Friday, October 28, 2011

Weekend Reading: The New Economy Edition

I've been thinking (and reading) a lot lately about "the new economy," or, since that term is a bit vague, about how changes in how we consume entertainment have brought changes to industries like publishing, journalism, and music.

This isn't a new thing for me to be thinking about, but it got bumped up my mental priority list recently when I read this Slate article about the troubles of the creative class. I think the article is a bit overwrought, but I can understand where its coming from- the rules by which creative types tried to make a living have all changed, and no one really knows what the new rules are. It seems that one group of middle men have been replaced by another, and if anything, it has gotten harder for the "content producers" (formerly known as artists, writers, and musicians) to figure out how to make a living.

The Economist has a less "woe is me" take on this, at least for the music industry, and there was also a recent Slashdot thread on the upheaval Amazon is causing by trying to sign authors directly.

I think all of these changes create both problems and opportunities for people who like to create things that can be digitized, like writing and music. It is almost certainly getting harder to land a standard full time job as a writer, and as the Economist article describes, it is getting harder to land a record deal. But opportunities to succeed without first winning over a gatekeeper (i.e., publisher or record company) are increasing, too- the problem is, no one can really tell you how to do that, so everyone is left to figure out a path on their own. There are some spectacular successes (i.e., Dooce), who have definitely worked hard for their success. But for every successful person, there are tens- probably hundreds or thousands- of people who tried to make a go of it in this "new economy" and failed. So there is a huge component of what we'd call "FM" at work- that stands for "f#@&ing magic", and at work it refers to systems whose workings we don't understand. FM is a scary and frustrating thing, because it leaves you feeling out of control.

Still, I find this fascinating. We are living in a time when entire industries are being restructured. We're watching the new rules get written, and in some cases helping to write them. So, even though I have never logged into Klout and have no interest in finding out what my Klout score is, I found Bon Stewart's discussion of the recent change in the Klout algorithm, and the problems with using something like Klout in the first place, interesting, particularly because we seem to be heading towards a model where we "pay" for things by watching/reading ads for other things.

Here's what I said over there (with a few typos fixed):


Anyway, what I wonder is- how much of this big businessification of social media is our own fault? We all expect all of our web activities to be free. We don’t pay for Facebook, the various things Google provides, Twitter, the blog posts we read… none of it. It is all free to us. But people are spending their time and effort creating not just the content but the platforms upon which that content is shared. And many (maybe even most) of those people will rightfully expect to be paid for the their efforts. If we, the consumers, won’t pay them- and we won’t- then they have to turn elsewhere, i.e., to businesses who see the value in using these things to increase their market share. Which will inevitably lead to people changing their products (be it blog posts, Klout algorithms, or Facebook privacy policies) to better serve the businesses, because they are the audience that is paying the bills.
And with so many people blocking ads, businesses are often going to want to do more than just buy ad space, so we see the growth of other creative ways to deliver their content to us or extract value from us (e.g., by aggregating and selling usage data).

Of course, it is tricky- if a platform or a blogger panders too much to business, they will lose the currency business cares about (i.e., user base/readers). But for many platform companies and, yes, many bloggers, those users or readers are just a path to the dollars from the businesses, and we’d do well to remember that.


There are problems with this "content is free" model. As I say in my comment, if we won't pay people for their work, they'll try to find a way to get paid, and, as a recent post from David Wescott describes, this can lead to fraud. (And of course, there have been many earlier kerfuffles about being paid to blog without disclosing it, selling your blog out for a few coupons, etc., etc. I'll leave the uncovering of the posts on those as an exercise for the reader... i.e., I'm too lazy to go find them.)

I am hopeful that we will find our way to a better model, that allows people to be paid for their work without quite so much risk of corruption. But that is in no way guaranteed, which is why one of the things I think hasn't received enough attention in all of the discussion about Steve Jobs and his legacy, is the fact that he came up with a model that made micropayments actually work. We will apparently pay $0.99 for a lot of things that we used to take for free- not just music, but also things that we used to get for free on the web, as we turn to specialized "apps" instead of websites.

I wonder what the next innovation that convinces us pay for the things we use will be. Or if we will actually figure out how to make advertizing work for the individual content producer and not just the big companies that sell the ads, like Google. To the extent that I play around with monetizing this blog, it is to explore some of these questions. I am experimenting, but not in a rigorous way, since I am both the subject and the observer, and not in a way that is likely to actually answer any of these questions, since my readership is so small.

But the questions are interesting to me, particularly from my safe spot where I can call this blog a hobby and make the money that actually helps support my family in other ways.

Then, Blue Milk linked to me in one of her link round up posts. I was quite honored by that- my little post about men writing about work-life balance is in some good company there- including a post from The Boxcar Kids. Reading that post brought this new economy stuff all back to stark reality. For some people, these aren't just interesting questions, but questions whose answers impact how well they can feed their kids. So, if you want to do something good today, turn off your ad block and click through to that blog (because Google ads do pay for page views, not just clicks). And maybe click on one of those ads (because Google pays more for a click). Or, if you're going to buy something on Amazon anyway, click through from that site (because Amazon referral fees make more money than Google ads, in my experience). And if you know of other blogs for which these questions about how to pay for the words we read are of concrete importance, leave a link in the comments section- I promise I'll go pay them a visit, too.


  1. Interesting things to think about. Though I'm not so sure that many of the folks who are making $$ in this "New Economy" "worked hard to get there" as you say. I'd say it's more about luck and timing than specifically hard work on their part. (I'm specifically talking about the megabloggers here.)

    I think there are a lot of people who work hard at writing, making music, etc, and who may actually have *more* talent than the ones who are successful, but just don't have the luck/timing the others did.

    Which is why I am glad to make my money in a field where success does actually seem to correlate linearly with working harder/achieving success the traditional way, without relying on 'FM' (for the most part, anyway). Because I think it might drive me crazy if I just had to wait and hope for that "big break".

  2. An increasingly large proportion of op-ed writers are no longer on the payroll of newspapers. They are public intellectuals with tenure at universities. Their writing is subsidized.

    My blog is subsidized by the American tax-payers that pay me for my day job. For that, I give thanks and try to provide informative and jargon-free posts.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.