The support pitch
When most people think of math, what comes to mind is something opaque, and perhaps even painful. To reappropriate an Elon Musk metaphor, it arouses feelings of staring into the abyss while chewing glass.
But these thoughts are accompanied by a begrudging admission that the topic is incredibly important. Science and technology rest on mathematical foundations, and the skills gained from learning math transfer readily to help you excel in other fields. This is why we make it mandatory in schools, right?
The goal with 3blue1brown is to create visuals and storylines that illustrate how topics which may seem intimidating at first, like linear algebra, Fourier transforms, differential equations and more, can be surprisingly understandable; to shed some light into the abyss and make the glass a little less sharp.
Each video takes a huge amount of time. My hope, though, is that it save orders of magnitude more time for anyone trying to learn, and more importantly that each video instills viewers with an optimism that makes them want to learn more.
Doing this sustainably is made possible by those who sign up to contribute for each new video.
Quick logistical note: While the structure of the Patreon page is “per video”, you can effectively set things to be monthly by setting a monthly-max on checkout, e.g. at 2 projects. Smaller videos which are clearly meant as part of a larger project are not considered their own, so realistically, there tend to be one or two supported projects in a given month.
Another important note: These pledges are crucial for feeding the surprisingly ravenous cast of pi creatures, so they'll thank you too.
Why this model?
There's no denying it, the business model here is weird, but I honestly believe it points incentives in the direction of achieving the above goal better than anything else. There are so many pressures to make content that gets the largest number of views, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the target. Reach is important, but only if it comes with real lessons.
Think about it, what are the options for content creators?
One is to provide content for a price, as happens with movies or college lectures. Incentives would be aligned to give people highly valued experiences (or rather, the anticipation of a valued experience), but there is a meaningful barrier to who gets those experiences, and importantly how sharable it is. Granted, some of my pi creatures who have career aspirations of winning an Oscar one day keep pressuring me to produce a movie, but let's not let the tail wag the dog here.
The most common model, of course, is to support through ads. Because YouTube ads are so low yield, the kind of advertising which lets creators make a living and run a business typically will be embedded in the content itself. You’ve all seen these, some product placement or a personal message from the creator in a piece. This lowers the barrier to consumption but directs incentives towards reaching larger numbers of clicks and eyeballs.
The more worrying aspect of this model is that these ads too often flirt with influencing the content itself. After all, the actual incentive at play is to get people's attention onto the ad, not onto the key message of the content. I used to include these kinds of ads in 3blue1brown, but have since steered away thanks to direct support. I'm also increasingly worried that Randy the pi's single-minded focus of becoming an Instagram influencer has resulted in a bit too much vanity lately.
There are other options, like using the name-recognition generated from widespread content to go on speaking tours or to write books. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does mean time and efforts get pointed away from videos towards whatever the bread-winning gig happens to be.
For math lessons, none of these seems optimal. I think you'd agree it doesn't make sense for these videos to be anything other than free. Even setting aside the realities of how internet media is shared and discovered, students endure enough costs with college and textbooks as it is. On the other hand, digging into something technical often means making content which necessarily won't reach as many people. The most significant videos on this channel, I believe, are those in series (linear algebra, calculus, neural networks, etc.), but such series all have a power-law drop-off in how many people watch each successive video.
Luckily, we somehow live in a world where content can be free while still running on a direct relationship between the creator and the consumer. How? If you have the spare funds, then you, yes you, simply pay what you want to pay. If that's $0, fair enough. But is it because that's how much you value the content, or because it's simply not in the category of things you're in the habit of paying for?
If you're in a position where you'd have to think twice about signing up for sustained support, please don't worry about it. I'd much rather you save your spare dollars; that's why content is free.
For those of you who decide on something greater than $0, thank you. In return, I will do everything I can to produce content that lives up to your vote of confidence, which hopefully causes a meaningful shift in peoples' perceptions of math. As a more tangible thanks, there are perks such as early access, animations sneak peeks, name in credits, and more.
At the risk overdetermining my call to action here, if you're someone who lives comfortably, I'd encourage you to think about what other pieces of media out there benefit from this model. There are lots of great independent creators, like Matt Parker, Nicky Case, Ben Eater, Tim Blais, Primer, Wait but Why, to name just a few. But also think about larger organization, like Wikipedia and Khan Academy, where the freedom enabled by this more direct relationship likely makes for higher quality work. What the internet looks like is a direct product of the economics underpinning it, and we as consumers play into that.