I’ve been very active in the discussion about rights on the internet for a long time. For me, the interesting thing has always been how to make sure that people are being treated equally and fairly. The internet gives us those possibilities. But when talking about rights the discussion always ended up about rights of copying.
For years I’ve gone to panel debates, conferences, conventions, tv programs, radio shows, talk shows and written enormous amounts of articles, blog posts and so on about the issues. On the other side of the table there was always the self-proclaimed rights holders. People employed to please their own bosses with a set agenda, with no wiggle room. The most progressive thoughts they’ve had was to lower their prices by 20%.
Their question was always “how can we make money now that the internet kills our business”. Their answer was always (and still is) to close down the internet or at least let them control it, since they are the ones “suffering from the internet”. And because of their huge wallets and the power these groups has over the media, we still let this discussion be part of our everyday life. We let the entertainment industry dictate the terms of our discussions about internet freedom and culture. And they’re not even a real stake holder in those matters!
I became very upset about the fact that everyone tried to solve the wrong question. Instead of finding a solution they’ve told us to find, I set out to find the real question. And it was; How can we make a sustainable solution for sharing information freely? By defining the question we can find a solution.
In 2006 I started thinking about a technical platform for this. I called it “Share Donate” to begin with. The idea was that if everyone puts in a small portion of money, it will end up being a lot of money combined. In scandinavia we have the saying “many small streams form a big river” which elegantly describes the concept I was going for. People that wanted to share their information could join and get part of the money. A platform both encouraging and rewarding free access to information.
The technology to fairly distribute the money between stake holders was simple. At the time a lot of news aggregation sites, particularily digg.com, was growing and proved to be a fantastic way for people to find information that was relevant to them. A small click on a button told the world that you liked a certain thing; a behaviour that Facebook later adopted and made mainstream. A click on digg or facebook was interesting but it was made for discovery only, not the sustainability around the information. And we need both parts.
My idea was that even though information, whatever kind or form it has, will have a different value for every individiual person. Even the word “value” has in itself a different value to everyone. And at the same time most information is valued by putting an arbitrary price tag on it. In a digital world this became even more obscure since the actual cost of the copy is often not even measurable. The system I wanted to create had to look away from what most people learn in their first lesson of economy – that you have to set a price.
Share Donate was worked on slowly for years. I made the mockup in a few days. Then I stalled. I asked people for input. I asked people for help with the things I couldn’t manage myself. But I was never really sure. The idea felt too easy and noone had any real negative input on the concept. At the same time I was spending all my spare time on the wrong discussion, copyright. Since copyright is not the answer I eagerly wanted to find an alternate way of financial sustainability. And the more I thought about it the more I understood that this could be a way forward. A way that was fair to everyone, not forced upon people and gave everyone the same tools. A place with no need for monopolistic gatekeepers that decided which bits and bytes that was valuable or not. I decided that I had to put my energy into this for real.
One thing that was really bad was obviously the name. So Share Donate became Flattr. A Scandinavian tradition with play on words, that symbolises both the flatrate concept of the system – the same fee every month, no matter whom or how many you want to share it with, as well as the flatter you provide to the one that shared.
In the beginning of 2010 we launched the system – 4 years after the first idea sprung up. Since then I’ve learned a lot. We’ve re-done the system features and layout over and over again. But the core still remains. The goal and vision is still the same. And today it’s more urgent than it was just a few years ago.