Week 47, the Jaws of the commons

End of the Harvest

End of the Harvest, Charles Angrand, ca. 1890s

OMFG look at that image!! According to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Charles Angrand was a friend of the pointillist Georges Seurat, and influenced by his techniques. If you pop over to the museum’s own page, you can zoom in and see that much of the effect comes from the paper itself. Here’s Angrand’s self-portrait. Terrific.

Hahaaa the newsletter below is sooo long—I’m sorry! I think I drank too much coffee! Feel free to skip around.

The first zine I mailed this year, back in January, offered a short story called “The Sleep Consultant.” It is now posted for all to read!

Signet ring

I have to say… I really like this story. Its ~vibe~ is, to me, irresistible; delicious. With a year’s perspective, I now realize it might just be my homage to the first chapter of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and, if so… I am totally okay with that!

The story’s art, above, which I also used in the original Riso-printed zine, is a photo of a peridot ring about two thousand years old.

This year, there will be one more zine on salmon-colored paper; one more short story, set in the same universe as “The Sleep Consultant.”

Elegy for an app

For several years, I have been a devoted user of an app called Tapstack. Its interface couldn’t be simpler: you open it and immediately see a live feed from your phone’s camera. Below, a grid of faces, some of them representing individuals, others representing groups. My grid has four cells: my mom, my dad, my sister, and a group representing all three. As in Snapchat or Instagram Stories, you tap to capture a photo, long press to record a video. As soon as you lift your finger, it sends. A “stack” of messages waits for you in the corner, and, after you review them, unless you have specifically chosen to save any, they are discarded.

It’s all so simple that it’s barely there. Tapstack more closely approximates a clear pane of glass than any app I’ve ever used.

Tapstack has been the channel for my family’s communication over the past few years. The app doesn’t lend itself to practical information-sharing or logistical coordination; for that, use text messages. Tapstack’s strength is ambient presence. Once, I chatted with one of the app’s designers, and they said it seemed to be most popular with far-flung families: a diaspora app. Because it’s so easy to zap off a picture or video anytime, you just… do! And because there’s no threading, no history, the messages don’t carry the burden of an expected reply. Really, they are just a carrier wave for another sentiment, and that sentiment is always the same: I’m thinking of you.

A selfie with coffee, a picture of an ice-covered pond, a video of my nephews being goofballs: I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of you.

It has never seemed to me that Tapstack attracted a huge number of users. (Could there be… any Tapstack users among the subscribers to this newsletter? Please reply, if so. I’d love to know.) The app hasn’t been updated all year; always a warning sign. I don’t know if the company has ever made a cent. There’s no advertising in the app, and they never asked their users to pay.

Why didn’t they ask us to pay?

Tapstack announced about a month ago that it would shut down on November 15. It’s past the 15th now, and the app still functions; there’s a bit of a ghostly feeling to it. Are the servers powering down in slow sequence somewhere? Will it just keep going until the last few dollars are drained from some account?

The death of a beloved app is a new 21st-century feeling, to be savored as much as lamented.

My family all agreed we had to come up with a replacement for Tapstack, and while my first instinct was to set up a group on Instagram or WhatsApp, the prospect of having our warm channel surrounded—encroached upon—by all that other garbage made me feel even sadder than the thought of losing Tapstack.

So, instead of settling for a corporate messaging app as a replacement… I am, for my family and my family only, building a new one :)


Autumn, Charles Hasslewood Shannon, 1917

Considered with the last two newsletters, this one is going to round out a rough trilogy on e-books. For those of you who aren’t quite so absorbed by matters digital, I apologize, and promise the next newsletter will be about… potatoes… or something.

Most of the tension around e-books, in every market, comes down to the “grain” of the medium. At the most basic level—really just nuts and bolts, files and servers—making an e-book free for everyone to access is simply easier than restricting that access. To restrict it, you have to, like… build things! Manage passwords! Design administrative dashboards! Use encryption! (Physical books are a mirror image: their grain is restricted, standalone, rival. To make a physical book free for everyone to access is very costly and difficult.) Grain isn’t destiny; you can cut against it. People do all the time. But you shouldn’t then be surprised by the resistance you feel—or by the occassional breakaway shard.

Digital movies and digital music have roughly that same grain, and it’s interesting, therefore, to see the paths those other media have taken. In the latter, digitization basically destroyed “selling music” as a commercial activity. Instead, the distribution of digital music has become a kind of marketing program for other products, like T-shirts and concert tickets, which essentially “stand in” for CDs and LPs as physical, restricted, non-infinitely-reproducible offerings. (Many webcomics work this way, too. Has there ever been a prose e-book that made its money with merch? That almost sounds like a challenge…)

The merch thing is a cheat code, which is great—I’m glad people have made it work—but you really cannot convince me that the future of digital media is T-shirts.

There are, so far, two (2) proven models for the finance and distribution of digital media that are 100% appropriate to its grain while also being reasonably fair to the media’s producers.

One is ad-supported media. It’s obvious this “works,” although I need to put “works” in scare quotes because it’s also obvious that it deeply distorts the kind of media that gets produced, particularly because the ad-supported markets—which are, to a first approximation, Google and Facebook—are managed by algorithms. (This explanatory video, by a popular YouTube producer, about producing for the YouTube algorithm, remains an incredible document.) And, of course, even if you’re totally comfortable with this model, it doesn’t work for e-books. Nobody wants to put an ad in your e-book.

The other proven model is more radical and more interesting: Tim Carmody’s “unlocking the commons.”

This is the model whereby some number of patrons pay for the production of some kind of digital media—it could be anything: a book, a movie, a newsletter—and the resulting artifact is then provided to them, and also to everyone else in the universe. It’s just… released, and permitted to do what digital media most naturally wants to do, which is: be everywhere.

The model is profoundly anti-capitalist: the producer’s compensation is capped at whatever level they establish at the outset. If they asked for $5000 to write the book, $5000 is what they’ll get, even if a million people end up reading it. (Note that I mean “anti-capitalist” in a very specific sense. Under this model, the producer can absolutely get paid—in fact, they can get paid a LOT! They can raise a million bucks. People have done it. The crucial difference is that they are not producing protected intellectual property that will continue to earn an unpredictable [and possibly very large] amount of money in the future. In economic terms, they are forsaking rent.)

There is one (1) problem with “unlocking the commons,” which is that it doesn’t quite seem to work.

I say this because I’ve used the model several times myself: for a short story and a novella published in the early days of Kickstarter.

Okay: the model did work, in the sense that those artifacts were produced, and are now free to all! You can read Annabel Scheme, a whole dang novella (and a good one), for zero dollars. That’s not nothing!

But, in the ten years since that novella’s release, I’ve learned something about the value of certain kinds of markets. When other people have an incentive to Sell Your Thing—I mean publishers, of course, but also literary agencies in the U.S. and abroad that arrange translations, as well as, very importantly, bookstores—Your Thing travels further, stays in circulation longer. For those of us who love stories in the public domain, it’s important to remember that, often, we love them—are aware of them at all—precisely because they were launched into the world by a market, set up in stable cultural orbit by, e.g., all the newsstands hawking The Strand.

So there’s a mismatch there. On one hand, a model breathtakingly elegant, perfectly appropriate to the medium. On the other hand, a lack of commercial… fuel? A kind of inertness.

If the media being “unlocked” is a steady stream of output, rather than a single, standalone piece of work, this mismatch is ameliorated, maybe even solved entirely. For a terrific example, follow Craig Mod’s newsletter on walking. It’s free for all to enjoy—as are Craig’s longer essays, some published on his website, others in magazines—because it’s supported by a group Craig calls the Explorers Club. (I am a member of this club!)

Maybe it’s a matter of time; maybe we’re still waiting for the big hit, the Jaws of the commons, after which, BOOM, the world cracks open, and everyone rushes to produce books and movies this way, and new avenues emerge for their launch and circulation. It would be nice to think so!

To review: we already knew about one model for the finance and distribution of e-books, the “e-books cosplaying as physical books” model. That’s the one that reigns today, and it is, I believe, not serving us very well.

Now, I’ve told you about another model, the “unlocking the e-book commons” model.

Surely, there must be ten more!!

You might have noticed that I omitted the “flat-rate streaming library” model. While it’s mostly grain-appropriate, it fails my second test, because it’s not really fair—or even available—to most producers.

Most musicians who offer their music on Spotify earn a few pennies a month. You have to accrue millions and millions of streams to get even close to a meaningful payout; a mere ten thousand ardent fans bopping to your tunes is nowhere near sufficient. So, that still leaves you selling T-shirts.

Netflix does pay some filmmakers a lot of money, but, of course, that arrangement is not open to everyone. I guess it’s a good model for producers who have access to it, which is: not that many producers. In any case, the whole Netflix/Amazon/Apple/Disney universe, the scale of those payouts, seems to indicate some kind of speculative content bubble that I don’t really understand, so my analysis sort of fizzles out. We’ll just leave this one alone.

What about some kind of Netflix for e-books, though? More on that below.

Alan Jacobs draws on Neal Stephenson’s new book (which I have not read) for a thoughtful, melancholy post that includes the phrase “Moab truthers,” which I found unexpectedly delicious.

(I like the metabolic process here: Stephenson’s book to Alan’s post to this newsletter. Scenes and phrases broken down and recirculated, never losing a link back to their source. That’s a nice kind of network.)

These images represent a very particular 90s design style. I feel like I saw a lot of this in the pages of MacUser and MacWorld magazine when I was a kid: effects made newly possible by tools like Adobe Illustrator. (There is some interesting design… research? happening in this human’s Twitter feed and Arena account. Just look at [Wonka PoMo]; what a great label for that aesthetic. ( And, oh, wow: 80s Corporate Airbrush. I’m seeing these in realtime as I write this, just scrolling down… this is THE MOTHERLODE!)

Here’s a piece of art I didn’t use this week, but had to bookmark: The game of wolf-running in Tabriz, by Banwari, ca. 1558-1600. Just look at the color, the action—it’s like a comic book! The specifics of the scene notwithstanding, something about this image feels incredibly modern to me.

There have long been dreams of a Netflix for e-books, and even some attempts. Oyster was one; do you know this story? It’s incredible.

So, this company offered a really brilliantly-designed reading app—it was wonderful—and a deal wherein you paid $10 to read as much as you wanted. The deal Oyster struck with publishers was that, when a reader passed a certain point in a book—probably the same as the Kindle’s free sample threshold—Oyster just paid the publisher the full price for that e-book. The idea was, how many books a month do most people actually read? You can do that math and it sorta pencils out.



The romance readers.

It was the romance readers who killed it, because romance readers read a lot of romances. They read them fast. They are just… voracious.

So, for Oyster, it’s a double whammy. First, a romance reader hears about unlimited reading for just $10, and says, whoa! This is a great deal for me, specifically! Second, that romance reader proceeds to read a book a day, or close enough.

And thus, Oyster’s balance sheet is wrecked. And thus, the company folds.

I’m not sure anyone has tried the Netflix for e-books thing since.

Travelers in Autumn Mountains

Travelers in Autumn Mountains, Sheng Mou, ca. 1300s

Can you spot the travelers? :)


November 2019, Oakland

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