons, some larger german-speaking platforms picked up on it early and have used it ever since, such as taz.de, netzpolitik.org and chaosradio.ccc.de.

Even the infamous Wikileaks has an account, which puts Flattr in an interesting position. It just recently introduced the function to directly donate a chosen amount of money to a specific user, thus enabling its users to support platforms even if they are being cut off from paypal and visa/MasterCard transactions.

Although he played a vital part in founding and publishing Flattr, co-creator Peter Sunde left the startup in October of 2010. The reasons stated are somewhat unclear, but it might seem that they wanted to evade bad press about having a convicted pirate on their board. And indeed, they have reasons to be worried about their reputation: after the initial closed-beta boom the growth of Flattr soothed somewhat, but its userbase increase steadily, rapidly approaching ten thousand.

But flatter is not the first service that handles this kind of micropayment. Kachingle is a service that works in a similar way. While Flattr lets you donate for a certain article or even comment, kachingle counts the visits to sites you mark and bases the distribution of your funds on this. It lack some prominence, though, which is what helped Flattr to spread quickly into a dedicated community of technology-savy internet users.

Considering myself being one of these techies, I joined Flattr just after the public release for the sheer fun it. Giving away the default minimum of 2 Euro a month puts me below the average 3-4, so I try to make my monthly allowance count a bit and not Flattr more than two things a month.  Currently I am consuming a  whole lot more on the internet than I am creating, and dont have a Flattr button, yet.


It is interesting to see this startup grow, and I am looking forward to discussing questions as:

Could this be an option to evade the copyright/infringement debate?
Flattr could give artists an audience and financial boost. Independent singers, songwriters, djs, authors, photographers and more could greatly benefit from it. The flaw is, that you have to be part of the community to give money and if one just wants to donate a small amount to a certain cause, it’s even more of a hassle than to do it via paypal. The copyright never leaves the artists hold and they get the money directly. But I see a great deal of potential legal steps being taken to take down content that has been re-purposed. The argument that one has no monetary gain of putting something on the internet could easily fall back as with Flatter, its user do gain money. Although the site enforces its copyright rules strictly, its just a matter of time until something with questionable roots finds itself becoming Flattr-famous and drawing the attention of the copyright holders.

What happens if more and more users don’t withdraw their money instantly, but let it instead circulate just within the Flattr system?
In a discussion with Peter Sunde he told that it’s not ruled out, that indeed this could have an impact on society. I highly doubt it, as even bigger reserves of money are stored in shady accounts and funds around the world.

And with the rules as they are now, will only creators of content use Flattr or people, who just consume and create nothing or little, too pay this cultural flatrate?
This is the most interesting question in my opinion. It basically boils down to ‘Will people pay for content they would get for free too?’. There are enough users who are willing to pay for Wikipedia and similar sites that do not rely on advertisement. But I doubt that Flattr will make a big difference in 2011. Sure, it will grow and attract people, but I believe it takes a change in the peoples mindset. Most are accustomed to having things for free and thus many are not aware of the real value behind software. I derive fun from the fact that Linux users paid in average twice as much as much as Windows users for a bundle of indie games [ http://www.humblebundle.com/ ] with Mac sitting in between. Might be coincidence, but I strongly believe that unless the majority of people start to question what they see everyday, not much will change. But that’s another topic.

I see a lot of potential in this startup, and consider it something definitely worth watching. It doesn’t seem to run out of ideas to spread, such as integrating into sites like DailyMotion or YouTube. And with the newfound attention it received by being mentioned on wired and TechCrunch, I see it growing even further, beyond the german parts of the web.

I also see it facing some accusations, like not trying to distribute the payment system. Flattr is just another centralized service that can cut off users due to political pressure. It is necessary to mention, though, that they do not edit the user linked content in any way. Many early beta testers demanded that certain sites which did not match their political views should be removed from the services, but Flattr did not comply. They forwarded every complaint about extremist content to the police to investigate and eventually take down the source instead of just covering up the content.

Another topic that is always worth mentioning: Do we need Flattr? We have already learned that ads alone won’t pay enough to keep really big or really small blogs going. Neither will Flattr buttons everywhere. Sometimes, sending a gift code to your favourite hobbyist journalist is easier than constantly flattring things, but then again, I have my reasons for using Flattr. I prefer to have a ‘flattr this’ over ‘like this on Facebook’, and to cite Peter Sunde: “it’s an experiment”.

Lets watch, and see what we can learn.

https://flattr.com/ & http://blog.flattr.net/
TELE-INTERNET – Talk at Ars Electronica 2010, Sept. 6th with Peter Sunde in Linz, Austria
thanks to draik and shury. also: this is for GSI

Written by themoep

January 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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