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Volunteer critics

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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

Stephen Baker had a recent BusinessWeek article (via PSFK) that explores the kind of labor arrangement that by and large makes PopMatters possible: It’s called “Will Work for Praise.”


The gist is this: The Web makes it possible to aggregate the labor of volunteers, who hope to be paid in publicity—who want to build their “personal brand” and feel like “mini-Oprahs.” The marketing-oriented site Baker mainly looks at is reminiscent of the “BzzAgents” who offer to promote products for free, merely so that they can feel as though they have been an “influencer”. Such is the centrality of marketing in our culture (it is arguably our culture’s dominant, defining discourse) that people seek to to seize some of its relevance by merely mimicking it—they don’t care what they are influencing people to do as long as they are speaking the language of influence, channeling its power through themselves and thereby becoming socially relevant.


Laura Sweet…searches intently, unearthing such bizarre treasures for sale as necklaces for trees and tattoo-covered pigs. As usual, she posts them on a shopping site called ThisNext.com. Asked why in the world she spends so many hours each week working for free, she answers: “It’s a labor of love.”
Later this morning, a half-hour’s drive to the west, a serial entrepreneur named Gordon Gould strolls into the Santa Monica offices of ThisNext. Gould has managed to entice an army of volunteers, including Sweet, to pour passion and intelligence into his site for free. Traffic on ThisNext is soaring, with unique visits nearly tripling in a year, to 3.5 million monthly. What’s in it for the volunteer workers? “They can build their brands,” Gould says. “In their niches, they can become mini-Oprahs.”


That sounds a lot like he’s saying “My volunteers are daydreaming dupes.” And maybe that’s right. Gould seems pretty cavalier about his star contributors, assuming that the amount of volunteer labor he can throw at any problem compensates for the singularity of any individual’s efforts. Baker writes, “The trick in the volunteer economy is less to keep a superstar from quitting than to make sure that plenty of eager volunteers are ready to work to take her place.” Volunteer laborers of this sort are almost always implicitly assumed to be gullible and deluded, misunderstanding what their real motive should be—namely moneymaking. Free labor devalues paid labor, of course, and challenges the underlying concept of labor itself: Work is compensated in wages because it is presumed to be a disutility—a pain in the ass. What we do for free is socially regarded as hobby activity by definition; it’s unserious, leisurely play.


Consequently, uncompensated work tends to be regarded as inherently suspect, as is the case with the way “amateur” critics online are often regarded by the professionals they are rapidly superseding. An article (annoyingly firewalled) in the Columbia Journalism Review by David Hajdu offers a good example. He quotes New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier:


Every crisis in criticism supposes that it is unprecedented, he says, but now there really is a new reason for alarm. Criticism has always been a mixture of opinion and judgment, judgment being something more learned and more seasoned and more intellectually ambitious than mere opinion. But beginning with Amazon, which made anybody who could type into a book reviewer, and now as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making. This culture of outbursts, and the weird and totally unwarranted authority that it has been granted, has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment. It’s one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.


This seems like pure elitism to me. The chief distinction between “judgment” and “opinion” in his account basically boils down to whether or not the opinion giver is properly credentialed, and that is typically a matter of who you know and who is paying you. It’s not as though book reviewing is phenomenology. The problem is that the “weird and totally unwarranted authority” of noncommercial critics threatens to devalue the cultural capital of people like Wieseltier, which is why professional opinion givers like Wieseltier bluster about amateurs, trying to discredit uninstitutionalized opinion. Reviews on Amazon are generally not “outbursts” but often attempts to articulate a useful explanation of a work’s value. And the reviews here, many written by academics, don’t presume a “weird authority.” What’s weird is the monopoly on judgment that crypto-sages like Wieseltier seem to believe is their unique entitlement.


Worse, the implication is that judgment as exercised by the wise Wieseltiers of the world should do nothing to truly educate their readers, who, perpetually incapable of their own judgment, remain ignorant sieves waiting to have wisdom poured through them. The “baleful consequences” of democratization are that Wieseltier faces more competition, and his publishing-world connections aren’t as valuable anymore. Wieseltier basically admits he has no stake in seeing cultural capital more widely distributed and shared in the world; instead, covetous of its relative value, he would like to keep opinion making as hierarchical as possible. (Requiring that a capitalist bankroll you in order for you to have credibility is a fine way of accomplishing that end.)


So paid critics often don’t have the best interests of readers in mind; they want to undermine readers’ feelings of expertise. Also, as Hajdu details, paid journalists often end up co-opted by the entertainment industry that readers expect them to evaluate objectively. “Music critics, too, feel the pressure to make nice. In an era in which home-studio software and social networking sites have greatly simplified the production and the distribution of popular music, the sheer quantity of new releases by unknown artists has, among other effects, made it more tempting to accentuate the positive.” Since the music-business is threatened by disintermediation, it behooves its support system in the print media to give it a boost. The writers end up as an adjunct of that entertainment industry, working for the big media companies themselves. Otherwise, constraints on their editors force writers to eschew critical discourse for consumer-guide-style advice. 


I’m not sure how the criticism on PopMatters is regarded out in the world. But in many ways, the volunteer status of most contributors makes the criticism published here potentially more valuable—it vouches, at least, for the writing’s integrity (though I suppose one could argue that, like underpaid judges, unpaid critics may merely be susceptible to being bought off more easily by PR people with tickets to shows and free DVDs and the like). Thanks to internet publishing, it becomes possible to read a different kind of critical voice—sure, one that emulates the paid press at times, but one that is more likely to preserve an earnest sense of its critical mission. Cynicism is thereby usually reserved for deserving subjects. The writing can grow indulgent in places, but in general there is a sincere effort to be disciplined by the craft of criticism itself, rather than the need to be snappy, or to accommodate column-space concerns, or attract advertisers. I know, that’s hopelessly idealistic, but it’s an ideal that could only ever blossom outside of capitalist relations.


Anyway, as more outlets for uncompensated content creation proliferate on the Web—Amazon.com and social networks being the most conspicuous ones right now—the perception that it’s all hobby writing and/or self-branding online (it’s all “weird” pseudoauthority; “baleful” democratization; untoward “outbursts” of silly plebes with their silly opinions) will become even more entrenched. Sites may have to go more explicitly capitalist—pay writers, collect subscriptions, feature advertising, etc.—to ensure that they are regarded as “professional”  and worthy of being read by people who otherwise limit their consumption of amateur copy to those they have friended. 

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