Litblogs: Words Online
Ron Hogan
Andrew Keen
Carolyn Kellogg
Moderator: Tod Goldberg

Overall, the conversation was disappointingly civil. No one screamed or tried to dismember anyone else (although Tod Goldberg did say that Carolyn Kellogg’s blood would be spilt) and Goldberg kept things light and funny (for a sample of his humor, look at the title of Carolyn’s post). What I found disconcerting was that the panel seemed to revolve around Andrew Keen – his book and his assertion that the only possible model for online content is one that pays financial dividends. Everyone kept mentioning his book The Cult of the Amateur – usually attacking one premise or another – and for most of the conversation, the panel focused on the problem of money. So it seemed that rhetorically, the conversation revolved around rebutting Keen’s arguments, giving him the high argumentative ground, rather than the bloggers being able to establish a neutral space to discuss the facts.

Andrew Keen’s basic message was that he was a skeptic of the consequences of Democratization, and the consequences of a flattened media, because it does the opposite of what its promoters thought – it creates no middle ground. He spoke in well-crafted phrases – digital road to Catalonia, the flattened, edit-less media is dangerous, the kleptocracy of the Internet. But next to the suit and tie of Ron Hogan, he looked slovenly. He wore a T-shirt, drank from a Diet Coke can, spent over forty minutes picking at something stuck in his teeth, and slumped back down in his seat while grinning from one side of his mouth as if everyone else’s comments were a joke.

Ron Hogan (check out his post on the panel at Galleycat) did a fine job countering many of Keen’s assertions. He pointed out that the platform wasn’t the problem: there is a spectrum from inane to professional in the traditional media, not only in the blogging world. He also said that counter to belief, the traditional media is not a better gatekeeper than anyone else, and gave the recent example of the Katie Couric debacle. Also, in response to Keen’s argument that why should we reinvent the wheel when we have an adequate number of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, Hogan said that we have enough books and yet we still continue to publish.

Keen (who blogged about the panel here) also made the point that there is a problem distinguishing between inane and professional. Since every blog is equally valid, it’s impossible to tell the woefully inadequate from the professional.

To me, Keen’s rebuttal seems like it is already outdated and will become only more atavistic in the near future. Readers, links, your Google ranking, the frequency of your posts, and the simple ability of people to tell a well-crafted sentence from one cobbled together by a high schooler, all help people distinguish. Other objections of this type were brought up by Carolyn, who pointed out how little faith Keen seemed to have in the ability of people to discern quality.

But now we get to the essence of Keen’s argument. It’s financial: “I like models that make money.” He believes people should pay for content, and that it’s dangerous to empower the consumer (he added that he enjoys paying for his London and New York Review of Books). Therefore he’s troubled that blogs are giving content away for pennies.

In response, Ron Hogan said that his blog parlayed into a paying job, which means there are often career benefits to blogging, benefits that can’t be tangibly measured in dollars and cents. Carolyn’s argument, however, struck even closer to the nerve. She just said that she has enjoyed the community that blogging creates. That’s what it’s about for her – community. This is the heart of it. People used to get together and chat about their favorite books. Now they write about it online. Keen doesn’t care about people talking about books for free, but when someone actually puts something in print, he demands that there be a financial matrix to reimburse the writer.

What this betrays is an unconscious hierarchy: the written word above the spoken word. I don’t want to get into any of the theoretical deconstructions of this notion, but it needs to be said that the proliferation of ways to disseminate the written word has flattened (to use Keen’s term) any sort of hierarchy. It’s perfectly fine to write without pay, just as it’s fine to speak without pay. That said, there are plenty of options for people to get paid for writing, and as people’s reading habits continue to shift from print to the internet, the money will follow, eventually leading (perhaps) to more money being paid to writers online than to writers solely in print. What Keen should have is patience. The money will catch up to the revolution, and the solution is not to charge everyone for online content. This internet money will come (perhaps) from token subscriptions, but mostly from advertising – the same way that print journalism currently works.

There is more I could say, but I don’t have the time. Soon I will post about the other panels I attended on Sunday.

UPDATE: After the panel, it was wonderful talking to Carolyn, and also Callie Miller (who blogs at Counter Balance and was covering the festival for LAist). Nothing better than attaching faces to blogs that I love, and also talking shop about books and MFAs.