Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blogger unionisation

Chris Mooney followed up his Columbia Journalism Review article with a post at The Intersection (his blog at ScienceBlogs) in which he notes the attention that the issue has attracted attention from Slashdot and Andrew Sullivan, but that it seems a bit too radical an idea for a lot of people.

At Slashdot, in response to the comment that "they get zero compensation for their products being distributed over the Internet", a poster replied "The vast majority of them earn every penny of that." The other argument, which Simon Owens made in response to this topic on my WordPress blog, was that there are far too many "semi-pro" bloggers waiting to take over if the A-listers went on strike.

I think that Mooney addressed the first point pretty well:
At the same time, though, there’s sense in diversity when it comes to compensation: not all bloggers should be treated equally with respect to remuneration. Most bloggers, after all, don’t draw very much traffic; neither are they part of a blogging conglomerate that is making real money selling advertisements. Were bloggers to organize, a threshold would have to be established between blogging “for fun” and blogging in a way that should be considered “labor”—between amateurs and professionals, if you will.
He also pointed out that the distinction between an amateur and a pro shouldn't be whether you have a day job. Most blogs aren't generating significant income for anyone. Obviously, if you simply blog to let your friends and family know what you are up to, the issue of compensation is moot. That said, you should still have the opportunity to join a Bloggers Guild. You never know when someone will decide that your personal exploits are interesting enough to re-post. It never hurts to organise.

The second point is more relevant. If the A-listers went on strike, the B-listers would say "sign me up!" The "industry standard" at the present time is to not pay bloggers. Most people blog because they want their words to be read. If you are getting paid nothing to blog in obscurity, and someone offered you the opportunity to make the same amount of money on a far more prominent platform, many people would jump at the opportunity. The key here is to get people to recognise the value of their labour. Part of that may lie in getting people to realise that people are making money off your labour. In some cases it probably doesn't matter - people who post diaries at places like Daily Kos are doing so as activists. Their aim is to change opinions and get candidates elected. In addition, of course, Markos is sharing the wealth - he is paying his frontpagers, and Daily Kos is sponsoring political events. But even in a case like that, it's useful to give people a sense of the value that they are creating.

Of course, when it comes to comparing A-listers with B-listers, there is an issue of quality. The top tier draw traffic because of who they are and because of what they have to say. B-listers might be just as good writers, they might be just as insightful commentators, but fewer people will read them because they are relatively unknown. At some point, the difference in value makes it worth paying the A-listers. But if the A-listers never ask to be paid for their labour, the entire argument is moot.


simon owens said...

I guess I don't exactly understand what you're arguing. In communities like Daily Kos, the user generated content has a collective value but very little individual value, since the content of many of those diaries is low in quality. In that sense, should blog commenters go on strike as well? Technically, by writing this comment here, I'm producing content for your site.

I think with blogging, distinguishing between "labor" and "fun" is too difficult -- especially because programs like adsense make it possible for a site with 50 readers a day to bring in some content.

Also, I disagree that the A-listers are A-listers because of higher quality content. This may be the case for some, but many articles have pointed out that many of the most popular blogs were among to earliest to join the blogosphere -- in other words, it's much more difficult now to become an A-lister than it was several years ago.

I mean, look at Perez Hilton as a prime example. He gets millions of page views a day despite the fact that he is one of the worst bloggers I've ever come across -- and I've come across a lot of blogs. That guy's popularity is a complete fluke, if he would stop posting for like 6 months, I don't think he could make a comeback.

Ian said...

I'm not sure I know what I'm arguing's a blog, I'm thinking out loud :)

I'm not calling for a strike (having a union is not synonymous with striking), but I think that that bloggers should recognise the value of their labour. I don't think that dKos is the best example - most people there would consider their contribution to the cause to be payment enough, and Markos pays at least some of the frontpagers. But HuffPo? I'm bothered by the idea that they don't plan to pay their contributors.

I agree that it's difficult to distinguish "fun" from "labour". I'm not even sure it's a useful distinction. Mooney was trying to make an analogy to the Writers Guild - that they don't include everyone working on a script in their spare time. But every blogger is published.

As for A-listers - maybe I did a poor job of communicating my thoughts (they're always so much more clear in my head), but I was making exactly the opposite point - A-listers create value because they are A-listers. Equally good unknowns don't create the same kind of value. So they, at least, are in a position to ask for compensation.

Technically, by writing this comment here, I'm producing content for your site.
That's a good point. That's actually an excellent point. That does complicate things, doesn't it...

simon owens said...

Yeah, I'm glad to see that Kos pays his front page people -- I always wondered about that.

I've seen reports before that HP doesn't pay most its writers, which I agree seems silly to me, especially since most of those writers make a living writing. I guess the trade-off is increased name recognition, or something like that.

For instance, John Scalzi has 40,000+ readers a day at his blog, and yet he doesn't make any direct income (i.e, advertising) from it. But he can use the blog to increase his celebrity factor, something that I think has helped him sell *a ton* of books. I think that as more and more bloggers crowd around the meager advertising dollars that are so far available on the internet, other bloggers should be looking towards non-traditional ways of making money, like Scalzi.

Anyway, I find your blog interesting, so I'm going to add you to my rss reader.