Tuesday: 09/10/02

Permanent Vocation
So, BloggingNetwork.com, what do you think?

John Scalzi says he'll "be very surprised if the Blogging Network worked to any financially useful extent for the bloggers involved." Andrew Sullivan agrees with him.

Sullivan's already making some money from blogging, so of course he's going to say that -- who wants competition? And in general, the smart bet's on failure, obviously, since people won't spend a dime on web content unless it's for something extremely important, like SaveKaryn.com. But along with the welcoming eulogies Bloggingnetwork.com has prompted, shouldn't there be some welcoming well wishes too? I am always happy to see these efforts to commercialize the blogosphere (good luck to Blogads.com too!), because if enough people work to establish the notion that independently produced online content is something worth paying for, then maybe some people will actually start paying for it…

Not everyone, of course -- but if online porn has a paying audience, then why not other kinds of content too? Porn's success is often attributed to its utility: just like financial news, it's information you actually "act on" in a way that you don't with general news or entertainment. But of course this is nonsense: has anyone who ever really, really wanted to liquidate the inventory refrained from doing so simply because s/he didn't have any porn at hand? Ultimately, porn is just as unessential as any other kind of content; it's just harder to get. Free sites offer more pop-up ads than actual content, UseNet has its own hassles. In general, the industry works hard to make the free experience substantially different than the paid one: as a result, there's actually an incentive to pay. And ultimately what the online porn industry ends up selling isn't porn so much as it is convenience and personalization. Customers pay to get lots of exactly what they want in one place, and, in the case of smaller sites run by one or two flauntrepreneurs, a level of interaction the larger sites can't match.

Other forms of online content have yet to really figure out how to truly differentiate what they're charging for from what they're giving away for free. Salon makes its paid product a little more convenient than its free one by eliminating advertising. It offers a little more content too, but it's just more of the same content. In the end, for many people, the free service is probably too satisfactory and the paid service doesn't offer a different enough experience to warrant the $30 a year it costs to subscribe.

Bloggers obviously face the same challenge. If you're selling the same thing you're giving away for free, and if thousands of other bloggers are giving it away for free too, why will anyone pay for it? One answer: instead of selling your writing, take a cue from the webcam girls and sell your attention. This is basically what Andrew Sullivan has done with his book club, and what various others do by thanking people who make donations with a link. But it could be taken further too, with subscriber-only message-boards or email lists. These kinds of ideas will probably only work for the most popular bloggers (and maybe not even for them), but so what? If you're writing a blog for a few hundred daily readers, it probably should just be an avocation. But if you're getting a few thousand daily readers, why not aspire to something more than amateur status?

"The act of blogging (or of writing online in other forms) offers some tremendous advantages for writers and readers that are fundamentally based in its 'we're doing it because we love to' nature," writes Scalzi, as part of his take on why it's not really that crucial to professionalize blogging (and other forms of online writing). But I would argue that that's exactly why people should try to professionalize blogging, and other kinds of independently produced online content too. Readers like blogs because their authors aren't forced into producing work that must be fit into the forms that most commercial media outlets will allow. Word-counts, schedules, tone -- all of these things and more shape what can or can't be put into an article for a traditional professional media outlet (both offline and on).

Sometimes constraints like that can be good, but other times, it's more interesting to read writers that have complete freedom to do whatever they want. Blogs offer that freedom, but if blogs don't also provide some kind of income, they'll never be any writer's first priority. And as long as that's the case, the Web will continue to function as it has for the last eight years or so: as a worldwide, around-the-clock open mike night. Talented writers (along with animators, filmmakers, musicians, etc.) put their work up on the web for all to see, and then eventually they get paying jobs working for professional media entities. That can be a good thing, because it can mean access to more resources and larger audiences. But it can be a bad thing too, because of the aforementioned constraints…

The other day, in the course of explaining how newspapers should fix themselves, Nick Denton asked, "And what on earth is a gifted writer like Ken Layne doing without a job? Give Ken Layne a column." But even a column in the most accommodating media outlet will impose constraints on Ken Layne that he's free of at Kenlayne.com, so instead of fixing newspapers, why not just fix the blogosphere by making it a place where bloggers have a shot at earning a nominal income?

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen until a lot more people decide that paying for online content is an opportunity rather than a nuisance. In the realm of digital music, people talk about how they would love to pay their favorite artists directly if they just had mechanisms for doing so. Well, in the blogosphere, those mechanisms -- Paypal buttons, Amazon tip jars, and now more powerful tools like Blogging Network -- exist, but how many bloggers are making even $5000 a year for their efforts? Is it any wonder the record industry (and it should be said, a lot of musicians too) isn't as excited about the prospects of MP3 downloads as fans? (Another related question for bloggers and blog-readers: do you buy more print publications now than you once did, or fewer?)

As the growth of the blogosphere over the last year has shown, the Web is an incredible channel for distributing unconventional, non-common-denominator media that traditional corporate media channels will never touch. But as long as people insist that web content, and especially independently created web content like blogs, isn't worth paying for, the Web will never reach its full potential. After all, a free web (or an ad-sponsored web) ends up favoring traditional, corporate media: they're the ones who can afford to subsidize consistent content creation over long periods of time; they're the ones with the scale to make advertising at least potentially viable; they're the ones who can buy up the best talent that emerges.

Now, I like traditional, corporate media just fine: add up my cable bills, magazine subscriptions, CD and book purchases, movie tickets, AOL subscription, Nexis.com charges, Rhapsody subscription, and anything else I'm forgetting, and I end up spending several thousands dollars each year on media, with the overwhelming majority of it going to a few corporate behemoths. But while I spend a lot of time watching TV and listening to music and reading the various publications I subscribe to, I also spend a lot of time reading blogs and other kinds of independently produced online content. I support them too, but not nearly as much: off-hand, I think I've given around $50 to bloggers and other independent online content creators this year.

Which is not to say I want to start spending as much on independent online content as I do on other forms of media. Just that I should probably spend some more. And tools like Bloggingnetwork.com, which makes it easier to support independent content, and blogads.com, which actually gives you something in return for supporting independent content, are a valuable addition to the blogosphere. Will they survive? Who knows? But I think it's great that they're here, and hope to see an increasing number of similar efforts.

-- G. Beato

09/09/02: VH-1 Uber Alles
09/08/02: Sloppy Second-guessing
09/06/02: Friday Follow-ups
09/05/02: Bury Them Deep
09/04/02: White Gold
09/02/02: 24 Hour Party People
08/29/02: Slender: Liberal Lies About Ann Coulter

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