Pomo hi-jinx and an econ riddle

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Pictured above: a media tongue-twister. A photograph, displayed on a blog, of a media playback device displaying a photograph, which appeared on a blog. Which photograph, by the way, only exists digitally. Unless and until I (or anyone else, for that matter) downloads and prints it. The moment it “captures” came and went in a blink, but I suspect that it remains in my daughter’s head still. Hopefully, some of the value of the image lies in the universality of that moment. Though it was conveyed by a specific for instance.

Now what does any of this palimpsest of representation mean? Nuttin’ in particular. Necessarily. But the “internet in your pocket” device featured in that media tongue-twister above does get me to pondering: is meaning (its depth, its value, its integrity, etc.) affected by the E-Z accessibility of its age-old conveyances (images and words, i.e.)? Per usual, I’m of two minds: part of me thinks no, part of me thinks yes.


Back in grad school, a friend of mine used to argue that obtuse, dense-as-a bad-fruitcake theoretical prose was dense like that for a reason: you were supposed to exert effort to extract the meaning from it, and the exertion itself was in fact part of the meaning. Using this reasoning, a hunk of gold you have to sweat over as you hack away at a mountain to find it would have more value than the hunk you trip over whilst traipsing along the edge of a stream bed.

(I’d probably prefer to trip over a hunk of gold, but then again I’d also have a much greater sense of ownership, even righteous justification, after sweating and hacking my way to the hunk in a gold mine. In the same way that I quite enjoy chopping wood, whenever there’s any to be chopped, for a fire. Maybe really I’m a workhorse trapped in a procrastinator’s body.)

A related — and to my mind, equally difficult to resolve conundrum — is: do we value what we have to “pay” for more than that which we get for free? Everyone who’s in a position to set their own hourly rate as a freelancer or self-employed person is aware of the truism that people affix a value to your work relative to what they have to pay for it. So if you undercharge for your labor, it will be valued less. And if you charge top dollar, your work will be more highly prized. Or so goes this line of reasoning.

Of course it works in reverse, too. Remember the second chapter of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? (Peep it for yourself here, thanks to Wikisource.) This is the infamous chapter in which Tom hoodwinks other boys into doing his fence-painting chore by promoting it as a rare treasure, available to a select few:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

So now, I leave us all with a question: do you value what you read/consume on the internet more when you have to pay for it, either via subscription, or via tolerating the familiar background noise of advertisements? And a related one: what if you could get what you got for free, but had the option to throw a coupla coins into a cup? Would you? (Hint: If you think this question smacks of foreshadowing, you’re right!)

Related background reading: Stop and smell the concert violinists.

18 thoughts on “Pomo hi-jinx and an econ riddle”

  1. I think I have a larger sense of expectation when I have to pay for something. Like, I’m shelling out money, it better be worth it. Because I’m putting money out there, I raise the bar of what I expect. So, strangely, I’m usually less pleased when I’m paying for something than I am when it’s free.

    But then, when I can help support something or someone that I think deserves support then I lower the bar again, because then what I’m getting is more than what I’m reading. Make sense?

  2. Being on a student’s budget, I like to congenially click on ads on my favorite blogs. On the other hand, if the subscription fee is reasonable and the posting extra frequent, I’ll pony up.

  3. I’m always happy to pay for something that I value — and will often do so voluntarily. So I do think the things I pay for are valued, sometimes moreso, but not necessarily implicitly so, than the things I get for free (is anything ever really free?).

  4. Amp has made a very good point – is anything ever really free? If we don’t trade or pay for an experience or object that is the result of someone else’s labor, I think we should consider it a gift — and this is subtly and importantly not the same thing as getting something for nothing.

    The singer Issa (formerly Jane Siberry) has made this distinction explicit on her music website, where consumers can pay the going rate for a song, or more or less, depending on their appreciation of the music, or accept it as a “gift from the artist”, but it’s not given away for free. I think this is more than just semantics – the question of meaning and value , on the part of the creator and of the recipient, is suddenly very clear.

    (And let’s face it, I’m sure a great deal of what is posted on websites as “free” writing, know-how, and commentary, is generated when people are “at work”, and therefore is actually subsidized at least in part by their employers.)

    It can feel awkward to try and place a value (particularly a monetary value) on something as seemingly ephemeral as a digital photo or a beautifully written and moving essay. But it does remind me to consider what is meaningful in my life, and how I might support those people out there (like YOU!) who put so much unsubsidized effort and love into making sense of life, love, joy and loss, through your words and images.

    (Sorry – probably the longest comment ever!)

  5. For me, the answer is – NO, there is nothing on the internet I would pay for. The most valued site I visit every day, is Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic. I’ve followed him around for years. The second most valued is dooce.com – because of the brilliant writing. The next is probably mistressmatisse because of the interesting subject and good writing.
    I like you and your family a lot, but there is no way I would pay to read your blog, NOR those other, better blogs. I wouldn’t tip you either. But by all means, if you have the traffic, go get some adds. That I wouldn’t mind in the least. It’s a great trade-off in many areas of publishing.

  6. Ads don’t particularly bother me (I have an impressive ability to filter out that which I don’t want to see). I agree with the idea of subscriptions in principle but I know that I have let a lot of my online subscriptions go of late. As for throwing virtual coins in a cup, I think it’s a nice idea. I read a few other blogs that have that option but I don’t know how much success they have with it. This comment has been really helpful hasn’t it?

  7. alls i can say is that while you were gone, in lovely dorrington et al, i kept searching my computer for the place where i could put my coins in or my debit card or whatever to get another blog entry.

  8. And the inevitable 3rd question that comes to mind is do you value what you read enough to pay to *not* deal with the ads? Welcome Google Adwords, which has seeped into every surfers psyche. When I got to a blog or a site that does not have ads-like yours-I breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the roominess and space…such that I can hear my own voice (echo)…not unlike being the only one in a room in a museum. Quiet. So good questions LD. I think the market for blogs is that they are free…but books, now, people pay for their books :). That’s my two bits on the matter. Bell is coming to town end of Feb, to Berkeley (sold out, doncha know)…

  9. I can remember reading ‘If this is a Man’ by Primo Levi and being shocked that prisoners traded even when they had nothing- but then, of course they did, and of course we all do. Nothing is ever free.

    The value or worth of your writing and pictures is so much more than pounds and pence (or dollars and cents). To me, more precious for not being overtly commercial in any sense.

    These comments are misplaced: I think you’ve sold the rights to your previously described, remake-version of ‘The Sound of Music’ for MEGABUCKS…….!

  10. Ah, sister: I very much appreciate your kind words. And the likewise the opinions and words (kindly and otherwise informative) of the rest of youse. All grist for the mill, which is trying to figure out how to continue to afford to spend the time this whole shebang takes, what with the various mouths to feed. The value of the conversation I get from this blog is, to me, is immeasurable. However the cost of keeping it online, and/or NOT earning income while making more of it, is measurable. (I do like your hint, violetta, and it will sit there on the desk like the gauntlet that it is.)

    I was interested to read giddings’s link about Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want experiment. As to Jane Siberry/ Issa’s pay-as-you-see-fit policy, her Wikipedia entry says this:

    In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Siberry confirmed that since she had instituted the self-determined pricing policy, the average income she receives per song from Sheeba customers is in fact slightly more than standard price.[3] [4]

    Footnoes are to the articles whence this came, but she also says as much on her website. Here are her most recent stats:

    Pricing Statistics

    % Gift from Artist 20%
    % Standard 17%
    % Pay Now 5%
    % Pay Later 56%

    Avg Price/Song $1.26

    % Paid Below Suggested 6%
    % Paid At Suggested 78%
    % Paid Above Suggested 16%

    $1.26 (US dollars) compares favorably with the average song price of $0.99 at iTunes.

    Obviously, the cost to the reader of most “vanity press” type blogs, as this one is, is $0.00. (The cost to those of us who produce them: domain name registry, if we do that; webhosting, if we do it off the site of our blog software; internet access, to the % that we use it; any other subsidiary services like Flickr to hold and transfer the images, etc.) The cost readers pay to get at the mildly subsidized ones (i.e. those that run ads) is the price of filtering out, or graciously (gratuitously) clicking on the ads. Obviously that’s a price most of us pay to live in the USA and every developed country on Earth. The New York Times sets aside some of its content as for subscribers only, but I get their Sunday paper and I STILL haven’t figured out how to access the “subscribers only” content. So it festers, unread by me at least.

    By the way, Chumpy: the rights to the unauthorized, bastardized, downsized version of The Sound of Music would rightly go to the Mother OutLaw, who wrote it. The market for that thing is VAST and UNTAPPED, man. She could do that to every beloved family musical, for the purposes of puppet shows & birthdays and the like, and make a MINT. It’d keep her in tofu and herbal tea for the rest of her born days. I’ll talk to her about it.

  11. Since becoming a parent, I’ve often found it challenging to scrap together enough time to maintain even a minimal level of personal hygiene. (And I only have ONE kiddo.) So I’m constantly amazed by parents who find the time to maintain a blog, particularly one such as yours, which is so thoughtful and well-written. I’ll read your blog for as long as its open to the public, and I wouldn’t be the least bit offended by ads or a tip jar to help offset your personal and monetary costs. I’d even consider subscribing if required, although I’ve never subscribed to a blog before. Whatever it takes to keep you writing, sister-bro.

  12. Paying for something of course makes me feel as if I’m getting a better quality of whatever it is. So much, especially online is still free [even if it isn’t intended to be originally] and there’s a definite exclusivity to those who pay for their content.

    Although, I don’t pay for much [I’m on a budget *cough*cheap*cough*] and don’t necessarily have to because I have that wonderful AdBlock extension for Firefox which gives me the ‘paid for feel’. 🙂

    And you said ‘whilst’. I love that word. It’s one of my favorites, although I couldn’t tell you why…

  13. A bit late, but as a loyal reader… I would not pay to read a blog. I already see the time I spend on the internet as something of a luxury. I haven’t clicked on ads in the past, but perhaps for you, LD. (You rank above Dooce in my blog-reading hierarchy!)

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