Paying for naivety
Once upon a time there was a translator called Dmitry Kornyukhov. One day he had a great idea. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he thought, “if there was a place on the Internet where colleagues could write blogs and hang out and be a community.” And he worked hard and made it, and it was called the Open Mic. And people joined, and they wrote blogs and they read what the others wrote. Some of it was really quite good and some was utter rubbish, but that really didn’t matter to Dmitry because everyone was part of the community and no-one wanted to be judgmental.
But there was a problem. Dmitry wasn’t a very rich translator, and the Open Mic took up a lot of his time; time he perhaps should have been spending building up his business and making money translating. Instead, he wanted to build up the Open Mic, adding all kinds of bells and whistles to its website. But how was he going to afford that? Dmitry was worried.
He became more worried when his cat fell ill and he had to pay a large vet’s bill. So worried that he told all the Open Mic members about it, asking them to kindly dip into their pockets to help him out. And they did, and the cat went to the vet, and the germ of an idea hatched in Dmitry’s mind. What if these kind translators could be persuaded to pay him for the time he wanted to spend working on the Open Mic? What if they would also pay out for the bells and whistles he wanted to add to the website? Wasn’t there a name for this thing nowadays? Ah, yes, it was called crowdfunding.
And that’s where we are now. Dmitry Kornyukhov is asking Open Mic members for money to fund the site. Now, I have nothing against Dmitry or his idea or against crowdfunding in general. I also do not want to make any insinuation that he is a dishonest man and I would much prefer to believe that he has been naive. But there is something about how he has gone about all this that makes me very uncomfortable. Firstly the figures he is bandying around are enormous. He is talking about trying to raise up to $80,000, although he tries to make this a manageable figure by dividing it by the number of Open Mic members and working out that if each of them gave $24 the target could be reached.
Why does he need so much money, though? He explains that each $20,000 milestone will pay for a series of developments to the Open Mic website. But the figures don’t seem to add up: the developments he mentions shouldn’t cost anything like the sums he quotes. In fact, according to colleagues who are in a position to know these things, many of them are available using free or virtually free software. So what is all that extra cash for? I have no idea, and, although I do not intend to suggest in any way that it is going to be misused, I do think that anyone giving Dmitry money is not only entitled to ask this question, they absolutely should be asking it.
Some of this money is obviously going to Dmitry himself. He is laudably open about it. He is going to pay himself an hourly wage based on the time logged in a piece of activity monitoring software he has discovered. The rate is relatively cheap, although it has to be said that if $30 an hour compensates him for translation work he’s not now able to to then he really isn’t charging enough for his translations.
In itself, it isn’t unreasonable that Dmitry should want some reward for the time he spends on the Open Mic. The problem, of course, is that if his only source of income is donations from members, as he states that it will be for the foreseeable future, the model is hardly sustainable. As he earns, the money will run out, and he will need more and more and more. Members will be asked for cash over and over again. If, on the other hand, he does manage to turn the Open Mic into a viable business, as he suggests he might without ever saying how such a business might work, then his members will have made the investment for him. Will they see any return on their money? He doesn’t say.
And that isn’t crowdfunding as I understand it. A few years ago I got involved in what I see as a genuine crowdfunding scheme. Some friends of mine who were in a band wanted to make an album, but they couldn’t afford the costs, so they set up crowdfunding to pay for it. They had a target and, depending on how much you gave, you would receive different benefits, as well as a copy of the album. All we were really doing, then, was paying in advance for something we wanted but which otherwise would not exist. What was more, if the target was not reached, they wouldn’t even take our money, so we couldn’t lose.
I’ve read and reread Dmitry’s appeal for donations and that doesn’t appear to be the case here, so members might pay out but find that none of the developments Dmitry is suggesting ever actually happen. The appeal in itself is also a masterclass in how to approach people for money. First Dmitry appeals to readers’ sympathy, explaining the tough time he and his family have had over the past year. Then he praises them, saying how wonderful the Open Mic community is and how successful it has been. Only at the end does he hit them with the begging letter, making sure he also responds directly to previous criticisms, even though the answers do not always entirely dispel the concerns. Again, there’s no reason why Dmitry shouldn’t do an effective job of this kind. It’s just that I would much rather see him being effective in the business of finding good clients for his translation business than trying to live off colleagues in this way.
Some people might ask why I care what Dmitry gets up to. Others might directly suggest that I mind my own business. Well, I care for two reasons. Firstly, until recently I was a member of the Open Mic, albeit not a very active one. Despite what I have said here and in a previous post, some of the material on the site is stimulating and interesting and I’ve been happy to read it and share it. So I believe I’m entitled to my opinion, which I’ve already shown by deleting my account last week, as I very much dislike being repeatedly asked for money. Secondly, and more importantly, I hate the thought that the more naive Open Mic members, lulled by the warm, fuzzy glow of Dmitry’s community, might dip into their purses and wallets without asking the questions they should be asking, like the one’s I’ve raised here. Or whether something founded, owned and run by one person is really a community at all, or something entirely different.
Apologies to anyone who was expecting to read the adapted version of my METM16 presentation this week. That will now be posted next Tuesday.