Busking in the age of the Internet

Those who follow me on Twitter understand (I hope) that I have certain views about Twitter and its uses. While some see it as a way to market one thing or another, others as an avenue for chatting with friends, and still others as the perfect soapbox for spewing their opinions, I treat it as a toy. Something to take apart, fiddle with, and put back together in a way other than its original form. As part of that play I’m not terribly concerned about attracting or keeping followers. The play’s the thing, not the attention it brings.

Last week, I embarked on a new Twitter experiment. It went something like this.

I very much enjoy the writing of John Moltz, who was responsible for the Crazy Apple Rumors website and has recently created a more analysis-driven site, It’s a Very Nice Web Site. (He also occasionally writes for Macworld.) The impetus for It’s a Very Nice Web Site is that John has quit his day job to focus on making a living as a writer. I’m a fan and wondered if there was something I could do to encourage his new career. (By way of disclaimer: I’ve met John a few times and like him, but we’re no more than acquaintances.)

I’m intrigued by the ways creative people go about making a living. In the past, performers would take to the street—throwing an old hat or guitar case down in the hope of gathering a few coins. These buskers relied on both their talent and an audience’s generosity to get by. In the Internet age, a similar kind of busker sets up a website in the hope that someone enjoying their work takes the time to click a Donate link. And I wondered just how successful this might be.

So—stretching the analogy further—I decided to pass the hat. Via Twitter I suggested to my followers that they drop by John’s site and donate a buck or two. Anything he earned from those donations I’d match, up to $200 total. I tried to make it clear that there was no reward in it—no T-shirt, no gewgaw available to you before the general public, no nothing. You were contributing simply to support a guy with talent. I made the pitch three times—twice one evening and then again the following morning.

The reaction was… interesting. Although no one took me to task or, as far as I can tell, unfollowed me over it, the contributions didn’t pour in. As I write this—fewer than 24-hours after my initial pitch—my $200 contribution has been matched but not much more. The 12 people who kicked in were nearly all strangers to John and myself rather than friends or people In The Biz. Also interesting was that none of my pitches were retweeted.

Given the many unknowns, it’s hard to say for sure what I’ve learned. But I like numbered lists as much as the next guy so…

1. No matter how good you are, busking is difficult

In 2007, The Washington Post conducted an experiment with the help of renowned violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, in street clothes and unidentified, busked a Washington Metro station and played for 45 minutes. During his 45 minute performance he made just over $32 and was largely ignored by the approximately 1,100 people who passed him by.

What’s different about Bell on stage and Bell in a subway station? Certainly not his playing. The difference is the environment. And I think that plays here as well.

We’re accustomed to getting our Internet content for free (and gripe mightily when we’re asked to pay). Like the people hurtling past Bell and his violin, the free nature of the Web has blinded us to the notion that free doesn’t mean without worth. Free is a habit and it takes some serious thought to overcome that habit and toss a coin in the hat.

2. Causes are easier

Those of you who’ve done it, think about the times you’ve responded to a social networking pitch to help out. In my case it’s been in reaction to a personal and heart-wrenching plea—a friend or colleague with a sick child or a natural disaster affecting thousands of people. These “there but for the grace of God” situations make it easy to unbuckle.

But, in this case, there’s no big emotional draw and heaven knows other people and causes need your time and money more. John’s not suffering. He’s just chosen a career path that I hope to benefit from as he writes more things that I enjoy reading. It’s a candy contribution—completely unnecessary but oh so tasty.

3. Why Moltz?

There are so many talented people in the world and on the web, why give money to this guy? (Or, the darker flip side from those In The Biz, “I’m just as talented as he is, why are you promoting him and not me!?”)

4. No reward

One of the things that makes Kickstarter so attractive is that not only do you have the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” on this or that project, you almost always see some tangible benefit—a product shipped to you before the general public, some extra goodie, the opportunity to interact with an artist… something.

The reward in supporting someone like John is anything but tangible. Maybe he’ll keep writing, maybe he won’t. Perhaps he’ll use whatever he gets and go on a week-long bender. Or maybe he gleefully sets it on fire because, unknown to us all, he’s richer than Croesus.

5. My followers

And then there’s the question of who’s receiving my tweets and why people follow me. The vast majority of people who follow me do so because my name occasionally appears in print and on the web. Their follow is nothing more than “Oh, I’ve heard of this guy.” When it comes to my opinions, no interest.

And, of course, I’m not Internet famous enough. There is a certain thrill in taking direction from A Famous Person. When Stephen Fry or Ashton Kutcher or Neil Gaiman tweets about the Unquestionable Goodness of This Thing, you want to be part of it because a small portion of celebrity fairy dust rubs off on you.

So, summing up in a very squishy kind of way—it’s hard to get people to change their habits regarding what is and isn’t worth their dough, paying for talent rather than tragedy takes more work, what’s so special about Moltz anyway, people like doing good deeds but prefer getting a little frosting with those deeds, and the majority of people who follow me are deadbea… err, need more to go on than just my say-so.

Or the final option—and this is likely the crux of the biscuit. We all have busy lives and priorities greater than travelling across the world wide web to click some guy’s Donate button. It’s far easier to bash a Like button and move along, convinced that this action has value beyond feeding a Facebook algorithm.

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