The devaluation of “content” is bad for readers and for democracy.
Dr. Danielle Lee is a blogger for Scientific American and a zoologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies animals like the prairie vole and the giant pouched rat. Early in October, she received an invitation from “Ofek,” the pseudonymous blog editor at Biology-Online.org: “I encountered your blog ‘Urban Scientist’ and am wondering if you would be interested in joining us as a guest blogger…. You could serve as ‘educator’ and guide for your world of science.”
Lee was interested: “Please tell me more about this…. What are your payment rates for guest bloggers?” Ofek informed her that “we don’t pay” but suggested that writing for his site might “have a direct effect on the traffic and rank of your blog, and that in turn has a direct effect on advertising revenue.”
“Thank you very much,” replied Lee. “But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Ofek responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
This much raises eyebrows, but there is more. Lee used her blog to decry the insult in a video posting. She not only challenged Ofek to treat others with more professionalism but also exhorted scholars to think about the value of their work and not to assume that “exposure” is the same thing as remuneration. “For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or of a lower socioeconomic status…they can get you, your talent, your expertise and your energies for free.”
Within an hour, Lee’s response was removed by Scientific American as “not appropriate.” The blowback was immediate, and Scientific American was persuaded to reinstate the post. The incident, however, prompted another writer, Monica Byrne, to recount instances of sexual harassment from Scientific American’s chief blog editor, Bora Zivkovic. A forum on “brogrammer” culture ensued as other women came forward to complain about Zivkovic’s behavior. Zivkovic soon resigned. Afterward, a Twitter hashtag (#ripplesofdoubt) emerged that quickly exploded with firsthand accounts of misogyny, racism and intolerance in publishing, academia, business and the arts.
This incident began as an example of the shabby treatment of women in science, but Dr. Lee’s framing enlarges the question to include the fate of those—male or female—who laborin disciplines that have been feminized, deprofessionalized and undervalued in the digital economy. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider mused: “I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.” Noting that today he’s paid less for full articles in prestigious news outlets than he was for his first published bit in a local alternative weekly back in 1989, Kreider mourns that the information economy seems to have rendered “‘paying for things’…a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.”
Robert McChesney’s recent book Digital Disconnect provides excellent insight into how the FCC’s kowtowing to platform monopolists has brought us to this point. He also describes how companies like Journatic, which supplies supposedly “local” news coverage, have outsourced stories to nonlocal freelancers across the United States, as well as in the Philippines, where writers are given “American-sounding bylines” and asked to “commit to 250 pieces/week minimum” at 35 to 40 cents a piece. Or Automated Insights, which “uses algorithms to turn numerical data into narrative articles for its 418 sports websites.” There are those who equate this development with the joys of a free market. But when the medium is, quite literally, the message, it is not only the craft of writing that is emptied of value but the power to be heard, the ability to dissent, and the possibility of civic engagement.
Times media critic David Carr recently delivered a glowing endorsement of the degree to which tech companies are taking over the media. He rejoiced at the millions invested by Silicon Valley executives, epitomized by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of TheWashington Post. Carr hailed the “hacker’s ethos” that will supposedly infuse publishing. “One of the secrets of Amazon (and Netflix) is that it never offered one site, but millions of customized sites. It is not hard to envision a carefully measured invitation at the bottom of a highly trafficked news article: ‘People who read this story are also reading…’”
I am not one who shares Carr’s unvarnished optimism. The singular skill set of this particular cohort of technology magnates is marketing and selling. Social media, where many young people get their news, arrange information by metrics that foreground personal preferences. This is a significant departure from the civic republican notion of the Fourth Estate as a watchdog on government. It also speaks to the disinvestment in anything but the lowest common denominator of what “most people” are doing—or “hitting.” This produces a culture in which casual stereotypes and an ethic of self-defined fun will top the list of most “feeds.” It is a world where “content” is no longer the informative glue of democracy but raw material to be milled by digital platforms into advertising gold. And we are all infantilized, feminized and disenfranchised when situated as the subjects of social experiments designed not only to predict our behaviors but control them.
Dr. Lee enjoins us to demand our economic worth in these new forums, to insist on being treated like professionals. But what happens when professing is no longer associated with a profession? I think of it as a relentlessly forward-moving but regressively old-style economics in which certain categories of labor are deemed “emotional” or “women’s work” or “housework” or to be done simply “for the love of it.” That’s the only logic to the otherwise absurd equation that it is “whorish” to demand to be paid for your work.