illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
(a more 'personal' post)
On November 3rd, 2011 was my first post on g+ and it related to Buddhism (gplus.wallez.name/VfTHLyUG6t5). At first I was quite hesitant about sharing the Dharma and my first posts were short and rare, but it quickly became clear that there was some appetite: several people were regularly asking questions, reacting, or even contrasting with other traditions (notably Christianity). Having had an 'interest' (to say the least) in Buddhism for 25 years, I was enthusiastic about sharing what I saw as a valuable tradition, on a platform that didn't flood and surround the 'stream' with adverts. I multiplied my posts, started developing arguments in more detail, introduced more specific references.
It seemed to me there were a lot of teachings freely accessible for beginners online, but not so many for intermediate or advanced practitioners (there are teachings available, but membership usually is required). I also could offer the benefit of being a lot more available and easily contactable to respond to questions than most senior teachers! There was a thirst for information to respond to, a niche of free intermediate teachings to fill.
End of February 2012, I resigned from the corporate world to dedicate my time to wholeheartedly broaden my knowledge of Buddhism to schools I had not come across yet (I had committed to two curricula in parallel, in France and in Thailand, a few months earlier), but also to share what I already knew and what I would now learn. This was wild enough for my brother to wonder if I had lost my mind, and for my previous colleagues to deny that I resigned with no other job in the waiting: surely I was just being secretive about my next job ;-)
As g+ matured, 'communities' were introduced in December 2012. Quite predictably, a lot of "land grabbing" occurred within the first few days! Taking the buddhist teachings on 'craving' and 'clinging' to heart, rather than launch my 'own' community, I decided instead to work behind the scene to try and minimise the fragmentation of the saṅgha on g+. As I had long been in contact or discussion with many new 'community owners', I could discreetly help make the various communities complement, rather than compete with, each other. I suspect I was credible in discussions primarily because I did not 'own' a community myself: little self-interest could be projected. Most notably, one community thus became "Buddhism Q&A" and stopped competing with "Buddhism and Meditation": the communities became complementary, for the benefit of all. This constructive, no-grabbing attitude was noticed though, and I ended up inheriting the leadership of "Buddhism and Meditation", the largest g+ community around Buddhism, in June 2013 (gplus.wallez.name/fkPL7FD3iAF). Later "Buddhism Q&A" was brutally destroyed, but I recreated it (gplus.wallez.name/K9GcVg8mcPu), convinced that complementarity doesn't imply a monolithic approach: merging isn't required, working in good intelligence is.
As g+ grew, the number of relatively inquisitive followers reached 2,000 in February 2013 (plus.google.com/+DenisWallez/posts/Jwhgde7Xowo) then 3,000 by July 2013 (plus.google.com/+DenisWallez/posts/V3fa8egJtYw). By then, replying to questions (publicly or not), moderating several communities and preparing frequent, long, well-documented posts together took my whole day, most days… The activity had gone from simple hobby to hugely demanding.
Someone at google noticed that I was using the platform the way google hoped (regular posts but no flooding; long posts on g+ directly, rather than links to somewhere else; engagement in comments; happy to promote other people…) and I was included in the infamous and controversial Suggested User List (or SUL), leading to the explosion of the number of followers, but also to a form of dilution: suddenly only a fraction of my followers were actually interested in what I wrote, others might just like the pictures or might simply have been forced to create an account for youtube (more or less automatically following a few suggested accounts, but never really checking in here).
The demand for teachings was strong and persistent, nearly constant; while only a fraction of the new followers were actually interested in Buddhism, this still ended up in a growing number of questions and messages to reply to. From waking up to going back to bed, I was online all day (according to Circlecount, the only hour slot I never posted during is around 4am local time, though it’s probable there exist comments…).
Some might think, based on writing just a few short comments each day on what interests them personally, that it's possible to respond to such a demand as a hobby, but this is blindness to the time it takes to do so at the scale of a whole saṅgha. Getting beyond the self and its self-interests required not focusing on the posts and comments I was interested in, but working around the interests and questions of others! The magnitude of energy and time required to answer the interests of others, compared to merely browsing and following one's own interests, is multiplied by how many 'others' are served.
There certainly was much work to do; so it was time to involve the Saṅgha in perpetuating the transmission of the Dharma and to see if the targeted "intermediate or advanced practitioners" were ready to actually combine resources towards "the benefit of all sentient beings".
So, in a mix of anxiety and exhilaration, on August 20th, 2013 (two years ago exactly), in accordance with the long established buddhist tradition, I begged in order to maintain my production to the highest standards I could aim for. But I begged online… plus.google.com/+DenisWallez/posts/6AYF3WQe7qL
Fast forward two years.
It seems safe to assume at least 4,000 people (out of 367,000) are interested in what I write (plus.google.com/+DenisWallez/posts/FLjkRUccnFB).
Some people who I had nominated to google for the SUL also saw their number of followers explode, with similarly mixed consequences. Other ways to support other teachers, like sharing some of their posts and videos, might have helped them gather a wider audience but didn't necessarily create enough 'value' for them to remain active on g+. The majority of 'hobbyist' teachers are virtually inactive now.
"Buddhism and Meditation" has grown from 34,000 to 54,000 members, with a strong focus on information-rich content (feel-good images are deleted) and a clear rejection of any "my school is the sole ‘true' school" narrative. By now, B&M is by far the community of choice about Buddhism on g+. Attention was explicitly given to gender equality in the moderation team when I took the leadership (and for a while the team was quite balanced, but more needs to be done right now —due to the complete disappearance of two female moderators, from g+, not just from B&M).
The morphology of g+ as a whole community has evolved, really. Social media as a whole has evolved! Many early adopters have left (either to other pastures like Tsu or ello, or to their 'own' websites, or even back to Facebook and linkedin); some have lost interest; some realised they spent too much time here and went cold turkey; some grew tired of g+ issues (many under the heading "war on words", others under privacy issues — e.g. comments arbitrarily copied to youtube, without any more permission from the users than e.g. Facebook would have had). The level of "conversation" has noticeably decreased. Although still better for conversations than any other social media platform, g+ is gradually becoming more TV-like, a passive stream to watch, engagements being limited to short comments, plusses and shares but very few two-ways, long, well-documented conversations.
Contrarily to the expectations of the nay-sayers when I started begging, I didn't disappear and my number of followers didn't go down (but the SUL phenomenon might have hidden some losses). I didn't turn monetary contributions ‘compulsory’ either: I still respond to everyone without pre-condition, and I strived to maintain quality and quantity.
By now, I've written more than 900 public posts on g+ (approx. 550 in the last 2 years) as well as answered hundreds of questions (on the posts of others and in private messages). The number of followers explicitly requesting notification when I post original content has grown to 290, roughly the number of households usually needed to support a local community temple and keep it running!
It may sound like it's a great success of sorts, and I guess my begging was one of the most successful crowd-fundings that occurred on g+ (even though g+, at the end of the day, is definitely not geared toward, or supporting, crowd-funding).
Time to review?
But, in spite of a healthy rise in number of followers explicitly asking for notification when I post original content, up to 290, the number of monthly financial supporters has recently fallen to as low as 12.
By comparison, 'headspace' doesn't seem to struggle to find many to commit to £4.15 per month for one year… Fashionable content matters, I guess surfing the wave of “mindulness” was smart for them, or is it the very idea of exclusive content that attracts? "Secret teachings", etc. (gplus.wallez.name/Z2FG9RK1F3G)? £4 was the minimum monthly donation proposed on koan.mu, and subscription could be stopped at any time (no minimum of 12 months).
Even with one-off irregular contributions added, there has been a strong disconnect between valuing/requesting content and supporting content creation [cf. graph attached]. Overall, I guess that the audience still mostly counts on hypothetical 'others' (sponsors? adverts?) to magically fund teachings for them.
So after three and half years of teaching and two years of begging (24 monthly calls for donation, either directly or with the monthly "table of contents" post), I'm now reviewing my teachings. As recently explained, perseverance is not stubbornness (gplus.wallez.name/En4QdbdLZoo).
Moreover, buddhist 'wanderers' looked for food, and the Dharma was indeed 'freely' given but… it was given where food was available… or the wanderers simply kept walking to a more supportive context! If someone wanted to hear the Dharma, one could either join the Saṃgha in its wandering… or invite senior practitioners for lunch (gplus.wallez.name/aZTfGWJQDWu)! This is to say, effort (commensurate to one’s means) was needed, and it is unclear —to say the least— that supporting minimal engagement or passivity about the Dharma, as I’ve unconsciously done, is wholesome!
As I'm reviewing how I work, I recently suspended the 12 regular donations left (this seemed more ‘honest' than assuming that people who supported one format 'should' a priori support any evolution). When the most dedicated supporter subsequently asked me « how are you living? Hope you are not starving! », it struck me (again) that most people have a very erroneous view of how much I ever raised: I never could 'live’ on donations alone!
I regularly explain that one should lead by example; well, most online teachings were offered by myself to the online community (thanks to engaging in very mindful management of resources other than the donations).
When 30,000 people followed me, someone mentioned that if all followers gave only $1 just once, many months of content and support would be funded, but it's not as if she was heard. Some probably thought that, with so many followers, donations had been rolling in… but the number of donators (regulars and one-offs combined) never exceeded 22 on a given month, and the average amount stayed well below (60% below…) the "poverty threshold" (or "poverty line") where I lived [cf. graph attached].
Of course, though, I escaped neither accusations of greed, nor jokes about driving a luxury car from the supposed donations from "so many” (though I didn't actually have a car), nor lectures about living in London when I 'should' relocate to cheaper locations… Some claimed they were generally happy to "give back", but apparently 900 posts wasn't enough to consider doing so just yet… Some suggested I just shouldn't beg, as my reward would supposedly be in the next life!
As I'm reviewing, there's therefore clearly one theme I didn't transmit well (or at all): the importance for practitioners of taking personal responsibility in supporting wholesome phenomena, of active participation in the perpetuation of the saṅgha… and of cultivating generosity.
Counting on 'others’ (sponsors? adverts? other teachers?) isn't the practice; +111 on the donation page of koan.mu isn’t the practice.
I have written several posts about this in the past, but I suppose it was easy to discard them as "self-serving". Even now that I’ve suspended the possibility of donations on koan.mu, it'll remain easy to throw accusations, to project ill intentions, to fabricate conspiracies… Nonetheless, if there was a common theme in the recent posts, it was to try and amend a failure in transmitting the importance for each serious practitioner of taking responsibility, of active participation and of cultivating generosity (gplus.wallez.name/9zkePNUCSZ5, gplus.wallez.name/36nVX4ygsWN, gplus.wallez.name/4pauGPXRG1c).
When another teacher recently wrote « sustaining income seems to be a widespread problem for people 'working' in the Dharma in the West », it seemed clear to me that any difficulty is primarily cultural, not an economic one. Most people waste $1 often, without even thinking about it: dāna could act as a gate into mindfulness. And one can easily imagine a scenario in which, if all members of B&M gave $1 per year, the resulting $54,000 per year would certainly allow to fund more content by experienced practitioners and teachers, to support the moderators, to fund some disaster relief and poverty alleviation, etc. Similarly, if a majority of people asking for notifications when I post original content had elected to give £9 per month (or if all gave £4/m.), this too would have allowed to fund more content and even some social programs (based on needs arising).
When there isn't active participation, the 'stream' reverts to passive TV. « The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking » (gplus.wallez.name/GRJ3bDVNr1H).
I still believe transmission might happen online, but it requires the 'student' to mull over things, to reflect, to take away pieces of advice and actually, practically experiment with them, etc. This includes experimenting / embodying the teachings around generosity too! Actually doing exercises, reading extra 'suggested' material, using the framework in various contexts, are required for a skill to be acquired instead of merely theorised… and there are 'skills' in Buddhism. One could say the eight spokes of the eightfold path primarily are 'skills', neither theories nor truths: the (4th) 'truth' is about the usefulness of such a skill set to cease clinging (and notably to cease clinging to ignorance).
Like with TV, many find reassurance in 'zapping', and most assume a permanent availability of teachings from the shimmering multiplicity of teachers. It seems the buddhist lessons around appropriate engagement and participation, individual responsibility, walking the path, and impermanence, might too easily be forgotten.
Unlike TV though, on social media people basically refuse to pay for a stream of content (even content they like and share): when people are happy to pay (on top of being subjected to manipulative adverts!) to watch TV, but not to support the creation of online content they like and share, the status quo seems due for review.
The people truly interested in the practice (enough to consider embracing some discomfort when needed) are rare enough that direct guidance (by opposition to broadcasting) seems a focus to consider going forward.
Whatever I do, those interested will still have the opportunity to come, see and engage with me. My door will be open (including distance-doors like email, skype, hangouts… even questions here on g+).
If there's any lesson from the music industry, it seems the decline in recorded music has been accompanied by an increase in live music… which again argues for direct transmission over broadcasting. Focusing on live teachings might seem like artificial scarcity… however, ‘liking' snippets of wisdom, Zen quotes and nice images reassure people that they're 'spiritual' even when they're not; it's not dissimilar to people who think they fight global warming or worldwide hunger by 'signing' (clicking) petitions online. One could argue that clicks are better than nothing, sure, but they're so low in engagement that they don't actually qualify as "right action" let alone as "right effort", "right concentration", or "right livelihood"… Even "right intention" is debatable since it seems tainted by parallel intentions not to commit, not to see things through, not to follow up, a parallel intention to in fact preserve one's personal status quo, even one's personal comfort.
Wisdom requires maximising the benefits created for all in relation to the resources available. There's no Wisdom in 'generously' wasting resources. Two years after setting out to maintain intermediate and advanced teachings available for free, I’m now reviewing how to wisely use the resources at my disposal: maybe there’s a better way!
In the near future, my energy is directed toward opening a #dharmahouse , a face-to-face setup hopefully better suited for an active participation by those attending than the passive, TV-like, social media 'streams'.
My online presence may also evolve towards more Q&A and less 'broadcasting' (a rebalancing, not a disappearance… Black and white caricatures aren't helpful).