The vastness of the internet can feel like an empty sea for an unknown artist. Sure, it allows us to post endless amounts of creations waiting to be discovered. But the idea of people endlessly clicking past your songs, videos, prose, pictures and paintings without so much as a comment or clicking on the Like button can result in serious bouts of anxiety. Not to mention that fact that you can’t eat Likes or comments. You can’t fill your gas tank with them, let alone pay a bill or two.
There’s still no cure for the paradigm that says any artistic content on the internet can and should be free. And if people want something for nothing, there’s more than a few ways to get it. But thanks to a new, locally grown website called Curensea, fans, artists, and curators can cultivate their own solution, half a penny at a time.
The site, founded by Long Beach locals Natalia Kochan and Sofia Chirico, is a platform designed to guide us into the Bermuda Triangle between art and commerce. People who sign up can post their own content and also tip other artists a small amount of money (with coins you can purchase on the site which are worth half a penny each) for the stuff other people post that catches their attention.
“The thing about getting paid, even if it’s half a penny, that’s someone out there who acknowledges that your work isn’t worthless,” Kochan says. “And if you’re brand new starting out and people tip you, that’s cool because people like it and are giving you some money. It’s very hard to have happen on the internet. And hopefully it’ll inspire people to keep making stuff.”
Sitting in their unofficial afternoon headquarters at the Viento y Agua Coffee House in Long Beach, the site’s creators sit across from each other, the backs of their laptops nearly kissing as they work feverishly on the site, which just went live last week. The fact that their two-year project has finally come to fruition should feel like a time to relax or at least pat themselves on the back a bit and take a breather.
“Yes and no,” Chirico says. “There’s the relief that people can go to a place and see what we’re doing, but there’s also the panic that we’re putting it out there for everybody, maybe people will reject it. It’s just like any creative project, actually.”
Now comes the stressful part of gaining signups. The site is ad-free, which the creators hope will stay that way as artists and curators start to catch wind of Curensea and create their own accounts. Like any social media platform, it hinges on members being active, and in this case the minimum buy in for coins is $3.00 (each account starts off with 10 free coins when you sign up, so you can start tipping right away). The creators say the number of users needed to keep the site afloat and ad-free is around a million.
“It’s a simple concept, but it’s new and it takes people a second to grasp that artists can actually earn money and there are no ads and we made it to help create this art environment,” Kochan says.
The idea for the site came from the two friends' personal struggles to find ways to make it as creative people. Kochan and Chirico first met in China in 2011. Chirico worked in visual effects at Beijing’s Pixomondo office, and Kochan worked as a screenwriter for China Film Group. Both experienced the struggles of living and working as a creative person firsthand.They noticed many of their colleagues struggling as well.
Kochan left China in 2012 and returned to her native Long Beach to live with her parents while she struggled to earn money as a writer. Chirico, who grew up in Italy and Germany, stayed in China. They two friends kept in touch via Skype for two years, eventually devising a plan to build what would become Curensea, though they didn’t start working on it until 2014 when Kochan convinced Chirico to move to LBC. The two began the process of refining their idea and locating eager young web developers to help them build it. The reality of the situation turned out to be a lot more difficult.
In California, most startups with solid financial backing can lure brilliant web developers to their company by throwing good money and perks at them. After a few months of not being able to find anyone willing to help them, the Curensea creators decided to move to Germany, where Chirico and investor and advisor Dagmar Bottenbruch are from, figuring they’d have better luck finding people in Berlin. Turns out it was just as hard as finding web labor in that market, which is becoming increasingly more competitive.
“We heard people keep telling us we should to go to Ukraine,” Kochan says. “Which I thought was really weird because my dad is from Ukraine. I was there in 2006 and there was very little internet, so I didn’t expect Ukraine to be such a tech center.”
To their surprise, the city of Lviv was already in the midst of a technology boom that made it a hotspot for young web developers. They were able to find a developer named Oleksiy Tataryn who was willing to help them build the site from scratch. They now have several developers, all from Ukraine, who help them tweak and maintain different portions of the site. They’re involvement ranges from from setting up the back end, including the debit/credit processor (which is run through Stripe, the same system used by Uber and Lyft), to putting in place the color schemes and design of the search engine and curated pages.
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At any point, members have the option to save their coins, cash out on their tips (which obviously take a while to add up) or buy more coins to keep tipping others. Members are encouraged to not only tip each other’s work, but also create curated music playlists made by various bands or artists on the site and themed pages for artists' work they find interesting. Like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, the site is searchable through hashtags and search terms and it’s about following specific people and themes that you can share with others on the site.
“The idea is that artists shouldn’t just always be promoting their own stuff all the time and it’s good to acknowledge when somebody else is doing a good job. So we’re working on creating that curation system,” Chirico says.
The Curensea creators believe that attaching a base monetary value to this kind of online patronage, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction for a society that enjoys creative work, but doesn’t always appreciate how it got to them or the person who made it. Taking the time to click the “tip” button is a gradual step toward making that connection, which ultimately makes us all richer in more ways than one.
“We’re trying to change the mindset that people don't have to pay for stuff they see online. People are like ‘why should I pay?’” Kochan says. “And we’re like ‘because someone made something really cool and you're enjoying it.’ You don’t have to pay a lot. Half a penny is already more than if people just put it up for free. But it’s about getting people to change that mindset and buy in and support this mission.”