The Patreon pornocalypse continues.

I’ve been sitting on this since my eyes opened on Saturday morning. If I could, I’d sit on it forever. But no — I have some shit to say. Echoing the immortal Ron White, I may have the right to remain silent, but I do not have the ability. What follows is long. It rambles. It’s potentially unhelpful. But it’s all I have.

When last I wrote (on October 23) about the unsettling #pornocalypse news at Patreon, I was careful to point out that:

There are no reports going around that anybody has been kicked off of Patreon, had their money held, or suffered any adverse consequence of the new guidelines. Yet. So if this truly be #pornocalypse come to Patreon, it’s the sound of the hoofbeats in advance of the dread horseman, not the horseman himself.

Since I wrote that, the story has advanced. Two days after my post, a rather patronizing (ha! but the shoe fits…) blog post and email to adult content creators went out from Jack Conte, the CEO of Patreon. Jack was, if I may be so bold, attempting the impossible: typing with one hand some bald assertions that “nothing has changed” and that “Patreon’s stance on pornography has not changed” while, with his other hand, “adding additional detail” to Patreon’s policy, to the effect that Patreon now doesn’t allow “real people engaging in sexual acts, such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera.” Of course, those are things that Patreon has in actual fact knowingly and actively allowed from numerous creators in many contexts in the past.

Conte’s letter and blog went on to include considerable reassuring language about how “very few creators are affected” by the changes and about Patreon’s commitment to human-driven, humane processes that won’t be characterized by sudden suspensions and unexplained interruptions in income. Which is nice and all, but it would be more reassuring if the core message wasn’t in fundamental contradiction with itself, and thus just a tiny bit less than believable.

A couple of days after Jack Conte’s letter, Violet Blue betook herself into the Patreon offices and “grilled” (her word) a small team of Patreon people. Her report is not only short on specifics, it’s pretty close to devoid of them, but it is quite reassuring in tone. Or, perhaps, a better word would be “reassured,” as Violet seems to have been. I trust Violet quite a lot as a judge of corporate attitudes toward adult-industry clients and customers; she has seen every flim and flam, and she’s typically in no damned mood for corporate runarounds and shenanigans. She wrote:

They listened, they didn’t withhold questions, and asked for advice. Having dealt with companies trying to pacify me over their sex censorship since the days of Tribe net, this surprised me. Input, notes, value sharing, information exchange, discussions of language, and making plans to continue the discussion in a meaningful way (real advocacy) was not what I expected.

Hang tight, creators. Email them; ask before you self-censor.

More importantly, don’t go away. We’re not done here.

Which is nice and all… but the story’s so far from over.

On the same day as my original post, there was a shallow story posted at Engadget about this whole Patreon/pornocalypse mess. I didn’t link to it, in part because it didn’t have any more of the story than I did, but mostly because it quickly got confusingly “updated” with a statement from “a Patreon spokesperson” who was said to have “clarified” that Patreon’s stance on porn had not changed. That was, of course, manifestly untrue, and no website claiming to do journalism should have passed the falsehood along unchallenged. But credit where credit is due: that same author (Daniel Cooper) came back four days later with a genuinely excellent analysis of the story as it then stood: The Real Consequences of Patreon’s Adult Content Crackdown.

Among other developments, Cooper’s story caught us all up on Liara Roux and her Open Letter To Patreon. (Disclosure: I’m a signatory to the open letter; you might also desire to be one.)

And that’s where it’s all been sitting, for me. I’ve been living my life, with no particular optimism about the future of adult creators at Patreon but aware that matters were in motion and that adult creators of good will were engaged with the company, trying to work things out in a positive way. Not really my circus, definitely not my monkey, and I’m too far away, out here in deepest Red State Heck, to get meaningfully involved.

not my circus, not my monkey

As for the Patreon team, my opinion prior to Jack Conte’s bizarrely self-contradictory letter/blog to adult creators was that they, too, were operating in good faith. That letter cracked my trust in their good faith considerably; it seemed to indicate (and I still believe) that Patreon had come under an intolerable degree of unspecified pornocalypse pressure. Adult creators were (are) being thrown under the bus while (to mix a metaphor) the new Iraqi minister of defense assures us that there are no American tanks anywhere near Baghdad. But I chalked this up to my own cynicism and misanthropy; these are character flaws of which I am well aware, and I try to guard against letting them control my worldview.

iraqi minister of defense baghdad bob pretending there is no pornocalypse

My concern remains: all the good faith in the world is not enough. The high-level logic of pornocalypse is that it’s driven by powerful forces of capital and banking that tend to overwhelm the intentions and desires of the operating teams on the ground at these tech companies. I feared, I continue to fear, that Jack Conte’s contradictions are going to be resolved in ways that will be deeply unpleasant for adult creators. But, I hope, I’m wrong. This time. Finally, once, for the first time. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Yeah, and I want a unicorn. A fuzzy one.

fuzzy unicorn

Yesterday I opened my eyes and opened Twitter on my phone and pretty much discovered that the pornocalypse shit has started to hit the Patreon fan. My first inkling was this story (also dated yesterday) on Motherboard called Here’s How Patreon Politely Makes It Impossible For Adult Content Creators. Author Samantha Cole puts the spotlight on the troubles that adult film-maker River Lovett is having with her Patreon account. She’s not banned or suspended from Patreon — not as of Saturday morning anyway — but she expects to be banned soon, because she’s not allowed to link to anything that would enable her to use her Patreon account in any meaningful way, including her home website:

After a series of emails, each time requesting Lovett remove more of the adult content on her page—links out to erotic videos, content that included penetration, masturbation or vagina play, and pornographic content as rewards — she’s reached a point where they’re almost nothing left, except for a link out to her Lovett Film website, which Patreon also said is violating the guidelines. The Patreon rep told her on Wednesday that they’d be back in touch to see that she’s made the changes, at which point Lovett expects Patreon will ban her from the site.

Everybody in the adult industry who has ever been involved in a paysite that got “reviewed” and destroyed by a credit card biller will recognize this pattern. It’s the classic Visa/Mastercard card-association review dance, where first the billing rep says that this bit of content has to go because there’s some forbidden keyword in the hidden filenames that turned up on automated scanning, and then another bit has to go because the wrestling looked liked “violence”, and then the cherry-pie splosh-fetish is nixed because it’s red and “might be blood”, and then another swathe of content is unacceptable for some other weird reason, and finally, nope, there’s actually nothing at all that’s allowable, so sorry Charlie, nice little business you used to have, pity you can’t keep it.

But at least Patreon is blazing new ground in the industry by keeping its promise to be nice about the pornocalyptic process:

It’s worth noting that the Patreon representative who contacted Lovett is clear, responsive, and polite. It is a civil, nice exchange. In this respect, Patreon is keeping true to its word that real humans will review individual cases and explain to adult content creators what they can do to keep their pages running. The problem is that in Lovett’s case the only way to keep her page running is removing any trace of the reason she created it in the first place: adult content.

Um, yay I guess?

Meanwhile, what’s really going on behind the scenes at Patreon? Violet Blue might know, but she’s not talking; a possible explanation for that may suggest itself shortly.

I used to be a student of the Cold War, during which conflict with the Soviet Union we would engage in the art of “Kremlinology”, which consisted of drawing inferences on too-little data about what was going on deep in the halls of the Kremlin. I don’t have any inside sources; everything that I’m about to write is rampant speculation and arrant Kremlinology. In other words, I’m guessing. But I’m not guessing entirely without data.

vintage kremlinology source photo

Remember Liara Roux, whose open letter to Patreon about adult creators’ fear for our pages broke Jack Conte’s heart? He said his heart broke, anyway, right before he said that “nothing has changed” with one hand, right before he tightened up the “no porn” policy some more with his other hand. An ambidextrous fellow, our Mr. Conte, with the emphasis on “dextrous.” But anyway, remember Liara?

Based on a number of her tweets, this is how I have reconstructed her recent story. Apparently she got some invitations to go to San Francisco and meet with Patreon to discuss the concerns of the Open Letter Working Group. She got an email from them, and then a personal invite from Jack Conte (and a hug!) while she was in Los Angeles attending PatreCon.

Pursuant to those invitations, Liara traveled to San Francisco. She was hopeful. She says she thought about maybe taking cupcakes to the Patreon meeting. And then, at 10:00PM on Thursday evening, Patreon cancelled her Friday meeting.

That’s just not something people operating in good faith do. That, as they say out here in deepest Red State Heck, is some bullshit right there. (There’s a special way of saying it, where you drawl the word “bullllshit” with a roll at the back of the tongue and extend the first syllable.)

Worse yet, Patreon sent Liara a disingenuous email, one that misrepresented, according to Liara, a meeting that she’d had in Los Angeles:

patreon cancel email to Liara

What a punch in the gut that had to be! The more so because, according to Liara, she never met with the Trust and Safety team at PatreCon; instead she met with with “one person who was no longer on Trust and Safety, a PR person and a third employee who left early.”

Liara seems to have been, understandably and righteously, pissed off. More on that later; it has implications. But first, some of my Kremlinology. I am laser-focused on one particular sentence in the letter:

“We plan to put together a council of creators to help advise us on these issues and adult content creators are a necessary part of that group, so we will continue to engage with the community.”

This one sentence set off all of my red alerts and battle-station klaxon alarms. When I saw this sentence, I knew that Patreon didn’t cancel Liara’s meeting over some simple misunderstanding; this one sentence told me that Patreon is officially circling the wagons to defend itself and look as good as possible while it screws adult creators into the ground, however reluctantly or against its own will. It was upon seeing this sentence that I truly lost what little remaining hope I had for Patreon as a long-term stable platform for adult-creator crowd-funding.

Why? Because the “council” dance is a dance that I know well. I have seen it before. It is a public relations dance and it is a community-control dance. Somebody in Public Relations has convinced the boss (that would be Jack Conte) that if they continue to engage with Liara and the Open Letter Working Group, they will continue to see “Liara/OLWG versus Patreon” themes in stories such as yesterday’s Motherboard story about River Lovett being ever-so-politely removed from Patreon. And if they plan to continue removing adult creators, they can’t afford a continuing stream of these stories. Probably they can’t stop them; certainly, I’ll be running them. But what they can do is make the stories harder and more boring to tell.

They need a better way to control the discourse; they need a way to say for press consumption that they are taking input from their adult creators in these matters, without unduly legitimizing or lending particular credence to the voice of any particular spokesperson for the adult creator community. And so somebody convinced Jack Conte — literally at the last minute — that they were making a mistake by meeting with Liara Roux and the Open Rights Working Group. Literally at the last minute, they made public, instead, this alternate concept of a “council of creators” upon which some other voice — not Liara, not any representative of the Open Letter Working Group — will, diffusely and as part of a lengthy and dull agenda of other creator issues having nothing to do with adult content, represent adult creator issues.

As Liara put it in the moment: “It feels extremely disrespectful – not a nice way to conduct business.”

I told you I’ve seen this public relations dance before. Where? I’ve seen it in a number of places, but I’m most intimately familiar with it in computer gaming circles. Most starkly: I used to play an infamous massively multiplayer online roleplaying space game called EVE Online that went through some really terrible periods of development malaise and game mismanagement. When the player levels of discontent and general riot escaped from the gaming press and began to reach the business press, the developers had a problem; they needed a way to provide just enough player input over management of the game to retain the player base while getting control over the noisiest critics, so that they could stanch the flow of unpleasant business-magazine stories suggesting that they had lost all control of their game-development process.

bustard spaceship from EVE Online

The result was something called the Council of Stellar Management: a rotating body of ten players, each representing various game factions and power blocs, each given considerable insight into upcoming game features and development processes and (critically) each bound by non-disclosure agreements from saying too much and (this part is key) prevented from being too openly critical. The developers proved quite brilliant at using access to the Council as both carrot and stick; noisy critics could by coopted by being allowed on the Council, but if they continued to voice too much criticism once on it, they could be booted from the Council (and from the game!) for murky and supposed violations of the non-disclosure agreements, none of which had to be defended or clarified to the public. The result was a tiny bit of improvement over the game development process from the player perspective, in exchange for which the game developers bought themselves almost complete control over the noisiest and most disruptive of their previously-public critics. It was brilliant, it was evil, and it worked at its primary goal, which was making the “Game Developer And Game In Failure Cascade” stories vanish from the business press. (To be fair, the game development also improved — somewhat.)

If you think the same kinds of leverage could not be deployed against adult-creator representatives on a Patreon Council of Creators, then you, my friend, are too trusting for this fallen world.

But even if Patreon does not blatantly abuse its new Council of Creators to coopt and diffuse the voices of whatever adult-creator members it may invite onto said council, the Council will still be a public relations victory for Patreon and a loss for the rest of the adult-creators community. The main effect of creating the broader council and reducing the adult-creators conversation to the sound of a single voice (or a few voices) on that council is to eliminate the sort of clear adversarial narratives that press accounts can use to tell interesting and intelligible pornocalypse stories.

Instead of “Here is Patreon and over there is unified group of concerned adult creators with a clearly expressed set of concerns”, the narrative becomes “here is Patreon, who says that they have considered all input from their creators, including the adult creator representative on their in-house council; of course there are other voices….” That’s always going to be a duller, muddier, and a more confusing story. Which is to say, a more boring story. “More boring” is precisely what Patreon wants for its public relations, if the ongoing narrative is going to be the quiet and humane and polite removal of numerous adult creators from the platform.

Interesting side question: Just who is going to be that adult-creators representative on Patreon’s Council of Creators? I have a suspicion, and if I’m right, maybe the adult-creator voice won’t be, at least at first, quite as diffuse and ineffective as the too-clever-by-half Patreon public-relations genius who decided to stiff Liara on her meeting expects it to be. Liara herself says “Note, they specifically invited someone else to be a part of that council, not me.” All I can think is: we haven’t heard a peep out of Violet Blue in weeks. If she pops up as Patreon’s first adult-creator representative on their Council of Creators, I won’t be surprised, and that will be a good thing for us all. But in that case, her public silence on Patreon pornocalypse issues since October 25 will also serve as a first illustration of how the Council of Creators concept has already muffled the voice of someone we otherwise might have expected to have been hearing from sooner.

Moving on: let’s get back to Liara’s story. Remember, they stiffed her at 10:00 PM on Thursday night about her Friday meeting, telling her they believed they understood her concerns and were holding out for their new Council of Creators, whenever they get around to putting that together. Well, Liara didn’t react well to being stiffed on her meeting after she’d traveled to attend it. Who would? Among her reactions, she tweeted:

“In light of @patreon and @jackconte’s cold shoulder to us today, the Working Group has decided to make their previously off the record (in an attempt to work with Patreon) reference sheet public.

Ok to Retweet.

That reference sheet is here (OLWG link, my local mirror), and it is an excellent and very interesting document well worth your time. Liara followed up that Tweet with:

The big thing that was previously off the record is that we know from our research on public data & through the API that around a 3rd of Patreon creators are Adult Content and Patreon’s cut from AC is 25 – 30% of their PROFIT. Patreon confirmed this to us DIRECTLY last week.

Interesting indeed. That huge fraction of adult-creator profit certainly explains the “two-impossible things before breakfast” hotfoot-shuffle in Jack Conte’s infamous “nothing has changed” email! If Patreon is under intolerable pornocalypse pressure from bankers, investors, or billers to clean out the worst of the porn, but somehow they think they can keep most of it, and thus retain their profits, they need to pull off a public relations miracle. They need a way to “clean house” without alienating the adult creator community. If they genuinely had a logical or rational basis for the new anti-porn sweep, that would be possible; they could explain the new (logical) rules and implement them as slowly, fairly, and humanely as possible. Adult creators would accommodate, because we have nowhere else to go for adult crowdfunding.

But, but since pornocalypse pressures are always fundamentally irrational, that’s not possible. Patreon doesn’t have any logical rules they can explain or justify, with regard to which adult creators they are going to have to remove from the platform. They know it’s going to be ugly and cruel and capricious and random; they’re probably more frustrated than we are, with so much of their profits on the line. So they are trying to pretend that “nothing has changed” while they slowly, politely, and humanely clear out whatever adult creators are being displaced by pornocalypse pressure. But they very much hope never to disclose publicly the specifics of that pornocalypse pressure, because it’s so arbitrary and so ugly that it would enrage us all, and the bad press would be catastrophic. Or so I speculate.

Quick aside: here’s the elegant way the Open Letter Working Group has characterized the pressures that Patreon may be under. Call this the OLWG definition of pornocalypse, if you like, with a polite “Patreon is bullshitting us” preface:

While Patreon talks about this as an issue of “safety”, “home for all creators” and making the site, basically, family friendly — we do not believe that this stated public reason is the only issue on the table influencing Patreon, because Adult Content is already hidden. Here are some of the things we feel may be related to Patreon’s new approaches:

  • Pressure from banking/payment processors
  • Pressure from new investors
  • Triangulation for a future acquisition
  • Desire to not be seen as a “porn” site from a PR perspective
  • Growth reaching a point where the platform will soon be able to support itself better without Adult Content, hence a refocus in the branding
  • Fear of exposure to legal issues after passage of new legislation like SESTA

Normally I focus on “pressure from new investors” and “triangulation for a future acquisition” as the primary pornocalypse motivators; certainly that was my working theory in Patreon’s current situation. But the Motherboard story about our first adult movie maker being inexorably moved toward a ban as link after link was politely demanded to be removed currently inclines me toward the first (payment processor pressure) theory. That pattern is just too familiar to anybody who has been around small (and especially fetish) porn paysites for very long!

But I was telling Liara’s story, which is not done yet. She was invited to San Francisco for a meeting, she went there on Thursday, she got a shitty email on Thursday night late calling off the meeting and telling her she was not wanted because Patreon was going for a much-easier-to-control Council of Creators with a more-diffuse voice for adult creators that would make it harder for the pornocalypse narrative to get tracked and told in the press as it unfolds. She blew up a little bit on Twitter. She released the reference sheet on Patreon’s adult revenue and profits, because what further purpose was there in holding it off the record? Additionally, there was some negative press; for example, the cancellation made it into the Motherboard story, which came out Friday morning. At some point on Friday, Patreon figured out that they had fucked up the visual and they started a magnificent backpedal. Patreon Support tweeted “We missed the mark here. Please know that we are in touch with Liara and are meeting this afternoon.”

By all accounts, the Patreon people are mostly nice, even when hagridden by public relations weasels. When they fuck up a visual, they fix it very nicely. Liara eventually got her Friday meeting with Jack Conte himself, although she doesn’t specifically say if she ever got the promised meeting with the Trust And Safety head who she was originally invited to meet and then disinvited by:

Ok, everyone. I just got out of my meeting with @jackconte and later the staff at @Patreon. I think we are finding a way forward — it’s not the easiest solution (from creator standpoint) but it may be the best one (from an independence and long term standpoint.)

I think it’s fair to speculate and assume — until we hear differently — that Patreon is still going with the “one adult creator voice diluted on an adult creator council, no more direct talks with Liara or the Open Letter Working Group, no more easy adversarial narratives for the press” strategy. Patreon had to back down from the ugly Friday stiff-arm, but it was probably a one-time step-down; the fundamental PR strategy, and the notion of a council of creators with a diluted adult-creators voice, must be assumed to remain unchanged.

What’s more, Liara’s takeaway from her meeting with Jack and “staff” isn’t very reassuring to me. “Not the easiest solution” doesn’t sound very positive. It does, however, maybe support my Kremlinology tea-leaves-reading theory that this is a billing and card-processing issue that’s bigger than Patreon. (The pornocalypse is always bigger than the companies it comes for.) If Patreon truly is caught in a bind, where they must placate card processors by dumping everything that their processors parse as “pornography”, but they can’t get the card processors to provide any rational definition of porn, and they aren’t yet willing to go “cold turkey” on the 25%-30% of profits they currently make from their adult creators, we can expect a lot more irrational utterances and sudden course changes. Under this theory, they are thrashing, because there isn’t a good solution.

Let’s consider some different end games. The Open Letter Working Group reference sheet Liara released Thursday night has already done some of this work for us. It has a “Ways to ‘win'” section:

We think there is a major financial opportunity here and we had some ideas that may be acceptable:

  • Patreon secures an adult payment processor, which costs “porn” creators a higher percentage – still good for us!
  • Patreon spins off a sister site, protecting its primary brand
  • Patreon works on licensing of their technology and interface for an adult friendly alternative, or individuals interested in supporting their own content.

It’s impossible to know — unless Liara tells us, which probably won’t happen until Patreon is ready to be a lot more forthcoming on these issues — what Liara and Jack talked about in their “make up for the media” replacement meeting on Friday. It doesn’t sound like any easy solutions are in the offing, such as a proper adult payment processor. So the first bullet possibility seems unlikely.

A sister-site spinoff is creative, but it doesn’t seem to match Liara’s “not the easiest solution from a creator standpoint” comment.

For Patreon to license its technology? That would mean giving up a big chunk of its current juicy profits. That doesn’t resolve its current dilemma. But if Patreon sees its card-processing problem as intractable, they may figure it’s all they can salvage. Dump the dirty porn (slowly, humanely, collecting as many fees as possible for as long as possible, salvaging as much reputation as may be) and then take whatever benefits are to be had from the licensing, whether financial or as “the good guys” depending on license terms.

I suspect Liara got a speech from Jack that combined some version of that last bullet with a “hard truths not for public consumption” reality: that, in the longer term, adult creators are going to have to “clean up our acts” and depornify what we do to whatever point required so that Patreon’s pornocalypse problems (whatever they are, and about which Patreon probably hopes never to have to come fully clean in public) are solved. That would indeed be “not the easiest solution” for adult creators but — so the Patreon spiel perhaps goes — at the end of the road, we are promised to have a crowdfunding solution that’s safe and stable for everyone who is left standing. All we have to do — my dubious and suspicious black heart tells me — is submit to Patreon’s friendly and humane but non-transparent and fundamentally irrational pornocalypse process, as sanitized through the Council of Creators so as to be blandly uninteresting to the press. Thus are we to satisfy Patreon’s financial-industry masters, at the tiny! low! teensy! cost of throwing an undisclosed minority of our most pornographic adult creators — the ones Jack Conte calls “very few creators” — out of the sleigh to feed and satisfy the insatiable but prudish wolves of Wall Street.

sleigh beset by ravening wolves

Maybe I’m being unduly apocalyptic. Maybe I’m not giving enough benefit of the doubt to all the various parties of good will. Everybody I trust says the Patreon people are very nice and have only the best intentions. But against that, I know the cruel logic of pornocalypse down to my very guts. For awhile, it did not seem to be operant at Patreon; now it clearly is. And Patreon pulled some serious-bullshit public relations jackassery on Liara on Thursday night, which “very nice people” would not have done without a compelling motive. Pornocalypse comes for us all, and so far, it’s always been bigger than any young tech company.

This is my best Kremlinology. I call ’em as I see ’em. I’m sorry if I do the nice fine people at Patreon an injustice. They can persuade me that I’m wrong by their further deeds. And when they do, I will offer the finest apologies I can craft. But until then, I think what I think, and what I think is that they are trying to have their cake and they are trying to eat it too. I think they are trying to pornocalypse away a certain fraction of their adult creators, while pretending not to do any such thing, and they hope to finesse the public relations to pretend that “nothing has changed” as they do it. And that’s a shameful batch of business, no matter how much goodwill they brought to the table at the beginning.

Do I believe they may feel forced into all of this by the commercial logic of their situation and the financial powers that control their banking and capital flows? Sure. Do I also believe that they may genuinely value and treasure our adult-creator business? Why not? If it’s such a large fraction of their profits, they had damned well better! Nonetheless, it is not my assessment that they are currently being honest and straightforward in their public dealings with adult creators, whatever they may be saying behind the scenes to people like Liara Roux and Violet Blue in those nice offices in San Francisco.

That is what I think. Disclaimer: I am a blogger and a pundit, not a journalist. I am speculating, I am analyzing, I am reading tea leaves, I am doing Kremlinology. I am, no doubt, getting shit wrong. I hope I am not imputing bad faith anywhere it is undeserved, but I cannot help but call out bullshit when I see it in a world that’s drowning in it.

Bacchus, over and out.

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