Monday, April 20, 2009

The future will not be monetized

I had a little epiphany last week - when chatting with the staff of ArtsBoston about their new site - that I think is worth contemplating a bit further online.

The leader of the discussion, an ArtsBoston staffer, was talking up the new features of the site to a room full of bloggers. He was still in the early, butter-up-the-crowd phase of his presentation when he let drop, off-handedly, the comment that he knew everyone in the room was "looking for a way to monetize."

To which I responded, without really thinking, "I'm not."

Everyone stared at me in surprise, as I gazed back with something like the same look in my eyes.

The discussion leader chuckled slightly in disbelief. "You mean you're not looking to make money off your site?" he smiled with that ironic, you-must-be-joking edge beneath the smooth surface of his voice.

"No. I'm not," I replied. "That's not going to happen. There's no way to do it."

He laughed a bit more loudly this time. "Okay, Tom," he said in that we-know-you're-crazy tone that I've heard so often (usually before eventually being proven right). "Maybe you're not, but everybody else is."

And as I looked around at everyone else's faces, I realized he was right. And that's what is really crazy. Because, my friends, the future of local blogging will not be monetized. How could anyone think otherwise?

After all, we can see by now, with the Internet going full swing for over a decade, just exactly what it does to economic and social models. Back in its early days, when adolescent rhetoric was the lingua franca of the faithful, people simply assumed the Internet would be economically empowering, that it would somehow usher in an economic utopia. Several stock crashes and a zillion bankruptcies later, with libertarianism in ruins and capitalism on the brink - and with Web 2.0 enterprises like Facebook still unable to make a dime - we should know in our bones that's not the case.

In fact, people are finally beginning to come to terms with the way in which the Internet actually destroys value rather than creates it. Indeed, the web may be the most efficient wealth-destruction machine ever devised. This was always the flip side of its immense efficiencies; the Internet made economic processes far less expensive, true, and cut out middlemen hither, thither and yon; but it also undercut the physical framework that made "value" possible. Indeed, the value of just about anything that wasn't actually nailed down, like real estate, was quickly affected by the web. Locale, connections, knowledge - much of what made wealth possible at the individual level was attacked or simply replaced by the ever-rising tide of digital connectivity.

Ironically enough, as the web grew, popular culture responded to it by declaring it a democratizing, even diversifying, influence - when obviously it was instead an agent of intense centralization. In fact entire industries quickly collapsed into a handful of Internet companies like Amazon or Expedia. And while a bazillion blogs have been launched over the past few years, everybody only actually reads about six. And even those we won't pay for.

Indeed, perhaps the web was most insidious in its effect on what used to be called "culture," but which is more and more referred to as "content" (as in, the product that is both delivered and determined by its technology). For content is entirely portable, and easily copied, or re-copied, and distributed; the idea that it has economic value beyond its mode of delivery is in fact highly debatable. Hence industries dependent on content soon were de-stabilized by the web - first the popular music industry, and now the newspaper and publishing industries (and soon the film industry).

So I ask myself, in this environment, how could the content of my blog have economic value? How could it be sold? It's true a handful of bloggers, like Perez Hilton or DailyKos, have rocketed to some level of economic success. But they have done so by generating national audiences, and, perhaps more importantly, by intertwining themselves with existing real-world power structures or publicity machines. To be blunt, their value is not created by the Internet, but by their connections to the Beltway, or MoveOn, or Entertainment Tonight.

There's not really much hope of that happening with a local blog, because there's no such large-scale audience available. There simply is no business model that can conjure fifty million people interested in Boston culture. And the smaller publicity machines that could help sustain a blog with a local audience are themselves under assault from the web (which will eventually de-stabilize "Entertainment Tonight," too).

Indeed, the problem is so acute in the pop music industry that many musicians - even successful ones - are now seeking donations simply to record albums and generate new material. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, but it's clearly a logical development - and indeed, it's merely a reworking of the model by which theatre has learned to survive. In a word, when its economic model is broken, an art form must depend on patronage. And it seems to me this is just one more harbinger of what's to come for the culture in general. In a word, in the not-too-distant future, all content will become more and more a function of patronage. Donations will be required to write songs, make movies, write books, and, of course, write criticism. Because all the economic structures that supported the "price" of content will have been kicked away.

So how could I expect criticism to operate in any other way? A few critics, such as Debra Cash, have begun to create niches for themselves as "criticists" - a kind of amalgam of publicist and critic - by running critical blogs and discussion programs for particular producers. (And the full reviews that appear on the Arts Boston site, btw, will be posted by producing members. More on that later.) This is obviously a form of patronage (it's basically patronage-by-producer), but to my mind, it's potentially dangerous. I can imagine that art could still be produced free of constraint from its donors (to some extent). But can criticism exist that way? I'm not sure. Or at least I've never heard of an example of a donor/producer who simply wrote a critic a blank check and let him write whatever he wanted to. Of course I'm always open to such an arrangement from someone who's not a producer! But I don't expect it to ever come to pass. No, in the meantime I expect to carry on as my own patron. And I certainly never expect The Hub Review to make me any money.

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