The Campfire community idea is about much more than providing a service or product.
A belief that the Campfire concept has to be born around a membership model was an obvious starting point.
There seemed to be so many frustrations amongst friends exasperated with the type of free model espoused by Facebook, where their data was mined, algorithmed and regurgitated back at them, along with adverts. It felt outmoded and annoying, a commercial compromise, an impertinent imposition. What had at one point, in the first flushes of social media discovery, seemed like a good idea as a ‘free’ service was revealing itself as not being 'free' in so many respects. Given the result of the US elections and the fact that many are attributing the last swing of the result to the ‘fake news’ output that Facebook propagated, we may come over time to substantially regret the journey that that ‘freedom’ choice has taken us on and its inherent, hidden cost.
The Observer web guru John Naughton has an uncanny habit of nailing it "There is, alas, no such thing as a free lunch. What’s even more depressing is that there is no such thing as a free internet service. Most people nowadays probably understand that in relation to, say, social networking services, if the service is “free” then the users (or, more precisely, their personal data) are the product. But this also applies to stuff that you haven’t signed up for – websites that you browse, for example. The site may be free to view, but there’s often a hidden cost.”
The word 'service' may be a misnomer. Campfire aims to provide some useful 'services' but it may be more useful to think of its potential as along the lines of a membership club. Were you to join Home House, Soho House or any number of private members clubs in London, you’d expect to pay a membership fee for its social benefits as much as anything.
Though Campfire aims to avoid any notions of exclusivity or closed membership once it launches, it has the potential to offer as rich an experience (although a very different one!) as any private members club, but shared over the real and virtual worlds, multi-faceted, multi-usability. It's fair to say that you will probably meet more people and a wider demographic than you might at Soho House, but you will also have the tools made available to present yourself and your skills and work Projects, to plan and collaborate, to build that most valuable of resources, collective wisdom, to join like-minds in groups (Guilds), to meet new and diverse minds, and to contribute to and consume news from sources that can trusted.
As to any suggestion that members are contributing “ paid work” perhaps a comparison with Facebook is worth making. There’s no denying that more than ever, people want and need to get their ideas out there, discuss, debate, try to make sense of the rapid and cataclysmic ever-changing mad world around us. Posting and contributing via Twitter or Facebook wouldn’t usually be seen as ‘work’, nor should it via Campfire. Though the former is limiting in its Twitter character limit, Facebook now attracts extended blog-style postings from the likes of Robert Peston and Paul Mason as well as most major political players. These writers and similar might come to value Campfire equally as a platform worthy of spending time on, a place which is rewarding to hang out in, certainly once the size and demographic grows, if not already in its formative days.
Brian Eno and Scilla Elworthy, our two keynote speakers at CC001.UK recognised the early potential of Campfire and were prepared to support it, given many hours of their time to prepare their speeches, so there is no reason to think anyone else would view this as giving away ‘work'. Both enjoyed the event and the ethos resonated to the extent that they stayed on site for the whole weekend. If there is work involved, the overriding feeling that we have to all work for the good of all, for the good of society. This clarion call brought both Eno and Elworthy, plus a host of respected panellists and thinkshop practitioners to the Campfire.
The value of Campfire Convention will reveal itself in unconventional ways. Eno mentioned that he'd been exposed to any number of fascinating and original ways of thinking, ways of approaching our changing world, which he wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. The Campfire Circle March 2016 meeting included discussions about how much free services were valued against services they paid for and the agreement at the end of the meeting was that people did place greater value and were less cynical and liable to be disrespectful in a community where there was a membership charge. This too confirmed pre-Campfire research – that the right people believe in the vision and the possibilities for Campfire that we can make a difference, that we together can build a community of true social value, one that can remain independent and doesn’t have to compromise its integrity.
The overriding feeling after the meeting was that a membership level of under £100 a year for the social network sounded about right, a level that would allow us to cover essential costs and keep research and development work going to make it a truly valuable community resource and environment in which members have the tools and the relationships to compete and develop their own work and interests. For our alpha launch in 2017 we offered the opportunity to support Campfire via membership from £1.66 per month (£20 per year).
Many have made the point that it is important not to undervalue a community that respects privacy in a non-commercial environment and is working to offer a wide range of benefits to all - events and connections, like minded groups (Guilds which can grow into magazines in their own right), a Library where we intend to build resources, a blogging and PR platform for members' work and leisure interests, collaborative tools and a potential broadcasting and news channel, as well as a marketplace on the doorstep for creative endeavours.
And getting value as a member?
Campfire team member @Michelle Spriddell, nails it eloquently :
"If you are looking to earn some money or already have a business - being involved in this environment puts you in touch with people that get to know and trust you - people you would like to be around - therefore your added reward which requires no extra work to the above socialising aspect - is that the people you mix with are more likely to hire you, work with you or recommend you - they are also people you genuinely would be happy working for - win/win, no selling involved."
Dare to dream
We have to ask ourselves some serious questions about what we want to build. Seeing Campfire as as being about "working for free" is not in any sense any more accurate than the actions of regular posting on Facebook or profiling yourself on Linkedin is "working". Let’s reach for the skies, indulge in a little dreaming and conceptualization for a moment – this can do a whole lot more - sharing, creating and building a community that can change the world around us, campaigning and building a meaningful ethos and constitution, a support mechanism, an inspiration, something meaningful that brings people together, finds common ground and can also give back to its members. Does that sound more attractive? And while we're at it, let's add in creating magic. A utopian viewpoint has often been my starting point and it's stood me in good stead so far!
Taking a more pragmatic angle, a cursory gander around the marketplace on a like-for-like basis is missing the point but still gives pointers. LinkedIn, not known as a vibrant social network, has starter monthly ‘job seeker’ subscriptions at $29.95, rising to $119.95 for their ‘recruiter lite’ package.
Music services such as Spotify, Soundcloud are around the €10/£10 mark, the same rate as proposed for Campfire membership. An iPad subscription to the ‘i’ newspaper comes in at around the same rate as Campfire whereas a newspaper website such as The Times / Sunday Times comes in at £30 per month
Donations? Well, they help and we’ve already had a few, even prior to launch, but it’s impossible to build a sustainable business model around them. And, as all charities know, donations can go down as well as up.
From a business standpoint, monetising advertising is fraught with issues, particularly as it requires huge scale to generate significant revenue. Ads for many are corrupting. As I found that when I tried to view four UK mainstream media papers a month ago, incredibly the front page sponsorship presence spoke louder than the newspaper and its headlines. This to me, is an aberration, a corrupting influence that is symptomatic of a media that has lost its way, that is dependent on and led by the capitalist logic of advertising and the agendas that come packaged with that ethos (the darker side of targeted advertising and its implications has been the focus of the high profile of the ’Stop Funding Hate’ campaign and its vitriolic backlash from the far right press).
I learnt a sharp business lesson during my Big Chill years about just how much people value an ad-free, sponsorship-free, vested-interests-free environment. Once sponsorship and advertising was let in, the event lost its integrity and the original Big Chillers deserted it in droves, leading to its eventual bankruptcy only two years after I left the organisation.
Today's vital trajectory is more about making the transition from mass to niche and how to make it work as a sustainable economic model in a rapidly changing world. Whereas Google and Facebook created a new way for advertisers to reach highly targetted audiences as they search for and read relevant content, there is an alternative way of viewing this - that formal advertising is outmoded, intrusive and even corrupting in the context of community networks. The same results can be achieved via nurturing personal relationships, dialogue, interaction and endorsement, empowering others by giving them a collaborative platform from which to do business.
As Dmitri Leonov argues in Mashable "There’s a lot to be said for creating something of real value and charging money for it. If you’re not charging for your product, then your users are the product. By charging nothing for your service you’re actually anchoring that value in your customer’s mind, making it harder to raise the price later.” What I’m proposing is to go a step further and not even think of this project as a ‘product’, a ‘service’, but a membership, where ‘users’ are more valuable, they are ‘members’, involved and guiding the Project with an outcome to reward all.
The future is all about sustainable business models for web democratisation, communities founded around a de-centralised network, equitable post-capitalist models rather than shareholder profit-maximising top-down elites. John Naughton recently looked into his crystal ball and predicts "The rise of ad-blocking will force us to confront the fact that the free lunch provided by advertising is not long for this world. The good news is that the ensuing crisis will compel us finally to look for what we should have invented decades ago, namely sustainable business models for the web. For example, it’s possible that cryptocurrencies might enable the ‘micro-payments' that would make users pay for any article they read. We need more ideas like that, and I’m sure we’ll get them. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Why not go a stage further - it's one thing to look at micropayment for articles, a wider vision altogether to promote the idea of an ecosystem that creates and defines its own news agenda, becomes a publisher and a broadcaster with a social network at its core, retaining its integrity and working for the benefit of all. That requires belief, trust and love. After all is said and done, that word 'love' has to be on the agenda. It was a comment from my friend Mark Offord “The love factor is missing from social networking” that convinced me, as much as anything, that the time was right to have a stab at creating a social network with that love factor at its heart, one that worked for the good of all and was built on an affordable, sustainable model.