Posted by [email protected] on October 5th, 2016
As the operator of any small website or blog will tell you, when you first publish your work online, your number one concern is that someone, anyone out there in Internet-land, notices what you’re doing.
Two and half years ago, when tabletopaudio.com first went live, I did what most new webmasters do. I obsessively checked Google analytics to see if anyone had visited. Luckily a few people did visit. The site clicked with a handful of people who told a few more people and within a month I was experiencing some fairly nice organic growth.
And then, my first Redditing happened. Reddit is a massive collection of public forums on every topic imaginable. A link on a popular sub-reddit is like Internet Hercules, redirecting a roiling river of eyeballs to flood your puny site clean. When you get Reddited, you get a massive traffic spike and you clench your teeth and hope that everything holds together.
In August 2014, Tabletop Audio had been listed on some subreddit called “The Internet is Beautiful” which I hadn’t heard of. I usually only lurk in a few subreddits (/r/rpg, and /r/boardgames ) so I was pleased that a new one had picked up on the site. I was on vacation with my family at the time, the website was 7 months old and I was checking the analytics app that morning which said there were – I was sure I wasn’t seeing it correctly – 2000 people on my site? Right now? It went on like that all day and finally died down a couple of days later. In the greater Internet scheme of metrics these weren’t huge numbers, or even particularly big ones, but it did represent a significant step up in terms of profile and traffic for me. I got emails from people about using sounds on various projects, a few donations, a few new Patreon patrons, everything seemed rosy. But then there were the ramifications.
On the plus side, the site didn’t crash. I’d made the pre-launch decision to let Amazon S3 do all the heavy lifting in terms of serving the audio files (each 10 minute ambience is ~16MB). So I was feeling pretty good about that until I realized that I only got a limited amount of bandwidth free per month and after that it was on my nickel. That month’s bill was over $600, which stung, to be honest, but I figured that it introduced a bunch of new people to the site who might eventually become financial supporters. So, I treated it like it had been an advertising campaign budget and moved on.
This type of thing would happen every few months over the next year and continues to the present. A different corner of the Internet would “discover” Tabletop Audio and I’d get a traffic boost from a new site and a larger bill at the end of it. In the meantime, my Patreon campaign was growing slowly and there was a small but steady stream of one-off PayPal donations. About a year and a half post-launch the site was basically supporting itself. Donations and Patreon pledges were covering hosting and bandwidth and I had even managed to put a little aside to replace some ailing hard drives and buy a new field recording microphone.
Last week I got my second Redditing. And I have to tell you, this one was kind of bitter sweet. It was on a subreddit called ‘AskReddit’ where someone had posted the question: “What small websites should more people be aware of?” It was one of the more popular posts of the week and eventually racked up over 8,000 comments. The top comment/answer – can you see where this is going? – was, you guessed it, Tabletop Audio, with 6877 points, or, upvotes in Reddit speak.
The previous month, August, The 10 minute ambiences passed the 1 million play/download mark for the year. In one day this Reddit post added another half a million. Another 250,000 would get added over the next three days. My bandwidth bill was over $2000 and I was going to have to cover over half of that myself. Ouch.
On the – ugh, I’m saying this again but with slightly less feeling – plus side, I got about a dozen more Patreon supporters (between $1 and $10 per month) and about 10 more PayPal donations but I was still about $1200 short. For the first time I had to ask myself if it was possible for a site to be so successful that it couldn’t afford to exist? Must I put ads on my site to even stay alive? Is there another way?
Why am I mentioning all this? Because the Internet as we know it is slowly disappearing. It used to be that you slapped ads all over a site and when traffic increased, so did your profit. This worked really well for a dozen or so years. But then some advertisers got greedy, and, frankly, these guys ruined it for everyone. Ads could now contain malware or spyware, ads started to get larger and began to eat up bandwidth – especially annoying on mobile devices. What’s more, the websites and ad networks either didn’t care, or worse, were complicit. So Ad blockers came into being. Our white knights to save us from a diseased, slow and cost incurring internet! I, along with many others who had had computers hobbled by unwanted intrusions of code installed these ad quashing helpers and life was good. For a few years ad blockers where the domain of the internet cognoscenti, for those of us who weren’t afraid to find out what ‘browser extensions’ were and how to install them. Slowly, however, the ad blocking numbers grew. It occurred to me that by blocking ads I was quite literally taking money away from sites I visited and making it hard for them to do business. I began to white list various sites, but I also had to un-white list a few along the way.
Maybe this destruction of the ad-based internet isn’t all bad. The number of me-too click-bait sites, adver-tainment sites, ad-formation and aggregator sites will all slowly fade as the advertising dollars fizzle into nothing. The downside though is the by-catch. Those upstanding, useful sites (newspapers anyone?) will also begin to fade.
So what’s a site operator to do now? As much as I love the users of my site, I really can’t keep buying all of them lunch. I’m not even talking about compensation for man-hours creating the content, just operating costs. I’ve had offers of donated server space but so far these have been either slightly sketchy (guy in corporate IT department who thinks he can stash the files on a server somewhere..), or self-serving (company X also gets to offer my content and monetize it), or someplace where I don’t have full control. I’m still open to it, but it would really have to be so perfect I can’t imagine it existing.
Tabletop Audio started as my tiny rebellion. My desire to show the Internet that there is another way. That when you treat site visitors and content consumers with respect, they will respect you in return. That when you offer something of value, that value is appreciated and acknowledged. Working on Tabletop Audio is the most fun thing I do. Patreon is a wonderful tool for creators. If you haven’t checked out their site I guarantee you there’s some person or project on there that would benefit from a few dollars a month.
It’s 2016. Is it really possible that a website would have to close it’s doors because it was too successful?
Support sites you frequent online. Spread the word, evangelize them. Invite the writers/artists/musicians or whomever to participate in conventions or discussions, write articles and blog posts – and, wait for it, pay them!
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