Distributed Solidarity for Bloggers (link to it! link to it!)

A Wall Street Journal article is making the rounds, titled "America's Newest Profession."

No, not Urban Small Game Management!


The point of the article is that some 500,000 people or thereabout (in the USA) can under some measure of statistics be said to be considered "professional" bloggers, as in, making a substantial amount of money through clicks, freelance writing, or advertising and product placement.

None of which is really news to anyone who read the Technorati State of the Blogosphere 2008 report. (Oh you didn't? Ah--you must be the sort who reads the WSJ.)

Apart from the notable fact that the revenue model is still ad-based, with the EXCEPTION of the click-through (which is the selling of access, not of media proper--an important difference discussed elsewhere) this is really not such big news. I mean, maybe there are half a million Urban Small Game wardens in the country. Who knows? Who cares? I mean, when I see a small herd of cats making their way through my backyard, even I think of how easy it would be to pull out my knife and get a little bit of fresh meat to send to market. You see? Blogging is the sort of horrible urge to kill family pets that we just don't need to think about, unless we're hungry. (what?)


This part caught my eye.

"And with millions of human-hours now going into writing and recording opinion, we have to wonder whether being the blogging capital of the world will help America compete in the global economy. Maybe all this self-criticism will propel us forward by putting us on the right track and helping us choose the right products. Maybe it will create a resurgence in the art of writing and writing courses. Or serve as a safety net for out of work professionals in the crisis. But for how long can nearly 500,000 people who are gradually replacing whole swaths of journalists survive with no worker protections, no enforced ethics codes, limited standards, and, for most, no formal training? Even the "Wild West" eventually became just the "West.""

Emphasis mine.

"Survival" is not really a problem. Blogging is easy enough that people are most likely transferring in and out of the ranks all the time--even those who earn money at it. Nor am I really concerned about "training" or "standards". These seem like old-school journalist complaints. Although I'm always in favor of more quality to writing, it is also true that it is difficult to teach good writing, and especially for a medium constantly evolving (as opposed to pap format journalism, which is perhaps the easiest thing in the world to teach, if you don't include good spelling.)

"Worker protections", on the other hand... interesting. Bloggers certainly seem capable of achieving a certain social standing, winning entrance to events and contact with sources via the fedora'd glamour of any old school reporter. And reputation among peers is also an easily gained trait for the worthy.

But these are all social, shifting categories, and as such, are about as structurally sound as the legs of the neighbor's cat underneath my lawn mower. (Sorry--I don't know what the deal is. I actually like cats. But I caught the neighborhood cat in my garage the other day. What was he up to in there? Cat's are so shifty. It could be anything!)

What sort of protections do bloggers need? Well, in essence they are free-lance writers. In my brief free-lance (for pay) experience, you kind of get the shaft. No benefits, complicated, crappy tax categories (damn you, 1099 MISC!), and generally, all the freedom of a poorly-constructed tower on a cliff, facing down the army of uninterested editors on one side, and the sea of poverty on the other. Not to say you can't be successful, or even wildly so, but it isn't exactly a entry-level job.

Not that writing ever was. But I suppose what is crucial here, is that on the one hand we are Evolving Towards a New Definition of Digital Literature and Journalism to Change the Face of Human Culture, and on the other hand, the people doing so are materially under the same professional model as the local shaman. As long as the magic is working, you are golden. But if your glimmer starts to fade through no fault of your own, you are just a crazy guy living in a dilapidated hut in the woods. And man, if the wrong kind of state religion happens its way into your town, then may Ba'al help you.

So, then what? An international consortium of independent bloggers? Nah. Sounds too much like just another blog badge. Cool little gif, but no real content there. Maybe a union? I like what I've been hearing about the Freelancer's Union--not much more than a way to transfer benefits around at this point, but it's a good start, especially for this day and age when more than 17 million workers are being forced into freelance and part-time.

But what unites blogging specifically? Actually, a lot of things. Hyperlinks, for one. Very few blogs owe their readership to their original content alone. It's a network of links, blog rolls, reposts, and comments. As you have noticed, if you read or write any number of blogs, there tend to be certain circles developing (some heady philosophy types might call them strata, but we'll leave that alone for the present). Bruce Sterling picks up something, Warren Ellis reposts it conjoined with a naughty picture, BLDGBLOG posts on it perhaps independently with more commentary, it makes the RT Twitter rounds, Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy provides Marxist interpretation, and eventually BoingBoing throws it out to the masses, after which we find out it was originally from Coilhouse or somewhere. And some eager reader of all of these consumes it multiple times, enjoying them all, and feels like he's part of some ethereal community. In addition, some of these people behind the blogs actually know each other in the real world! Almost like we all work together, seperately, but together. Right guys? Right?

But Unionized--what exactly would that mean? Sure, there are some professional relationships here, but are bloggers going to take to the picket lines? Perhaps surprisingly, yes. It's kind of amazing to me, after a short life-time of witnessing mass indecision and stagnancy in the real world, how quickly people will jump on a righteous cause via the Internet. Any call for support of open-Internet intiatives, rejection and boycott of censorship or DMCA malfiance, or general attention to the plight of well-meaning, legally shaky artists are remarkably well-spread and widely backed. Of course, all issues do not succeed (because it is the real world) but often they do. It's an incredibly anti-authoritarian, libertarian Internet by the looks of it, which I couldn't be more happy about.

There are organizations out there like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which act sort of like an Internet ACLU, knowing all the facts and case law, and advising individuals who are feeling the electronic boot upon their throats. But this is a defensive posture, albeit it worthy and entirely necessary. Other similar opt-in digital entities like Creative Commons also help bloggers certify their material and protect it with the sort of adaptable, flexible control that a medium like the Internet requires.

These are all good things, on the technical and digital/material end. But what about the other material side of things? What is the going rate for blogger advertising? Should the average blogger have better options than the rate AdSense provides? Have you seen what sort of a chunk PayPal takes out of credit card transactions? Why are most bloggers treated like consumers when it comes to the financial side of blogging? Are their other options than these?

I think we could get something going fairly easily. Start with an International--a general resource about publishing to the Internet for pay. Then, we set up Locals. A new, more useful version of the Web Ring. Upon application and admission, with the qualifications being something along the lines of a similarity in content, subject, revenue model, or whatever seems like a good strategy for developing a bloc of content providers, we could make collective bargaining a possibility. This could set up a distributed method for cleaning out unsavory advertising partners, setting up standards for pay and distribution of ads, and also providing an in-route for those getting into the field, and support for those already there.

The great part about it is that it would work well for both the large and the small sites. Even if 75% of the traffic for a Local is through 5% of the sites, there is no loss for larger sites taking on smaller sites, because traffic does not come into the Union unilaterally, but from the wide spread of the Internet. The sea of potential access is limitless--and this access is the commodity of the Internet.

However, here's the rub. This is a Union of workers--that is, not a chamber of commerce. The writers are the one's who are members, not their blogs. The difficulty is that many writers are now not only the one's in control of their blogs, but are, in effect, synonymous with them. How does "Joe's Blog" compare with any one of the zillion corporate blogs, which any number of people may be responsible for writing and publishing? Or with any other independent writer/publisher of music, photos, video, or anything else?

This is the brilliance of it. Everybody already knows who they are similar to, who does similar work, and produces similar products in similar payment schemes. You are already in a network; it is simply loose, shifting, and not-necessarily-organized. These people are your locality (if anyone calls it a hyper-locality, I'll spit at you). You get on board with them and set the standard for what you do, based on what you do. If you write travel blogs for Travel-Borg.com or whatever, get together with the food bloggers for Food-Puzzz.org. If you release exclusive mix tapes of hot club tracks, get together with the 78rpm audio archivers. If you post hilarious musings about the state of culture and listen to the echoes of your own voice bounce off those cold, cold concrete walls, well, you have your own problems--but probably someone else does too. Get together, and set up a standard for ad placement that doesn't squeeze the margins of your site like a torture device.

The true benefit of collective bargaining, and why it should be nothing less than a fundamental right of all workers, is that a worker does not have to struggle to fit themselves to a category in order to gain any sort of power or protection in his/her labor. The workers who work together can organize themselves, and decide what they need. Everybody works with somebody, and all of us work together. You utilize the power of the whole to set up the right conditions for the smaller groups and the individuals, with the base of the pillar always built first. Blogs have been moving along this route already. All blogs are part of the blogosphere, but individuals have made them what they are, in conjunction and with the support of their seperate, interlocking networks.

One of the amazing features of the Internet, in my opinion, is how it organizes itself. The only thing is, "it" does not exist. It is actually a lot of people with different lives, interests, and backgrounds, who somehow have been able to organize themselves without any centralization. It's easy, because the Internet is so easily re-writeable and malliable. (Infrastructure aside, but that is a topic for a seperate-but-not-quite-unrelated set of ideas...)

So I have a good feeling about the future of blog "worker protections". It won't happen by itself--but certain things have a way of happening, even despite the vertical power interests who might seek to prevent it.

So on the way there, just keep fighting that good fight, Internet folks.

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