Adventures in Ethics and Science

If you’re a TV watcher in the U.S., you’re probably already aware that the Writers’ Guild of America is on strike, owing largely to inability to reach agreement with the studios about residuals from DVDs and from internet distribution of TV shows and movies.

While I am a member of a faculty union that was on the verge of a strike last spring, I am not now nor have I ever been a writer for the large or small screen. I don’t have a lot to say about the details of the contract negotiation in this particular case (Lindsay does). But, as Chris points out, as a blogger — indeed, a blogger who has “gone pro” — what I’m doing is connected in some interesting ways to what the WGA members are doing. Thus, I’ll give you my two cents as of this moment:

  1. If you’re producing something (like a script) that someone else is using to make money, you have a reasonable claim to share some of that money or to withdraw your permission to use the product of your labors.
  2. Even if it’s impossible to predict how important a particular revenue stream will be in advance, if that revenue stream depends on your “product” it’s perfectly fair to negotiate your share of the potential take from that revenue stream up front.
  3. Organizing with other people who produce the same kind of thing you do, a product from which others will try to derive revenue, to make it more likely that you’ll all be offered about the same deal — and that this deal is reasonable rather than exploitative — is perfectly sensible. Objecting to proffered deals that are exploitative, and withdrawing your labor while you’re waiting for an acceptable deal, is a simple recognition that your employer does not own you and cannot unconditionally demand the fruits of your labors.
  4. The fact that you enjoy your work does not make you less worthy of being fairly compensated for it. (If someone is making money off the fruits of your labors, clearly those labors have an economic value, and last time I checked job satisfaction doesn’t pay the rent.)
  5. Working hours of your own choosing does not make you less worthy of being fairly compensated for your work. (Not punching a clock does not mean that you’re averaging less than eight hours per day of work, either.)
  6. That people in other lines of work may have it worse in some respects than the WGA members does not clearly argue that WGA members should shut up and take what the studios are offering. It seems just as reasonable to think that this means that the folks in the lines of work who are having an even harder time making a decent living might be well served by organizing.

And what of the bloggers? Here, I find my intuitions much fuzzier. Chris writes:

… blogging is somehow supposed to be fun or a hobby. Well, guess what: Some people do not want to blog as a hobby; and some media companies are starting to make serious money off the work of bloggers. To me, and especially in light of all the attention bloggers have gotten in the last few years (they’ve been credited with playing crucial roles in elections, for instance), this suggests they should be taken much more seriously and treated as workers just like anyone else in many cases. Furthermore, just like freelancers, just like screenwriters, bloggers would benefit by having some sort of standards set in their industry. For one, those who are “professionals” should be fairly compensated for their quality work for blogs that are monetized–that bring in viewership or revenues.

Having “gone pro” (to blog here at ScienceBlogs), should I count as a “professional”? What defines that profession? Who sets the standards?

Or is this blogging thing just a “hobby” for me? (My department doesn’t think so. Nonetheless, the view is that blogging is one of the activities in which I participate as a professional philosopher.)

If I’m a hobbyist in the blogosphere, do I make it harder for the professionals? Am I giving my work away for too little, thus driving down the compensation for the serious bloggers who don’t have dayjobs?

I stumbled into blogging without any expectation that it could be a full-time job for me. In a good month, blogging covers our DSL. The benefits I get from blogging are largely non-economic, and that’s pretty much what I signed on for.

Signing on, I was thinking very much on an individual level. I wasn’t thinking much about the impact my decisions might have on the situation of others.

Ultimately, if blogging emerges as a bona fide profession — one with well-articulated professional standards, and maybe even labor unions — I’m not sure what kind of impact that will have on the “also blogs” like me, or on all the people using the free blogging platforms just to have their say where someone else can read it. What will happen to the freedom and “blogginess” of the medium? Is every good thing something we should try to monetize?

By the same token, though, shouldn’t we be able to value well-crafted essays and incisive analysis as easily as widgets? Aren’t those who do mental labors from which others benefit equally deserving of compensation as those who do menial labors?

Something to think about while the networks air reruns.

Comments

  1. #1 ignotus
    November 6, 2007

    John Rogers, a scriptwriter and blogger has a great post on the strike over at kung fu monkey: http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/11/why-strike-ii.html It sounds like the screenwriters have been making many of the same points you do.

    -Sam

  2. #2 coathangrrr
    November 7, 2007

    Is every good thing something we should try to monetize?

    I certainly don’t think so. The problem is that blogs are being monetized, and will probably be so even more in the future. I don’t know where that leaves bloggers, but perhaps it means that we need a organization simply to keep the ability to have “also blogs” that are often read and yet not monetized.

    I suppose I’m more than a little pessimistic on these sorts of things because I’ve seen the internet go from being virtually ad free to being inundated with ads.

  3. #3 capella
    November 7, 2007

    Am I giving my work away for too little, thus driving down the compensation for the serious bloggers who don’t have dayjobs?

    You may be driving down their compensation, but only if you and other amateur and mostly-amateur bloggers are producing so much (and such a variety of) professional-quality content that there is no longer a market for professional bloggers. This seems unlikely, because in general people seek to maximize their profit – if there is money to be made from blogging, somebody will step in the way of making it, even if they would have been happy to blog for free.

    Even if professional blogging becomes unviable because of on-the-side bloggers – so what? I don’t think people necessarily have a right to be paid to do whatever it is they want to do; they either have to do it well enough that somebody would rather pay them for their services than take advantage of any other offer on the market, including free ones, or they have to do something else.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    November 7, 2007

    Janet,
    Thanks so much for writing on this subject.

    You are indeed a professional, and I would argue that there is a perfect analogy between yourself, a professor who also blogs, and, say, a real estate industry worker who writes occasional screenplays and is thus a writer’s guild member.

    So in other words, these kinds of issues already exist within already unionized groups of writers. Not everyone who’s a member of the writer’s guild is a full time screen or tv writer, or wholly dependent upon such writing for their income. but they support the guild nonetheless. the situation ought to be analogous with bloggers and I think you would probably agree.

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