To say that old-guard media has experienced a shakeup in the last few years would be an understatement. Budgets have abated, newsrooms thinned out, and censorship concerns remain a looming threat.
Opinion writers and cultural commentators of all stripes and angles have been some of the most visible figures to close up shop at noted publications in search of subscription-based newsletters like Substack, Lede, Patreon, and Ghost. The exodus, colloquially labeled “Unbundling”, has witnessed high-profile writers and journalists alike—Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Emily Atkin of The New Republic, and Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed to name a few—to pursue unbridled revenue streams and more direct interface with readers.
While Substacks are breaking into the mainstream, in many cases their paid subscriptions numbers still pale in comparison to, say, the New York Times’ boastful 7.5 million subscribers. Unsurprisingly, and sounding curiously similar to some commentary in Web3, many of the newer digital émigrés liken the switch to an idealized past. In a Times article this past October, ex-New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan said, “There’s something wonderful about writing just for readers,” continuing, “Because your people are there, you have to be accountable, but it’s a very pure relationship. It reminds me of the wonderful old days of the blogosphere.”
Writers may have additional options to extract value from their work, but readers might find themselves feeling unmoored from the comfort and consolidation of the institution, unsure and even overwhelmed by the thousands of newsletters from which to choose, and for which to pay. This is where Channel comes into play: a decentralized media organization where creators publish collectively, “re-bundling” their streamable content, all while keeping their respective audiences and communities alive.
Channel represents researchers and thinkers like Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon of Interdependence; Caroline Busta, Daniel Keller, and Lil Internet of New Models; and Joshua Citarella; along with Duncan Wilson, Cullen Miller, and James Geary. They’re eager to not abandon institutions outright, but rather rebuild, amend, and fortify institutions’ reputations from the profit-, attention-, and insecurity-catching engagement dynamics of Web2. Zora’s own Yana Sosnovskaya spoke with the members to understand what new cultural institutions can look like with Channel’s general subscription tokens.
Yana Sosnovskaya (ZORA): First off, congratulations on the launch. Can you give an overview of what Channel is?
Mat Dryhurst: Channel was conceived as this group wanting to come together to build an alternative to many of the Patreon sites that our individual communities are locked up in: Josh [Citarella] runs a para-institutional community that is serving the function of an academic environment; New Models have a thriving community around the podcast that they do; and, through Interdependence, one of the things that we're most interested in is building new proposals for things.
One of the first ideas was to talk about ‘bundles’, which is where the term ‘Channel’ came from, where, through a token-enabled RSS feature, we're able to bundle together content from all the different communities that we want to collaborate with. So if you own one of these Season 0 Founder NFTs, you were able to sign with your wallet for a personalized RSS feed just for you. The aspirations are to spread these tools out for everybody, and importantly, to create some kind of an ecosystem where different features that allow for people to collaborate and token-enable their communities are available to be made. This is not a closed ecosystem-type deal; this is a first attempt to get us away from these centralized, old ideas. Patreon is a [nearly] 10-year-old product and it feels like it.
Joshua Citarella: In the very beginning, we were all doing these $5 podcasts. The conversation began with: Is there a way that we can bundle it together and give people a discount? We have a big overlap in our communities, but we're all atomized into these different streams, and there was no technical way to offer, say, a $15 spread across three podcasts for $12—just a small discount for buying in bulk. I think what has been most surprising to me is that we all thought we were starting podcasts, but instead the podcast became the signal that attracted these very vibrant and very productive communities, and then we found that we were not really similar to the existing business/content models that were working on Patreon. We were less frequent, higher quality, and qualitatively different in a number of ways.
Duncan Wilson: Patreon was a really good innovation at the time, but it rides on top of a general E-commerce attitude of people being divorced from spending $5 on something by clicking a couple buttons, and that worked very well for a very long time. But as we've seen with Web3, there are also new kinds of approaches for fundraising, as well as acquiring funds and having people see those things as donations in addition to investments, which is a lot different than just a fast model of Patreon. I would really want to emphasize the exploration space that we're trying to leverage here: Both have the customizability of developers in the room being able to spin up an RSS feed, but also new mechanisms of fundraising and community organization that are happening in these tokenized spaces.
YS: You’re building a platform, but RSS seems so Web1. Why have you decided to revive the genre in the format?
DW: From a technical perspective, interoperability is a big component of Channel, and for the first prototype, we weren't necessarily trying to build a complete streaming platform for Web3. Also the variety of options out there for completely Web3 content delivery are still pretty nascent, though exciting. NuCypher is a company that I'm really excited about and hope we can use in the future, but to be able to piggyback on top of the existing infrastructure.
YS: Will the platform be curated by the people who have access to content creation? Or will it be public and open for everyone?
Daniel Keller: It's going to be just this initial group of creators and people we bring on, or content that we cultivate from our own communities. We're definitely trying to lean into the strengths that we have as content creators and this existing body of content we can access, but, of course, the goal is to eventually generalize the tools that we're building for ourselves and turn it into a protocol rather than a platform.
DW: I would stress that the platform is a demo phase where we define the needs with these creators and build something that works for their communities; then as we're going throughout that process, we're turning components of that into generalizable and more open and used protocols.
MD: RSS is a very useful tool. One of the big challenges that we're all dealing with is that we’re running quite successful communities right now, and so in order to find a bridge to port those communities over to a Web3 environment, we have to be really conscious of how they currently experience content, and RSS feeds are one way to start providing people with content right now as opposed to waiting for everything to be fully futuristic.
YS: In the last five or six years, social media has absorbed legacy media. It’s not often folks type in New York Times into their Google search—it’s from Telegram or Twitter. How will Channel approach scaling?
Caroline Busta: In the past 10 years we saw this great unbundling of writers from the New York Times who felt like they couldn’t fully express themselves or that they couldn't get the clicks if they could. These Web2.5 platforms were really good at capturing the value of these independent creators who just wanted to create, write, and speak to their networks—but we're now seeing a re-bundling.
The value is really in the creator communities, and one of the fundamental reasons why Channel was what we ended up building is that it allowed us to re-bundle around ready-made communities. Our entire approach to re-networking a media system is based on how new media functions now.
DW: I don't think Web3 should try and build the next Twitter; we launched Channel through Twitter announcements and Twitter spaces. I think components that allow individual ownership and communities to be handed back to the members will be using Web3, but the bullhorn and the online public square will have Web2 components for a long time.
MD: One thing we talked about in the Twitter spaces is the imagination of the term ‘NFT’ being synonymous for only selling JPEGs, and in actuality, one of the utilities of the NFT file-type is the opportunity to say, ‘Well, we can give you an NFT that’s ultimately a membership card that unlocks access to Channel content on any of these different platforms in the present or in the future,’ so that kind of portability is really powerful.
DW: If this were a typical centralized project, say a community was getting shunned out of the Channel but with the NFTs in the custody of the community holders, whichever creator left the channel could just write their own glue code to a new discord and a new RSS feed because that record of membership is public and maintained by the network—it's not living in our database.
MD: Having open membership in that way is really powerful.
YS: It feels like Web3’s in its teenage stage right now, when you look back at your parents and you're like, ‘Oh my God, I hate everything about them!’ I'm waiting for Web3 to grow up when it’s 20 years old, or in a stage where it says, ‘Actually, some of the things from Web2 are working and maybe we just need to adjust them a little bit.’ There are so many radical opinions out there in the space. How are you all navigating that?
JC: I've been writing extensively about online radical fringe and political communities, and these are things you have to deal with delicately. A lot of it is borderline content, so there’s a risk of deplatforming just by addressing these topics. I constantly worry that our project is at risk because we don't have institutional protections, so I feel much more comfortable knowing that our community will survive if, say, for example, Twitter gets deleted unexpectedly.
CB: Web3 doesn't necessarily have an adversarial relationship to Web2. It's more just like a layer that sits in relation to it or on top of it. I think about it as an ether layer—no pun intended—above Web2 that has these lifelines. So as Josh said, if you get deplatformed or if the platform changes and becomes untenable, you have this Web3 layer that will still make it possible and you can switch the platform for the users that need it.
YS: What are Channel’s current and long-term strategies for monetization?
DW: I think as tools develop to make smaller payments with crypto easier, we’re hoping to achieve an actual discount. We're all extremely pleased with the turnout on launch day, but for Season One, we're planning a much more L2-oriented, and potentially even centralized, finance-oriented way of giving lower-rate subscriptions to all or most of the community members; this initial group was more targeted to people who are Web3 natives and really want to support the communities, use products with a little bit rougher edges, and help give us feedback.
DK: Once we’re a protocol, I don't think we'll necessarily have a funding model that's prescribed for every creator that uses it. It's about the flexibility that if they want to have a season-based system, a monthly subscription-based system, a lifetime membership—all those things will be possible.
DW: I think that this initial bundle is going to take on funds through a variety of means, like an institution that's doing media and technological experiments, but I can see future bundles that just want to monetize their communities. We've been cautious in building too much too soon, because the space has changed quite quickly from where we were back in early 2020. Iterating with the communities and the creators in a way that irons out the product so it works for them is the approach that we're taking.
YS: You’ve mentioned outdated cultural institutions as an impetus in creating Channel. What are some of your inspirations or dreams for envisioning new models of cultural institutions in Web3?
JC: I feel like we’re making the ground that we walk on at the moment, because there's not an easy answer for that. Maybe there was a period when an institution's responsibility to the public was fulfilled by a magazine format, or it was by a brick and mortar exhibition, or maybe a website, but I think in the last year it started to dawn on me, that at a certain point, it becomes impossible to convince yourself that you're not fulfilling all of the obligations of an institution of pedagogical panel discussions and publishing works.
The description I like for this new model of an institution would be that Channel is the ‘signal’. Imagine it like the aqueduct metaphor: there's this constant stream of the bundled podcast that comes out, but then there are these specialized communities, almost wings of the institution, that overlap between New Models, Do Not Research, and Interdependence, but then specializations you can't find elsewhere. So there’s a chat room, a Discord, an RSS feed, a physical exhibition, and all these different components—but it's using the tools that we have now rather than things that we have later.
MD: There's been a general sense of disenfranchisement with the way in which traditional institutions have gone about the Web2 era. I was discussing with somebody the other day about storied institutions—news media, art galleries, record labels—reforming their output to align themselves with very shorthand, cheap modes of engagement with the web. So Web2 incentivizes eye-catching, ear-catching, insecurity-catching engagement dynamics. And as a result, we've seen the standards of those institutions take a hit, and so at least my hope is with Web3, we remove all intermediaries.
I also take inspiration from collector DAOs representing a form of an institution where there's a thesis about the kind of work that they want to see in the world and that they want to support. So for me, one of the great opportunities with Web3 is not to necessarily see it as a departure from institutions, but rather an opportunity to rebuild institutions that we lost to Web2, and in that process, create new theses and new statements of intent to be able to stand behind and gather people around.
CB: Since the onset of the public web in the early aughts and late '90s, we've seen the emergence of digital locals, so local communities that are bound not by geographic coordinates. We're speaking across many time zones, but around communities that are coming together around certain sets of questions, or in some cases, certain viewpoints. Institutions have always served some kind of local population. Even though it’s a global institution, MoMA primarily serves the people who can either travel to New York or those there presently. Through Web3, we can start to build a really distributed institution. In Josh's Discord and in the New Models’ Discord, there's been this absolute explosion of activity of people who want to gather around this digital local, the Do Not Research Discord, and then de-virtualize into objects that hold a certain time, place, and language together in a stable format. Our communities have been able to do that really efficiently—to process the contemporary and precipitate objects that hold memory over time. What we're missing is a stable funding model.
For the Codex, we published a book that was very successful within its local region and were able to create something like $10,000 for our community. That's great, but it's a problem when you have community members in the US, Singapore, and Europe. How do you handle that currency? Web3 is a great way to deal with that question; it provides the infrastructure for new kinds of institutions, whether they're pedagogical or art-related.
The most exciting thing about Web3 is providing the conditions for a hundred, or even a thousand, different, potential support mechanisms to emerge to service very specific goals.
YS: What has been the most exciting idea for you in Web3, and what has been the biggest disappointment for you so far?
MD: The most exciting thing about Web3 is providing the conditions for a hundred, or even a thousand, different, potential support mechanisms to emerge to service very specific goals. The great shame of Web2 is ultimately this flattening where everybody is having the same conversation and having to engage with the same economics. The most disappointing thing is that certain narratives in the Web3 space have been picked up, oftentimes distorted, or been completely misunderstood.
JC: It's very significant to see NFTs and patronage come from the space versus the mechanics and incentives of something like YouTube. It seems like that is the opportunity to escape a lot of the race-to-the-bottom dynamics, like the idea that the only way to earn a living as a creative producer is to make the most inflammatory, sensationalist, and divisive content possible. Obviously, the results of that have been really disastrous for society, politics, and culture.
DK: I think what I'm so excited about is the sense that I, as a non-technical person, can actually be there working with other people shaping culture and the future of platforms and protocols. I don't feel like there was a place for turning cultural critique into actual form before, and as an artist, that was something that was always very frustrating for me: trying to make work about something that I was interested in rather than engaging with it directly. I feel like with Web3 and DAOs, I finally have this sense of camaraderie and lack of PVP competition, which is really refreshing.
There’s disappointment in the volatility of the space, which makes everything extremely stressful and emotionally taxing. Also, the level of misinformation out there about Web3 has to be dispelled. I feel discouraged when I see the level of hate and misunderstanding; and when you see the projects that are getting the most visibility are like, Bored Apes, it's creating extra work for all of us.
DW: I think that speculation is both the beauty and the dark side of crypto. The intersection of speculators and the intersection of taste is definitely a little devoid. I don't find myself schilling crypto Twitter by any means, but I can see very clearly how these things will be integrated in a way that's basically invisible to the users and right now it’s just so clunky.
CB: Mat, something you said in the round table that's just stuck with me is in Web1, because of our age and because of the technical skills that were needed, we couldn't really participate in it. We also couldn't really participate in building Web2, in part because of our age, and because it was pretty localized who was building it. Web3 is the first time, with the help of great developers like Duncan on our team, an artist can actually build a space that's interoperable on the internet that can handle funds and can handle communities. That's super exciting.
On the one hand, it's great how much more literate this generation of users is when it comes to finances. As Gen X cusp, I know, especially working in culture and art space, there's a lot of soft talking that happens, and with Web3, people are pretty brutally honest about costs, and what it means to take a share of something or earn interest. This speculation can be positive and negative. In Web2, we were also financializing our profiles, but now there's something that is obscene or explicit about that in Web3, and it's going to change our cultural orientation on what it means to create. We're going to have to come up with some different kinds of language and ways of interacting, because that's going to take time to calibrate.
Julian Wadsworth (Lil Internet): Financial literacy with regards to young people is definitely positive, but of course, many of the most visible parts of blockchain is building evermore abstract casinos and people who are ‘thought leaders’ proposing a future where everyone is a currency speculator all the time, and to me, that just sounds extremely dystopian, especially due to the emotional toll of the constant trading and those fluctuations of value it has on people. There's a whole bunch of other things you can extrapolate about how markets and people's investments can end up turning people into flocks of starlings or schools of fish, where they're all moving in unison, but not from their own free will.
We launched on the day that the Fed made their statement which was generally confirmed as a bearish sentiment, but of course, these are the times where I think a project that will escape this speculative mania and these giant abstracted casinos—projects that will normalize blockchain and normalize Web3 as a technology that is useful outside of the zone of speculation—actually fulfills this idea of communities forming online that do feel like something IRL, and that offers a real landscape of a variety of both platforms, platform mechanics, and the physics of the platforms. The normalization of using blockchain for non-speculative purposes can't happen fast enough, but I think we're entering that phase.