Monday, April 7, 2008

Sweatshops of the Blogosphere

The latest report on the pathology of work in the world the Internet has made was filed yesterday by Matt Richtel of The New York Times under a headline that turns out to be justifiably alarmist:

In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop

Richtel's piece may be read as a complement to the evangelical hogwash of The New American Workplace, by James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III, which I examined (critically, of course) last December. Maintaining the tone of his headline, Richtel homes in on what may be the most inconvenient truth of the blogosphere: Bloggers who write for money are paid by the piece; and most of them are too young (and/or naive) to recognize that they have been consumed by sweatshop economics. Here is how Richtel describes the condition:

A growing work force of home-office laborers and entrepreneurs, armed with computers and smartphones and wired to the hilt, are toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment.

For those who think the language of the headline is hyperbolic, Richtel then cites cases of "dropping" bloggers:

Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Of these three Malik is the only one whose name I recognize from CNET, which I suppose indicates that he has not made much of a dent in my reading habits. However, Malik's case reminded me of JP Rangaswami, over at Confused of Calcutta, whom I remember blogging all too quickly in the wake of his own heart attack. I bid a respectful farewell to Confused of Calcutta last November after concluding that it had lost any "sense of reality" to obsessive evangelism over social software in the face of a growing tide of counterarguments. JP was fortunate enough to have a day job that did not pay by piecework, but he had still been corrupted by the tragic flaw of promoting potential without accounting for consequences. In the days when I tried to spar with him, those consequences involved matters such as death threats; and I had not really conceived of blogging as sweatshop work. Still, I should have seen trouble coming, particularly since in the preceding August the Yearly Kos Convention had included a panel on the topic of "A Union for Bloggers."

My own problem was probably that, as I wrote about the Kos panel, I could not take seriously the idea of blogging as a profession (or, for that matter, a source of gainful employment, which is decidedly not that same beast as a profession). I had even written about what I had called the "chicken-soup logic" of signing up with AdSense for this particular blog: I could not imagine that it would earn me a living wage, but it couldn't hurt to try. I thus overlooked the fact that there were other bloggers out there who were seriously trying to live off of their writing. Consequently, it was important for me to read what Richtel had to say about at least one sector of those bloggers:

One of the most competitive categories is blogs about technology developments and news. They are in a vicious 24-hour competition to break company news, reveal new products and expose corporate gaffes.

To the victor go the ego points, and, potentially, the advertising. Bloggers for such sites are often paid for each post, though some are paid based on how many people read their material. They build that audience through scoops or volume or both.

Some sites, like those owned by Gawker Media, give bloggers retainers and then bonuses for hitting benchmarks, like if the pages they write are viewed 100,000 times a month. Then the goal is raised, like a sales commission: write more, earn more.

Bloggers at some of the bigger sites say most writers earn about $30,000 a year starting out, and some can make as much as $70,000. A tireless few bloggers reach six figures, and some entrepreneurs in the field have built mini-empires on the Web that are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Others who are trying to turn blogging into a career say they can end up with just $1,000 a month.

Speed can be of the essence. If a blogger is beaten by a millisecond, someone else’s post on the subject will bring in the audience, the links and the bigger share of the ad revenue.

These conditions are, at the very least, hazardous to mental health; and now data points are coming in that indicate that the impact is also on physical health.

Fortunately, I seem to be holding myself above this kind of turmoil. When I write about technology, I am less interested in the latest developments than I am in the consequences of those developments; and it should be no surprise that those who pay for technology news are not interested in financing "Cassandras of consequences." Indeed, if I am driven in my writing, it is by only two forces. One is the self-imposed discipline of writing something every day, which is why I started blogging in the first place. Writing is a mental exercise that is as important as any physical exercise; and, in addition to being my "rehearsal studio," my blog is my "workout room." The other drive is a need to write about musical performances soon after I have experienced them. I never take notes at a concert, because taking notes is a distraction from the performance; so I need to write while the subject matter is still fresh in my mind. I cannot always do this; and, when I can't, I do not treat it as the end of the world, since it is not going to impact that paycheck that I am not receiving in the first place!

Having written all that, I think the real lesson of Richtel's piece is not about the blogosphere but about how the very foundation of professional employment is being eroded by a general increase in sweatshop work. This is why I took The New American Workplace to task for its apparent oblivion to the work that Barbara Garson had done in the late eighties and published as The Electronic Sweatshop. This erosion was already beginning in the early days of office automation, but the Internet endowed it with an enormous injection of growth hormones. The sad truth is that few mere mortals can live under these conditions; and Richtel has now provided the evidence that this proposition is literal, rather than figurative.

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