Monday, January 22, 2007

To Be or Not To Be Free to Be Ad-Free

Is that title confusing enough?

It's meant to be — it suits the topic. Or maybe "disturbing" is a better word than "confusing" here, as it relates to the mini-monsoon of outrage surrounding

The "org" is actually a website where you can get a button to place on your blog, affirming it as a space free of corporate advertising.

I like the idea, simply because it's getting hard to find non-corporate-claimed space online. It feels good to take a break from the sales-pitches whizzing by my head every second of the day. I appreciated the creators' effort to bring awareness to the issue and let people get involved.

But not everyone saw it as a good thing; in fact, it made some people pretty mad. The discussion thread on AdRants got fairly hostile in places. Wagons were circled. In the distance, a counter-strike was launched: adfreeblog.COM.

The issue of monetizing blogs and vlogs has generated a lot of tension in the ethernetwebosphere (tried to get "new media" and "2.0" in there, too, but pooped out). One person's over-commercialization of public space is another person's honest effort to make a living. When ads started appearing on superpopular Rocketboom and The Show with Ze Frank, there was a not-unexpected rain of criticism (supposedly independent new media "selling out" to corporate power), to which the sensible response was: "Well, why shouldn't we get paid for the work we're doing?"

It's a fair question, and one that continues to generate much discussion — as it should. I'm a little worried about the way the debate is taking shape, though: there's a kind of red state/blue state thing happening, the kind of polarization that just gets everyone caught up in defensiveness and entrenched positions rather than thinking critically and creatively, and engaging in a discourse.

Media writers (like all writers, past and present) should think about what "space" their work occupies, and how their work affects and is affected by that space. And they should keep thinking about it, rather than branding themselves and ending the discussion.

I'd like to offer a historical example that might take the edge off the current debate. Well known feminist Gloria Steinem wrote articles for Playboy Magazine; she felt that by placing her work in that space, she could get that audience to think about things they might not otherwise encounter or take seriously. On the other hand, many argued that she was merely helping a misogynist pornographic publication strike a pose of intelligence and respectability, "de-shaming" it so that it could be sold at a higher profit to a more educated and affluent audience.

Interestingly (and ironically, some said, or even hypocritically), Steinem went on to co-found Ms. magazine, which went ad-free in 1989. Every issue includes a "No Comment" segment, in which readers send in blatantly sexist (or racist or homophobic) advertisements clipped from other magazines.

So Steinem gets criticized for selling out her political values (publishing in Playboy) and for being puritanically anti-capitalist (for refusing to publish ads). It's as if she's not allowed to think through the issues in context and make rational decisions; people expect her to make one simplistic, ideological proclamation and then stick with it forever. I'd call that the true death of a writer.

If I put an ad-free button on my blog, maybe all I'm saying is that this particular body of my work belongs in a space where writer and reader can be alone together, without corporate chaperones, and without making money off one another. I'm not issuing a blanket condemnation of people who put their work in other kinds of spaces; I'm not accusing anyone of selling out; I'm not saying writers shouldn't make money off of their work.

By the same token, if I do want to place ads or otherwise generate revenue for my work, I should not have to adopt a "ruthless capitalist survivor" mentality and cultivate contempt for the ad-free-ists. I shouldn't let myself be bullied into always making that decision the same way, either.

I don't want to leave the impression that the whole debate around has been hostile. Much of the AdRants conversation was insightful and thought-provoking; the "other side" of the issue is also discussed on the Stay Free! daily blog. In some ways, it's good that the debate has crystallized and given people something concrete to apply their ideas and theories to (always a good test). Maybe I shouldn't worry so much; writers are pretty tough — it'll take more than a button to bring us down.

By using this icon on my website I am stating...

1. That I am opposed to the use of corporate advertising on blogs.
2. That I feel the use of corporate advertising on blogs devalues the medium.
3. That I do not accept money in return for advertising space on my blog.

the author

By using this icon on my website I am stating...

1. That I am NOT opposed to the use of corporate advertising on blogs.
2. That I feel the use of corporate advertising on blogs IMPROVES the medium.
3. That I ACCEPT money in return for advertising space on my blog.

the Author

The cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine, 1972. Wonder Woman had been aesthetically revamped and "modernized" to boost sales; this is the Amazon Princess in her original form (read more at Amazon Archives).

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