Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dot Common

Ever see a street mime perform?

Ever watch a parade?

Ever peruse a bulletin board?

Even listen to a friend bitch about the President or Congress?

Ever read a blog?

According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. Who can blame them? Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it. This is not a business model that makes sense.

--Walter Isaacson

The Internet is turning economics inside out. For example, everybody on the Internet now wants stuff for free, and there are so many free services available.

--Uri Geller (I wonder if he now bends spoons for free.)

Ever draw a picture?

Ever play a musical instrument?

Ever compose a poem?

Ever sign a petition?

Ever write a blog?

The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values. By Andrew Keen

--Book title

My problem is that it fundamentally undermines the authority of mainstream media. We think two things going on simultaneously, the rise of the user-generated content, which is unreliable enough and corrupt, and a crisis in professional journalism, professional recorded music, newspapers, radio stations, television and publishing. And that is the core of our culture. Once we undermine the authority and expertise and professionalism of mainstream media, all we have is opinion chaos, a cacophony of amateurs.

--Andrew Keen, in an interview on National Public Radio

In recent years, there's been two charges leveled against the Internet and the blogosphere. One, that it's free, and two, that it's dominated by amateurs.

Let's take the first one first (duh). Is the Internet really free? According to Time Warner Cable of NE Ohio, it's "only" $34.95 a months for a full year. Cox Cable is $32.99 a month. Comcast is "as low as" 19.99 for 6 months, but you have to be an existing customer. AT&T offers $19.95 for a full year. Why is Time Warner and Cox so much more than the other two? I think maybe they have monopolies in certain areas. Of course, you don't need cable or even a telephone if you want access to the Internet. Just go to Starbucks. But they do expect you to at least by a latte. Buy one everyday for a month, and you've spent at least twice as much as if you had gone with Time Warner! Finally, there's the, ahem, library. Even that's your taxpayers dollars at work.

Anyway, getting things for free is not completely unheard of in our capitalistic system. I mentioned some goods and services you don't have to pay for at the very beginning of this essay. However, I left out two of the most significant. You don't have to pay for non-satellite radio (well, you have to buy the actual radio, but you know what I mean), and, if you're willing to settle for just six or seven channels, TV is free as well. Of course, nowadays most of us do pay for TV, and, if you want something "on demand", you pay even more. There was a movement afoot about a year ago to get people to pay even more for specific sites on the Internet, usually those originating in print, but it never went anywhere. More about paying for content at the end of this piece.

The second charge leveled against the Internet, and, more specifically, the blogosphere, is that it's dominated by amateurs. Really? You don't say! Let me peruse the "List of Blogs" at the left to see if this is true. Be right back...

...OK, not counting The Huffington Post, which is more of an online newspaper, only five of the 24 blogs are by professionals, meaning at one time or another these folks have drawn a paycheck for their writing (though not for their blogs, which are free.) I can't say for sure that the other 19 blogs are written by amateurs, since most are using assumed names. There's maybe four I'm not quite sure about. Of the fourteen blogs I'm pretty confident are by amateurs, what will you find? Photography, poetry, essays, autobiography, theology, visual art, travelogues, comic archives, philosophy, and even an occasional short story.

Now, I want you to reexamine the two quotes by Andrew Keen. They're easy to find.

Before the advent of the Internet, amateur photography, amateur poetry, amateur essays, amateur autobiography ("Dear Diary..."), amateur theology ("Now I lay me down to sleep..."), amateur art, amateur travelogues ("Want to see some slides from our trip to Bermuda?") amateur archives ("I'll trade you my 1964 Daredevil with the Wally Wood story for that 1966 Spiderman with the Johnny Romita cover."), amateur philosophy ("Ever wonder if you're the only being that exists and everything else is in your imagination?" "Sorry to interrupt, bub, but you want another?"), and amateur fiction, weren't considered corrupt, chaotic, or a fundamental threat to our values. Instead, they were called hobbies.

Politics isn't usually thought of as a hobby, but people sometimes approach it that way, as Billy Joel once noted ("and the waitress is practicing politics"). It's why campaigns depends so much on volunteers. And some people just like to talk about politics. I'll grant you there's a lot of harsh opinions about politics on the Internet. But you can also find similarly harsh opinions about politics in a bar, (actually, you can find harsh opinions on just about anything in a bar.) Maybe if we'd stop comparing the Internet to older media such as TV or newspapers and instead to Earth as a whole, we might have a better understanding of it. It's not called the World Wide Web for nothing.

On my profile page, I call myself a writer, but it's not my profession. Would I like it to be my profession? Sure. Would I like to make a lot of money writing? You bet. Would I like to achieve such heights of success and renown through writing that I'm asked to replace Simon Cowell as a judge on American Idol? Damn right I would! But if none of that comes to pass, if writing can't be my profession, I still want it as a hobby, even at the risk of undermining the authority of the mainstream media.

Speaking of that mainstream media, just what is it that makes the likes of Andrew Keene so hostile to the lowly amateur? Wouldn't simple indifference be enough? It was before the Internet. Maybe it's just frustrating to climb up the media ladder, only to have it seemingly kicked out from under you by a temp with a laptop.

There's now a consensus that the mainstream media's big mistake was putting its' wares on the Internet at no extra charge. Doing so blurred the distinction between the professional and the amateur. Does Howard Stern broadcast on ham radio? Does Jonathan Franzen leave 100,000 words on the bathroom wall? Does Plácido Domingo join in when you sing in the shower? No to all of these. Yet on the Internet, the Aristocracy--print newspapers and magazines--live on the same block as the Great Unwashed, aka amateur bloggers.

I first wanted to write about this over a year ago, but couldn't quite get my mind around it (a recent post by fellow blogger Elisabeth made me want to revisit the subject.) At that time it looked like newspapers and magazines might go extinct. Since then, however, an unlikely savior has emerged: Steve Jobs. I understand that those who own and control the mainstream media are excited by that new iPad of his. As consumers aren't accustomed to getting things for free on such devices, media titans can now charge for subscriptions to such formally printed material as The New York Times , or Better Homes and Gardens.

So it looks like the professionals might get to keep their cherished hierarchy after all, while leaving the rest of the Internet to the amateurs, the proletariat, the teeming masses.

Works for me.


  1. Kirk, you've outdone yourself. Professional or not, you are truly a writer. This was a great op/ed piece if I ever read one. Long live the internet.

  2. Great piece! I think you could make your living as a writer but I'm glad you have your hobbyblog instead. This one should get picked up by Huffington.

  3. Andrew Keen's opinion is sour grapes. Being paid for opinions or news stories doesn't make the opinions any less idiotic, or the news story any more factual. The Internet has been the great leveler; it allows a forum for those of us who don't want to chase around for publication. So what if no one is putting money in my pocket? If I was trying to make a living writing I wouldn't be making any money, anyway. There is a lot of snobbery about self-publishing; some from the public--"if he's not getting paid for it then it can't be any good"--and some of it is from writers who are in the traditional system of submitting a written work and having it be either rejected or go through a series of editors for approval.

    Your piece, bless you, is excellent; it's as fine an opinion on the ongoing Internet/print debate as I've read. It deserves more circulation.

  4. kirk, i am stunned by this piece. what an excellently written, well thought out, insightful read. oh yes, you are a writer. and then some.

  5. I'm a bit overwhelmed here...

    @Badger--Thank you for your kind comment, Badger. Funny thing is, about five years ago, I was wishing the Internet and the whole digital revolution would just go away. Now, here I am defending it! One of these days I'm going to have to do a post about my misadventures in learning how to use a computer.

    Dreamfarm--Oh, I think just about everybody on my blogroll is talented, including you, Dreamfarm. Which reminds me, I've got to catch up on all the blogs since I've been concentrating on this for the past week. The Huffington Post? Oh, yeah, me and Alec Baldwin. Thank you for your kind comment, Dreamfarm.

    @El Postino--"those of us who don't want to chase around for publication."

    Rejection slips never bothered me. It's the LENGTH OF TIME it takes getting a rejection slip that's so irksome. Must I really wait two years to find out my work sucks? At the risk of repeating myself, thank you for your kind comment, El Postino.

    @standing--Well thought out? Um, I was actually thinking of making a few minor changes, THEN it will be well thought out. Thank you for your ki--NICE comment, standing (don't want Andrew Keene thinking there's no originality on the Internet.)

    @Everybody--All kidding aside, I'm very happy, almost to the point of embarrasment, that this went over so well.

  6. I forgot the @ for Dreamfarm Girl. didn't mean to slight her.

  7. Great piece.

    I used to be paid for my musical offerings and some of my writing. Now that I'm an old lady, I find more satisfaction in just posting my music on YouTube and writing things here and on bathroom walls.

  8. Good to hear from you again, Kass.

    I thought you might be a professional musician based on a few things I've read and seen on your blog. That you were once a professional writer surprises me a little. Not because you can't write; you write very well (and I have to say, not to rush you or anything, but I miss reading your blog.) It's just that you're so generous in your praise to both myself and other bloggers, that I assumed you were a new writer easily enthralled with those you might have thought were more experienced. Now, I realize YOU are the one that's more experienced, thus making your praise even MORE generous. With that in mind, I thank you for your kind comment.

    My bathroom wall line probably wasn't the best comparison in the world. I guess I was going for the easy laugh. Be careful what you read on the web.