I recently signed up to flattr.com. I think it’s an interesting take on a micropayment system, intended to make it easy to reward the creators of good or interesting content, while only having to budget for a small fixed monthly fee.

I also don’t think it stands much of a chance of taking off – but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

The basic principle is simple enough: you assign a fixed amount of money each month to be used for “flattering” websites you like (min. €2). That amount is then divided amongst all the sites you’ve flattered that month – less 10% to Flattr themselves for running the whole system. If you don’t flatter anyone then the money is still taken, but it’s given to charity.

In order to flatter someone you click on the flattr button on their site. This is similar to the many Digg, Reddit or similar widgets that festoon websites. The big difference, though, is that in order to have a flattr button, you have to have an active flattr account. In other words it costs you at least €2 a month to even stand a chance of receiving some flattery. And that’s what will cause it to fail.

I can understand why it’s been implemented that way, but unless there are a lot of altruistic flatterers out there, the maths just doesn’t add up. Everyone who wants to host a flattr button will have to put €2 a month into the system. Many (maybe most) of them will be hoping to receive enough flattery from other users that their account becomes self-sustaining by receiving more than €2 each month. There will be a very few users who receive large amounts of flattery and are able to take some money out of the system (and the minimum withdrawal is €10). Anyone else who makes a profit will just use it to pay their own €2 subscription each month – which is then subject to another 10% being creamed off the top. So most of the funds will cycle round and round the system, losing 10% of their value each month, and rarely making it out.

Faced with such an ever decreasing circle of money, the users will be split into three classes:

  1. Altruists – those wonderful few users who just want a means of rewarding the creators they like and are happy to keep feeding money into the system
  2. Profiteers – those few users whose content is flattered enough for them to at least break even and possibly actually extract some profit
  3. The rest – those users who don’t break even. For a time they’ll be altruists, but eventually many of them will tire of the perpetual loss of money, and quit the system

At the moment I’m in the third class, happy to be an altruist for a while, but not sure how long I’m prepared to sustain that – at least via flattr. I’d love to make it into the second class – there are now flattr buttons both on this site and on my webcomic – but I’m doubtful that I’ll get enough flattery to break even month after month.

So if I don’t think this approach has a long-term future ahead of it, why sign up? There are a few reasons:

  • I don’t mind giving altruistically if I think something is worth it. I used to regularly buy shareware back in the old Atari ST days, and see this as just another way to tip creators whom I think deserve it.
  • There isn’t currently a good micropayment system available to allow me to tip creators without incurring significant overheads. Any attempt to shake up the market has to be good, as far as I am concerned, so I’m prepared to support it for a while to see if it takes off.
  • Hopefully I’m wrong, and there are more people willing to be altruists in flattr’s system than will be lost due to not turning a profit. I’d really love that to be the case, but I think it depends on how much momentum flattr can achieve, and sustain.
  • To be honest, at the moment flattr is relatively small, still in closed beta. That hopefully means that my own creations – particularly the aforementioned webcomic – will stand out a bit more than they would on Digg or Reddit. Even if I don’t turn a profit, €2 a month is a small amount for marketing.

Because flattr.com is still in closed beta you can’t just sign up (though you can go to their site and request to be added to the beta – I don’t know how effective that approach is). But like many such beta sites, they do hand out invites for existing users to pass on. So if you’re an altruist who wants to give €2 or more per month to worthy websites, or if you’re a worthy website owner hoping to grab your share of that €2 (bear in mind it will cost you €2 per month just to try), leave a comment as I’ve got a couple of spare invites.

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