Will Flattr, a micropayment specialist, prove to be PayPal’s equivalent for blog financing?

Rooftops, or all we can see of the future of blogging

Welcome, Flattr.

Yours is the most practical solution I have seen so far to the question of how bloggers can make a living from blogging – without selling out to corporate advertisers.

I only learnt of your existence last week from a tweet about your ‘Pay a Blogger Day’. I am doing my best to help make tomorrow, 29 November, the start of something wonderful.

I shall be picking three bloggers to support, and will try to put a Flattr button here, soon – when I extend this post I am tapping out with too little time in a month of travelling and disruption.

Workable micropayments are crucial to the success of an egalitarian model for net publishing outlined in a blog entry here and described in detail in this paper.

Until I can post again, I will think about your descriptions of the Flattr enterprise, and the meaning of tomorrow:

Pay a Blogger Day is our effort to put the bloggers in the spotlight to recognize the value they bring to the internet.

………………………….                 and                     …………………………..

Flattr was founded to help people share money, not just content. Before Flattr, the only reasonable way to donate has been to use Paypal or other systems to send money to people. The threshold for this is quite high. People would just ignore the option to send donations if it wasn’t for a really important cause. Sending just a small sum has always been a pain in the ass. Who would ever even login to a payment system just to donate €0.01? And €10 was just too high for just one blog entry we liked…

Flattr solves this issue. When you’re registered to flattr, you pay a small monthly fee. You set the amount yourself. At the end of the month, that fee is divided between all the things you flattered.

2 December 2011 

I did indeed open an account with Flattr – which happens to be in Sweden – but its software has so far rejected my attempts to pay anonymous micro-tributes to two of the bloggers I chose. Nor does the Flattr button I added to this blog work yet. As I have had fires to tend elsewhere, there has been no time for a sustained attack on the problem.

So … that is another reminder of PayPal – not as the well-oiled and useful service it has become today, but in its early years, when it was still keeping its parents awake with teething traumas.

The idea behind Pay A Blogger Day remains excellent. This modest scheme, like Flattr itself, could be one stepping stone to collaborative publishing that is jointly owned and run by many. We do not know whether Flattr will live up to its promise but if it fails, some other organisation will find a way to act as a medium for computing and distributing microscopic sums of cash.

Computers, as most of us still perceive dimly, will turn out to be crucial to real democracy not just because they have brought us the net, with its capacity to gather and mobilise groups of people, but because they do complex arithmetic so effortlessly. In not-mathematics designed to give a mathematician a blue fit, you could say — to make this memorable,

 many equals = share precisely = an awful lot of counting

Governing Switzerland — the world leader in extreme democracy, as I have pointed out before, on this site  entails extraordinary feats of number-crunching. In explaining how the Swiss system works, the historian and political scientist Jonathan Steinberg has noted:

The Swiss prefer proportional representation to majority systems. ..[T] he ‘Sovereign,’ ‘the people’, is really sovereign …

The most striking single manifestation of that sovereignty is the intricacy of voting.

He supplies illustrations of the extreme delicacy of Swiss ‘instruments for measuring the popular will’. Do not worry about the specifics of his context – which has to do with the ways in which proportional representation divides seats on a certain governing council between different political parties (in some cantons). Consider only the complexity and sophistication of the calculations involved – for one example of which he quotes a fellow-scholar, Christopher Hughes:

Divide the total vote (60,000) by the number of seats plus one (11). The result is called the Provisional Quotient (5,454). In our example, it gives the provisional result of 6:2:1:0:0. But this only adds up to 9, and there are ten seats to be allocated. The second sum seeks the Final Quotient. This is obtained by dividing each party’s votes by the provisional number of seats it obtains, plus one. Thus List A (36,000) is divided by 7 (6 plus 1) and gives the result 5,142. This sum is repeated for each seat in turn, and the highest of the results is the Final Quotient; in our example, 5,142 is the highest. It is the number which when divided among each result in turn gives the right number of seats.

Got that? Right. Thought you would.

True democracy = massive computation.

We need you, Flattr, but please get the bugs out of your software – unless it turns out that mine is to blame for my inability to make another blogger’s day.

Extreme democracy is not an impossible dream if you copy Switzerland, not California

St. Francis Yacht Club, CB

Beside the bay, beneath the trees, the St. Francis Yacht Club at dusk, after a symposium on direct democracy

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

On the 10th of October, Californians will commemorate – note that I do not say, celebrate– the hundredth birthday of direct democracy in their state. They learnt how to use the tools for this system run on referendums and citizens’ initiatives from watching the Swiss. How did the midget Alpine republic invent its style of government? Today’s peaceable Switzerland came together as a federation of bolshie and aggressively independent tribes united by their determination to resist being conquered by huge and powerful neighbouring countries.

Switzerland– not a member of the European Union, which partly explains its soaring currency and almost indecently successful economy – is the anti-melting pot. In an article I wrote for Prospect last February, I suggested that it could replace America as the model for how to run culturally diverse societies. Its system of government goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the distinctiveness of its many radically different cultures and shield minorities from being bullied by majority opinions and beliefs.

This makes it a good model for old countries redesigning constitutions, new ‘emerging’ countries — and for groups and organisations being specially designed for the internet and treating all cultural traditions as equal.

But it has been a bad model for California– for which Californians have only themselves to blame, as Joe Mathews, born and bred in the state, and his co-author, Mark Paul, explain in their much-praised California Crackup (2010). Unless tales of incompetence heaped on ineptitude send you running for a prescription for antidepressants, you can also read a good analysis of why direct democracy has not served California well on The Economist site.

At the heart of the trouble is that Californians have been irresponsible and undisciplined, in using the levers of direct democracy. It is as if the Swiss gave them a demonstration of the etiquette for communal eating – showing them how to make sure everyone gets the same chances to dip their fondue forks into the cheese – and the Californians somehow ended up coated in gooey strands of Emmenthal, forking themselves in the foot. For years, Californians have found it impossible to agree on how they should tax themselves to run their government and, year after year, government employees go unpaid for weeks or months while they wait for one state budget crisis after another to be resolved.

Last Wednesday, the Swiss consulate inSan Francisco played generous host to a lunch and symposium – California Direct Democracy: the Next 100 Years – in the city’s most enviably situated private space, the St. Francis Yacht Club, so close to the water’s edge that it is almost floating.

After a brief welcoming speech by their consul, Julius Anderegg, the Swiss stayed tactfully in the background while their guests discussed how Californians might extract themselves from their mess. Not until after this event did the most enlightening apostle of Swiss democracy, Bruno Kaufmann, a citizen of both Switzerland and Sweden– two countries Americans inexplicably tend to confuse – say that California is the only place he has come across that needs less direct democracy. Asked for his opinion of the Californian implementation of the system, he said bluntly,

Your process is much more about enabling conflict, but not about solving conflict. You use it like a hammer, when what you need is a screwdriver.

Bruno Kaufmann

Bruno, who is forty-five, has dedicated his entire working life to being something of a Johnny Appleseed for collaborative democracy. He has written about it as a journalist, and from Sweden runs the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, which is in Germany (Marburg), as its first director. His career is a model of Buddha-like patience. He told me how at eighteen, acting from deep personal conviction, he wrote Switzerland’s first-ever proposal for abolishing its army. Though he and his fellow-campaigners lost the referendum on the question held in 1989, the 36 per cent of the population who voted ‘yes’ licensed criticism of the Swiss tradition of compulsory military service – strictly taboo, before. That eventually led to the army being shrunk from 600,000 to 100,000 troops.

Next spring, he will have to take a bow when a new European Citizens’ Initiative is handed to 500 million EU citizens – giving them the means to formally propose new laws, and the same right to do so as their parliament. He was the coordinator of the network that mobilised support for the idea. When I asked him how long it took him and his fellow campaigners to realise this particular dream, he said simply, ‘Twenty years.’

So what is the secret of the Swiss success with direct democracy?

Two things, he said:

  • A deeply ingrained preference for consensual and consultative over confrontational decision-making, and a commitment to making it work – even though it can be infuriatingly slow.
  • A willingness to lose cheerfully, when you are out-voted and do not get what you want. (Nothing bars you from trying again, later, and succeeding.)

One paradox about this culture of outstandingly collaborative behaviour is, of course, that the Swiss — collectively — are not joiners. Switzerland is a tiny, go-it-alone country. It obstinately resisted pressure to join the EU. It did not even join the United Nations until 2002 – becoming the world’ first country to do so as a result of a referendum, in which the winning side won by only a small margin.

I was thinking about this as I stared out of the meeting room’s glass walls. A brisk wind was frothing up waves in an undulating mosaic of blue, grey, and jade. There was something gloriously bizarre about being part of a group discussing schemes for cooperation and democracy with part of my mind hypnotised by the most thrilling figures in my field of vision – solitary windsurfers, battered by the elements pushing and tearing at them, … forcing them to bend and tilt … down, down, down … nearly capsizing, then thankfully upright again … all by themselves, helped by no one, and too consumed by the struggle to keep their balance to help anyone else.