An essay by Benjamin Kunkel titled ‘Lingering’ appeared in the most recent issue of the N1BR. Notionally a review of three semi-recent books about online discourse, the essay functions as an accounting of the ways the Internet has failed to enrich both the author’s life and literary culture. But Kunkel is not (wholly) a technophobe or a scold. He gives “digitally interconnected life” credit for its “novelty, variety [and] excitement.” He even approves of the way that an agreeably “speech-like” writing style has been used by bloggers — although because the writing in question appeared online, that style choice must only ever have been deployed “in a minor and disposable way.”
He will readily defend the amusing aspects of the Internet, he says, as long as he’s not forced to pretend these amusements are important. He’ll admit that he likes to Gchat as long as we understand that he thinks that online communication is ultimately a distraction from the important business of reading “poetry, philosophy, and history,” which he says “hardly exist online.” “What are the native species of internet prose?” he asks, then answers, “Op-eds, diary entries, aperçus, allusions, screeds, and scrawls of graffiti—worthy forms but marginal and perishable like little nodding flowers along a river” — “fundamentally parasitic forms” that do not themselves constitute “[their] own culture.”
Kunkel’s experience of the Internet bears no resemblance to my experience of the Internet, but then, that’s the funny thing about the Internet, isn’t it? No one’s Internet looks the same as anyone else’s, and it’s that exact essential fungibility that makes definitive assessments like Kunkel’s infuriating. The Internet isn’t a text we can all read and interpret differently. It’s not even a text, at least not in most senses of that word. The Internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to. If you are looking at the Internet and expecting it to be a source of fleeting funniness, unchallenging writing, attention-span-killing video snippets, and porn, then that is exactly all it will ever be for you.
But even if you accept Kunkel’s valuation of the entire content of the Internet, you might still part ideological ways with him when he comes to the direly portentous part of his essay, when he wonders where our consumption and production of online writing is leading us. He pretends to accede that “no logical reason exists” why great, “challenging” art can’t exist alongside the weaker stuff that the Internet specializes in, but this turns out to be a ruse. “Naturally everyone wants to believe that by spending time online we are not steadily depriving real art, thought, and journalism of the attention and—since so much online “content” is free of charge—the money these would need to survive.” We may want to believe otherwise, he’s saying, but actually we are depriving real art of its lifeblood with every online word we type or read.
This worrying and provocative assertion is easy to take to heart if you can manage to ignore one detail: its provenance. This thought comes near the end of a thoughtfully composed, long, obviously edited and copyedited essay. It’s difficult to imagine any mainstream (ie, paying) periodical assigning this essay, given that all the books it “reviews” are long since published. With a minimal, begrudging acknowledgment of his act’s inherent dissonance, Kunkel has written an indictment of the culture (or non-culture) of reading and writing for free online — the ” great ongoing suicide (by freeloading content) of the intellectual class” — for the N1BR, a monthly book-review supplement which appears exclusively online and does not pay its writers.
It’s okay, of course, to admit to feeling conflicted about writing for free. My friend Doree Shafrir just wrote on her Tumblr, in an approving response to a Gawker post that equated writing for free online with “slave labor,” that she recently told a representative from a professional journalists’ association that she wouldn’t be able to write a feature article for them unless they would, you know, pay her. Doree reported that the would-be assigning editor seemed shocked that her offer to “feature [Doree] prominently in the list of contributors, and … publish [her] website’s address” was not going to constitute adequate compensation. “Well, it’s great that in this economy you have enough work to be able to turn stuff down!” the woman told Doree. This is, of course, infuriating.
Also infuriating to me is Doree’s assertion that she “doesn’t write for free.” But maybe this assertion is infuriating because it makes me feel guilty? Writing for free feels, to me, sometimes like a vice and sometimes like a privilege. Sometimes I wonder whether, if I organized my thoughts in a more palatable way, I mightn’t be able to knead and pat many of my blog posts into little women’s-magazine-personal-essay-shaped molds. And per the logic that — yeah, I’m going to go ahead and conflate Doree’s and Ben Kunkel’s and Fek’s points of view, enjoy being strange fellows in that bed, guys — giving away the blog-milk for free devalues not just one’s own personal cow but also the cow of anyone who might ever have a cow to sell, I suppose that is what I ought to have done. And also by that logic I shouldn’t ever write for nplusonemag.com, or This Recording, or The Awl.
But without unpaid contributions like mine, these websites and others like them would not be able to exist, and that would suck, because these are some of my favorite websites. They are just a tiny component of my personal Internet-chimera, which contains plenty of lolcats and junk but also contains plenty that even the snobbiest reader might recognize as original culture. These manifestations of culture are sometimes genuinely shallow, but sometimes they’re only deceptively shallow-seeming, like those places at the ocean’s edge where you’ll wade in a few feet and then lose your footing in suddenly cool, deep water.
I’m trying to think of a meaningful way that writing for free for these sites, w/r/t whether it devalues all online writing, is distinct from writing for free for the Huffington Post, and I sort of can’t.
Any reasonable adult can clearly see that the HuffPo is exemplary of the many terrible ways that, when writing and reading for free on the Internet, you get/give what you pay/are paid for. “I was a tree with ripened fruit ready to be picked, and I accepted bravo’s [sic] offer to expedite the process and show the world exactly who I am. Bravo to Bravo and to reality television when used properly,” writes HuffPo blogger and Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel in a post about her decision to become a reality tv star. The site is so catholic in its content that Frankel’s earnest, grade school essay-ish blog posts about her “journey” (“Being a part of the Bravo family and on Housewives has given me the opportunity to express myself as exactly who I am: me“) coexist queasily alongside a post by one of the HuffPo’s scant handful of paid employees about Frankel’s “wardrobe malfunction” (“NSFW PHOTOS“).
“The Oncoming Apocalypse Of Journalism – of which Huffington might be one of the Four Horsepeople – could just be a Noah’s Ark-esque flood, one in which the only thing holding you above water is a paycheck for quality. Or people could just stop giving a shit about quality, and that could go, too,” concludes Foster Kamer’s Gawker post on this topic. Couldn’t it, just.
Elsewhere in this post, Kamer hazards another guess about The Future of Journalism:
“[I]f writers are writing for free to gain exposure, this could eventually become so circular – the job I’m writing from right now could be a job done ‘for exposure’ – that the foundation that journalism jobs are built on could become an (ironically) inverted pyramid, one where free content sits at the top, with only those who survive through an income-less period of life scoring paid gigs.”
Am I crazy if that this seems to me less a shocking peek into an occluded crystal ball and more a simple (if clumsily worded) analysis of How Shit Works, How Shit Has Worked For A While Now Actually?
I write for free because there seems to me to be no meaningful relationship between whether a publication pays me and whether it’s worthwhile for me to write for them. I’ve been skillfully edited and I’ve been allowed to babble on painfully unchecked by paying and non-paying publications alike. I’ve garnered indirect material benefit from paying and non-paying publications alike. I’m not suggesting that anyone follow my example or positing that I know what The Future of Journalism entails, but I do know, barring catastrophe, what my particular future is: I am going to keep getting paid to write when I can and writing for free when I can’t. If/when this situation becomes untenable for me as a way of actually making my living, I’ll start making more of my money with my non-writing endeavors. People have been doing exactly that, and writing sad essays about the injustice of having to do exactly that, for much longer than the Internet has been around.
Watching ‘Manhattan’ the other night — I wrote a thing about it for This Recording’s upcoming Woody Allen week — I was struck by the scene where Mary Wilkie complains to Isaac that she “deserves” better than her relationship with his married friend. She lists her credentials, shrilly asserting that she is smart, young, and beautiful. She says twice, I think, that she therefore “deserves” better than she’s getting.
Her character is tragic for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because she seems not to realize that nobody deserves anything.
UPDATE: I had comments disabled by accident, sorry! I’m still getting used to the new blog.