14 April 2009

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

Clay Shirky distributed his essay "Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing" back in 2002, when people were trying to establish "micro-payments" for online transactions, and blogging was just starting to become more than a hobby. He wrote of that new format:

Weblogs are not a new kind of publishing that requires a new system of financial reward. Instead, weblogs mark a radical break. They are such an efficient tool for distributing the written word that they make publishing a financially worthless activity.

It's intuitively appealing to believe that by making the connection between writer and reader more direct, weblogs will improve the environment for direct payments as well, but the opposite is true. By removing the barriers to publishing, weblogs ensure that the few people who earn anything from their weblogs will make their money indirectly.

The search for direct fees is driven by the belief that, since weblogs make publishing easy, they should lower the barriers to becoming a professional writer. This assumption has it backwards, because mass professionalization is an oxymoron; a professional class implies a minority of members. The principal effect of weblogs is instead mass amateurization.

Mass amateurization is the web's normal pattern. Travelocity doesn't make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.
Instead, blogs, and thus publishing of a certain limited sort, have become like press releases--too many to read, always more coming along, and usually more important to the writer/sender than any individual recipient.

The micro-payments that people were talking about when Shirky wrote this eventually came in the form of "eyeballs," supposedly enraptured by online advertising. But the money's not there, at least not in this economy, or not on this platform. (Observers are noticing that people who balk at payments for content over the web experience much less "friction" buying content for their MP3 players or smartphones.)

With newspapers cash-strapped and thinking of charging for online content, once again the economics/ethics of the web swirl around the question of free versus pay-per-view. But Shirky's essay reminds us that, when it comes to words, supply and demand are not in balance. We're in a buyer's market.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, that IS wise.