Monday, October 18, 2010

Is blogging self-exploitation?

It’s surprising that, in spite of all the current talk about the rise of e-readers, shrinking attention spans, and the critical inadequacies of the blogosphere there is very little consideration of the actual work circumstances of the people engaged with this hybrid culture of digital/print production where readers and writers are very often the same. It sometimes seems to me as if there's all this 'culture' out there happening, but no one is really prepared to think about the people doing the work behind it. I'm not sure why this is given that the literary industry is usually pretty good at celebrating the professional personalities that have shaped the culture.

One reason this might be the case is because when it comes to a print/digital hybrid culture it is a lot more difficult for anyone to know who is in control and who is doing what. There is so much going on out there and so much of it is very specifically targeted. While this essay from the New Yorker about Nick Denton, the creator of Gawker (and its affiliate websites), isn't exactly what I have in mind when I talk about considering what it means to do writing work in the digital era I do think it offers some interesting insights about the nature of digital work culture. For instance, Denton paid the first Gawker blogger, Elizabeth Spiers, two thousand dollars a month, on the assumption that posting twelve short items a day in response to things she’d read in the Times or gleaned from other media sources was a part-time commitment. Yep, 'part time work'. Spiers eventually complained and the model was changed, when Gawker took on more staff Denton instituted a system which offered writers a bonus for high page views in addition to a flat $12 per post.

As exploitative at this sounds, poor Spiers had it better than most bloggers who try to make a living. Of particular interest to me are those writers providing content for Australian blogs, and similar, without ever taking into account that there is more to a career in writing than networks, exposure and doing work for free for the sake of experience. The sociologist Andrew Ross has done some excellent research on “the Political Economy of Amateurism” in the creative industries. Ross looks at the unrecognised exploitation that often happens in new formats such as reality television and blogs, where non-professionals are primary content creators but are given none of the rights and benefits of their more traditional counterparts.

While it’s no secret that the Arts sector often calls upon the goodwill and enthusiasm of “emerging” creative types (often young people) to help pick up the slack when it comes to things like ushering, driving, organization and production work it is increasingly common for writers, artists and film makers to complete many unpaid “internships” in the hope that it will lead to something that offers some financial compensation and professional opportunity. When the ABC’s Radio National Book Show announced that it was offering a number of unpaid spots as official bloggers for the program, a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers. If you listen to the podcast from the Book Show during the week that their blog launched you'll hear Romona Koval make some glaring generalisations about blogs and some patronising remarks about bloggers and their audiences (thankfully, this is rescued somewhat by the presence of Sophie Cunningham from Meanjin and Max Magee of the Millions). This is especially unfortunate given that the Book Show blog offers no payment to its writers, and indeed, framed the blog writing gig as a 'competition' which the writers were no doubt 'lucky' to have won. No discussion of their talents, abilities and qualifications were cited. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I'm not the only one. At the time a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers who are using blogs as a way to hone their craft. You can read more about that here and here.

I'll be presenting some ideas and research at a conference in Byron Bay in December this year on this subject; hoping to more thoroughly explore why it is that (young) writers are (too) willing to give away their work and engage in self-exploitation.

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