Transparency Report: 2023
Another year at The New Oil draws to a close. Let's discuss.
Last year, I kept my goals small. I stated that my main goals were time management – namely to reclaim some free time – and general growth. I specifically cited a desire to do better with Open Collective, a commitment to use more cryptocurrency, and floated the idea of creating a companion workbook for the site, a Tor exit node, and a public Session group. I also mentioned being more consistent with blogging. Time management was hit or miss. I did manage to shave away some distractions and improve my workflow – a constant struggle – so I feel like I did have a bit more time in my day. There's still room for improvement, but overall I did an okay job. I also think I did much better with blogging consistency, though again things started to fall apart later in the year. Everything else pretty much failed. I did not start an exit node, Session group, or workbook. I don't have much else to add to that, I'm realizing now that I never really set any tangible, measurable goals so it's really hard to pin down exactly how well I did. But I think the fact that I've managed to reclaim some free time (and again, plan to continue to do so) really counts as a win. That's what really makes the project sustainable is my ability to manage stress and keep pushing forward with the limited time I have.
As you can see, a number of services are missing from the list this year, including Twitter, Odysee, Matrix, Discord, and Reddit. Twitter has been deleted. Due to changes in Twitter's management my reach on Twitter was severely hampered, making it virtually impossible to reach new audiences without paying (and I don't want to support to the new management). Furthermore, due to additional changes from said management, I am unable to crosspost from a single source anymore, meaning I would have to queue up posts twice each day – once for Mastodon, and once for Twitter. Due to these and other concerns, I have decided Twitter is no longer a platform I wish to be associated with and deleted my account. Likewise, I no longer have any interest in being active on Odysee. I will continue to crosspost videos there as it costs me literally zero effort or money, but I no longer actively maintain or engage with that space. You can see more details in this blog post. Bluesky is a new addition. At this time, this purely an experiment. I've found a service that lets me crosspost to both Bluesky and Mastodon – it's not as slick as I would like, but it does mean I don't have to schedule posts twice using two different services. Bluesky may not stand the test of time, but for now I'm willing to dip my toes in the water and see how it goes. Regarding Matrix, Discord, and Reddit, see the “2024 Goals” section below.
Overall, growth was steady and consistent this year. If I had to pick one area of note, I would say it's TikTok. I understand most people have very negative opinions (to put it nicely) of TikTok for a variety of reasons. For what it's worth, I'm with you. While I'm not one of those hardcore “ban TikTok, it brings no value to society” people I do agree that it's an extremely problematic platform (again, putting it nicely). That said, there is clearly a huge swath of people on there who are interested – at least somewhat – in hearing about privacy and security, as evidenced by the over 500 subscribers and the tens of thousands of views I've amassed in a single year. I know by TikTok standards that's not much, but it's something (especially given the fact that I've not been very active or consistent) and perhaps I can be the gateway person who helps introduce these people to privacy and get them started in their journey. One comment now forever burned into my memory on my video about the MOVEit breach (posted in August 2023) was from someone who said they were struggling to explain to their non-English-speaking immigrant parents how exactly their 16-year-old child's data ended up in the hands of a company they'd never heard of or done business with and then been stolen. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but my heart hurts for these kind of people. It's unlikely that they don't care about privacy, it's far more likely that they simply aren't aware of how bad the situation is, what the potential consequences are, or what they can do about it. I was once one of those people. Right now TikTok requires little effort from me and my messages seems to be received well enough, therefore until that changes I will continue to post. (Side note: it requires little effort from me thanks to the excellent video editing work from volunteer HestiaHacker. They sell privacy-respecting smart thermostats based on Raspberry Pis. If that sounds interesting to you, please check them out and support them to thank them for their work with us.)
|Income: Surveillance Report
|Income: YouTube Ads
|Income: Affiliate Links
|Expenses: Operations & Infrastructure
|Expenses: Content & Reviews
Let's start with the elephant in the room: The New Oil is – on paper – nearly a thousand dollars in the red ($919.55, to be exact). Don't panic, I don't believe there's any reason to worry. This year we saw a significant amount of one-time investments that heavily skewed our typical spending patterns. For example, in the “production” category, I bought a new camera lens. That alone was over $800 (which accounts for nearly all of the deficit). But a camera lens is a one-time purchase. In fact, if I take care of it, the camera lens can easily last me decades, maybe even the rest of my life. And being that my only use for it is filming YouTube videos, I don't foresee myself ever needing to purchase another one or it suffering any significant damage. At very least I can't see myself outgrowing it any time in the next few years. We also bought a mic, lights, a camera tripod, and other similar expenses. Of course, that's not to say I'll never need to make any large purchases like that again, but this year the focus was improving the quality of videos – which has definitely been our weakest spot and had the most room for improvement. I feel confident that I have procured all the major necessary components to do that – lights, mic, lens, teleprompter – and any further tweaks from here on out should be incremental and less expensive.
Analyzing the income: as I have long said, Surveillance Report is by far my biggest source of funds. It is literally 70% of our gross income. This was also the first year The New Oil were eligible for YouTube ads, and honestly I'm kind of surprised we made as much as we did, partially because I've always heard “YouTube ads don't pay for crap” (which is relatively true, they were 3.4% of our income), and also because I fell off making videos pretty hard in the second half of the year and figured that would seriously hinder my growth and views. I'm certain it didn't help but the channel did seem to do okay regardless. I'm also including our affiliate income – despite only being $26.07 – for the sake of transparency. It's so small that GnuCash actually lumped it in with “others” category (at the bottom of the list) in the pie chart, but since affiliates are the most common conflicts of interest for content creators like myself, I figured it was worth listing. Finally, let's talk about sponsorships and contributions. Earlier in the year, we lost our only sponsorship on account of rising prices. While I believe this was the right choice (you can read more about that here), it also means we took a significant financial hit. We have yet to garner any interest from any sponsors that meet our standards, so at this time I expect that next year that category will likely hit zero and drop off entirely. I'm not sure when it'll come back, but I'm okay with that. While a sponsorship would indeed be a significant income boost, I think we'll be okay with out any for now.
That pretty much just leaves our final source of income for the future: contributions. Our main source of income after Surveillance Report is one-time or recurring contributions. Sadly these decreased this year, but I get it. It was a rough year all around. Inflation is really taking a crowbar to everyone's kneecaps (my household included), housing prices are really screwing over renters (like myself), and layoffs were constant (thankfully I've avoided that one). It sucks but I don't have anything to say here, I'm not gonna ask people who are struggling paycheck to paycheck to donate. If you do have some discretionary funds and would like to help us keep growing – or at least maintain – it's always appreciated, but of course if you're also struggling to figure out how to make the grocery budget work even after cutting out comfort foods and luxuries, I don't expect you to sacrifice for this project. My last note on this category is I was surprised to see where our contributions come from: Liberapay was by far our biggest contribution category at $295.90. Open Collective was $164.20 and the rest came from PayPal. As a final note about income, we have re-instituted a Patreon. This was not included because I had autopay disabled, but we only made about $12 this year anyways (because of my slow production schedule). I have Patreon set to only charge patrons when I release an early-access video (hopefully once-per-month this year, see Goals below). Lastly, the merch store finally turned a profit at $83.92 this year – which isn't much but it pays for a year of VPS hosting so I call that a win.
Now let's talk about expenses. By far our biggest expense category was “operations and infrastructure.” This is usually almost entirely hosting and domain costs, but also includes a few smaller expenses like Postmark (the service we use to send emails for our instances like password resets and such) and subscriptions for email and such. However, this year, this category also had a few large one-time expenses. For example, earlier in the year I spent $279 on thenewoil.com. I have no plans for this domain name, but I didn't want someone to buy it up and then try to impersonate or phish people in the future. That was a huge expense, but the renewal rate is astronomically cheaper, somewhere in the ballpark of $18/year, so it seemed worthwhile to snag it now before someone else did something malicious with it. I also have some plans to try and reduce the infrastructure cost a bit, which I'll discuss in the Goals section. Finally, I pay for the a Calyx hotspot. I consider this an operational expense because I use it frequently when I travel for both TNO (such as Monerotopia) and the day job. It's often faster and more stable than hotel Wi-Fi and it allows me to continue to post articles and work while I'm on the road. This year I'm hoping to get my day job to pitch in a little for this expense since I also use it quite generously at work: it's unlimited and we frequently work in places without any Wi-Fi, and the hotspot tends to be faster and more reliable than a phone hotspot (and doesn't cost people their data). I mention this expense specifically because for some reason I ended paying for that twice this fiscal year: once in January and again December. I'm not sure why it wasn't the same month both times, but that's how it shook out, and as a result it raised our expense in this category by an extra $500. I guess we'll see if it wants to me to pay next December or if it won't show up on 2024's finances.
Production was another high-expense category. As I discussed earlier, this includes a few considerable one-time expenses, like the camera lens, but also includes things I use to create the content like my Slate Digital audio plugins subscriptions (although Slate finally introduced cheaper annual plans, so this year was once again slightly more expensive because we had to purchase both the monthly subscription for most of the year before being able to switch to the much-larger-up-front annual subscription). As stated, I expect to see this category revert back to a significantly smaller number next year as the equipment we currently have is high quality, future-proofed, and should be everything we need to produce high-quality content for quite some time, at least until the channel experiences significantly more growth.
Next, content & reviews. Normally this refers to things that I do specifically with the intention of making a video or blog post about it: a subscription to test or review a service or product like the Nitrokey, SPN, or other similar things. This year, however, we had yet more one-time expenses in this category. When my wife and I moved into our new home, I immediately called dibs on a specific corner to film content in. Because this was a significantly bigger space than before, I needed to add some decor to fill it out more and make it more interesting to watch – similar to people like Naomi Brockwell or The Linux Experiment. As such, that meant procuring some new items like picture frames, shelves, book ends, and more. As with the other one-time expenses, I think I'm content with the background I currently have for now, and while I may add little things here and there going forward I don't foresee a need to invest significantly in things like that again. Even if the available space changes in another home I suspect it would be smaller, not larger. This is one of the larger spaces I've lived in and I don't foresee us being able to afford a bigger space any time soon.
Finally, a new category: charity. With the rise in income, I figured it would be appropriate for me to start giving back to some to some of the projects that help make TNO possible or that TNO benefits from. Right now I've mainly donated to Signal and Tor. In the coming year I want to add in projects like Mastodon, Matrix, and PeerTube. I am open to consideration of other projects, but as I said I want to start with projects we directly use or benefit from.
Okay, let's start with a major announcement: TNO communities are going away. All of them. Immediately. That's why they're not included in the growth table above. By the end of Q1 2024 (that's March 31st), I will be closing down both Matrix and Discord. Reddit has already been invite-only for quite some time. There are a lot of reasons for this. The biggest one is that managing communities is simply no longer how I want to spend my limited time. Even with good moderators – which I have – managing a community is a considerable time commitment. Also the more I think about it, the less hosting TNO-specific communities makes sense in the context of my broader mission statement for TNO. There are already a plethora of great privacy-focused spaces on all of those platforms, as well as project-specific spaces where you can go get help and ask questions about specific services. But TNO has never been about getting people to become hardcore privacy zealots who join privacy forums and talk about privacy nonstop. It was always about helping “normies” feel empowered to protect their privacy and to integrate privacy into their existing lives in a way that's as non-intrusive as possible. Think of it as the difference between an accountant and someone with an emergency fund and a retirement account: the accountant has made finance their life, the other person has simply made smart decisions regarding finance that benefit their life (which isn't finance-centered). TNO has never been about making people accountants, rather about helping them integrate smart habits and choices that set them up for success as they go about their normal lives. To that end, it doesn't make sense to host a bunch of rooms where people can only talk about privacy. I would rather help people find other communities on privacy-respecting platforms like Matrix, Mastodon, and Lemmy that are already dedicated to their existing “normal,” everyday interests like video games, sports, and pop culture. Based on my experience and observations, I believe that this will be a more effective approach to helping privacy reach mainstream adoption.
Therefore, I will be shifting focus toward hosting instances as a way to help support this goal. Some of you may have noticed on Mastodon that I have already moved over to our own instance. And of course, we've have long had a PeerTube instance. I also just recently spun up a Matrix instance (matrix.thenewoil.org). You are all welcome at any of these places. All of our instances require moderator approval, but this is simply a formality to discourage spammers from abusing the platform. (For Matrix, I had to get a little creative on how to implement that, you can apply for an account here.) Consider this a soft launch for Matrix since it still needs a lot of features to be configured (such as Sliding Sync) but you can feel free to sign up and suggest any improvements you notice are needed on any of these platforms. You can also contact me if you want to be able to upload videos to PeerTube and we discuss that, too. That's only disabled by default because videos take up so much space and storage is expensive (see the previous section on Finances).
Just to be clear, I like the TNO community. I have valued every person who helped it grow and contributed. I have valued the jokes, the insight, the conversation, and the friendship. But the privacy community is a big space, and I trust that those same contributions can be replicated in other spaces to equal or greater effect. Right now this is the best path forward for me and the project at large. It will help me realign my values and focus on the original mission while also dedicating the resources needed to help TNO continue to serve both the privacy community at large and new audiences.
The other major plan for 2024 that should be visible to the public is that I'm going to attempt to be more consistent with videos again. A major reason for investing in a new lens and teleprompter was so that I could produce videos that both look more professional (because I can read a script while looking at the camera) but also make editing faster – because I can, ya know, read a script, which means less pausing to look at my notes, less rambling, less empty space while I collect my thoughts or struggle for the right words. This in turn means less stuff to cut, which means the video will be ready much sooner for effects and “b-roll” (like articles, stock footage, etc). That'll only save an hour or two per video, but with how tight my time constraints are those couple hours can be a week-long difference for me. I'm also going to once again reaffirm my commitment to trying to keep Crowdin updated (it often slips my mind, I'm so sorry but I appreciate all of who have been helping with site translation) and to document expenses in Open Collective better.
There's a lot more planned in 2024, but the vast majority of it will be behind the scenes. This relates heavily to what I discussed in the financial breakdown. For example, I want to switch from CPanel hosting to a VPS for the website. This will reduce the amount of data collected from visitors and make updating both the hidden service and the clearnet site easier and quicker. I'm also working with a developer to create more automation for things like backups and possible freemium features for some of the instances. Perhaps the biggest behind-the-scenes change is a planned migration from 1984 to Namecheap. This is a purely financial decision. Consider, for example, that a VPS #2 from 1984 (which I use for both PeerTube and Mastodon) is $12/month. By comparison, Namecheap's Pulsar VPS costs $6.88/month (if you buy yearly, but even monthly is only $9.88) and includes more CPU cores. 1984 offers more storage and bandwidth, but so far neither of those has been a concern for me. This is even more evident as you scale up. Namecheap's Quasar plan is 4/6/120/3TB for $12.88/15.88, compared to 1984's VPS #4 4/8/160/5TB at $48 or VPS #5 6/16/320/8TB for $96. If you don't know what that means, just leave it at “as my server demands grow, Namecheap will increasingly become the more affordable option.”
Thank you everyone who helped make The New Oil what it is today. Whether that was financial support, opening an issue, participating in the community, sending a story to Surveillance Report, sharing a video or page, whatever. Every little bit you do helps, and it is hugely appreciated. I think 2024 will be the year I finally really streamline things and really smooth out the process. Running this project has been a learning experience for me and I'm glad to have your support and have you along for that journey. I'm not expecting huge growth in 2024, but if I can follow through on my goals this year I think it'll really put us in a strong position to take advantage of future opportunities. Stay safe out there, and happy new year.