Why do people blog? Questions about incentives are sure to arise soon after people begin talking about participatory media (or “user-generated content” as the business people call it). Yahoo! Research Berkeley has a whole team, led by Cameron Marlow, looking at what they call the “social motives” that lead people to participate on the web.
People discussing incentives to participate in media production often assume that producers are motivated by things like novelty or ego that will soon “wear off,” and that traditional economic incentives will have to come in to replace them. Vincent Maher believes that “bloggers in late capitalist society will begin to seek financial compensation for the time spent serving increasingly large audiences,” and Scott Karp says that “unless we develop economic models to meaningfully compensate the long tail, the ego payoff for most people won’t be enough to justify the effort.” In other words, there’s no such thing as free labor.
With economic incentives come the potential for editorial influence. An increasing number of (amateur?) producers monetize their content via contextual advertisments, a practice that makes them vulnerable to accusations of rational self-interest from folks like Robert Scoble. As Maher puts it, there is worry about whether these producers will end up “simply repeating agendas set by commercial advertising keyword and search indexes.” These worries are leading some to call for better “Chinese walls” in the blogosphere.
But is the economic payoff from contextual advertising enough to keep people producing, or to motivate them to produce in the first place? Nicholas Carr says no, which leads me to wonder why people bother with the ads at all, other than to “keep tabs on what Google is doing.” Furthermore, studies of the closely related phenomenon of open source software production suggest that economic motivations do not play a major role.
So is the monetization of user-generated content through contextual advertising networks a dead end? Will bloggers eschew the paltry sums they receive, in order to guarantee the purity of their editorial independence? I believe the answer is “no,” but not because producers are greedy sell-outs or because their advertising revenues will rise to the point that they would be fools to give them up. Instead, I would argue that in a capitalist society, revenues from advertising take on a symbolic value that exceeds their actual economic value: they are proof of participation in a system larger than oneself that values one’s contributions. Just as the open source software developer wants to believe that someone is using her utility, the blogger wants to believe that someone is reading. In many cases that someone is a friend or family member in direct communication with the producer, and no further proof is needed. But in other cases, like when people blog about a hobby or a topic of professional interest, feedback isn’t necessarily forthcoming. Contextual advertising networks excel at giving people the rich feedback they crave, which is why so many people (like me) who don’t even run ads installed Google Analytics on their blogs. Click logs give people the warm fuzzies, and actual payments, even if only for a few cents a day, are proof positive that actual people are behind those clicks.
This is all conjecture, of course, and ought to be followed up on by a proper investigation of the emerging political economy of “amateur” production on the web, an investigation that moves well beyond Nardi et al’s investigations of blogging practices and takes participatory media seriously as a political, economic, social and cultural phenomenon. (Note to self: get on that…)