Many - probably most - online communities operate without a membership fee, so why are we asking our members to pay for the privilege of participating?
There are several reasons: we need to cover our costs in a way which allows for future growth, we need to be confident we know who the members are, and we choose to handle the questions of power and control in a transparent manner. None of this is set in stone, and (as always) we welcome feedback, comments and alternative ideas, but this is where we are at present.
Covering the Costs
There are several areas of cost involved in a community and web site like this. Remember that one of our principles is that we pay our way: if people offer to do work on a voluntary basis, we are grateful, but if we ask people to do work for us, we expect to pay them a fair rate for the job.
- The cost of running. Monthly or annual fees for the domain, website hosting, the community software platform and the email server.
- The cost of development. The initial setup was undertaken without professional support; the plan is, when we can afford it, to pay for some design work, and maybe for some software development - we would like to provide some features which do not appear to be commercially available anywhere, yet.
- The cost of maintenance. As more people join and more content is contributed, it will be important for content to be revised and restructured, and for people to be responded to in a timely fashion; at some point, this will move beyond the ability of volunteers to manage and will need some dedicated time devoted to the work, which should be paid for.
These costs will grow if the community grows, and we want the community to grow. Many successful ‘hobby’ projects have failed in the end because they became too successful, the creator could not afford to continue to pay for the resources the larger group needed, and you never get enough people responding to requests for voluntary contributions when they had joined a free service.
When there are only a few dozen members, depending on the setup, the few costs may be small and insignificant, and easily covered on a voluntary basis by the few members. But when there are a few hundred members, or a few thousand, the 'free' and 'personal' product tiers are no longer available, and the monthly costs quickly add up. The transition from a free service relying on voluntary donations to a service operating a different model is incredibly difficult.
We are (as of March 2022) a long way off being able to pay for the work which we want to do. We are currently operating with a cut-down version of Ning, and don't yet have enough income to afford the full version. Perhaps, in the future, the requested £5 can be reduced, but at present we need to raise more funds in order to achieve our vision.
Knowing the Members
One of the core foundations of this community is that we know who we are interacting with. Of course, nothing in this life is certain, and it is possible for someone to join and mislead us about who they are, but a membership fee connects the member to a bank account in the real world, and this makes it much less likely that people will attempt to misrepresent who they are.
It has been suggested that the membership fees should be optional. In a sense, they are: if someone cannot afford the fees (a minimum of £1 a month), then there is a bursary scheme, which they can apply to. But if we allow people to join without paying, then malicious and disruptive individuals can join and cause problems; when they are banned, they can simply create a new email address and join again. A single-issue or disruptive group could flood the site and drown out those who don't agree with them.
Of course, many groups operate without this problem, and if you operate a group for (say) model railway enthusiasts, perhaps this problem does not affect you. But we are seeking to enable people to talk about important issues which matter deeply to us; many of us have found it impossible to discuss them on public sites (such as Facebook) which allow people, who are effectively anonymous, to join discussions, take them off at a tangent, and insult anyone who sees things differently.
This community only works because we can be confident that we know who people are, and that only works because the membership fee connects the members with their real life identity. There are a few valid situations where a member may not want to world to know who they are, and this occasional situation can be handled in much the same way as the bursary scheme - but, for everyone else, your real-world identity is important.
Avoiding Moral Compromise
As we all know, 'the person who pays the piper calls the tune' - money is not just a practical issue: the way money is handled is deeply connected with questions of power and control. The way in which money is obtained and spent has a direct influence on the moral integrity of the group, and on how it seeks to achieve its aims. We believe that transparency in this area is vital - which is why we explicitly describe the way we will handle money.
If there are costs which have to be covered, there are only a few basic options for how to do it. The costs can be covered by:
- voluntary donations;
- one person, or a few committed individuals;
- corporate sponsorship;
- advertising; or
- membership fees.
These are not exclusive, of course. The problems are obvious: people rarely make voluntary donations to support online activities, and it is hard to plan for the future when you do not know what the income may be. If the main costs are covered by a few people or groups, then it is hard to avoid the funders having a significant influence over the activities and direction of the group. Similarly, if the income is derived from advertising then there is a real pressure to increase the page views, and we all know (presumably?) where that strategy ends up. And we don't have anything to sell.
The members can only direct the group, and be confident that they are genuinely directing the group, if the income comes primarily from membership fees. All the other options mean that somebody else is calling the shots.
Following the Vision
One further thought: we have a vision for how to help build a better world, and how to facilitate the kind of human interactions which this will require. We have described this vision very briefly, but it does need to be filled out in more detail. We will need money to make the necessary changes to this site (to enhance it, or maybe move to another platform, or even build a new platform which does what we believe is needed) - and, perhaps, help us participate in changing the world in other ways. The details of what we do will be up to the membership, and the Steering Group, but none of it will be possible without some money, and without some reasonable expectation of future income. Which takes us back to the various ways in which income can be raised, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.
[See also Money]