Everything is Fucked | Everything is OK.

Why The Customer Is Not Always Right

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Games of Thrones season is upon us once again, which means intense Twitter debates about spoilers (spoilers are yours to avoid!), memes, smug readers who have read all the books, a reason to rewatch this great talk with the preternaturally gifted and eloquent Jack Gleeson, and of course, much wailing about how expensive it is for us to watch it in Australia.

If you want to pay to watch this season of Game of Thrones here, there is only one way to do it, which is through Foxtel. The streaming service they offer will charge users $35 p/m for a three months trial period and $50 a month if you decide to continue your subscription, which can be cancelled at any time. That’s $8.75 or $12.50 per week. This is a bundling service that includes a whole lot of other programming, but many people not only don’t want other programming, they only want this one specific show for the duration of its run.

This is an increase in spending for anyone who was happy to buy an iTunes season pass, but who doesn’t see this price hike as offset by getting other content into the bargain. But should this ethically justify downloading the series without paying for it altogether? The most recent Game of Thrones episode was the most torrented in history, with Australia being the top country in the world for accessing the show without paying for it. This would seem to put paid to the oft-repeated argument that if things were easily and cheaply available, then people would pay for them, rather than download them. But only, it turns out, if we are talking rock bottom, dirt cheap, customer decides “prices”.

This is what the iTunes model of unbundling – music singles or single episode television – has taught consumers to expect. There is a very big drawback to that model, which is that is not financially viable for many producers. Why things cost what they do in Australia, and why it is so often so much more than elsewhere, is because of our comparatively small market. Understanding why things cost what they do means understanding how licensing agreements work.

HBO has decided that for this season of Game of Thrones, it is going to be distributed in some territories outside the US only through networks, and not through iTunes. They have not done this for any reason other than it is the most financially sound way for them to distribute their product. When a TV series sells its broadcast rights to other territories, that is where a large chunk of its revenues come from. To get HBO in the US, you need a basic cable subscription and then a premium subscription to the channel. It’s through this combination of revenue streams, along with DVD sales, that HBO makes the money that allows the network to create its lavishly expensive productions and the enormous crew that goes along with creating them (it’s a fun game to time how long is takes to scroll to the bottom of that page.) Less successful shows need to generate revue as much as successful ones do; in television, bundling content together in licensing deals has been the lasting way to achieve that.

In the case of this season, Foxtel bid for and secured the rights to Game of Thrones to exclusively screen it in Australia. Having paid for the licensing rights, a company then has to charge customers accordingly to offset the cost of securing the rights, while turning a profit which allows their entire enterprise to function and employ its staff and commission local shows. Because the television watching audience in Australia is much smaller than that of the US – HBO has nearly 28 million subscribers and Netflix has 33.4 million, there are only 22.6 million Australian citizens – there is no way for content to be as inexpensive as it is in the US without completely eroding the Australian market altogether. (Contrary to a common misconception Netflix is essentially a library service, and very rarely screens new content as it airs, apart from its own small number of native productions.)

The iTunes model doesn’t include Apple paying licensing fees to content producers to sell their product to consumers, it works in reverse: Apple takes money from producers in order for them to sell their content through their store, and producers make money only when a piece of individual content is purchased through the store. Apple then takes around 30% if its non-negotiable, very low prices and the rest goes to the producers, and these revenues are then divided along whichever royalty agreements the original producers have with the principals involved in the production. The only way to make any money through this model is to have an enormous, global hit product, or to make a fluke independent success. Apple’s model is chiefly designed to sell Apple’s proprietary hardware and software products, digital goods are its loss leading product.

The long term implications for a model that only works with blockbusters is that commissioning and programming practises will become increasingly conservative in a market where only truly huge tent pole products make money. In the case of HBO, Game of Thrones allows it to take bets on things like Girls and Looking and to give John Oliver the space where he can freely criticise industries that were off-limits on the Daily Show for fear of offending their sponsors. You might think as a consumer of culture that a diversity of expression of ideas and viewpoints is important, or you might not. Either way, it helps to understand where the money comes from to make this stuff. Part of which is understanding that hit shows don’t just come from nowhere, hitting the success sweet spot on the first try; they come from a lot of trial and error and from learning the lessons from shows that weren’t hits. This is how almost all artistic endeavours work: investing in a lot of options with the hope of making something really great out of at least one of them. Consumers paying only for hits makes it a very risky proposition to make any of kind of program.

In Australian television production there is less and less money to commission and make local content, and not just television content, but across all creative industries. Income for authors has never been lower, news reporting revenues continue to tank, the music industry in Australia has less and less room to invest in new artists or adequately support their existing ones, and the film industry cops losses of up to $230 million a year to piracy, which such a small margin industry can’t hope to stave off longterm.

This will always be the challenge faced by a small market that has to compete with a much larger, global one flooded with cheaper alternatives. But it isn’t just a challenge of commerce, it’s a challenge of culture: who will tell the stories that only we can? Who will write our living cultural history before it is consumed by a steadily encroaching monoculture? How can we tell our small stories as well as the big ones, when none of it is free to produce?

Do we even care if our cultural identity disappears altogether? As long as we can get whatever we want when we want it immediately from the lowest bidder.

No One Cares About Your Personal Brand

We all bought into so much crap.

In the first iteration of blogging, let’s say, from 1999-2005, the emphasis was on naïveté. It felt like no one was watching, and probably for most people no one was watching. So people would write openly about their lives, their piquant obsessions, their day to day. It was all pretty regular and more than occasionally mortifying, but it still seems a simpler time. Everyone was keeping these diaries. Some people were writers already, or were trying to be, so doing it all publicly made sense. For everyone else (and often the writers — I include myself in that), why their thoughts had to be public in this way should have seemed if not bizarre, then at least worthy of interrogation. Was it for attention? Validation? If no one was reading it, did you exist? Did your life matter? Could you spin gossamer poetry out of how boring your job was for other bored people to read while they were at work? On some level it was all about sharing. 'Sharing' would become the dominant buzzword of the corporations that now want you to share everything with them and anyone else who can mine that 'information' of yours for profit.

If there is little else to relate to in this, the confusion of the busy-work of updating countless social media feeds with the actual work of doing work is it.

Facebook killed the first blogs by letting anyone post anything they had on their mind at any time. Tumblr then codified blogging as the perfect synthesis of a visual identity, borrowed from graphic design yet requiring no effort, and a point and click CMS that beautified your copy. Pick a theme, from these hundreds of free ones, and your one stop personal brand shop is complete.

I started teaching writing for the web in 2008 when all these things were picking up. In itself that was symptomatic of the ill health of the dual industries of journalism and the teaching of journalism. What did I know? Not much, other than I had kept a dumb blog for a few years and that I needed a job. I tried to be helpful to my students. I regurgitated what I had been told, and I told them to take any assignment they were given no matter what and not to be choosey when they were starting out. I told them to start a blog and post to it regularly, so they would understand how deadlines worked and how to produce work on a schedule to help break the anxiety that new writers often can’t get beyond to put even a single word down. But mostly we just read. We pulled apart all different kinds of pieces to see how they worked. I tried to get them excited about writing. I thought I could at least do that, despite my woeful lack of other qualifications in telling people I was barely older than how to start their careers.

Twitter then was becoming a thing, and I remember telling them it would be a good place to be as writers and journalists. You could find sources there, and information. You could post links to your pieces and then hopefully people would read them! Possibly, one day, somehow — through enough manoeuvring and well timed glad-handing (“Dear @wellknownwriter, thanks so much for your beautiful, brave piece.” PLEASE TAKE NOTICE OF ME AND GIVE ME WORK SOMEHOW), an editor might see you and give you a commission. Maybe. But just as often they would certainly not. Because you were just some weird creep.

Years passed and the sum total of all this was that being on the Internet had turned from an expression of egocentric naïveté into one of perfectly calibrated, narcissistic professional identity. It has also created untold years worth of free “content” — music, film, writing and images — that most creators had been gamed into giving up to the world on the vague promise that this would somehow come back in the form of paid work. It didn’t, it diminished the likelihood of paid work, as all the free work — often of very high calibre — was floating around everywhere for anyone to take.

This illusion of the effectiveness of profile-maintaining busy-work was a bonanza for the companies that lived and died on user generated “content” culture. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram are all worthless without users (a lot of people would say that are worthless with!) So that worked out well for them.

In amongst taking money from students who in all likelihood would never have careers in journalism, I also took people’s money to advise them on how to not further waste their money on useless social media campaigns. This was a way to make money as a writer that guaranteed things like benefits and a regular income. It was, however, total bullshit.

I wasted large chunks of the last few years of my life having to professionally stay on top of minuscule changes in social media trends. It will be no news to anyone with a modicum of critical thinking available to them that this whole thing is a house of cards. That should be obvious to anyone who spent years pouring energy and clicks into their Facebook “presence” to get that all important referral traffic only to have Facebook tweak their algorithm and turn that traffic off like a tap. That’s how little those companies care about “sharing”; they care only about doing whatever the hell it is they want to do according to their own mercurial whims. Being big on Facebook, or Twitter or wherever else for that matter, is often completely meaningless — for you, not them. However often does anything posted there correlate to meaningful engagement (fuck that word) with whoever it is you’re trying to reach (and also that word)? That is the only metric worth anything and it’s increasingly difficult to quantify.

I’ve been on all these sites the last several years, dutifully updating them each as if I have no choice in it. The times that directly led to paid work of any kind are maybe five, or maybe six in total. In four years on LinkedIn I received exactly one offer of work that was legitimate, interesting or vaguely in my field.

Why did I write this now? Because I’m naïve enough to think that maybe someone will read it.

Also because I need a job. Contact me on LinkedIn*!

I’m good! This piece has also since been reprinted here, for money. 

*Don’t. Email me.

Updating the Google Beast File

Finding that the Hungry Beast website is no more (2009-2014, RIP), it occurs with no small irony that the home of most of our pieces is now YouTube (and a lot are also on Vimeo.) Thanks, Google! 

At the time I remember we caught some flack for the reveal and the general tone of the piece* — which when it was happening I didn’t think was warranted, and in hindsight the tone now comes off as quite restrained. At the time of producing this segment, Google was only trying to own access to every book ever printed, to map every part of the planet, to track your every move across its servers and read your every email.

That was before the self-driving car scraping private data from people’s homes as it passed. Before Google aided in enabling government eavesdropping (which it’s now trying to fend off along with the other tech companies whose user data was exploited), before it started indexing huge numbers of private citizen’s genetic information, or began producing wearable recording devices, not to mention their recent purchase of a military robotics company. The expansion of Google’s headquarters are forcing up local rents, and the company employs private buses to ferry its workers to and from the offices. This was before it settled its first antitrust suit. It remains the biggest spender on tech lobbying in Washington.

But I guess this is all fine, as long as we get to keep using increasingly essential, convenient and free web products that are now so deeply entangled in most people’s online lives that disentangling them would be a major inconvenience – which has been the point (though switching search engine remains straightforward) all along.

Sign in to everything with one account, buy with one-click, connect via that one social media account to every other place you visit. Never again pay for music when you can subscribe to a service that brings everything to you for a tiny fee. All the television you can watch for the same deal. These instant gratification pellets we are being fed constantly have primed our behaviours to the point where resisting them, psychologically, has become very, very difficult for everyone but the most determined consumer who is vexed by the long term implications of blindly following these instincts of convenience.

If I were writing the piece for television now, I’d lean hard on the fact that if it wanted to, Google could just about execute a hostile takeover of the United States. America is in ~$US17 trillion of national debt. Google posted third quarter assets at the end of 2013 to the tune of $US110.92 billion, paying CEO Eric Schmidt a $US106 million bonus. That’s a lot of power and assets.

Not bad scratch for a privately owned advertising company, which is still what Google primarily is. Advertisers need customer information, which explains why Google spent $US3.2 billion acquiring Nest. As to where that ad revenue sometimes comes from, Google doesn’t seem to really care. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 million copyright infringing instances alongside of which Ad Words are served. Google cares only about traffic. It might claim that YouTube serving infringing content in its search results is beyond its algorithmic control, but it can hide (and then return) Rap Genius from search results with swift ease. Whatever works in their favour. 

It’s easy to be blind to corporatocracy when “innovation” is the buzzword constantly thrown around (“What are you, against progress?”) to justify the unjustified creeping expansion of a single company into so many areas of private life and the culture industries (“No, just the unchecked kind.”). It’s an amazing amount of influence wielded over hugely formative aspects of everything from commerce to culture to privacy, health and legal reform. No one elected any of these people to this position of influence.

 We have the right to be worried about that.

 

 _____

 

*Pat Clair visually devised and animated this piece. He’s now producing the title sequence for True Detective on HBO, among other great things.

Digital Publishing Is A Pyramid Scheme

More now at Meanjin

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Here are some brief points on the economics of for-profit start up publications.

There are a great number of them that are in profit. They exist to make money. They are not an altruistic project enamoured of the public good. They have boards, they have CEOs drawing large salaries, they have full time staff. Those staff frequently include journalists. There are also ad sales people, designers, accounts people, editors, publishers and the people who actually build the websites. All of these are costs incurred in running a publication.

The point of the website is that it then exists to attract advertising dollars through pageviews. These advertising dollars then pay the salaries of the staff, along with any investment capital the publication attracts on the basis of its audience share.

There is one key component, however, that most of these publications fail to factor in, and that is a contributor budget for the writers who provide the work that the entire enterprise is built around.

How does this happen?

This happens only because the people at the top of these publications — the publishers and CEOs and other senior members of staff — actively decide to not pay for writing* purely because they know that they don’t have to. Do you think for one second they would sit around and decide that the ad sales team will work for the sheer gratification of their job? If so, click here.

Yes. People who refer to themselves as professionals can start a business that has no intention of paying a vast majority of the workers who build that business for them. For free.

Let us look at this in isolation: working for free on behalf of someone else, in order to grow that person’s business. And you will not see a cent.

I don’t know how else to articulate that other than to say that you are not thinking through what you are doing if you agree to these kinds of terms.

You are a serf.

As has been elucidated elsewhere, we are now at the point where the attention economy has tapped out.

Crikey is the latest publication taking heat for not paying its writers. They are far from alone. There are a tonne of digital publications in Australia that pay either nothing, or what they consider to be “rates”. Those rates start at $50, and one publication pays up to $500. The vast majority, however, sit between $60 and $150. These publications include the Guardian Australia, which has very effectively used the “prestige” associated with its masthead to get a whole lot of writers excited about exposure at very low financial renumeration. It also includes the Sound Alliance, a huge, multi-site portal that sells ads to young people and pays very low rates to the few writers that it does pay.

There are two ways this can stop:

1. Industrial action outlawing the practise of unpaid labour spearheaded by the union representing artists and writers, then instating and enforcing a minimum award wage;

2. While waiting for this to eventuate, writers must refuse to work for free.

If there was no one queuing up to give away their work, the meeting that takes place where publishers sit down and do the sums and leave nothing for contributors would not be able to take place. For as long as there is a market to be exploited, it will be exploited in this way.

When it comes to you that you are given an offer of exposure from a for-profit publication, remember these two things: exposure has become the end in itself. This is typified by the incremental amounts of money paid by the Guardian, which is, presumably, a premiere outlet for writers to be published with. However, you will not be properly paid, the platform itself is the pay.

Secondly: you are making money for someone else, and you are not seeing that money. There is a line trod out by several of these publishers, which is that they have hired journalists. Great! Use those journalists to produce 100% of your stories. Oh, they can’t do that? Then hire more journalists. Oh, you don’t have money to hire more journalists? THEN YOU DON’T HAVE A BUSINESS MODEL, YOU HAVE A SWEATSHOP.

The specious reasoning in “we’ll get advertising this way and then be able to hire people” is likewise, not a business model. Why would anyone provide hours and hours of free labour so that perhaps in the future a single person — who in all likelihood will not be them! — can be hired and earn a salary when they have earned ZERO DOLLARS in the process of facilitating this theoretical position?

Editors of these publications: please stop being disingenuous about your position, sending weasel word laden emails to writers “apologising” for your tiny or nonexistent budget: you took a job knowing that you would screw writers over in the process by not compensating them fairly. At least own up to that, rather than dole out fawning faux-apologies in the hope of squeezing free work out of the people facilitating your pay cheque.

Writers, please stop thinking of your trade as a special and delicate and artistic pursuit that you are privileged to reach an audience with, even if you aren’t paid. It’s a business. Everyone seems to understand that part, except for those exploited in the name of this “business” being allowed to continue.

*Photography, illustration, design.

IQ2 Debate: Copyright is Dead, Long Live the Pirates

The debate at the Wheeler Centre on copyright, which our team lost, is up now available to watch. If you’d prefer not to watch — that’s my preference! — my part of it, my talk is reproduced here. 

I think that we do come off a little serious and lecture-y, but in our minds it was a serious topic less befitting of making light of than it was something we wanted to get our point across on. 

I’d love to know what you think and where you stand on the issue. 

____

For my part today I will be attempting to answer the “million dollar” question as billed on the Wheeler Centre website – and I will be accepting my cheque later – how can we ensure creativity continues to pay? Quickly, I am an author with a publishing house, I am a writer who works in print and online, who has produced television, written television, who has overseen the digital distribution models for that television, and I am the digital director of a non-profit literary magazine which has just transitioned to subcompact digital format, the Lifted Brow.

I want to start by zooming out a little and imaging the world where copyright doesn’t exist. All things are free. Royalties aren’t paid. Permissions aren’t paid. Advances aren’t paid to authors because no one buys books anymore as they are now free. No one pays for television shows so advertisers don’t take ads out in the middle of them. No money, no new shows. No one buys music so records labels – not that they exist in this future – don’t invest in artists and so no new music is created. Movies are free, somehow, despite how vastly expensive they are to make. You can see where the flaw in this vision is: if there is no revenue generated in these fields because their goods are free, how will these goods – cultural artefacts – be created in the first place?

They won’t be. Because culture is not free. To even say that it is possible to create something with nothing is a proposition so ludicrous it actually defies physics. It costs money to make money. To create anything takes time. If you don’t value your time in labour costs you deserve to be paid, then you are either an amateur, an anarchist or a fool. “Information wants to be free,” we so often hear without hearing the second part of that famous quote which is, “information also wants to be expensive. That tension will not go away.”

How can creativity continue to pay?

First let’s look at who did benefit from the first wave of piracy, when Napster emerged in the late 1990s from the bedroom of an American teenager. In the fifteen years since the emergence of Napster the global record industry’s profits have halved. Piracy meant that music was suddenly worthless. It was worth in consumer’s eyes no financial transaction whatsoever. The baseline was lowered to free. When Apple decided to open the iTunes music store in order to boost the sales of its iPod hardware, Steve Jobs set the price of a single song at $0.99. $0.99 was attractive, it’s a small price to pay, compared to zero it’s not a huge leap. What this did, once Apple asserted market dominance over digital music, was to drastically devalue all digital goods. Apple can afford to do this, because mp3 sales are a loss-leading product for them. Apple is not in the business of selling mp3s, it is in the business of selling the vastly more expensive hardware upon which those mp3s are played.

Apple set very punitive sales terms with labels and networks that sell through its store. It sets the price your content will be available for sale at, and there is no negotiating that price. You either agree to their terms or don’t sell through them. Apple then takes its 30%. It has provided nothing more than a server for people to sell their wares through, yet it has profited enormously from making those wares so cheap that no competitor can viably emerge. Digital goods stay cheap. Apple’s market cap is hovering around $US500 billion. The money it has reinvested in creative industries is zero.

Similarly, Amazon sells a loss-leading product in ebooks. eBooks are vastly undervalued, as anyone who gets an email alert to an entire back catalogue series at $2.99 per ebook can attest. Amazon is not in the business of selling ebooks, it is in the business of crushing its competition through rock bottom prices and free shipping, that being brick and mortar stores and other online retailers who cannot compete. Amazon’s sale conditions are as punitive as Apple’s and as mercurial. Recently Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post newspaper for a cool $US250 million. In cash.

Neither of these monolithic multibillion dollar companies could exist at their dominance today without the devalued digital goods, made of other people’s intellectually property, on top of which they stand.

How can creativity continue to pay in the age of piracy and free culture? It is a two-step process that begins with changing consumer perceptions. As consumers we have to accept that this is wrong. We have to accept that $2.99 for a book or $3.99 for an episode of scripted television is too cheap. That $0.99 is not enough for a song. That digital goods may be in some ways more ephemeral than physical objects, but that the cost in time and labour – in serving them, in hosting them, in promoting them – to the human beings who created them – who wrote them, who composed them, who filmed them, who edited them, who acted in them – is the same. And to think just a little into the future and to do some basic maths. Digital goods have already eclipsed the sale of physical ones. As they are soon to be the dominant vessel of all cultural goods, the corrosive cumulative effects of their devaluation are obvious even to someone with such a tenuous grasp on maths as a writer such as myself. These things are really, really cheap. They are soon to be all that there is. They generate far less revenue. It’s simple.

Yet through the architecture of the Internet our behaviours have been primed to the point where we want what we want and we want it immediately and if it’s too expensive or not available right now, then we’re just going to just take it. This is an immoral stance. Piracy is theft. Downloading a file is making a copy of it, this is copyright infringement. There are many cognitive tricks you can play to convince yourself that what you’re doing is fine, that it’s justified. It’s a victimless crime, everyone does it. As you see, that is the thinking which enables the cycle to continue, which enables the devaluation of digital goods to continue unchallenged because still in people’s mind they equate digital with cheap, with ephemeral, with worthless. With free. The first step is to realise this assumption is false, and to make the ethically sound decision in your own life to pay for whatever you consume through whichever legal means are available. The problem of those legal means being currently too cheap is what I will come to next.

For the creative industries to recover from the “disruptive” chaos wrought upon them by free culture evangelists and the companies which profited from their mindset, creators need to take their content back from these third party tech giants and sell it straight to their audiences themselves. There is so far one light on the hill and that is Netflix, a web based television production company which creates its own content and sells it straight to its subscribers, there is no middle man. For smaller players to be able to do this, to recreate those structures, guess what they will need? An injection of capital. We are going to have to pay more because most creators are not giants like Apple and Amazon who can operate at a loss on goods and reap giant profit elsewhere. Small players intellectual property is no loss leader, it is the entirety of their business.

Copyright does not stifle creativity. Copyright and creativity have fruitfully coexisted for over 300 years, and I would defy anyone who argued that creativity has somehow suffered in that time, or been prevented from flourishing – the proof that is hasn’t is everywhere in our world. What does stifle creativity is an inability to make a living from it. Increasingly this is the most difficult time to be an artist precisely because revenues in the digital age are shrinking to miniscule, and we have the free culture movement to thank for that.

The free ride is over. If we don’t come to accept that and make personal decisions to consume ethically, then someone is always going to be getting rich somewhere. Make sure you aren’t a sucker lining the pockets of billionaires with your lazy habits of consumption. Think of where your money is going and what kind of world you want to live in: where profits and power are in the hands of the very few for the sake of our convenience, or where we pay more for what art is actually worth, so that art can continue to be made. I want to be in a world where artists’ rights are respected and continue to be enshrined by copyright law. That is how we fuel innovation, by protecting the ability for artists to make their living. In the end I think you’ll find that we’re the ones who need to “think different.”

— The Wheeler Centre, September 2013. 

Opinions, Like Diamonds, Are Bullshit

I enrolled in art school when I was 20 and on the first day the dean addressed the 150-ish of us who each hoped they would become an artist. The world-renowned industrial designer Marc Newson has been a graduate of the school and the first thing the dean told us was that in the 20 years since Marc Newson had graduated he had not seen a single other student pass through the school who possessed even a modicum of the raw talent that Marc Newson had displayed while he was studying there.

The dean said this not to sadistically crush the dreams of the doe-eyed young people before him, but rather because it was the truth. It was the truth that 99.5% of the people in that room needed to hear. Almost none of us would become artists and even fewer would become famous for their work, or even make a living from it. After spending a very enjoyable year painting and working the sculpting studio I left to pursue the equally difficult and poorly remunerated vocation of writing. Not everyone is an artist, and I knew I would certainly never be one.

I use this personal anecdote in an argument against personal anecdotes to make the point that not everyone’s skills are equal. While everyone might think they are an artist, or a writer, the reality is very different. The well worn phrase “everyone is entitled their opinion” is actually bullshit (much like diamonds!) and is exactly the kind of faux-argument presented in favour of opinion writing — it is endemic of the very specific, egocentric, individualist moment in time in which we live. The truth is that not everyone is entitled to an opinion, because some people’s opinions are just not important in the realm of public discourse. Some people’s opinions are flat out falsehoods in the face of facts. Some people’s opinions are so poorly thought out they exist purely to generate a couple of hundred dollars income for the writer – if that.

Because that is what we are talking about. We aren’t talking about a war on self-expression – that’s what personal blogs are for – we are talking about the dragging of public discourse down to the level of one person or another’s narrow view of whatever idea they are putting forth. Or worse, the kind of navel-gazing, achieving nothing, personal infighting that opinion writers love to take public in thinly veiled ideological attacks on each other. These tit-for-tat flame wars are good for two things: page views and the writer’s pocket. They are less often good for advancing actual dialogue or engaging meaningfully with ideas. 

Make no mistake, there is a deluge of opinion writing on the internet right now because it is cheap to produce and the news cycle is a gaping maw that can never be filled. Huge amounts of this stuff is published because of pageview targets that must be met for advertisers, not because it’s good writing. In fact, much of it is appallingly awful writing. It overflows with weak tie arguments, false parallels, cherry picked statistics, forgone conclusions, anecdotal evidence in the place of actual data, ad hominem attacks, false rhetoric and bending facts to fit an argument, not following facts to their end. This is all extremely corrosive to public discourse as so much misinformation makes its way into the public consciousness where it slowly calcifies into fact despite being pseudofact at best.

Opinion writing on the Internet is also contributing to the devaluation of ALL writing that is published. Traditionally, newspaper opinion editorials were mostly unpaid. This was to ensure the impartiality of the writer who had no incentive to write the piece other than the courage of their convictions and the large audience to whom to present their case. With the Internet, blogs and other publications wanted to compete with newspaper’s digital offerings so they began to pay, in minimal amounts, for this same kind of writing to lure the competition away.

Over time – and it has been a short time, only a few years – these pitiful rates paid for first person writing became the norm, and the bigger those sites became, the more paltry their rates. This then forces writers to spend as little time writing op eds as possible, so as to retain a degree of renumeration commensurate with the time they spent writing the piece. You can see then why so much of it is poorly thought-out – because it is produced very quickly.

Lazy opinion writing allows for a platform for some of the most extremely held views to be allowed to air despite the lack of empirical evidence – for example, the amount of time given to climate change denialists despite climate change scientists proving beyond doubt that the science is very real and backed by data. A climate change denialist is not “entitled to their opinion” in a public space as their “opinion” is in fact junk science and their position cannot be factually argued. They are welcome to hold it in their private life as anyone is welcome to hold any vast number of idiotic private convictions. However, once they gain traction in the public sphere they go from being idiotic to being dangerous.

Lastly, it takes a genius to be able to write week in week out about whatever is in their head that week and to be incisive, insightful, entertaining, rigorous, original and correct each time. The job of a writer in the public sphere is to be accountable, to be correct, to not be naïve, to advance an evidentiary position. Not even someone with the lightning wit and towering intellect of Charlie Brooker can live up to that, having recently retired from his regular column at the Guardian, saying that he was tired of contributing to the “vast cloud of blah” which threatens to suffocate meaningful debate.

So here’s a quick test to try out for yourself before you pen that next opinion piece that some content farm is going to pay you a pitiful amount of money for so they can run ads alongside it: “Am I Charlie Brooker?” If not, do not pass go.

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This was my allocated argument at the Feelpinions debate at NYWF, which our team won. Though, both sides were just about in agreement and argued only for the sake of the debate. In our opinion, opinion writing is terrible except for the few exceptions when it isn’t. 

But thinking a little more on it since, perhaps opinion writing actually fulfils a valuable function: perhaps its continual bleating is spurring more people to meaningful action wherein their trollbait-induced rage makes them join a political party or community group. Perhaps people are growing tired of the enormous trail of written evidence of people not actually doing anything, that they are now doing things as a result! In which case, carry on, self-serving windbags. 

Contemplate a photograph of Michael Stipe by Anton Corbijn

image

When R.E.M. released Automatic for the People in 1992, certain writers in the music press began to think aloud that it was about Michael Stipe dying. Specifically of AIDS, or perhaps cancer—neither of which he was suffering. Today he is obviously very much alive, and spends at least some of his time updating his Tumblr, where he displays a special fondness for the brutalist school of architecture, cubes made of various materials, and the naked male form. 

But Automatic for the People was about death, only it was a figurative one: it was about the end of youth, the reluctant passing into adulthood. This was the raw deal Monty got. As Peter Buck put it bluntly, “It’s about turning 30.” Viewed through this lens, its fatalistic lyrics are less about mourning a literal death than about putting away childish things: “Heroes don’t come easy.” “Readying to bury your father and your mother.” “The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago.” 

Some of the album was recorded in Woodstock, some in New York City and some in Miami, where Anton Corbijn photographed Michael Stipe at the beach for the inside sleeve. In the sepia-toned image, immediately stylistically recognised, the singer has his eyes closed, chest breaking the surface, surrounded by a choppy, solid-appearing sea. He could be adrift in the middle of the ocean, the way it is framed, appearing both insignificant and calm.

If he opened his eyes, he could be looking ahead to R.E.M.’s future, where they would break up nearly 20 years later, leaving the party before they were asked to, just like good adults. But at the moment of this photograph, they are forever perfect, just as they were on this record. 

The river to the ocean goes,

A fortune for the undertow

None of this is going my way

[…]

Pick up here and chase the ride

The river empties to the tide

All of this is coming your way

Published in the music issue of the Lifted Brow. 

On the intersection of writing and democracy

It is, at the present moment, difficult not to feel all around us a sense of profound disillusionment with the systems under which we live. When they aren’t failing outright they are horribly broken, horrifically skewed in favour of the very, very few.

The parole board fails in its own due diligence and violent offenders are released into the community where they commit further acts of violence among the populace. We live in a global surveillance state made possible by the collusion of the world’s remaining superpower and the world’s largest, most far reaching, privately-owned tech companies. Capitalist structures continue to oppress the poorest of our population in unassailable totality while the Government does nothing to ease their financial constraints but rather further penalises them for being poor. In pandering to voting bloc minorities our politicians break international conventions of human decency and send the world’s most vulnerable people to a hellhole they warn our own citizens not to travel to. The cost of tertiary education continues to rise while the job opportunities for graduates in their chosen fields dwindle exponentially. The cost of living in our major cities has risen, unchecked, to such previously unimaginable heights that an entire generation is locked out of the property market unless they are in a position of inherited wealth, dashing the hopes of young people to whom employers show no loyalty and for whom financial insecurity and its attendant anxiety has become a way of life.

The games are rigged. It is impossible, at times, as a rational, thinking person, to feel anything other than despair. The reality of the present moment is that these systems continue to function without us. That in actuality, their continued march is dependent on that very fact. Our present western liberal democracies do not tolerate well the kinds of mass-mobilized protest that in the not so distant past were able to affect real change: they have been so successfully in the intervening years neutered and dismantled. And so for us as individuals the only reasonable response that remains to these situations is pure, unadulterated anger.

But anger not tethered to action only coalesces into impotent rage. That kind of anger is masochistic. The anger that spurs action – meaningful action – is the only valuable kind that isn’t just self-serving. Perhaps it is too easy to confuse self-identifying as someone who is angry about the way things are with being someone who is actively engaged. What does it mean to be engaged? Within our democracy I take this to mean being well informed. Reading widely. Listening to people who don’t share your inclinations and points of view. Exercising your democratic rights, to vote, to assemble. Giving money to causes that you support. Petitioning your representatives. Beyond that there is lobbying and real-world – not digital – activism. There is joining the system in running as a candidate. These are things available to us, as individual agents. And it behoves us to remember that that is what we are, all we are.

Extraordinarily few people have ever or will ever live to reach a point of cultural saturation with their work so that it meaningfully changes that culture. This doesn’t mean that we should not strive to create that work ourselves, to hold that out as a hope or a goal or a reason for why we write. But only to be realistic about what each of us can really do, meaningfully do with our work in the public sphere and to not confuse howling into the void with having the rare and privileged position available to us where we possibly can change even one other person’s way of thinking with our ideas. Because in doing that lies real power.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict in the United States where the defendant was acquitted of shooting dead an unarmed teenager it was clearly self-evident that a system had woefully failed. Anger coursed through the public discourse and spilled over into the streets where people in vast numbers protested the decision. Pressure was brought to bear on the legislature which allowed for the defence to be raised in the first place. But the law remains unrepealed. What also remains is a broiling sentiment of extraordinary anger.

On the day of the verdict the novelist and Twitter soothsayer Teju Cole posted an update:

The basic question which no public event alters: how can I, myself, in my limited sphere of influence, be more just?”

We might not all be active political agents, but we do each have a life to lead. Please don’t confuse this sentiment with resignation, or with defeat. It is, for me, the opposite. In the face of the totalising systems that rule us, it is the power of personal agency that is our only recourse. To live a meaningful, admirable and responsible life treating well the people in our immediate, tiny world, that is the only true power we have. Let’s each of us never squander, or lose sight of that rarest of opportunities: to be alive, and not living in fear for one’s own life.

But to the question, what, as writers, do we do?

Begin with speaking only when you have something to say. Don’t, in the words of Charlie Brooker, contribute to the “vast cloud of blah,” that is the contemporary realm of Internet commentary and opinion. Don’t be “yet another factory mindlessly pumping carbon dioxide into a toxic sky.” Ask the first and most pertinent question of any writer: whose interests do I serve?

Anecdotal evidence is not evidence, a focus group of one is not a sample pool and neither are your friends. Your onus is to be right – not as in to win an argument, but to be correct, factually. Whose interests are being served? If it’s mainly your own, then rethink that piece. Can its essence be boiled down to a tweet? Then that’s all it warrants being. Just, shut up, mainly. Let other people speak. Speaking on behalf of minorities only oppresses them further, remember that. Editors, look beyond your insular world and grasp the responsibility of your position: not clicks and pageviews, but the public interest.

Our biggest responsibility is to not give up in the face of all this bullshit no matter how badly we might want to. Don’t let our anger curdle into apathy. Never disengage, as your tiny individual agencies are all we have. Borrow the Hippocratic oath and do no harm. Rather, – and I can never resist quoting song lyrics at times likes these – baring in mind to be more just in your limited sphere of influence, first look inward and then ‘do what you should’.

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Delivered at the M.A.D.E. by writers Melbourne Writers Festival panel on writing and democracy at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka, Ballarat. 

HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.  HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.  HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.  HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. 

HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.