Category Archives: Blogging

Screw the gift economy, a reply to Clay Shirky

PhotosI came across a post today by Gaby Dunn called “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame.” Dunn gives us YouTube and Instagram celebrities forced to live hand to mouth. It reminded me of an essay I wrote months ago, shelved and then forgot. Here’s a piece of the larger whole.

Consider this crude calculation. Let’s posit 100 people each of whom is producing 10 artifacts a year for the digital domain. (Artifacts include blog posts, fan fiction, web sites, remixes, podcasts, fan art, Pinterest pages, and so on.) We are going to assume that these creative efforts are funded by day jobs, scholarships, and parental support. With this subvention, this “gift economy” produces 1000 artifacts a year. Some of this work is rich and interesting.

The creators are rewarded for their work with acknowledgment and gratitude. The exchange is ruled by what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would call “generalized reciprocity.” (See his Stone Age Economics.) Gifts are given without expectation of immediate or exact return. There is lots of cultural meaning here but no real economic value.

Let’s release economic value into the system. Now, the best work costs. We pay for ownership or for access. We could even use a “tipping” system. When we admire a piece of fan art, we tip the creator. This tip could come out of the $5 our ISP returns to us from our subscription fee. Or it could be supplied to us by Google which has been the overwhelming beneficiary of the content we have put online. A postmodern PayPal springs up to make this distribution system easy.

Thirty of our 100 kids are now accumulating value. The best of them are accumulating quite a lot of value. Let’s suppose that a piece of fan art, drafting on the success of a hit TV show, goes viral. Let’s say it’s viewed by an audience of 100,000 people, twenty percent of whom tip 40 cents on average. The result, eight thousand dollars, is not a prince’s ransom. (I would check these numbers. An anthropologist with a calculator is a dangerous thing.) And if it is used to allow someone to move out of their parent’s basement, it has no obvious cultural effect.

But if our winner uses the money to take the summer off from her job at McDonald’s, this is a difference from which real differences can spring. Now a good artist can become a more productive artist and eventually a better artist. And a virtuous cycle is set in train. More and better work brings in more income, more income becomes more time free for work, and this leads to more improvements in art and income. Eventually, the McDonald’s job can be given up altogether.

In this scenario, the gift economy loses…but culture wins. The supply of good work increases. Standards rise. Good artists get better.

I expect this vista will make Clay Shirky’s eyes water and possibly tear. (My text is Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.) He might well feel this is a brutal intrusion of capital into a magical world of generosity.

Not so fast. In point of fact, the internet as a gift economy is an illusion. This domain is not funding itself. It is smuggling in the resources that sustain it, and to the extent that Shirky’s account helps conceal this market economy, he’s a smuggler too. This world cannot sustain itself without subventions. And to this extent it’s a lie.

Shirky insists that generalized reciprocity is the preferred modality. But is it?

[In the world of fan fic, there] is a “two worlds” view of creative acts. The world of money, where [established author, J.K.] Rowling lives, is the one where creators are paid for their work. Fan fiction authors by definition do not inhabit this world, and more important, they rarely aspire to inhabit it. Instead, they often choose to work in the world of affection, where the goal is to be recognized by others for doing something creative within a particular fictional universe. (p. 92)

Good and all, but, again, not quite of this world. A very bad situation, one that punishes creators and our culture, is held up as somehow exemplary. But of course reputation economies spring up, but we don’t have to choose. We can have both market and reputation economies. But it’s wrong surely, to make the latter a substitute for the former.

Shirky appears to be persuaded that it’s “ok” for creators to create without material reward. But I think it’s probably true that they are making the best of a bad situation. Recently, I was doing an interview with a young respondent. We were talking about her blog, a wonderful combination of imagination and mischief. I asked her if she was paid for this work and she said she was not. “Do you think you should be paid?” I asked.

She looked at me for a second to make sure I was serious about the question, thought for a moment and then, in a low voice and in a measured somewhat insistent way, said, “Yes, I think I should be paid.” There was something about her tone of voice that said, “Payment is what is supposed to happen when you do work as good as mine.”

One data point hardly represents proof of my position. But it does suggest what might happen when the possibility of payment enters the world. A light goes on. The present internet is so much a gift economy and so little a market one, that it is hard for its occupants to imagine alternatives.

I am not going to take up the intrinsic — extensive distinction that matters here. Clearly, people are now being “paid” in intrinsic satisfactions. They are making great work online for the sake of doing so. But I believe it’s true that here too the intrinsic was never meant to be a substitute for the extrinsic. The luckiest people in the world get paid twice, with intrinsic satisfaction and extrinsic value. That’s actually what we’re hoping for. This is, mark you, the way the academic world mostly works. Surely, it’s wrong and a little odd to celebrate the intrinsic as an alternative to the extrinsic.

But let’s get to the very large elephant in the room. It is the career satisfactions of the so-called Millennial generation. This group has suffered diminished career options. They have been obliged to work as interns, always with the promise that this would prepare them the “real job” to come. But of course the “real job” often never comes. The obligation to work for free online reproduces the obligation of working for free in the world, as if life were one long internship, unbroken and unpaid. After a while it begins to look like one’s lot in life. My research reveals a culture of compliance in which members of this generation agree to agree that their present circumstances are not outrageous. Millennial optimism and good humor endures. (Let’s imagine if someone had tried to pull this on Gen X. Oh, wait, someone did. The reaction was an “alternative” culture and a ferocious repudiation of the status quo.)

But back to our academic contemplation of the gift economy. When Shirky says that work given “freely” on line is a great act of generosity, I think we’re entitled to say that generosity is only properly so-called when there are alternatives. And there aren’t. Forced generosity isn’t generosity.

Still more troubling, the gift economy has a second guilty secret. People can only participate if they have access to resources from outside the digital world. In fact, the moral economy excludes people who do not have wealthy parents, generous scholarships, or rewarding day jobs. If someone is poor, uneducated, and or underemployed, it is hard to participate. So much for generosity and connectivity.

Because the “generosity” view is an idealistic view, it feels somehow above reproach. Clearly for Shirky it is manifestly good. But when people are driven by generosity and rewarded with community, something goes missing. Good artists are denied the resources that would make them better. A generation continues to go underemployed. The next evolutionary moment is lost. A series of social and cultural innovations are not forthcoming. The real generative engine of our culture falls silent.

Some will object that there is an economy online even if financial capital does not circulate. They will say that people are paid in reputation, acknowledgement and thanks. Well, yes. But mostly no. The trouble with “acknowledgement” and “thanks” is that they are both mushy and illiquid. They are impossible to calculate. They cannot be exchanged for anything outside the moral economy. Acknowledgment and thanks are not worth nothing. But they verge on the gratuitous. We can “like” something with nothing more than the energy it takes to move the cursor and click the mouse. This is not quite the same as surrendering a scarce value for which sacrifices have been made. Choice, made carefully, at cost, in hope of gain and at peril of loss, this is the fundamental act of economics. Without it, all we have are bubbles of approbation. Our moral economy isn’t an economy, except in a disappointingly slack metaphorical sense.

Finally, I do not mean to be unpleasant or to indulge ad hominem attack, but I think there is something troubling about a man supported by academic salary, book sales, and speaking engagements telling Millennials how very fine it is that they occupy a gift economy which pays them, usually, nothing at all. I don’t say that Shirky has championed this inequity. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask him to acknowledge it and to grapple with its implications.

The gift economy of the digital world is a mirage. It looks like a world of plenty. It is said to be a world of generosity. But on finer examination we discover results that are uneven and stunted. Worse, we discover a world where the good work goes without reward. The more gifted producers are denied the resources that would make them still better producers and our culture richer still.

What would people, mostly Millennials, do with small amounts of capital? What enterprises, what innovations would arise? How much culture would be created? I leave for another post the question of how we could install a market economy (or a tipping system) online. And I have to say I find it a little strange we don’t have one already. Surely the next (or the present) Jack Dorsey could invent this system. Surely some brands could treat this as a chance to endear themselves to content creators. Surely, there is an opportunity for Google. If it wants to save itself from the “big business” status now approaching like a freight train, the choice is clear. Create a system that allows us to reward the extraordinary efforts of people now producing some of the best artifacts in contemporary culture.

Oh, thank goodness

Faithful readers will have noticed that This Blog has been down for a full month.

We were hit by the malware attach that caused Google and Firefox to warn away visitors.  

I have to say Network Solutions has been spectacularly unhelpful.

Use "Network solutions" and "malware" as your search terms in Twitter, and you will see that this attack is "epidemical" as they used to say in the 18th century.  The nightmare continues for many.  Network Solutions as acted with the cavalier disregard of the public utility it once was.  Bad brand, bad!

We have abandoned it and good riddance.

But we didn’t get off scotfree.  We lost all the blog posts since December 18th, 2009.  This too is thanks to Network Solutions which managed to delete the entire database.  Yes, that’s 1.5 million words, and many years of work, made to disappear in a puff of digital smoke. Bad brand, very bad brand.

Were it not for a backup at Foliovision, I would have lost the whole thing.  Good brand! Excellent brand.  (No, but really.  Foliovision has earned my undying gratitude.  Highly recommended for anyone thinking of making the transition from TypePad to WordPress.)  

It looks as if we were going to lose the list of Very Good Blogs, but, happily ,David Armano referenced it a couple of months ago, and this gave us a back up.  Thank you, David. 

So we are back in action.  Thanks for your patience.  And thanks to people who wrote in to give me the head’s up on the malware attack.  

Special thanks to Ana Domb for helping me get This Blog back in place.

The attack on Russell Davies

Russell_davies_1 Oh, f*ck.  Some nit wit has driven Russell Davies off his blog.  The attack came in the form of satire, someone adopting Mr. Davies’ style in order to ridicule it.

Here’s the anthropological take. 

This kind of satire depends upon noticing the structural characteristics, the cultural form, of the target (in this case Davies’ blogging style). 

Now for the unsophisticated cultural observer (or bad anthropologist), the act of noticing carries a certain charge.  It produces a secret glee.  Noticing persuades the satirist that they have punctured a veil of secrecy.  They are claiming to "get" what is "really" going on.  As in, "You thought you were going to get away with this one, but we see exactly what you’re doing." 

What’s odd about this, anthropologically speaking, is that the UCO (aka BA) is giving him/herself credit for an ordinary act of noticing. Sophisticated cultural actors (or good anthropologists) engage in noticing all the time.  It is part of the pleasure of reading.  When ordinary noticing produces a secret glee and when this glee is made public in an effort to inflict social injury, well, we are given a noticing opportunity of our own.  The satirist is punching above his or her intellectual weight.  Or to put this more exactly, those who snicker when noticing tell us that they notice neither often nor well.

But there’s more.  Noticing of the kind we discussing here means to be quietly accusatory.  Look, it says, we have discovered you, Mr. Davies, using self revelation for the purposes of self aggrandizement.  More specifically, the charge against Mr. Davies is that he reveals things about his social life, family life and emotional life.  His satirist is saying, effectively, Mr. Davies uses private matters for metapragmatic purposes, to craft a certain public impression of himself. 

There is Britishness at work here.  Self revelation on one’s blog!  In the U.S., this is not an accusation but a statement of the obvious.  My friend Debbie Millman will not mind me saying that self revelation is the very grammar of her engagement with the blogging world.  But certain kinds of self revelation are prohibited in United Kingdom, still.  Here, too compactly, is the way it works: we are locked into a social world where certain social and cultural capitals are in exceedingly short supply.  Someone may make a bid for these capitals through the deployment of a social strategy, but it is up to the rest of us to call him out.  What keeps Britain from turning into a Hollywood scramble for self aggrandizement is the biting comment, the satiric slam.  (Is my criticism here apt?  I would bet a large sum of money that the author of the satire is British.) 

Four points here: 

One, Britain’s social world is no longer zero sum. 

Two, the world of planning is zero sum in a very narrow sense, but when people like Mr. Davies make planning a more vivid part of the intellectual world, all boats, even the satirist’s, rise with the tide. 

Three, the world of blogging is, for the moment anyhow, in a moment of absolute expansion.  My admiration for Mr. Davies’ blogging does not give to him or take from me. 

Four, we are looking at the emergence of a world of plenitude obliges us to ask whether "zero sum" is any longer the signature calculation of the cultures of capitalism. 

Here’s what I like about Russell Davies’ blog (and I don’t like everything).  He is experimental in form and content.  I am getting weary of blogs that come from a book, an agency, a paradigm, and never ever rise above these origins.  They are always about the book, the agency or the paradigm.  They are promotional vehicles when the point of the exercise is surely to try things out.  If there is one way of recognizing the corporations, agency, planners and consultants who have a chance of surviving the new bouleversement of the marketplace, this is it.  They try things out. 

In fact, Wednesday, when I was writing about cloudiness as the new structural form, I thought about Russell Davies as a case in point.  He might be the cloudiest guy I know.  He has lots of interests and engagements.  And he has let slip the boundaries that used to keep some things in the life out of play.  He is prepared to take up and abandon assumptions, as he goes.  This is to say that the personal matters that Mr. Davies exposes on his blog are something more than ordinary self revelation.  They are notes from an experiment.   

Conflict of Interest declaration

I have met Russell Davies on two occasions, once in London, once in New York City.  I have participated as a "visiting professor" on two occasions in his Account Planning School of the Web.  We have not worked together otherwise. 


Davies, Russell.  2007.  Bugger.  Russell Davies.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Cloudiness: of selves, groups, networks and ideas.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics. January 31, 2007.  here.   

What is blogging good for

Ebay_logo Some say blogging is still an answer looking for a question.

Not bloggers, of course.  We know it’s a chance to shoot our mouths off.

But the rest of the world wonders.  What is blogging good for?

Today, notice of that eBay may have found a way to make us useful.

Ebay wants to build bridges by developing software which it can then put in the hands of bloggers, allowing them to create links between niche communities and relevant products.  … The idea behind [MeCommerce] software is to allow bloggers to recommend music, books, DVDs and T-shirts to readers who can make impulse purchases without leaving the blog.

We will serve as a tributary system for Ebay.  We will find consumers where they live…or at least where they read. We will make heartfelt endorsements.  Purchases will be made.  If this model works, blogging is the new TV, tiny and particular where TV was mighty and mass.

Then the question is whether bloggers will "flock" in a manner that allows producers to recapture big bets.  Will enough of us recommend the same movies, books, TV shows (and perhaps TV sets, cars, and suit makers?) that someone can hope to make their numbers.  Or is this truly a descent into Chris Anderson’s notion of the market as a small tail, in which small producers exist to serve small niches. 

The other question is what the Ebay harness would do to blogging.  I think there is a good chance that it would transform our editorial content quite substantially.  It might well make us less criticial. Why diss something when we can give praise that brings profit?  I think I like the blogosphere better without a harness.

And while we are glimping the larger significance of blogging, consider the interview with Fiona Czerniawska on the present and future of consulting Management Consulting News. 

See if blogging doesn’t seem like an answer to the "thought leadership" issue.  We will have to think of ways, first, to inform bloggers with better data, in the manner of all management consulting, and second, to aggregate and harvest blogging idea generation.  But clearly there is a great engine of ingenuity, creativity, and intellectual activity out there that shouldn’t be very hard to tap.  I am hoping that Steve Postrel might give us the benefit of his opinion. 

MCNews: As consultants try to make their mark among  these various decision makers, what’s working for consultants in terms of marketing, and is that changing  at all?

Czerniawska: I see a great deal of activity around thought leadership. I can’t count the number of firms that seem to be investing heavily in revamping their thought leadership, both in terms of the internal process through which they develop content but also the extent to which they communicate effectively outside.

MCNews: Do you see that as a renewed effort?

Czerniawska: Yes. Quite a few firms canned their thought leadership teams in 2002, but are now rebuilding them. And they’re by no means alone. When I say the words ‘thought leadership’ to virtually any firm, I get lots and lots of people sitting up and paying attention and saying, we’re putting millions of dollars into this. We don’t know what we’re getting, but we need to do something.                   

MCNews: Is it your sense that understanding the return on investment for thought leadership is important or is it something that firms just believe they need to do?

Czerniawska: Oh, I think they recognize that it’s important. Maybe they’ve been down the road with the big expense of advertisements, which help build a firm’s brand but don’t really help clients short-list the firm for projects. It’s an increasingly hard tool to use for differentiation. I think people see thought leadership as the key battleground at the present.


Callan, Eoin.  2006.  Ebay considers creating software tools to tap blogging markets.  Financial Times.  July 5, 2006. 

For the Management Consulting News interview with Czerniawska, go here.

Bloggers vs. the old media (are they panicking yet?)

Sack_of_romeI think the old media verge on panic. One or two symptoms are beginning to show.

Thursday, I noted Lance Ulanoff’s alarmist treatment of YouTube. Ulanoff thinks it will turn us all into iVideots and that things must end badly:

The inescapable truth is that the moving image will be everywhere, yet iVideots will soon lose any true connection with the live people moving all around them.

Tom Guarriello caught the WSJ’s Henninger calling our world, gasp, uncivilized.

But there is one more personality trait common to the blogosphere that, like crabgrass, may be spreading to touch and cover everything. It’s called disinhibition. Briefly, disinhibition is what the world would look like if everyone behaved like Jerry Lewis or Paris Hilton or we all lived in South Park.

Recently, Ann Moore, CEO of Time, Inc., implied that blogging was cheap opinion.

One of the biggest threats to our business is this confusion in the public between real, fact-based, checked news and opinion, which is very cheap… And so, I’m really committed…to really paying attention to Time and figuring out how we can hold up the price value of fact-based news.

I am sure there is an "anthropology of decline" that documents the symptomatology of regime transition. I just don’t know it. 

But here’s a simple typology. I keep it on cardboard in my wallet….to make it easier to identity institutions in their last days.

Stage 1. Benign neglect.

In the early days of regime transition, the incumbent (aka New York Times, Wall Street Journal) treats the new challenger (aka bloggers) with a certain high handed indifference. If acknowledgment occurs at all, it comes with a patronizing pat on the head, as in "Hey, aren’t the newcomers charmingly amateur? Welcome to the party. Now, run along and get me a drink."  More often, bloggers are not acknowledged.  They just don’t matter. 

Stage 2. Lordly disdain

Blogging actually wins a couple of battles. In its "wisdom of crowds" way, it begins to threaten the traditional players. These respond with certain sneering, scolding, dismissal.  The implicit message: "who do you think you are, don’t you know who I am?"  Now we’re getting somewhere.

Stage 3. Irritation plus Obfuscation

As it turns out, bloggers refuse to wither in the face of high handed treatment.  In fact, they get stronger.  Their victories grow more numerous.  Their voice becomes more compelling.

Now it’s clear that the traditional media outlets must pay attention.  They begin to "cover" blogging.  They begin to read blogging.  They begin to help themselves to its content. 

And now they begin to see the writing on the wall.  If Wikipedia can rise to become a creditable challenge for the Encyclopedia Britannica, surely the NYT and the vulnerable too.  And at this point, things can get a little chippy.  See my account of a skirmish with a Canadian journalist (McCracken 2004) below. 

Stage 4. Panic! Attack!  Panic Attack!

In Stage 4, the alarm is now running full time.  You can hear  it coming from the old media world as if from a neglected warehouse.  It’s time to roll out the "barbarians at the gate" argument.  Enter Ulanoff, Henninger and Moore. 

Now, not everyone reacts this way.  I had lunch with a senior journalist who cheerfully admitted that the NYT might be dead in a decade.  But for most people, it is time to defend the vested interest.  (And this is of course a rich irony, coming as it does from profession that is supposed to protect us against same.)

Naturally, these aggressions can make thing worse.  Moore reveals a deeply patronizing attitude towards her reading public.  She implies they are not quite bright enough to see the difference between fact and opinion.  (Yes, I appreciate she is trying to stake out a value proposition for the capital markets, but when a CEO makes her value proposition by dissing her customers, analysts are going to wonder if she’s fit for office.  This self destructive behavior may be taken as a real measure of the panic.)

What you can do

How far will they go? The old media is a little like the old mafia. We muscle in on their turf at our peril.  We can’t know how far they will go, but I think it’s more than remotely possible that the community of bloggers, normally so serene and tranquil, is this far from becoming one of those Law and Order episodes in which bodies start turning up everywhere. 

This means bloggers will want to think about hiring protection.  Plastic surgery and name changes are not out of the question.  (Finally, an excuse!)  I understand that a blogger was found beaten and bloody in Second Life.  He was incoherent, but in his hand was found a scrap of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.  You are warned.  Take steps now!


Guarriello, Tom. 2006. Guest Post: On mass media and blogging. This blog sits at the… April 21, 2006. here.

Lance, Ulanoff.  2006.  Are you an iVideot?  Internet Video is sucking life out of our live world.  PCMagazine.  April 20, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Newspaper vs. Blogs: I think we’re catching up. December 20, 2004. here.  [for the Canadian journalist thing]

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Youtube: a peril to us all? This blog sits at… April 20, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Muddles in the old media models. This Blog Sits At… February 8, 2006. here

Steinberg, Brian. 2006. Time’s Chief Plans A Digital-Age Transformation. Wall Street Journal. February 8, 2006. p. B3.

Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Doubleday.

the Wikipedia homepage here.

Post Script. 

On Thursday, Steve Postrel offered this useful bigger picture of the regime transition:

Remember: it was always better Before. The ancient Greeks had Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages before their own Lead. The Roman Republic looked back to Romulus and Remus. The early Roman Empire missed the Republic. The Renaissance thinkers and artists saw themselves as restoring ancient glory.

Nostaligia turned to "social criticism" during the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The romantic movements in poetry and literature set the tone. Then we had Rousseau and then Marxists (not all of them, and not Marx himself) who insisted that living in a free society with specialization and market competition and fluid social roles was inferior to rustic stability and feudalism.

Fast-forward to the postwar US. First we had the problems of the Lonely Crowd and mass society–things were better in the old days when people were more individualistic. Then we had the problem of excessive abundance and mindless consumerism and the Leisure Crisis–things were better when our mass economy wasn’t so productive. Then we had the Age of Scarcity–things were better when the economy was booming and we didn’t have to worry about foreign competition.

Then we had the transition to today’s New Economy, with flexible supply chains and firms facing gales of entrepreneurial creative destruction, higher returns to skill and creativity, and the ability to segment and individualize goods and services like never before.

Now the Before of the social critics is the Mass Society where people didn’t go Bowling Alone or watch different TV shows from one another. And they’re already campaigning to valorize today as a Before life-extension period, when people had the good grace to die quickly.

Thank you, Steve.

Guest post: Tom Guarriello on the mass media and blogging


Yesterday, Tom Guarriello offered a great comment on old media’s cry of alarm about blogging and the new media:

It’s a particularly interesting day in the "they’ve gone mad" wing of the tsk-tskers. Here, Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal:

"But there is one more personality trait common to the blogosphere that, like crabgrass, may be spreading to touch and cover everything. It’s called disinhibition. Briefly, disinhibition is what the world would look like if everyone behaved like Jerry Lewis or Paris Hilton or we all lived in South Park.

Example: The Web site currently famous for enabling and aggregating millions of personal blogs is called If you opened its "blogs" page this week, the first thing you saw was a blogger’s video of a guy swilling beer and sticking his middle finger through a car window. Right below that were two blogs by women in their underwear.

In our time, it has generally been thought bad and unhealthy to "repress" inhibitions. Spend a few days inside the new world of personal blogs, however, and one might want to revisit the repression issue."

Oh, man, women in their underwear. What’s next?


Tom’s blog, The TrueTalk Blog, here