I feel sorry for Jeff Jarvis, because he’s fighting the good fight, and I’m not sure how this war is to be waged. Can we tell people that getting paid to promote stuff is bad for blogging? That the promotion of stuff requires a credibility with one’s readers that is established independent of an ad campaign, if not opposed to the very concept of being an ad?
The deep problem Jarvis is running up against is that blogging does have to become profitable in some way to the people blogging. This blog you’re reading now is partly the result of years of education, and I still do research, check sources, and ask people questions before I sit down to write anything.
The idea that quality blogging can just emerge out of nowhere at no cost to anyone is preposterous. But many of us who do blog well are putting up with minimal rewards because we recognize how new the medium is, and how much potential it has.
We also recognize that the medium has inherently found a way of exploiting the labor that makes it worthwhile, and that this state of affairs cannot last. Web search companies that drive traffic to my site get something far more valuable than mere money from my writing: they get the credibility that comes from my knowledge, openness, and ability.
Jarvis can see this issue a mile away, to his enormous credit. If we want diverse, quality voices on the Net, we need to reward people substantially at some point. Intangible rewards aren’t going to cut it – the money needs to get to the writers at some point. The main reason for this isn’t elitist, but rather democratic.
We can’t expect people who have seriously busy lives to be on here reading and responding well for little or no reward. I mean, we need to consider why pay-per-post programs “work” – why so many people flock to them. They’re not selling their voice because they’re evil, or even because they’re wrong. They figure, quite rightly, that the only reward that can be had is one that is guaranteed and that they shouldn’t lose out.
Not everyone is going to have a voice as powerful as the WSJ’s editorial board. And why should one labor in the delusion that hearts and minds can be changed when there is money to do things like “eat” readily available?
It’s at this point I need to bring up a related issue. Gracchi has written on the concept of “public reason” in Kant: roughly, the idea is that everyone can discuss legislation/policy in their capacity as a scholar, as someone willing to commit his views to writing.
I urge all of you to read at least the first paragraph of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” I’ve written out a bunch of notes on Kant’s article that will become a longer piece, and the key to that first paragraph is essential for our considerations here. Notice that Kant isn’t really talking about “reason.” He’s talking about being willing to use one’s understanding. In classical terms, that’s more “spiritedness” than “reason,” and note the irony of the words “public reason.” One man alone doesn’t get things entirely correct.
I bring this up because the central task of democratic life is for those who know better to teach those who don’t – see Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech” for this teaching. That doesn’t mean we who may know better dominate, but it also means that all bloggers are not created equal. Even in Kant’s gushing over a “will” to “reason,” one’s capacity as a scholar is what allows one to argue one position or another. A soldier is much better at talking about military issues than another, a pastor on religious issues, etc. are examples Kant uses in “What Is Enlightenment?”
Of course, Kant flirts with relativism and perhaps too much accountability for those who do know. Those who are willing to write are going to be condemned – that’s probably the deepest lesson I’ve learned on the Internet. And Kant does imply that a citizen will be able to say whatever he wants about taxes, since he’s a “scholar” in the sense he pays them.
In the face of these dual concerns – people needing to be paid while not selling their voices, but also a type of expertise being required and respected by a mass audience generally – I wonder if this medium will ever be something more than a mere chaos. Something tells me blogging is a stepping-stone, and nothing more than that. Make friends here, enjoy yourself and learn, but don’t think this can ever be genuinely new media in the sense of “media” being “stable.” The entry costs, ironically enough, are too high to sustain for long, and the ability to think about issues at the highest level leads directly to solipsism here: people will literally see what you write, and then move on, like nothing has been said.
Don’t sell your voice because this medium needs you as dispassionate; rather, don’t sell your voice because you need the credibility in all other endeavors you’ll have beyond this.