You will remember that some time back I was musing about the exploration of models for earning income in the new media paradigm.

At that time I installed the Collection Plate, to the right there in the sidebar, just to see whether visitors could even be bothered to flick a virtual coin my way when they found something on The Cow that they liked. Well, it’s been a mixed response. As I might have guessed, the click count was proportionately high toward the beginning and has now tapered off. Even factoring in King Willy’s irritating clicking frenzy in the early days, I can see that there was interest when it was a fresh idea, but has now settled into a predictable low-level trickle. Not surprising really.

As of today the plate has collected 860 coins – if we assume that people might have dropped in 5c a hit, that’s a grand sum of 43 bucks in 3 months. It’s obvious that I’m not headed off to the Maldives anytime soon. Still, my readership is small (if entirely faithful) so those figures are obviously dependent upon traffic – it’s not bad for someone who’s busking in a back alley on a cloudy day.

When I installed the Collection Plate, you may recall that I mentioned, somewhere during the discussion, a concept called Flattr – a micropayment ‘sharing’ system being set up by Peter Sunde, one of the Creators of Pirate Bay. Well, I was recently invited to join the Flattr beta project and you will infer by the Flattr icon underneath the Collection Plate over to the side there, that I have accepted a role in the Flattr experiment.

This is how Flattr is supposed to work:

First of all, you need a Flattr account. Currently these are given by invitation only, but the idea is that when Flattr is launched, anyone can get an account just by signing up. When you have your account, you decide how much money per month you’d like to spend to ‘Flattr’ people who you visit on the web. This money goes into your Flattr account – you can’t get it back. Then, over the month, the amount of money you decide upon – say five dollars (or Euros, as it is at the moment) is divided up by the number of times you click on Flattr buttons you encounter while traipsing around the intertubes. That amount of money then goes into each Flattr account you clicked on. In other words, if you only click one Flattr button on one site, that site gets the whole five bucks. If you click on two Flattr buttons, each site gets $2.50. And so forth. If you don’t click on any Flattr buttons, all your monthly allowance goes to a charity.

I’m giving Flattr a try, but I have numerous reservations about its concept. Let me elaborate:

•Straight off the bat, when I activated my Flattr account I was asked to nominate an amount of money I wanted to spend to Flattr people each month. This is too damn tricky, I think. I simply don’t know what kind of a figure I think is reasonable to spend on my internet travels. Heck, mostly I get my stuff for free right now – why should I pay? I don’t think I’m the only one that will ask that question. This idea is too much like subscription models that have already shown to be less than effective on the internet. And a big difference is that with subscriptions you know in advance what you’re getting, and can make an assessment of whether it’s good value. ((I suppose that you can always treat your Flattr account as a hypothetical donation to charity from the get-go – which it kind of is.))

•Right from the first time I heard the concept vaunted I could see a huge drawback: Flattr must break a critical user barrier before it’s got a hope in hell of working. If Flattr buttons were everywhere, and you saw them on YouTube and Wikis and Forums and so forth, then I think you’d be inclined to join up, if for no other reason than to get a chance at a slice of the pie for yourself. But for now, the very first thing you realise after you put some money in your Flattr distribution account is that there are not many people out there that you want to Flattr. Well, sure, for the novelty you’re likely to chuck a few coins in wherever you see a Flattr button, but the idea is that you reward people who are doing great stuff, not just exchange coins with everyone else in your club.

We can see the problem here of course – Flattr needs to be ubiquitous to get the system working, but the system has to be working for Flattr to be ubiquitous. It’s an unenviable conundrum. Can Flattr pull itself up by its own bootstraps? I’m doubtful.

•You can’t proportionately award good stuff more Flattr points the more you like it. Flattr will only let you click on one unique button once a month. I think this is a problem. I understand the egalitarian idea behind sharing revenue ‘fairly’ among places that I visit, but let’s face it, I want to be able to decide that if I like someone a lot, I can click on their button three or four times to reflect that. I’ve hit this stumbling block already – I’ve visited a few sites that are linked off Flattr and, well, they’re OK, but do I really want to give them my coin? If I plonk my click down on one site, then I am under pressure to find another site just so site #1 doesn’t get my whole month’s allowance. There’s something that I find instinctively wrong about that concept.

•You can’t see (as far as I can tell) who has Flattred you. This is probably not something that would be ultimately relevant, but while Flattr is new I think it’s quite important. If someone Flattrs you, you instinctively want to see what they do also. It’s like when someone leaves a comment on The Cow – mostly I will pay their link a courtesy visit to see exactly what it is they’re about, and if I like it, I might even stay. I believe this sense of community is vital in a scheme like Flattr, at least in the early stages. (It occurs to me that it’s also a very good way of finding out exactly who actually even has an account on Flattr, since the only people who can Flattr you are Flattr users). And related to that:

•To even get a leg-up, you need to have Flattr users come visit you. I don’t see how I’m going to get this to happen unless I actively solicit visitors to The Cow. Once again, this may not be as much of a problem if Flattr becomes widespread, but for the moment it is a stumbling block. You can see how many people have Flattred me by the count on the Flattr icon. Right now it’s zero and I expect it will remain that way for some time.

How do I get you guys to join up with Flattr, so that you can Flattr me? Why, according to the Flattr website, I tell them to! So – how many of you are heading across to Flattr right now to get an account? Right, I thought so.

So, there are my thoughts on the Flattr mattr. As I said in my original article, these things interest me so I’m all for some experimentation, but I really don’t hold high hopes for Flattr. I aim to stick with it for a few months – let’s see how we go.

ADDENDUM: I thought of another instability just now. Flattr exists as a kind of community contribution idea – I Flattr you, you Flattr Gilbert, he Flattrs me, what goes around comes around. But exploitation of the system would arise very fast. Let’s say I post something on my site that really gets people’s attention. They all Flattr me, and not only that, I get quite famous, with lots of readers and a nice Flattr income. There is no incentive for me to care about belonging to the Flattr community, as such, any longer. I can reduce my Flattr contribution to the minimum allowable and just let it go to charity every month. Meanwhile I’m doing very nicely out of a constant Flattr revenue stream. I’m not suggesting this would happen a lot, but there would definitely be Mega Flattr sites that are sucking it in rather than giving it up.

Another thing that occurs to me is that knowing how much people are being Flattred is likely to influence how much they get Flattred. If I see someone with lots of Flattrs I’m likely to think – oh well, they’re doing OK, I’ll save my click for someone else. I think this could be ameliorated slightly by having the number of Flattrs NOT displayed on your icon. It may well be that doing this might counteract the situation I mentioned above.