Monday, May 25, 2015

"It's Free": well, not forever. Is it OK to compete with yourself this way? A devious thought-experiment follows

Here’s a nasty little thought experiment, for a legal holiday.  Imagine that no one were allowed to keep self-published material (that is, online, in blogs, in self-published books, in videos) up and available (and findable by search) to the public unless it paid its own way with sales.   

You can imagine “exceptions” – like social media posts, but only those that were marked private outside of a pre-selected list of people that you already know and interact with in the real world. *
I throw out this “modest proposal” (like Jonathan Swift) as a kind of reaction to the constant calls I get to become aggressive in “selling”.   

I can immediately point to the same dilemma with newspapers, many of which have put up paywalls, with varying success.  Most scientific journals have mandatory pay, too (and subscriptions are expensive).  And in the past, even the government tried to support a system that kept some free academic journals away from the public, leading to the open access debate, started by the tragedy of Aaron Swartz (PACER should have been free, but not JSTOR) and recently taken up by teen medical innovator Jack Andraka.  

But in my own world, the basic moral setup is something this.  People calling have to make a living (often on commissions).  My “it’s free” idea isn’t fair to them.  Other people have children to raise, mouths to feed.  They didn’t inherit an estate that allows them to coast and do what they want.  

So I should get a taste of the life of a “pimp” and do the “Hustle and Flow” myself.   

That’s not quite accurate in another way.  I paid for the self-publishing of my first book (in 1997) because I found vendors who would do it rather inexpensively, because I made a good salary in a stable job, had ample savings, and because those savings had grown substantially in the 90s because the stock market (under a “Republicrat” Bill Clinton, who was very fiscally responsible himself) did well. I essentially “invested” stock market gains into the book.   Yes, Wall Street matters.  Rentier capital matters.  It can help you do what you want.  (And fiscal responsibility by governments helps.) All of this happened well before the eldercare endgame with Mother. 

And yes, I don’t have kids.  I didn’t procreate. I have no lineage to take care of me or to replace me.  But the cultural fault lines are appearing, and there are more than just two opposing sides to this. *
Normally, media projects do have to pay their own way when they use other people’s money (OPM).  Publicly traded companies have the biggest accountability, and that’s one reason why the “creativity” behind big Hollywood movies may be entertaining and dazzling, it’s often not too challenging intellectually, or doesn’t ask too many questions.   Independent movies still use investor money (often as LLC’s), usually, but usually investors who are much more interested in a creative message and not as demanding about returns.  Proprietors, like some self-published book authors and webmasters (me) are relatively free, a lot of sales hype in recent months and years is eroding that assumption.  

My strategy was to put out a morally nuanced, even ambiguous and perhaps self-effacing theory, at let people find it.  Yes, I did sell copies of the book in the first couple years, reasonably. But gradually, I came to depend on search engines to find me.  This worked very well from about 1999 until maybe 2008.  Gradually, never forms of social media have eroded that “market”.   
There is something alarming to some people about “passive” marketing like the way I managed it.  It is more likely to be found by people who don’t have the best intentions, the theory goes.   (This could feed into recent theories about how ISIS is able to abuse social media and use social leveraging to recruit.)  If “I” and really proud of what I have to say, then I should promote it with conventional public relations and advertising services, and work on a large scale.  I should spend time on sales activity, and not just on reworking more content.   
Historically, there is a twist in all this. I think the whole strategy I used would not be possible without Section 230, and if Facebook, Twitter, and to some extent newer Google products hadn’t come along, we might have much weaker downstream liability protections than we do now.  So while Mark Zuckerberg may have taken away some of my audience, he may have also saved it, and provided a new one. 

But imagine a world where you have to “earn the privilege of being listened to” (ironically, the title of my third book).  “You” (or “I” – I get defensive here and use pronouns impersonally, like in French class) only get heard when other people “want” or “need” what you have to say. That expands to a personal life, even for a singleton, based on meeting “the real needs of other people” and, moreover, letting that mean something to “you”.  I heard a lot of this back in the 1970s in the Rosenfels environment at the Ninth Street Center in NYC, with a great deal of irony and moral paradox that has never resolved.  There seems to be another cultural divide in our culture, between people who can “play” in an individualistic, secularized culture and those who need personalized attention in a group.  But man is a social animal before he is an individual.  
There’s a good question, as to the effectiveness, and even the ethics, of competing with oneself  (e.g., “you can compete with ‘free’”)– putting it up for sale on Amazon and other sites for those able and willing to pay, but also giving it away on PDF’s on owned sites or on “free” YouTube videos.  I wonder if this is partly what the big media companies worry about as eroding their market, rather than actual piracy.  (Mark Cuban, from Shark Tank, once ratified that idea in an email to me a few years back.)   

So, just moments ago, I played “Flirtation Avenue” from Timo Andres’s “Shy and Mighty”, an ironic name, from own YouTube channel, for free (ironically, the link on his website is incorrect!). But, yes, I played good karma and bought the CD a few years back, as I will with any artist I want to support (like by going to see his or her film with a normal admission ticket).  (The piece ends loudly.)  The meaning behind the “How Can I Live in your World of Ideas?” (the preceding piece), seems relevant.  Ideas alone can be dangerous when they just lie fallow.  But musicians, unlike bloggers and novelists, don’t have to be that explicit about meaning.  Arnold Schoenberg even said that – although opera and cantatas have a lot of textual meaning that can provoke.  
The mockumentary film series (3 8-minute shorts) by Reid Ewing (known from “Modern Family” and various indie films) starting with “It’s Free” (starting in an LA library, going to an aquarium and then a courthouse!) from around 2012 summarize all this beautifully.  And unfortunately they aren’t available right now, as far as I can tell. 

Coordinated post on Trademark blog today (also, Books blog on May 24, 2015 and Oct. 16, 2013).

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