Yesterday one of my Facebook friends invited people to visit his website, where he’s put up a PayPal button for donations. The cause? Help him with his daily struggles – pay the rent, buy food, that kind of thing. He described himself as a starving artist. The first comment: “Are you f*&%ing kidding? Who do you think you are, asking for money? What do we get for it?”
I jumped in, saying, “What we get is the chance to read Ned’s* poems online for free.” I then proceeded to say how few local writers had bought my books. This in turn prompted more angry responses. How dare Ned and I think we deserved to get paid? So what if I was Albany Author of the Year? The exchange between the two gentlemen continued with considerable vitriol, and other writers jumped in with their own tales of woe – “I can barely make ends meet either, but you don’t hear me bitching and moaning about it!”
Why not? What’s so shameful about admitting we’d like to sell our own work, or even inviting people to make voluntary contributions in order to read it on the Internet? This in turn brings up another important topic – how much are we willing to give away by pouring our creative energies into sharing online? Does there come a time when we can reasonably ask for payment for everything we’re putting out there? What’s in it for us?
For me, what’s in it is the joy and excitement of communicating with people all over the world, the instant gratification of knowing my words are being read and appreciated. But I wouldn’t mind a little cold hard cash now and again.
I’m reading a fascinating book by David Bollier titled Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. I saw the author on C-Span’s BookTV a couple of months ago and was intrigued enough to order it online. It’s not easy reading, and I’m not yet ready to write an entire post about it, but here are a few provocative quotes:
Never in history has the individual had such cheap, unfettered access to global audiences, big and small . . . .
The people . . . are reclaiming culture from the tyranny of mass-media economics . . . overthrowing the ‘read only’ culture that characterized the ‘weirdly totalitarian’ communications of the twentieth century. In its place they are installing the ‘read-write’ culture that invites everyone to be a creator, as well as a consumer and sharer, of culture . . . Two profoundly incommensurate media systems are locked in a struggle for survival or supremacy . . . (pp. 8-11)
Powerful stuff. But although Bollier stresses power to the people and the heady virtues of sharing information in the global commons of the Internet, he’s not clear about exactly how we commoners are supposed to profit in this new marketplace. Maybe he’ll have some answers later in the book – I’ll keep you posted.
Words have the power to wound, even – or maybe especially – online. In the course of the angry Facebook exchange, I interjected a memory from the years I was working as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. At a social on a locked ward one Friday afternoon, an alleged “recreation therapist” said to one of the patients, a gifted artist, “I hate to say it, but you look like shit.” The next day the patient escaped from the ward, headed over to the railroad tracks that ran along the river, and committed suicide by train.
The Viral Spiral of the Internet can be a force of positive energy, a way to build community, or it can infect people with hostility and anger. The choice is ours every time we log onto the World Wide Web.
Please share your thoughts on this important topic – I’d love to hear from you.
*I’ve changed Ned’s name, but the online exchange took place among members of the Capital District’s vibrant writing community. We don’t all need to agree – getting total agreement from artists is like herding cats – but I hope we can agree to disagree in a more civilized manner. Then again, who am I to talk? I’ve been known to use the F-word too.