Still Writing for Pageviews: Professional Online Writing in 2011

I was poking around a webzine (do people still say that?) I used to read back in the day and decided to see if, after nearly a decade  of  existence, if it was paying its writers. here’s what I found, really low on its “Call for Submissions” page, in reduced font size:

Note: We are unable to pay you for your work at this time, but you will not go entirely uncompensated; your ‘pay’ is the opportunity to address our readership, currently 1 million-plus unique readers per month and counting.

We are supposedly in the Golden Age of the Startup, where college students and geeks with a bit of drive and a novel idea can potentially become multi-millionaires – or at least quit their day jobs – and writers are still, still writing for pageviews.

AOL’s purchase of Huffington Post was another swift kick in the gut for professional online writing,  especially the unpaid bloggers who are now hoping for a piece of the AOL pie after years of creating content and bringing traffic to the site. As much as I sympathize with all of the writers who expected some compensation for all of their efforts – it’s deserved and long overdue –  this battle was one that needed to be fought by professional writers years ago, when there was still something to leverage with then – fledgling websites, so hungry for content.

I’ve ranted about this before, back in 2009:

I don’t mean to single out HuffPo, that website is certainly not the sole offender when it comes to paying with pageviews. I don’t even think it’s the fault of the internet. I think it’s us, the scores of writers (myself included) who have devalued our own work over the years by doing professional-level work for free — or for far too little.

We write for exposure. We write for practice. We write for press passes. We write for beer/diaper/vacation money. We write for lulz. But we don’t write to support ourselves. And we end up screwing ourselves everytime.

Absolutely nothing about the above blog post has changed, save one crucial element: it’s worse now because content websites are now coming up with monetization strategies – advertisers are finally coming around to seeing the value of online – but many of these strategies are built around the idea that websites can always find someone to write for “exposure” or for WAY less than they are worth.  Some can afford to do it because they have full-time jobs or spouses or side projects that pay their bills.  Some writers have been able to use their free writing gigs to network and gain entry into paying gigs, but it’s still the exception rather than the rule.  Writers for the most part are still waiting for online monetization of some of the bigger blogs/webzines to trickle down to content creators, and for the majority of writers that ship has sailed.

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Thinking Out Loud: But I’m not a “personal brand!” I’m a person!*

I am pretty sure this post is navel-gazing. I don’t care.

I’ve been blogging for about 10 years. Holy crap. My life has changed both a lot and very little since I started. I don’t blog as often as I’d like, but when I do it, it always feels like home.

I’m a writer, even when I am not writing for money or even an audience. I blog to get things out, creatively, emotionally, whenever I need to. I’ve met great lifelong friends because of it, I’ve gotten a couple of jobs and numerous unpaid speaking gigs because of it. I fell into my current career in part because of it. So yeah, I owe blogging a lot, and I’ve never been ashamed to call myself a blogger, even back in the days when “real journalists” would sheepishly mutter the word “blogger” under their breath.

I attended the Blogalicious conference this past summer. Very cool , passionate people here and it was nice to take the time to recharge and remember why I am doing this in the first place. As my friend Maura says, it’s about community, and connecting and expression, that’s at least why I started blogging. I wanted to write and maybe have other people read it. When I come to a conference like this, though, and people ask “hey, what is your blog about” I usually answer: “I dunno. Stuff.” And then the “personal brand” discussion starts up and I tend to wig out a little.

I struggle daily with the gray area between my personal and professional life online. There is still quite a bit I don’t share regularly online, I do save such detailed information for my actual friends, and despite the fact that I blog, that I’m on Twitter, etc. I still consider myself to be a very private person and a bit of a wallflower, which I am OK with. So being in a position where I deliberately present a public presence, doesn’t come naturally to me.

I do things online to connect with my friends, and I am happy and excited to make new ones, but when I think about what I do personally being consumed by an “audience” and thinking of it as such, it still makes me uncomfortable. It freaks me out to think that present and future employers may be checking out the times when I live-tweet a Converge show or publicly ogle Dolph Lundgren or snark about the emo geek boys on OK Cupid or fret over my family or talk about bourbon.

Yet, here I am, doing it.

But (especially with Twitter) my personal use morphed and evolved into a professional use so quickly and so organically that there was never an opportunity for me to comfortably separate those two sides of my life. Also, I can’t really separate those sides of my life. Many of my professional colleagues are also trusted friends. For example, I started a “professional” Facebook account for the sole purpose of managing Facebook fan pages. Two of my friends found me in a half hour. D’OH!

Now I know some people may be reading this like “whatever social media so-and-so. Tough life, navel-gazer, Go check-in to Foursquare or something.”

Fine, fair enough. But the convergence of my professional/social life was not something that I thought I was getting into when I started getting into web design and blogging a zillion years ago. And that convergence is happening to us all, I think. For today’s babies and toddlers, an online persona is being created for them before they are even old enough to decide if they want one. But for those who work in the so-called “social media space” it is expected to be out there on some level. To be”genuine” and “real” and craft a specific “personal brand.” (Man, that’s a lot of quotation marks)

So, once again, just thinking out loud, but I’ve been continually struggling with this for awhile now and trying to figure out how to continue doing the work that I do, express myself creatively while still maintaining my sense of self for the real life people I care about.

*ironically, this was originally posted at my personal blog

Is the Golden Age of Blogging Over? Part Two

We’ve talked about blogging’s premature death announcement way back in 2008, and it’s interesting for me to read how I felt back then about the future of blogging as I set here in the present. Back in 2008 I said:

Clearly, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, who needs a blog to get your ideas across, right? [but] blogging has evolved as a medium, as all media do. I don’t think this evolution will affect the old workhorses of the so-called “blogosphere,” the ones who started blogs back in 2002 or earlier, who now blog out of habit, or because they have something new and creative to share, or they have an audience of friends and acquaintances and random people who read regularly.”

In some ways i was pretty wrong and Paul Boutin, who wrote the original “Blogging is Dead” article for Wired was more spot-on than I ever thought. Long gone are the days when having “blogger” on your resume was a mark of shame. Check out the reports from Technorati’s 2009 “State of the Blogosphere Thousands of professional and semi professional bloggers are making a living through their blogs in ways unheard of back in 2002. Meanwhile, hobbyist bloggers have updated less and less, moving to microblogs like Twitter and Tumblr to express themselves.

This evolution has fundamentally changed what it means to be a blogger, with new bloggers jumping into the fray with the intent of making it a career direction, rather than something to do for fun or as a hobby. Which is fine, I am personally thrilled there are opportunities for individuals to create careers from their passion.

On the other hand, those bloggers that have no interest in monetizing their blog, and simply want to create a platform for their own creativity are now the outliers. Expression and inspiration threatens to take a back seat to SEO strategy and personal branding. Again, not a bad thing for professional blogs, but it is a bit sad to see the end of an era, where anyone with an original voice and a personal passion could build an audience through serendipity.

Still, I disagree that old school bloggers should hang up their hats, or that new bloggers shouldn’t bother. There is still room for original voices and new ideas in the blogosphere; it just means that hobbyist bloggers may have to work a lot harder for an audience.

Is the Golden Age of Blogging Over? Part One

Considering social media avenues (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr) getting attention and stories about “the death of blogging” starting about five years ago, is blogging, as the kids say, so over? (Editor’s note: The kids don’t really say that).

What blogging is has changed over time — moving from the simple logging of events to serving as an online diary to many different things — a meld of personal/professional writing, updates about a specific fandom, group blogs around a theme, and a means of reaching out to users/customers.

But many have also stopped blogging. Some blogs have stopped because of too much personal information being found out by employers or others, some due to lack of interest in the topic, some because the purpose blogging served in their lives is now filled by social media, as well as other reasons.

Perhaps the naive high point for blogging was when Mimi Smartypants got a book deal for the first couple of years of her blog. But other bloggers didn’t get similar deals (but she *is* still blogging).

And blogging is hard work. Even if one doesn’t post everyday — or week, blogs require the maintenance of  new posts, through coming up with new ideas, and writing those posts. We’ve certainly struggled with keeping The Learned Fangirl on-point, relevant, and interesting over 175 posts in the past three years.

So many blogs have fallen by the wayside over the years, including some of my favorites, including Sivacracy, where Siva Vaidhyanathan described the end of his blog thusly

So why am I suspending this blog? Mainly, it’s a distraction from my day jobs. I have a massive and painful book deadline coming up. If I continued to blog daily about the election and the state of the world and everything else I would drive myself and everyone around me crazy.

Plus, this is less fun than it used to be. Back in 2004 it seemed fun. Blogs were the bomb. Now, I think my blogging voice is hoarse. And I am tired.

More recently, Bitch PhD also closed its doors. But most blogs fade away when they die, to be sucked into spambotland.

In a followup post, we’ll write about the change in the economics of blogging.

Spoilers spoiling for a fight?: The impact of comment trolling and other unwanted online activities

Every time I login to this blog — or my other blogs — or my email, I need to spend time dealing with unwanted materials. Fortunately, it’s usually a small amount of two-clicks-til-total-removal spam that I need to deal with, but others have had more serious issues to deal with, ranging from the limits of access to a email mailing list, to blog comments, to lawsuits about anonymous personalized statements perceived to be threatening and libelous. Interestingly, all of these issues have recently hit the larger legal community.

These issues were discussed in On the internet no one can hear you turning off your blog: the impact of trolling, including the comments on the University of Chicago law faculty blog and the now-shuttered Patry copyright blog.  The legal community is a microcosm of how difficult it is to contain the internetz regarding issues such as managing the limits of free speech, promoting discourse, community building (and in some communities the related issue of “safe space”), avoiding “true” threats, and the new permanence of the internet — where everything one has ever said or done is still available for perusal.

On Above the Law, a law news source, the new comment policy is:

As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means. . . .[W]e’ll be changing our site design so that comments will default to “hidden.” If you want to see the comments, you must affirmatively opt-in, by clicking a button to reveal them (either the “show them anyway” button within the post, or the “comments” button / counter on the front page).

On a popular law blog, Balkinization, comments have been turned off by default — to be changed by the post author:

[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.

Commenting within a larger discussion about commenting cultures on Concurring Opinions, James Grimmelmann states that

It’s all about social norms, typically as influenced strongly by early patterns. If people come to a site and see respectful extended arguments, they learn that norm of commenting. If they see illiterate YouTube-ish babble, they add their own bleats. And if they see nasty personal attacks, they say nasty things. Most highly successful online communities with positive norms had someone who took a very active early role in setting a good tone. (Metafilter and Flickr are well-known examples.) Once a norm is in place, it tends to stay in place, because visitors self-select into participating in communities with norms they like, and because regular visitors enforce compliance with the norms.

The details and the nuances of online community moderation are much more complex, of course, but there’s a lot of support for this basic tipping-point story.

Grimmelmann’s observations about the relationship between what is communicated within a community and how that becomes the norm within applies to what is summarized as “The Autoadmit lawsuit”.

As summarized in an article in Portfolio, anonymous comments were posted about actual women in lawschool on the Autoadmit message boards:

When it comes to Heller and Iravani, some of [the comments] were unique all right: uniquely sadistic, subjecting the women to what can only be called a cyber-stoning, in which participants vied to hurl the biggest rock. They wrote, falsely, that Heller has herpes and had bribed her way into Yale—helped by a secret lesbian affair with the dean of admissions—and that Iravani has gonorrhea, is addicted to heroin, and had exchanged oral sex with Yale Law School’s dean for a passing grade in civil procedure. The spectacle was either astonishingly horrific or almost banal, depending on how old and what sex you are, on what you deem funny, and on how much time you spend on the internet. And where.

Posters appeared to be overwhelmingly male; it was women, particularly beautiful women, particularly beautiful women at the top law schools, particularly beautiful minority women at the top law schools, who were most often skewered, dissected, and fantasized about.

I would include some examples of the anonymous comments here, but they are so that I don’t want to repeat them here on my space, where their inclusion will lead to this blog getting more spam comments (if interested read the amended complaint). Feministe has a series of posts detailing the reasons why women discussed on these posts and others believed themselves to be threatened.

The autoadmit comments were accepted and promoted within the online community and therefore continued. To “protect” the autoadmit community after the first series of complaints, many commenters made increasingly disturbing, threatening, and false statements to keep the community “safe” for those who wanted to make such comments; yet the “real world” impact (jobs, emotional impact) was perceived as only affecting those within the community — not those outsiders being commented on — trying to destroy their “fun.”

For websites and blogs (and social media) that want to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, this situation shows why it is imperative to have policies in place before there are problems and to have the policy inforced by the community and the “host.” That is the reason for our policy for The Learned Fangirl:

All opinions in blog posts are our own and do not reflect the views of our employers. Please comment, but this is our space, so we will delete comments that we think are uncivil, off-topic, spam, or otherwise inappropriate.

___

And in one additional law-based wrinkle to the Obama’s administration’ s implementation of  social networking similar to the campaign: the First Amendment. If you’ve been on any popular blog or website with frequent commenting, how useful do you think it would be for the government or the public if government websites had comments, yet were unable to edit, suppress, or modify the comments in any way? I would say very minimally useful, so I wish the Obama administration luck in making social networking work.

Whitehouse.gov and our first social media presidency

white-house-pictureLike a lot of geeky people, I spent much of Inauguration Day (and night) online, riveted to the live streaming feed on CNN and also following the commentary of friends and strangers on Facebook. It was well noted that the transition of whitehouse.gov to reflect the Obama administration occured at noon, before Barack Obama even finished taking the oath of office.  

Of course we should have expected nothing less from our online-savvy President’s communication team. Social media was such a core part of the success of his presidential campaign and continues to be a  key element of his communications strategy. Check out this first post on the Whitehouse.gov blog from Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media (lucky guy):

Millions of Americans have powered President Obama’s journey to the White House, many taking advantage of the internet to play a role in shaping our country’s future. WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement.

medium_whscreenshotAnd it seems off to a good start, with this seamless transition of the web site and the launch of the new blog.  According to Phillips,  the new Whitehouse.gov plans to focus its communication strategy around three priorities: communication, transparancy and engagement, which should be the three crucial priorities  for any organization’s social media initiatives.

I’m interested to see how all of this will pan out in the next four years, when the Obama presidency will surely face new and underheard of challenges. Social media can be a boon as well as a burden to an organization’s communications when it comes to crisis management and damage control. We’re in the exciting honeymoon phase of  the Obama presidency now; how the White House’s  new media team handles its first major crisis will be the truest test of the strength of this new approach to government online communications. 

Also, I just have to note that thus far, the Whitehouse.gov blog is still looking pretty Web 1.0 in its approach; it’s essentially just a glorified press release archive, and I’m not seeing much opportunity for authentic dialogue. Even so, this statement from the first blog post is encouraging:

Like the transition website and the campaign’s before that, this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you. So thanks in advance for your patience and for your feedback.

A work in progress. That’s what most online communities are, even the bottom-up communities that emerge organically by necessity and/or mutual enthusiasm (say for example, most online fan communities.)  

But for top-down online communities, organizations looking to create and engage an online community built on two-way communication, it’s an uphill battle, particularly if the organization has a history of ignoring or supressing public dialogue.  You don’t get more traditional top-down communications than the White House; there’s a lot of communication strategy that may need to be unlearned here.

But it’s what most organizations who are experimenting with social media are attempting to reconcile in their own strategies, and whitehouse.gov is wise to acknowledge the potential roadbumps early, and in a very public way.

Blogging May Not Be Dead But Live Journal Could Be

alivejournal2Uh-oh. According to Mashable, LiveJournal, of blogging’s old warhorses, is in some big financial trouble:

The company has reportedly laid off 20 of 28 employees, “leaving only a handful of finance and operations workers.”

As the Mashable article implies, MySpace and Facebook currently dominate when it comes to social media, and personal blogging is on the wane, for the most part. Most non-fandom oriented bloggers I know abandoned LJ for Blogger or TypePad years ago.

I joined LJ back in 1999-2000, mostly to follow specific fan communities that made a home there at the time, but even then I did my personal blogging on Blogger, and only kept up my LJ account to follow “Friends Only” accounts and communities like Oh No They Didn’t or Fandom Wank, when it was housed there. But blogging – and fandom activity – has certainly changed, much as it did when many e-mail discussion groups were abandoned for LJ in the early ’00’s.

LJ’s impending demise has been a long time in coming, I believe, considering the steady account erosion that started several years ago, and it certainly may have some correlation to the fans that abandoned LJ in the wake of “Strikethough/Boldthrough”, the primarily fan-community driven backlash was spurred by LiveJournal’s parent company, Six Apart, suspending user accounts deemed sexually explicit or “harmful to children.” Since a lot of fan-fiction writing communities (particularly the Harry Potter fanfic writers) were among the few that remained on LJ after the blogging masses moved on, Strikethrough was kind of the death knell for LJ, when those communities eventually moved on to open-source alternatives like GreatestJournal, insanejournal, JournalFen, etc., especially after Six Apart sold LJ to Russian software company SUP.

There’s a lot of contention about Six Apart/SUP and how the companies dealt with some of their most dedicated consumers – fangirls, for the most part. But regardless of that, with the fluid migration of social media audiences and fan communities being a constant, I think the eventual decline of LJ was inevitable.