May 19, 2010
BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities”
BookCamp T.O. seemed to me to be peopled by three types of people: 1) representatives from publishing houses (often, publicists) 2) technology/new media geeks and 3) commenters and critics – i.e. bloggers. I certainly felt I was there in my capacity as the latter, and so the sessions I chose were those I thought would speak to me and my vocation best.
So I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final session of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online”. Far from being concerned with community-building or readership, this session wound up being about leveraging existing community in order to generate sales. Tan Light of Random House pointed out to us that social media, while “free”, is extremely time consuming and thus requires a lot of man hours. So, by building (or finding) self-sustaining communities, you basically have an engine that will generate that labour for you.
Needless to say, from this “community as marketing tool” standpoint, most of the discussion focused around what to do when the community is saying bad things about your company or product; how to manage or minimize the things you don’t want the “community” to be saying. Customer service! Transparency! Smiley emoticons! Okay, that last bit is mine.
I’m sure the publicists in the room were thrilled.
But for my part, the session left a bad taste in my mouth. Is that what I am? An unpaid publicist? Is that what we’re building all these “communities” for? To sell books?
This has been an issue with “free knowledge” rhetoric all along. The “knowledge economy” is supposed to save us from economic collapse, but who along the knowledge production chain gets paid? If I am participating in a critical community which is hashing out important issues in, say, bookselling and then a media giant comes along, scoops up the buzz and the discourse and the leads we’ve worked up and prints it in their for-profit newspaper, we (the critical community) have produced the bulk of the knowledge to be sold by a third party. This is part of the problem with copyright in general: What right has anyone other than the content producer have to make money off of an intellectual property?
But someone should make money – I don’t advocate reducing people whose talent is for knowledge production to slaves or hobbyists. If what you do is write or make music or draw or think, you should have the right to make your living off of it. You don’t owe it to “society” to give away your product for free. And you certainly should be annoyed if you do give something away for free and someone else capitalizes off of it.
So I wonder how the blogger model fits into the new economy. Blogging is almost always done for free. The Quill & Quire profiles a number of “big” book bloggers in their latest issue and we learn that among them are only two who actually make money from it – BookNinja and GalleyCat. So what’s in it for the rest them? I hate to be so crass, but let’s be honest: sure, there’s an element of fun and community to it, but most bloggers have some back-of-the-brain idea that blogging will net them something in the long run. Money? Legitimacy? Popularity? A job?
“Hits” are a big deal. We let our stuff be quoted, linked and promoted elsewhere, often by companies who use our influence to promote a product of theirs that we’re lauding, because there’s an expectation we’ll get traffic in return. The Quill’s article suggests the legitimacy of blogs like BookNinja and Maud Newton comes from being cited by “real” news sources like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Great publicity for the bloggers, right? But Maud Newton isn’t underwritten by a media conglomerate and she doesn’t run ads. Major media sources use her work, and in return she gets…
On the one hand, it’s nice to imagine that most of us are blogging for the altruistic purpose of “contributing to public dialogue” or “making a difference”. Maybe we really love Canadian Literature and want to see it succeed, or we feel strongly that new transmedia projects will make the world a more equitable place. But fact is, this is a time-consuming practice. Blogging as a form of philanthropy is, like all philanthropy, the privilege of the already-underwritten-by-someone-else. As we move into a future where blogging is an increasingly legitimized form on journalism, and “real” newspapers are dropping like flies, there’s really nothing just about a blogging model that expects the new journalism to come from generously employed hobbyists with a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak. If we as a society value the knowledge production they’re engaged in, we’ll find a way to make this their full-time job.
I sort of wish I’d gone to mesh ’10 because I think there might have been more opportunity for me to learn about these issues. But then, I have a job I had to attend, and a toddler to take care of. My exploration of media issues isn’t being underwritten by anyone, so I’m left musing to myself in my “spare” time. Hopefully I haven’t fired way off the mark this time – what do y’all think? How do you reconcile your status as unpaid publicist; dharma bum?