Voice

What is the purpose of IR blogging? [UPDATED]

Yesterday I gave a small talk to the International Policy Summer Institute on the benefits, costs, risks, and how-tos of foreign policy blogs.  The audience consisted mostly of junior faculty, and their questions and concerns were pretty reasonable:  the time commitment, the reputational impact, and so forth. 

I bring this up because the one thing that went unmentioned was money.  This is interesting, as apparently there's a bit of a kerfuffle involving the Huffington Post not paying many of its bloggers.  According to an outraged Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money: 

[T]he Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union have called a boycott against Huffington Post for refusing to pay its writers....

I completely support this boycott. I refuse to read anything at HuffPo or to link there. Ultimately, HuffPo is surviving on the adjunct model. Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.

This is a dishonest proposition by HuffPo. It is almost impossible in 2011 to go from a no one to a big name blogger. The blogosphere is ossified. During the explosion of the medium from 2004-06, young writers could produce excellent work and become big name people. Then, by 2007, those were the only blogs people read. Today, those are the prominent and still young writers of the... blogosphere. And they aren’t going anywhere.

This prompted a fair amount of pushback from Julian Sanchez and Matthew Yglesias, which in turn prompted a rejoinder from Loomis, which prompted another rebuttal from Yglesias

My thoughts:

1)  Loomis is correct to note that there was a window during which one could vault into public prominence via the blog, and that this window is much narrower now than it was 8 or 9 years ago.  I, for one, was lucky to start blogging when I did. 

2)  That said, I don't quite buy the "ossified" descriptor.  It might be more accurate to say that it's become much tougher to crack the general interest blogosphere.  If one has a specialty -- like, say, Chinese foreign policy -- then the barriers to entry are still pretty low.  More importantly, however, inequality is embedded into the powe- law structure of the blogosphere.  There will always be a very few people who will command the overwhellming bulk of the traffic.  Those people -- and only those people -- will make money over the long run. 

3)  From day one, I always looked at the blog as a "loss leader" for two additional goals -- policy influence and other writing opportunities.  I've been genuinely surprised that, in the end, the blog itself has made some coin. 

4)  Julian Sanchez's last observation seems about right to me: 

[Loomis'] guiding principle is that “large corporations have the obligation to pay workers for labor.” And there’s the rub: The Internet economy does tend to blur the lines between “work” and things that are done for pleasure, or at any rate, from motives other than monetary compensation. If your main mental point of reference is an industrial sweatshop, it’s easy to assume that this is some kind of cover for exploitation—downtrodden workers “agreeing” to work for subsistence wages because they have no other choice if they want to feed themselves. The trouble is that Loomis is trying to impose an industrial model, where people fall neatly into categories like “worker” and “employer” and “capitalist” on an Internet economy characterized by what Yochai Benkler calls “peer production.” At the heart of that model is the idea that lots of people, acting from motives other than direct expectation of monetary compensation, can produce enormous social surpluses in aggregate.

Speaking personally, this blog functions as a mixture of play {Yes!!--ed.] and work [Crap!  This means we have to keep paying you, doesn't it?!--ed.]  The play sometimes leads to work, and the work often feels like play. 

The more important point, however, is unpaid bloggers do get a benefit by writing for HuffPo.  The Huffington Post can provide newbie bloggers a platform with a little more institutional allure than, say, Tumblr.  Or, as Sanchez put it: 

The irony here is that it’s the unknown writers looking to get started who’d most likely lose out if HuffPo were bullied into only publishing paid content. Sure, they curate their blogs now, but they can afford to be relatively inclusive when it comes to the free writers—handing the keys to a large number of people and saying, in effect, “write as much or as little as you please.” If they’ve got to start paying people—which means administrative overhead on top of the actual fee for the writer—there’s a strong incentive to be more selective. So who gets cut? Not the “big names” Loomis says he’s not worried about, but the no-names who aren’t guaranteed to pull in traffic, or maybe the marginal paid staffer who’s no longer sufficiently subsidized by the ad revenue from the volunteer bloggers.

In my little word of IPE, demanding that blogs be pay-for-play would  benefit "name" experts like Joseph Nye or Niall Ferguson.  It would hurt anyone without any name recognition.  As someone who wants more IR experts in blogspace, this would be a Very Bad Thing.  

UPDATE:  Well, among the perks I forgot to list was the awesome possibility of being investigated by the CIA

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