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When Selling Gets in the Way of Sharing
There has historically been a bias against money-makers among intellectuals. Being an academic, I inherited this bias without really thinking about it. It's only recently that I began thinking about it again - and as normal I got there via a weird route.
I'll spare a lot of the historical details, but I'm not saying that intellectuals historically weren't wealthy. In fact, they were. But they rarely made their wealth by actually working - they had land, family, or positions in society that paid for their lifestyle.
I can trace this intellectual bias all the way back to Plato - who proposed that good men, and by analogy, good cities, would fall by concerning themselves with making money, and Aristotle's disdain for the working class is well documented.
So what? Plato and Aristotle are but two philosophers that no one reads. Wrong - Plato and Aristotle's ideas has infused the intellectual climate for the last two millenia. It's no accident that democracy only became respectable after the Enlightenment placed such a high value on the quality of the "average" person. The idea that the "average" person was fit to have any say in ruling a nation before then was unheard of.
The underlying fear that the intellectuals had was that the desirous elements of humanity is uncontrollable by reason and that this element is only concerned with pulling value from the world to the individual. As long as people ruled by their desires had power, their greed would continue to pull and pull value from the community such that the community would collapse. Communities require relatively reciprocal flows of value.
So much for the historical background. Trust me, it has a point.
When bloggers try to make money...
The blogosphere is a weird community. We've become so accustomed to getting valuable stuff for free from people that when someone tries to monetize their content, there's a load uproar (probably just from a small minority) about it.
Vered wrote about this when she discussed Leo from Zen Habits monetizing his content. Yes, there was an uproar (again, probably just from a loud minority), but it's interesting to see that people come to expect and demand that bloggers continually provide free content.
Let's be real here: blogging takes a lot of time. Creating really valuable content that enriches peoples' lives or knowledge requires knowledge, experience, and actual production time. Writing that type of content multiple times a week requires a lot of work.
At a certain point, a blogger must ask herself whether the entertainment value she gets from writing for the blog is worth the time. If it is, she can continue with the hobby and consider it just a time-intensive hobby.
If not, the blogger only has a few options. She can quit blogging (most do), scale back, or continue ahead and start trying to monetize. None of the options above sit well with readers.
What I find really interesting is that there are a few critical shifts that happen when people move from sharing freely to trying to make money off of the stuff they've been giving.
The most fundamental shift is that the blogger moves from spreading and creating value as their own ends to spreading and creating value while trying to get something valuable (i.e. money) back from her endeavors.
It's that expectant part that starts getting in the way of sharing. Prior to the attempt to monetize, good ideas flow without abandon. Afterwards, words like "strategy"", "timing"", and "opportunity" start to become the operating words. Rather than just writing and sharing, she starts plotting and scheming the placement of ideas so that there's the biggest return on investment.
The follow-on shift is that she's now trying to figure out how she's going to monetize. Should she write ebooks? Set up affiliates? PPC? PayPerPost? What's going to be the best option?
Looking into those options takes a lot of time - time that would otherwise be spent creating valuable content. So, not only has her purpose for creating valuable content changed, but now her time and focus is split between creating said content and figuring out how to monetize it.
Lastly, her measures of success change considerably in the process. Rather than just sharing and interacting with her friends and readers, she's now looking at how much money she's made. Rather than hoping readers would just show up and have a good time, she's hoping that they show up, have a good time, and click on something that makes her money.
Due to these shifts, there is a tendency for the quality of the content to drop or be spread out differently than before the decision to sell the content.
Selling, Sharing, and the Flow of Value
It's now fairly clear to me why intellectuals have a bias against money-makers. The ideal intellectual spreads and plays with ideas without trying to sell those ideas.
Plato wanted his philosopher-kings detached from money so that they could pursue and spread the Good without trying to figure out how they could sell it. We want our religious leaders detached from money for similar reasons - when we have to question whether the holy water is worth the money we spent for it, something has gone wrong.
The Good and holy water should be free for those that want it.
The problem, of course, is that everyone wants as much free stuff as they can get while wanting to get as much as they can from what they've got. In other words, we want the maximum value to come from the world with little to no cost from us.
A few souls are lucky and hard-working enough such that they can do what they love and add value to the world and people will support them financially while they do it. The rest of us, however, have to sell our value - I'm pretty sure that the bank won't accept my ideas as payment for the mortgage.
I'm not saying that bloggers who are trying to monetize on what they're doing are all bad people, and I'm not saying that because monetization plays a part in what I do here at PF. What I'm saying is that sharing and selling have opposite flows of value.
This is also a call to those parts of the blogosphere that think and behave as if everything should be free. Before you get too righteous in your demands, justify why you expect value to exclusively flow your way. Your goodwill and enjoyment does not pay the rent, and as long as people have needs and bills to pay, they are going to have to find a way to get money to take care of those needs and bills.
Don't like that your favorite blog has new ads? Send the author a dollar or sign up for some of the services they recommend. Maybe click on the ads in the sidebar more so that they continue to put stuff there and not in the content.
Rather than complain about not getting free stuff anymore, do something for the blogger that sends value her way.
And bloggers - understand that once you start attempting to monetize, you are no longer just playing with ideas. Understand that you will be expecting more from your readers and your readers will have different expectations from you.
Don't build up a mountain of great content and let it slide into mediocrity because you're now trying to make money from what you're doing. Don't leverage the goodwill you've created just for a quick buck.
If we all are upfront and share value, selling doesn't have to trump sharing. The rule is as simple as keeping the beer stocked in the fridge: if you take it (value) out, put another (thing of value) back in.
Following this one simple rule will make sure that the blogosphere doesn't collapse under our greed.