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Comradery is developing a cooperative way to get paid online

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A more democratic take on the Patreon model

Illustration by Jarett Sitter / The Verge

It’s easy to compare Comradery to Patreon. Both allow creators to collect money from subscribers, and both allow them to offer content, bonuses, and updates in return. But where Patreon is beholden to venture capital, Comradery is controlled democratically by the people who use it.

“The one thing a venture capital tech company can never deliver is long-term stability,” says Ty Underwood, a developer at Comradery. When funded by investors, platforms often squeeze creators by taking increased cuts. Patreon raised its fees in 2019. In April, Etsy creators went on strike after they announced that transaction fees would be rising. According to recent Bloomberg reporting, Twitch is looking to lower its revenue share with top creators from 70 percent to 50 percent. Even if they’re hit hard by these changes, creators themselves often feel tied in, needing what the platform offers in order to make an income. Comradery wants to provide an alternative to that.

The project began in 2019 and entered an alpha testing phase in August 2021. About 20 creators are currently participating and giving feedback as the platform moves towards beta release. “A lot of it is like building the plane as you’re putting it into the air,” says John Dorsey, a copywriter who has been working with the community as the project develops.

Though Comradery had its core ideas in place before the alpha, Underwood and Dorsey say the feedback of its first participants has been invaluable. Members have suggested everything from outreach to communities who aren’t as online to informal discussions before meetings to make people feel more comfortable. “I’ve started bringing very fun icebreaker questions like: ‘Do you think a hot dog is a sandwich?’” says Dorsey. (Obviously, the answer is yes.)

Another member, disability activist Robert Kingett, helped Underwood to ensure that the site was fully accessible for screen readers. “Often, when disabled people learn of a new platform, they are afraid that it will not be accessible to disabled users,” he says. “This is because many developers believe inclusive design only benefits disabled users, and…falsely believe the effort to be costly or time-consuming.”

This was not his experience with Comradery. “They alleviated all of my doubts about accessibility and inclusive design,” Kingett says. Even before he was onboarded as an official member, the team was willing to listen to his concerns and involve him in ongoing efforts to make the platform as accessible as possible.

“In team meetings, I don’t feel like just a consultant to bring in after the fact,” he says. “I feel as if I’m driving the inclusive efforts of Comradery along with other disabled creators … It proves that if we all collectively work together, we’ll build something better because it’s designed for the user in mind rather than an investor.”

Kingett’s feedback was compiled into a procedure that Underwood says can be used as a basis for future design. “That’s totally transformative. I’ve never been able to be part of an organization where somebody’s been able to make that happen before,” Underwood says.

Every new member is onboarded by two past ones, which the development team hopes to make people more comfortable sharing their opinions and participating in the cooperative. “If you’ve ever been part of a mutual aid or democratic organization, it’s really hard to get people involved,” says Underwood. “I think it’s a kind of a good kind of optimism to say we would like every single person to contribute to a task.” These tasks might range from being on the treasury committee to making a few edits on a piece of documentation.

In a post on his own site, Kingett praised the process. So did another current member, Emerican Johnson, a member of the “anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist” creator cooperative Non-Compete. “It was nothing like the sterile, corporate experience of signing up for Patreon,” he says.

Other than the Comradery development team themselves, Non-Compete members are currently some of the highest-paid creators on the platform, making around $260 per month. (Luna Oi! also makes a similar amount on her own.) They also still use Patreon, which is something Comradery encourages. “Multiple streams of income, where [creators] don’t just live or die by one source, has been a great way that people have been able to juggle the alpha,” says Underwood.

But for Johnson, the comparison is easy. “Patreon is a really terrible platform,” he says. Though he’s been using Patreon for years, he’s seen few updates that improve the experience. He also dislikes Patreon’s lack of support, particularly when compared with being able to directly influence Comradery’s development. “[It’s] the difference between being a member of a collective and being a customer. That’s the difference between a capitalist relationship rooted in financial gain vs. a human relationship between equals.”

Eventually, Johnson wants to be able to drop Patreon entirely. “In my plugs on my videos now, I refer to Patreon as a ‘dirty capitalist alternative to Comradery.’ I don’t want people to see Comradery as an alternative to Patreon. It’s really the other way around. Patreon is a lesser, more malicious version of Comradery in my mind.”

Comradery is still working on a number of key features, from the creator dashboard to the charter. With the community they’ve currently built, they’re also working on the interpersonal aspects, like producing moderation and conflict resolution guidelines. The process is gradual. “I think we kind of embrace the slowness in some ways,” says Underwood. “It’s about not stretching too thin.” Dorsey offers the word “intentional,” to capture the spirit.

“We’re going to do this one thing, we’re going to do it really well, and we’re going to build it out [so that] we can bring more people on over time,” says Underwood. “I don’t know how exciting that is, but I think that’s the way to actually get it done.”

Johnson believes that Comradery will flourish — but not take over the payment industry. “Comradery will probably never get bigger than Patreon, and that’s because Comradery has community standards and values,” he says.

Comradery themselves say they’re not for everyone. One rule is: “No Bosses, No Cops.” In other words, creators who employ people can’t get involved unless they transition to their own cooperative model, and neither can law enforcement agencies. “That really means something to me,” says Johnson. “That’s one of the reasons I’m so comfortable cheerleading for Comradery. They aren’t trying to maximize revenue, they’re trying to build a community - a movement, really. That’s what I’m excited to be a part of.”