By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
As part of a series of articles to be published on how I believe the crowd-funding source Patreon and its current practices represent a threat to free speech we look at insights reported by several current and former patrons and content creators. The conclusion I cannot help but arrive at is that the individual, as evidenced by Patreon’s words, represents a “brand” where choices made outside the scope of content posted to Patreon can be used against the user, resulting in their livelihood earned from income being revoked without notice. In other words, if the company does not like you as a person, they can remove your income. The restraint of this form of “depersoning” is just another example of how Americans are steadily losing their hard-won free speech rights.
For those unfamiliar with Patreon the company describes itself as a funding source where, “Membership allows [content creators] like you to have a direct relationship with your biggest fans, get recurring revenue for your work, and create on your own terms.”–content creators being those such as artist, videographers, writers et al. Or, as Jack Conte states, “is a membership platform that provides business tools for creators to run a subscription content service as well as ways for artists to build relationships and provide exclusive experiences to their subscribers, or patrons.”
Patreon, and more importantly as far as revenue is concerned its users, suffered under the row created as a direct consequence of Patreon’s decision to unilaterally, and without any form of pre-warning, revoke the account of one of their top earners for comments that its Orwellianly named “Trust and Safety Team” shortsightedly proffered to be hateful. The short of it is that a personality known as Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin) in a debate on another platform derided racist individuals by using their own words against them and for that choice of words, supposedly and in addition to his “brand” as an individual, led to his account being closed.
In light of its backpeddling, Patreon’s employees in conversations with others made in no uncertain terms that speech or actions made even outside the scope of content posted to Patreon’s website, created a “brand” of who the person/user is. And based upon what Patreon’s Trust and Safety Team considers a bad brand, the person representing that brand may be censored and its income eliminated at the team’s ex-parte decision making.
In a contradiction to its actions against Sargon, Patreon CEO Jack Conte in an interview stated, “There’s a section of the content policy that specifically mandates the things you can do and can’t do on Patreon the platform itself. Not like on Twitter, but on Patreon the platform itself.” But in emails later sent to Sargon after the banning, “Sargon the Brand” was making appearance on other people’s livestream interviews Patreon’s terms of service applied to his Patreon persona.
Jack Conte reportedly stated in an interview with Dave Rubin “Your first point is well taken. Because we are a payments platform, we examine behaviors on and off Patreon and you are correct to point out that there is language that makes it seem like only content on Patreon is reviewed, which is not a constraint that we apply for all categories of the guidelines. So point taken — we need to make that clearer. I’m slacking our team that feedback now…”
I find some almost foreboding aspects of what Mr. Conte states. First, he conjoins the idea of a payment platform with the notion of examining behaviors of its customers and users. The idea of tying in financial processing of a user’s investments or income being subject to an ex-parte committee acting outside the scope of financial oversight is not only directly harmful to the individual, but it serves to upset liquidity and trust in the market generally. It is essentially trust that guarantees the market.
We only need to remember our history to know that when public trust in the banking system broke down, it led to further failures of many banks themselves, for people were no longer willing to risk their savings because the bank could arbitrarily decide to close and remove their livelihood. In the Patreon example, those holding accounts there for the purpose of receiving income payments now will need to reassess if Patreon will unilaterally close their account and destroy their income because of behind-the-scenes decision making by a star-chamber like committee. If the reputation of the industry is harmed by further high profile blunders by Patreon, other payment processors may suffer the same taint.
But back to the conflation of the two ideas; Patreon’s policy in my view furthers the notion of non-personhood, creating an American equivalent of an untouchable class of users who are removed from the free speech marketplace as well as a threat to a supplementary form of income because of an arbitrary “brand” that is created by others and subsequently used against them.
The second disturbance I considered after reading the Patreon CEO’s statement was the fact that Patreon’s Trust and Safety Team performs personal research on individuals outside the scope of what might be considered legitimate financial due-diligence. It is not just that the user has a verifiable bank account, is not performing fraud, or other reasonable financial considerations, it is the fact that it seeks out personal information to use against the user and to determine if they are to be censored and defunded.
Can you imagine a situation where your employer, who provides you an income in exchange for labor, believes that because you attended a lawful gathering of a group voicing a particular political stance or voicing a grievance decides to terminate your employment simply because you were in attendance of that event? What about if you made a comment to another person in the form of a Twitter tweet that your credit card company took offense to and froze your account? These analogs might be applicable to the way Patreon chooses to manage its customers.
We do not live in a society where one should have to remain silent and behave according to the whims of autocrats who control the gates of free speech and the right to earn a living. It seems to me that Patreon believes itself to be such a gatekeeper and treasury guard.
I will conclude by linking two videos: One describing what one YouTuber interprets in a conversation he reportedly had with a senior Patreon Official and a transcript dramatically read by Sargon himself of this exchange.
I believe that having read of this controversy, you have to ask yourself, “Is using Patreon as a source of income worth the risks?” It is a valid question each customer should ask for themselves.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.