Buying Attention

There must be something in the water — over the last few months, a surprising number of writers have gone independent, each with varying degrees of success: first Brett Terpstra, then Matt Gemmell, followed by Sid O’Neill and Ben Thompson soon after. Personally, I think this is wonderful: these great writers have left their distracting nine-to-five jobs to focus on the thing they love and that I love to read; fantastic. However, two of them in particular had a very strange approach to going independent, and one that I feel merits some exploration. Specifically, both Sid O’Neill and Ben Thompson allow complete strangers to purchase a guarantee of their time and attention.

Sid O’Neill’s Patreon campaign lists three cumulative membership tiers for those wishing to back him and his writing: for $1 a month, your name will appear on his “Support” page; $5 a month nets you the previous perk as well as a promise from Sid that he will follow you on twitter, “ we can trade meta-commentary away from the public gaze.”; and the $10 per month tier includes the previous two incentives as well as the opportunity for Sid to work “you or your delegate into [his] new creative project”. Similarly with regards to Ben Thompson’s membership initiative, the “Daily Update” tier comes in at $10 every month and, in exchange, his readers receive a short periodical containing Ben’s thoughts on the latest tech news. For $30 each month, however, his subscribers receive that publication as well as access to a private Glassboard of which he is a part, virtual and in-person meetups around the world, and Ben’s personal email address with the guarantee of timely and reasoned responses.

To make myself quite clear, I do not think these trades are at all unfair: for a near-inconsequential sum every month, these writers have promised not only to continue creating the content their readers so enjoy, but to do so with an explicit focus on interacting with their readers as well. And that’s great, but the way Sid and Ben achieve this noble goal is also a little strange to me: in an age where attention means everything, willfully selling yours to a potentially large number of people for such a small sum seems crazy and, quite frankly, backwards: these individuals no longer have to create cool things and form interesting and worthwhile commentary in order to attract the attention of the writers they respect; as of today, $35 monthly could grant me permission to pollute Sid O’Neill’s twitter stream with godawful cat pictures and Ben Thompson’s inbox with malformed pseudo-analysis. The pursuit of independence has reduced a former meritocracy to a nepotistic system in which those with a little extra cash can take the express lane to a position everyone else, up until now, has spent great amounts of time and effort climbing to step by step. And, I feel, that is truly unfortunate.