I read an interview with Jarett Kobek about his novel, I Hate the Internet, the other day, and thought some of what he had to say about celebrity and the internet was particularly interesting. Kobek argues that celebrities have now transcended a distinct personality, gender, or sexuality, and instead, are simply ‘celebrity’, as if it were a whole separate breed of person. Leaving that aside for a moment, I found myself thinking about the whole idea of celebrities when I was watching some Dylan Moran videos later in the evening.
I hadn’t heard about ‘FOMO’ until I read about it in an article. Apparently, it’s really a thing! Through social media, people can tailor their online presence to appear to have a certain kind of life, and others who view this presentation then fret about why they don’t have that, too (Fear Of Missing Out).
That’s not news. That’s always happened. It’s always been the case that it’s easy to look at someone else’s life and believe that they have it better. We’ve always imagined that movie stars are all tremendously rich and confident and popular, when the reality is that they’re just people, and while they might have more money at their disposal which means they can afford more ‘stuff’, it doesn’t follow that they’re any more content than your average person.
Their internet persona just makes it seem as if they do.
Some weeks ago, I went to a couple of events at the Great Southern Writers’ Festival, where I listened to various authors talk about their craft, their stories and their experiences. It was a real insight into the different ways in which writers work, and with which aspects they struggle, and which they enjoy. It was also quite inspiring, being in such close proximity to Real Life Published Authors, but at one point, when listening to the panel discuss their books, I had an epiphany.
Well, it wasn’t really an epiphany. More of a thought, really:
Last year, when First Offspring was doing swimming lessons, I would take him once a week after school and sit on the benches near the pool with Fourth Offspring. First Offspring would spend twenty minutes splashing about in the water and Fourth Offspring and I would watch the swimmers come and go. A couple of times, we were joined as a woman brought her two young sons to swim. She dressed them quickly in their bathers and then once they were in the water, stripped off to a bikini and followed them into the pool.
She was very trim and looked as though she swam often. Next to her neat figure, I felt embarrassingly aware of my own rather… messy one.
I was reading a blog recently—actually it was one recommended in an interview I read—and as I looked through some of the entries, I was impressed with how well the person wrote, and at the end of the article, I noticed the line, ‘No comments yet. Be the first to write a comment!’ and I thought, Huh. Really? But why?!
And it occurred to me that this happens a lot. I’ll come across a link to an article, to a blog I’ve never seen before, and I’ll read it and think, wow, this is really good! and there won’t be any comments. Is it because my tastes are so different from the majority of the rest of the people who read the internet? I can’t believe that (although of course, I do have excellent taste).
As just another blog on the internet, compared to independent, professional websites, my blog naturally gets very modest traffic, but it’s probably as good a representation as any as to what happens, even on the big name sites. Over a week, I might get between 150-300 visits. Given I only post once a week, I’m certainly not disappointed with that. On that weekly blog post, I usually get between one and three comments, and between four and eight ‘likes’. I usually post the link back on my livejournal account, where I might get a couple more comments. Naturally, even one comment makes me happy. Hey, even one ‘like’ makes me happy! Still, the ratio of comments to views is low, and I know this is something that’s not unique to my own blog.
So when I see people writing really amazing stuff, and yet nobody is commenting, I have to wonder what is going on. How are people missing this? How are they not telling the writer how wonderful it is? I have to wonder about what this means for the future of writing and for the future of writers.
I’ve written before about the issue of paying writers for their work, and payment is certainly one very significant way in which one can be recognised for one’s work. But the payment is only one (major) part. As much as it’s lovely to see one’s name on a byline on a website and have money in the bank, it’s a little disheartening if nobody has anything to say in response. It’s like giving a speech to an empty room. In fact, it’s worse. It’s like you’re standing on the footpath, giving a speech to a constant flow of people, only the smallest number of whom will give eye contact, or smile, or a thumbs-up.
When I first decided I wanted to be a writer—I mean, when I really thought, this is what I want to do–I naively thought that I could just write, and it would be brilliant(!) and that I would get ‘discovered’ by someone, and my work would become an instant hit, and I’d be famous and wealthy and be able to buy a little cottage with a window that looked out onto a meadowy field, where sheep grazed in the sunshine and wisteria grew rampant over an old wooden fence. I’d sit there and write my bestsellers and drink blackcurrant-flavoured tea and eat cherries and mangoes.
(Hey, I was sixteen. Reality didn’t feature much in this pipe-dream!)
And the reality is, there are so many out there, waiting to be discovered. I used to think that the best would simply find their way, that the cream would rise to the top. If it were really good, I thought, it would get the recognition it deserved.
Obviously that’s not how the world works. It’s certainly not how the internet works. Have you read it lately? And the ones that get the most comments are certainly not outstanding literature! Rather, they’re clickbait and sensationalism at its worst (or best, depending on your perspective). We really do ‘browse’ the web. We flit past, picking out what might interest us, and decide on a whim if we want to spend our time on it. Some sites even state the number of minutes it will take to read their articles, so you can decide if you have enough time to bother with it.
I wonder if perhaps we’re just so stretched between social media sites, news websites, email, and—gasp!—real life that we no longer feel we have the time to take a minute to type out a short response, even when we see something we really appreciate. I read an article recently where the writer decided to stop ‘liking’ on Facebook. Instead, she was going to actually take the time to write something.
Even though I’m not on Facebook, I’m still guilty of the same behaviour. I’m happy to retweet or favourite or like something someone has said, because it’s easier. And it’s not just a matter of having the time. There are times when I’m reading something so good, or so disturbing, that I don’t know if I have the energy to summon the eloquence I feel the article deserves.
Would it really be so hard, though, just to write ‘I really enjoyed reading this’? We don’t have to try to win the Nobel Prize for Literature with every comment we leave. We could just write a quick response, to let the author know how much we liked what they wrote. Even the self-doubt I might feel—but they don’t know me!–is ridiculous. I should remind myself that almost all of the comments I get on my blog are from people I’ve never met.
Comments aren’t the yardstick by which a site’s success is measured, of course. If one is trying to sell advertising space, it’s hits and followers one needs, and even then, there’s no guarantee that success will come. And then, there’s no certainty that payment will follow. One’s fifteen minutes of fame can come and go with relatively little to show for it, and after the spotlights fade, it’s back to regular programming. There is still work to be done; there are still words to be written. Internet fame is fleeting, and nothing old can stay. It’s all about the newest, the latest, the most horrifying.
The thing is, though, even without all the fame and the bright lights, I still feel that need to write. I still really like pieces I’ve written, even if nobody comments to say they do too. Sure, I can still read back over my work, and almost always edit a sentence or even a whole paragraph, but some posts, I’m genuinely happy with. Of course, I’d like to earn some decent money from writing, because it allows me to work from home, and it means I can choose my hours around being able to weed around the passionfruit vine if it’s a gorgeous day, or be up all night with an unwell child without having to worry about sick leave and letting colleagues down. But while I practise and search out publications which might pay me, I keep writing this blog, because every week, I’m writing about something which is important to me. That’s what will keep me writing. No matter the number of comments or views or likes, and I can only imagine that’s what others feel, as well.
Otherwise we’d just stop doing it.
(Any acknowledgement is kind of nice, though, I have to admit. So, you know. Don’t be shy! And I’ll do my best to do the same.)
It’s a funny thing, telling people you have a blog in which you’re attempting to write regularly. I mentioned it to a friend a while ago, and she asked if I were making any money from it. ‘Well, no,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m trying to use it as a platform to write nonfiction stuff, you know. Social commentary, philosophy. That kind of thing.’
I wanted a place where I could do some writing that was a bit more ‘serious’ than just the general blather with which I fill my livejournal, and to perhaps expand my horizons a bit. And I’ll admit, I wanted a place where, if I were to apply for a writing position somewhere, I could point my potential employer, as examples of the kinds of writing I like to do. I have some friends who have done just that, and who now have regular appearances on Huffington Post and in other well-known internet publications. They have reached a decent level of internet success, and I’m proud of them — both for their good writing, because they are consistently really good, and for their commitment to promoting themselves, while parenting fulltime or working fulltime or doing some of each. And I think it is really very cool that they are getting the recognition they deserve.
But… like me and my little page of essays here, they’re not earning any money from it, either.
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think it should always be about the money. I do write for the pleasure of it, I write because I have something to say, and I want to have a conversation about it, and because I want to get better at expressing myself. However, I’ve not ruled out wanting to also earn money by writing. And despite what my spambot-followers would have me believe, I think it’s probably a lot more difficult than they make it appear. Then it occurred to me the other day, that one of the reasons for this might be the way we access information these days.
How do you pay someone for her writing, when all the readers want to have it for free?
We are so used to getting everything for free these days (and I’m not even talking about piracy, here) from news to entertainment and everything in between. One of the amazing things about the internet — possibly THE most amazing thing — is its accessibility, and there is no way I would want that to change. However, if writers want to make an income, regardless of how small it is, then the sites on which their work appears need to be able to make money, too. And I don’t know how we will turn around an internet public which is used to reading everything for free, and convince them that now they need to pay. Because I can pretty much guarantee that people are just not going to pay, and are going to the go somewhere, where they can continue to read for free. What’s silly, is that articles on the internet can see an incredible amount of traffic, with thousands of views apiece. If each reader were only paying a few cents per view, it would still add up to a small sum — even just a thousand views would be around $30. Granted, you’re not exactly going to be able to quit your dayjob on that amount of cash. But it’s something.
I know there are already some sites which pay a small fee to their casual or freelance writers, but it seems that many of the more prestigious sites simply offer exposure rather than remuneration. Of course, the exposure is brilliant to have, and writers absolutely need it. However, it shouldn’t be the only thing they offer. And it seems like they’ve convinced at least some of their contributors that internet stardom and the promise of thousands or even millions of readers is enough. Is it? Other writers certainly don’t think so, as Nate Thayer’s exchange with the global editor at The Atlantic illustrates, and The Atlantic took some criticism because of it. Of course, in the vastness that is the world of online and paper publications, getting one’s name out there is hard, and even if the Nate Thayers of the world stand up and demand payment, there will be many others who are willing to take the exposure and accept the lack of remuneration.
Here’s the thing: it’s not all the fault of the sites that don’t pay. It’s also the fault of the writers who write for them, and the readers who read their work.
We as writers are to blame, because we need to demand payment for our work. I understand that heady feeling — really, I do! — when a piece is accepted for publication, and perhaps I’m alone (I’m not) in that I do spend time, very precious time, writing, then editing, then rewriting my work. Surely that time is worth something other than simply recognition — especially if the publication is for-profit, which will be generating profits from your work? To allow publishers to offer exposure is to agree that your work is not worth payment. And we do deserve to be paid! We’re doing a job, after all.
We as readers must also share some of the responsibility, though. For too long we have been demanding ‘free’. We read articles for free, we listen to music for free, we watch TV for free. As consumers of culture, we do so with seemingly scant regard of the fact that somebody has to create it, and if they’re creating it for free, it means it’s cutting into the time where they could be doing income-generating work. In the scheme of things, unless writers start demanding payment for their work, this won’t matter, because there will always be free writing to read. But for goodness’ sake, people pay for the Daily Mail, the Bild, the Daily Telegraph and any number of other tabloid newspapers. They pay money for that! And yet, they won’t pay money for meticulously researched, painstakingly edited, carefully crafted articles, essays and fiction.
So how do we change the status quo? Leaving aside the fact that there are always going to be people who cheat and get their culture for free anyway, how can we persuade the average internet user that we need them to pay writers, so that writers can earn money from their work? Well, first we insist that writers be paid, either from the end-user, or from the website where their work appears. We change the expectation from ‘it should be free’ to ‘it should be paid for’. And secondly, we make it worth their while. We create easy ways to pay — how about a once-yearly, or even once-monthly fee tied in in with your ISP bill? It doesn’t have to be much. In the UK, yearly payment of a TV licence supports their BBC and means that those channels are advertisement free. Would something similar be possible for online content? Certainly, the internet is a far more complicated medium than television, and I’m not even sure what it would entail. But whatever it takes, a dialogue needs to begin. We need to consider what we’re demanding of those who create art. Recognition of the work one produces is a great start — it is such a wonderful feeling when something is shared and complimented. But having something go viral on the internet for a few days is not really recognition. It’s a flash in the pan, and it rarely produces tangible results for the person or the writing involved. We need for people to be rewarded for the time they’re taking to produce good work. Do we still have the attention span for that, I wonder, or are we all just caught up, waiting for the next thing (and for it to be free)?
It’s not to say that people couldn’t still write in their blogs for others to read for free, or that there can’t be collectives and online publications which offer free work to view and consume. It’s not that people would suddenly be able to afford early retirement, or buy a mansion. It’s not even that money should be the ultimate goal, when sitting down to write — in fact, it shouldn’t be! It’s just that instead of it being the norm that someone’s work is available for free, it might be the exception. And that might mean that we value it, and the process taken to create it, a little more.