Members, funders, investors, consumers, subscribers, supporters and semantics

I pay for my TV licence. I pay for my Netflix plan. I fund people on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I sponsor people to fundraise. I invest in a start up. I subscribe to Apple Music. I also subscribe and support via Patreon. And now I have membership to a blog

All these things are true, but all the words are different, and so too the feelings associated with each type of transaction. Yet, each activity is just me, parting with my money in order to benefit myself (and yes, sponsoring someone to fundraise for a charity makes me happy, so in part, it’s like me buying any other thing that makes me happy).

I’ve long been intrigued by the semantics of capitalism and commerce and that interest peaked when I first learned about Kickstarter, during the ‘funding period’ of 3 September 2009 – 13 October 2009 (39 days) for my friends Art Book – A Dictionary Story. Sam had been approached by the founders, five months after Kickstarter was founded, and asked if he’d like to try the platform. 

Frustratingly, I couldn’t fund at the time due to the Amazon payment/fund holding functionality not working with old accounts that were set up via, or something. Still, talking with Sam about the idea I was amazed at what he was telling me about the platform and it’s use of the word ‘fund’ to basically mean ‘pre-order’. 

Here was an ecommerce website, selling things that weren’t yet made – selling ideas in essence – from people with no clear evidence of being able to fulfil or produce their ideas (for all you knew), and with no guarantee of an actual shipping date, or even if the thing was going to be made.

Imagine going to an Amazon product page, or eBay auction page (’product’ vs ‘auction’ being another interesting example), and the page details informing you that the product does not yet exist, that the company that might make it has never made it before, and that even if you assume it is going to be made, that you are unable to know when it will arrive. Would you add it to your basket or place a bid? Hell no! Amazon Prime, shipping time guarantees and seller ratings are all critical details for consumer trust when buying something anywhere else online, so why on Earth was this Kickstarter project looking so attractive (and not just because it was my friends project)?  

Clearly then, and proved thousands of times since then, by changing the ‘Buy’ button to a ‘Back This Project’ button, alongside words like fund, pledge and support, and wrapping it all up in a lovely story about the creative personality behind the project, Kickstart and many other crowdsourcing and funding platforms are engaging in some awesome NLP-like semantic magic:

These are not Products; They are Projects. You do not buy; You Fund. You do not question their production and delivery schedule; You support their efforts and wish them well. Oh, and yes, while you are supporting and funding the idea like an investor, no, you are not an investor. You do not get equity; You just get to feel nice, and if you’re lucky, something you bought months or years before might arrive at your door.

Such a smart twist on consumerism and the start-up investor narrative that we see playing out in the news. So clever. I fall for it every time. And all because of the language. 

Sames goes to a smaller extent with Airbnb, who pull out their share of calculated accommodation cost under the line item ‘Service fee’, rather than ‘Airbnb fee’. It leads the mind toward the service they provide in a way that saying ‘Tax’ would not. Deliveroo too, list their fee in a similar, yet more cutesy vein as a ‘Roo Charge’. These are obvious little touches perhaps, but it makes me wonder if other services could benefit from the simple language trick. You know, in a Nudge Unity / Behavioural Insights fashion. 

Rather than Council Tax, I want a Hackney Services Fee. Rather than a TV Licence, I’d like to pay for my Membership. And Rather than National Insurance being taken out of paycheques, perhaps salaries should only be shown in their ‘post-deduction total’, with NI showing as an employer contribution based on your salary. So rather than saying someone is on £20K from which £1,400 would be ‘taken out as NI tax’, say the salary is £18,600 and that such a salary ‘gives you an allowance’ of £1,400 toward your NI. All very Nudge yes, but such language changes could help in so many more positive ways I think. 

In this respect, I’ve always hated when people moan about the TV licence and how expensive they think it is, when I’m very much one of the many who believe that it’s a relatively tiny cost for what it provides. From the TV Licensing website:

A standard colour TV Licence costs £145.50 – the equivalent of £12.13 per month or just under 40p per day. The fee you pay provides a wide range of TV, radio and online content, as well as developing new ways to deliver it to you. In addition to funding BBC programmes and services, a proportion of the licence fee contributes to the costs of rolling out broadband to the UK population and funding Welsh Language TV channel S4C and local TV channels. This was agreed with the government as part of the 2010 licence fee settlement.

It pays for practically everything that the BBC produce on TV, Radio and online! And it part funds the signal distribution network across the entire country! And part of all that means employing more than 20,000 people. That’s awesome! But that word ‘licence’ and the threat of a fine if you don’t pay for it, makes people resent it and distances the fee / funding / sponsorship / pledging / backing from the amazing return to each and every person on the UK. 

For comparison in my mind, I always think of other things that I willingly pay for that use alternate words to get my money, in return for what they produce. Here’s my list of ongoing ‘content’ costs (because adding phone bills, broadband and utilities start to confuse the clear point of enjoying just what’s produced):

Apple Music Family Membership: £179.88/year (14.99/month)
TV Licence: £145.50/year (£12.13/month)
Audible 1 Book Monthly Membership: £95.88/year (£7.99/month)
1 screen Standard Definition Netflix Plan: £71.88/year (£5.99/month) Membership: £47.93/year (£3.99/month)
Kurzgesagt Patreon Support: £18.48/year (£1.54/month)
Wikimedia Foundation Subscription/Donation: £12/year (£1/month)
CGP Grey Patreon Support: £9.24/eyar (77p/month)

Straight off, I’m paying more just for music and the digital delivery of it to me, my partner and my Mum, than I am for everything that the licence fee pays for. Same price if I used Spotify. 

Next up, paying for one audio book per month, costs just £49.62 less per year than the cost of everything that the licence fee pays for. Followed closely by Netflix which is practically half the annual licence fee, for the part creation and delivery of a tiny percentage of the content I watch onscreen, for use on just one screen at a time.

Thereafter the costs fall and become much more ‘funding’ like in my choice to pay directly to creators and resources that I like, but collectively, for one blog, some short science and sociology animations, and for Wikipedia*, I pay £87.65 per year. That’s £57.85 less than I pay for everything that the licence fee provides. 

I’m labouring the point, but only because it feels so laboured in my mind. I love the BBC and would pay double for what it gives to my family, but I think that the language of ‘licence’ is distracting and allows others to better capitalise on social and civic duty with words like ‘backing’ and ‘support’. Language isn’t the only issue obviously, with many licence fee naysayers having ulterior motives I’m sure, but it’s a small design detail that the TV Licence fee website could benefit from at the very least. 

My point, other than thinking these thoughts aloud, is a slight aside to my other collected thoughts on Content Design. Not quite the 4th part I had planned, but something I think I needed to get out before I could complete part 4. A content dump. Now dumped. 

* I actually feel a little guilty for giving such a small donation to Wikipedia which I use almost every day. At the same time, I reconcile the guilt somewhat due to the fair number of dubious ‘facts’ in it. It’s a great reference, but it’s far from fallible. 

Update, 18 November 2016: Just added another £12/year (£1/month) on Pateron for Wait But Why. This takes my conscious annual content funding total to £99.65 per year, £45.85 short of the TV licence fee.