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25.4.04

The Political Economy Of Blogs

A while back Obsidian Wings linked to the Politburo Diktat's Bloggers' Manifesto, in which the Commissar urges proletarian bloggers (those of us with few readers) to rise up against the bourgeois bloggers. Though the Commissar's framing of issues in Soviet-speak is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it got me wondering about what a Marxist analysis of blogging would look like*.

The first point, of course, is to identify the stand-in for capital in blogging. Though some bloggers do make money (either doing it professionally or through ads), and one might treat Blogger and Movable Type as just another industry in the capitalist economy, the real currency (the steering medium, to slip into Habermas-Parsons terminology) is attention**. What we basically want is eyes looking at our sites, and we produce posts in order to "exchange" them for readers.

The Commissar's division of blogs into proletariat and bourgeoisie initially looks kind of weak. In Marxism, the class divide is not just a matter of relative wealth (number of links/hits), it's a structural feature -- the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. But Kevin Drum and Glenn Reynolds don't own the means of production of blog posts. They're free from Blogger and newspaper websites. They do, however, have disproportionate (but by no means total -- in a sense even I can be bourgeois to Kevin Drum's proletariat when I link and respond to one of his posts) control over the means of marketing. It doesn't matter how many car factories you own, if nobody knows they can buy a car from you. As the Commissar points out, big "linker" sites like Instapundit can be exploitative in a sense -- proletarian bloggers labor away on posts that they're then paid for with a wage (an Instalanche). The bourgeois blog keeps some of the profits, though, in the form of consolidated readership (because people value his linking service and the "branding" that comes from his recommendations) as well as the full attention of people who don't bother to click through and "read the whole thing." Of course, many top-tier blogs -- like the Volokh Conspiracy or Political Animal -- do not need to exploit link-hungry minor bloggers. They're like factories that have become completely automated, leaving proletarian bloggers unemployed (except insofar as they can mooch attention through trackbacks and posts in comment sections).

Now here's where we start to see something really interesting. In capitalism, the relations of production are largely independent of the relations of consumption. The process by which the capitalist pays his workers and appropriates their labor is separate from the process by which he sells his goods to the public (with the exception of certain "responsible buying" campaigns like anti-sweatshop and Made in America). But in blogging, the two are inextricably tied together. A proletarian blogger's "paycheck" comes in the form of a link. But that link is also part of the service that the bourgeois blogger is providing to his customers (readers).

Ordinarily there's no issue with that confluence. But it creates problems when a blogger wants to talk about someone that they despise. On the one hand, the service they're offering their readers includes making use of the hypertextual nature of the web to direct people to sources and further information (witness the complaints about newspaper websites not giving links to the original documents that a story discusses). But on the other hand, since attention is the prime commodity, there's a resistance to rewarding people for writing horrible things. Often the latter wins out, leading to those "I won't dignify so-and-so with a link, but I'll spend this post trashing them" posts. Quite annoying, from my perspective as a consumer.

*In general, though, I'm inclined to think that the salient role of "status" and "party" in the blogosphere would make a Weberian view much more appropriate. Moving beyond that great sociological debate, you already know how I feel about Habermas.

**I read this somewhere recently, but I can't for the life of me remember where.

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