Saturday, February 25, 2017

- A Modest Confession

I’ve often said that I don’t envy people very much, and that’s true as far as it goes. I’m never possessed of so much envy that it makes me angry at the person who is the object of my envy. But there are circumstances that others have found themselves in that I do envy, a little.

No one’s life is perfect, no one knows that better than me. But there is often a little bip here and a setting there that I have looked and said “Gee I wish I could do something like that.” But on those rare occasions where I went to the trouble of trying to get into an equivalent situation of my own, I got into the details of it and realized that they were probably paying costs for their circumstance that I never knew about. And that inevitably meant that for me, it probably wasn’t worth the trouble after all.

But, if that qualifies as envy then so be it. And I have a confession to make on precisely that score. Until just a few days ago I actively envied John Derbyshire. (I know you're chuckling right now John, but I mean it.)

There are things about John’s modest life as a semi-retired scribbler that I find very appealing. He lives a life of the mind, which I suspect was always the area where he was most comfortable. He works on his own schedule, saying only things he believes. His soul is not for sale or even lease. He reads, and learns, and then opines on his learning, and people PAY him to do that. What an idyllic little existence that sounds like.

Sure, it’s a modest living, which is supplanted in John’s case by other income sources. And it’s been made slightly more modest these days, thanks to the honesty and realism of his positions and the contempt that most mainstream sources hold for such things. But it always struck me as a nice, intellectually and morally consistent way to add a few tiny shekels to the till by doing something he would almost certainly be doing for free anyway. It truly does seem enviable.

I could talk about a mild envy of his personal life too without violating any confidence. He lives in a pleasant home with his lovely and charming wife and dog. He has a son in whom he can and does take much pride, and a beautiful and clever (if somewhat ungrounded) daughter who may vex him occasionally, but who he otherwise utterly adores. His situation occasionally reminds me of that song from one of the very few musicals I can tolerate, 1776 – the song about the ‘cool cool considerate men’. All very enviable if you ask me.

So the other day I was thinking about John and his comparatively well ordered and more or less happy life. And that little devil with his talk of envy hopped up onto my shoulder and said:

“Hey you know… you’ve been writing this garbage blog for a decade. Now you and I know that it’s mostly witless charmless dreck, but your readership is rising again so maybe you’re still fooling someone out there. And I have to admit, after several thousands posts, one or two are not completely insufferable and insipid. Maybe you should try to dip a tiny toe into the water of actually getting paid to do it. You never know. Maybe if you’re a little more careful about things you can turn it into the kind of modest and compromise free supplement that your friend John has.”

Thus spoke the devil.

The relative modesty of this ambition made it seem more reasonable to me, and that’s when I made my big mistake. I foolishly listened to this voice, and began looking into blog monetization.

This blog is on blogger.com, which is a Google product. Google has a complementary product called adsense, and they make it very easy to apply for ad coverage on your blog. That sort of thing never leads to much money but I wasn’t looking for much and it was so easy, I thought I’d dip a toe. I applied, and within just a few hours I was unceremoniously rejected. Their reason: “Not enough original content.”

The ideas here may be crap. They may be the thoughtless ranting’s of a middle aged man upset about the way the world has changed around him. They may factually incorrect, and you may adamantly disagree with them. But they are all original. True I post other people’s videos and partially excerpt the work of others as hyperlinks, but I always cite sources, and virtually always include my own commentary on the original. So this specific reason for rejection puzzled me.

So I poked around a little in the adsense help forum and eventually got into a conversation with a very helpful ‘expert’, who explained what the real reason probably is. He/She (it was never made clear) explained that Adsense prefers blogs which are suited to the sensibilities of 8 year olds. Even the mention of sex, porn, or rape will disqualify you. Just the use of profanity and the single word F*** will result in accounts being turned off and monies being confiscated. And this, [s]he said, is probably what was really going on.

Oh. OK said I. That I can get. I’m not advocating for or posting examples of porn or rape, and in truth I’m not personally in favor of either. I’m in favor of sex as are most of us, but this is hardly penthouse forum. But the very helpful expert gave me the impression that just recognizing the existence of these topics and having an adult conversation about them is enough to disqualify you from adsense coverage.

To this I basically shrugged, thanked the ‘expert’ for explaining the rules, and resigned myself to this being a commercial channel that was closed to me. Fair enough. But then another expert chimed in with a much more disheartening criticism. This other ‘expert’ said that my blog was ‘a copyright infringement nightmare’.

I don’t know much about copyright law. Honestly, I don’t know anything really. I always assumed that if I just say that Joe Blow said X and linked the place where he said it, I was covered. I do occasionally rip off slightly bigger ideas from friends (John is one notable example) but I jokingly credit those as well. To my knowledge I have never openly stolen someone else’s idea or description of an idea, or un-accredit prose and claimed it was my own, which is what I thought copyrights are about.

But it wasn't the accusation of doing something I find ‘wrong’ that bothered me. What bothered me was that I’ve now come to believe that I really have been very amateurish about all this. And though I’m not sure, I think the world where you are paid to write things or say things, might be just as heavily regulated as the finance business. Or even if it isn’t regulated precisely, there are very complicated commercial rules that must be adhered to, which I never understood or even thought about.

There are lots of rules that the amateurs know in finance, and I’m afraid they have corollaries in publishing. Don’t insider trade. Don’t exceed your margins. Everyone knows these. But then there is a layer that only we insiders know. Don’t ‘front run’. Don’t ‘bang the close’. Those things don’t always have clear definitions (though we all know them when we see them) and I’m afraid that publishing world has rules similar to these that I’ve been breaking all along. If you don’t want to monetize your words that’s one thing, and the economic rules will let you slide. No one is going to come after me when there isn’t any money involved. But if you do want to, you have to know and adhere to all of them.

Which then also means that inevitably you have to make a choice between making money at something, and doing it to make a cultural or political point. Maybe it’s just a process issue, where if I link a youtube video instead of assuming the original commercial poster has already addressed the fair use issue, I’d be fine. But it does all make me wonder what precisely is on the minds of all the guys at National Review who are trying to both things. I’ve always given them the benefit of the doubt, but now I wonder if they aren’t on the inside of the media bubble surrounded by hostile lawyers always looking for a twitch from them. that kind of thing has got to make a difference in what you say.

Anyway the conclusion I’ve come to is that if I’m going to keep doing this, and it seems like I am, then I’m going to have to keep doing it for free, because according to the commercial rules of publishing, that’s probably exactly what it’s worth.

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