Call For Projects: A social media site for creators

Call For Projects is the part of my website where I call upon the generosity of the reader to develop and complete a project idea that I know in my heart of hearts I’m never actually going to get around to starting, let alone completing. Each CfP will probably be an idea way out of my field of expertise. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to guarantee here that each will definitely be out of my field of expertise. But who knows, it might be in yours. And one of us needs to make it happen. And, y’know, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me…

A website specifically designed to use all the power of social media to help connect an audience with creators of all forms of art.

I think it’s human nature that when anyone suggests a new invention, or even the need for one, someone will always say that it already exists. And much of the time I think this is because it is already technically possible to do the thing that the invention is proposing.

But a great invention invention doesn’t have to make the impossible possible. Sometimes great inventions just make the difficult easy.

As a musician, I’m interested in how websites can be used to find and build an audience, and I know there’s a lot out there. In fact, it has perhaps never been easier to find and build an audience.

But it’s with my fanboy hat on, rather than my artist hat, that I want to do this Call For Projects. Because although it might never have been easier to find an audience, I find that (weirdly) it’s a pain in the arse being a fan, trying to find art and artists that I’m interested in. Because there is so much white noise to filter through.

And I know that there are ways to cut through the noise. I just feel that, in the internet age, it should be so much easier. And when I’m scrolling through social media, uninspired, I often find myself thinking:

‘Wouldn’t it be great if I was scrolling through a timeline of creators and their fans? Wouldn’t it be great if a social media post that I like or repost isn’t for a think-piece article or a cat video (fine though both are, in moderation) but some recommendation of music I might not normally listen to, or a book I might not normally read, or a sculpture that I otherwise would never know existed?’

If I’m going to spend over two hours a day on the damn thing then at least let me discover some new stuff at the end of it.

A number of years ago, Matt Bradshaw from Robot Swans and I sat down in our local pub and brainstormed how we would make a website like this. On the understanding that, at that point, we both had enough free time to take on a large-ish hobby project, but the moment it got too time-consuming we’d drop it. Which we obviously did. But these things are useful to do, I think, as they allow you to think through how to solve particular problems, and who knows – that brainstorming may come in useful later.

The basic idea started with creator pages. (I would say ‘artist’, but I think ‘creator’ is better because it’s more broad, and can include fashion, jewellery, fan fiction, film prop recreation, web comics, you name it.)

Creators would have their own creator page, like the old days of MySpace. Yes, I really liked MySpace. Before Rupert Murdoch bought it, and killed it. I liked the fact that it was a level playing field, and not just for music. The interface looks monstrously dated now, but allowed you to have your audio, photos, upcoming events, blog posts, all on one screen. And whatever people think of it and thought of it at the time, it was instrumental in breaking artists like Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys. So it clearly worked.

Creator pages would be a repository for everything they’ve created. I know, creators, another fucking place to upload your work. But in a perfect world this site would make it easy to stream your work, or even embed it, from other platforms. The point is just to be able to display it all in one place.

But the really important part of the site would be Fan pages.

You would log in as a fan, and you would be able to follow creators, and every time they do anything knew it shows up in your feed. (Unless you tell it not to, presumably.) But you would also be able to follow other fans, and here’s where I think it could get interesting. Anything that a fan likes, they can repost. And they’re encouraged to add a little text, to explain why they like it.

This, like every social media site, would be easy to abuse without rules. You would need the ability to flag malicious content, obviously. (Which, realistically, requires humans rather than bots to make judgements on, which requires staff which requires money.) Without that, the site would quickly become a toxic environment that only bullies and trolls would spend time on.

So how do you fund this? Let’s get down to this controversial question right way.

I would just suggest the standard ‘Freemium’ model, like Spotify has: either you have a free account, with adverts, or a paid subscription, without them. Personally, I’d be happy to pay a subscription if the service provided worked. In other words, if it made me easy to discover tons of new art, particularly music, from independent as well as mainstream artists. I get that when social media was free it was a hard sell charging for it, but this is much less about ‘hanging out with your friends’ or ‘following Stephen Fry’s tweets’, and much more about belonging to a community of people who make interesting things.

One of the lines in the sand that I think would be really important to draw is what the site should not to: it should not allow promoted posts, and it should not allow people to schedule posts. Adverts in a sidebar for people who don’t want to pay a subscription, fine. But spam in the actual feed just makes people use the platform less.

And one more rule (how it would be enforced I don’t know, but maybe it could be self-regulating?): fans never share their own work, or the work of their friends or family. This could quickly become a grey area, but this was one of the central ideas that Matt and I were thinking about when we were brainstorming how a site like this might work: you create a community of honest criticism. In other words, you strongly encourage fans to recommend things ONLY because they genuinely like them, and for no other reason.

That, basically, would be the Unique Selling Point of this service: a community of fans promoting only the works that they genuinely like.

Now, you can do some or all of this on Bandcamp, on Patreon, on Pinterest, on Instagram, and presumably on Facebook and Twitter, and probably many other platforms. But you would need to create a system to do this, and tailor it specifically. What you can’t do on any of these platforms is follow creators and nothing else. You can’t filter everything else out. (As the social media platforms encourage creators to post about things other than their creations, and the creation-specific sites like Bandcamp are restricted to music only.)

Getting a basic social media website set up is really easy, particularly with products like BuddyPress. Making it anything more than ‘basic’, however, is a huge headache: you need server space, online security, endless promotion, a reliable source of long-term funding, and an overall strategy to make sure you don’t become redundant in a year.

This would not be an easy project to make.

But if you did make it, and make it well, then I can guarantee you at least one user: me. (And maybe Matt Bradshaw too, so that’s two.)