Blog Sponsoring

An edited version of my contributions to a December 2002 Blogroots thread about a "pledge drive" launched by prominent weblogger Andrew Sullivan for reader payments to support his blogging. The first paragraph responds to another contributor, who wrote, "Apparently some people (heehee) think they're too good for that kind of thing. They think they're beyond writing for free. They think they're above it somehow."


Some people think they're beyond making music for free... writing books for free... painting pictures for free... making movies for free... giving up their time for free... and some people are right. Whether Sullivan qualifies or not is up to the judgement of his readers, but to imply that no blog anywhere could ever be a legitimate money-maker seems a little short-sighted, and sells the form short. Just because most of the blogs we see today aren't worth paying for doesn't mean that none would be, any more than the existence of a thousand cheap photocopied zines doesn't mean that you'd never pay for a glossy professional mag.

We've already seen plenty of people pay to support community blogs like MeFi and Kuro5hin, so is it that much of a leap to suggest that the best individual blogs are worth similar support? Again, whether one counts Sullivan's blog as one of those is down to personal preference, but imagine if some of the other heavily-trafficked sites were faced with extinction—Zeldman, say, or Kottke. Would their regular readers pay to help keep them afloat? I suspect many of them would.

It doesn't just have to be the big names, either—and it doesn't just have to be cash. I've spent hours helping fellow bloggers fix back-end problems with their sites, because they were stopping them from devoting time to writing for their audience, which included me. Sure, there was self-interest involved—I wanted to read their wider thoughts, not their latest tale of server woe—but that doesn't mean that offering support in kind rather than cash was valueless. Even though a lesser-known blog with a small readership might not be able to rake in thousands of dollars, it might still be able to garner enough support to keep it going in a crisis—precisely because its smaller audience enjoys a much more personal relationship with the writer.

Most of us here have read a lot of blogs for a long time, and what have we seen? Bloggers who get book deals... bloggers who find partners through their blog... bloggers who meet up with other bloggers for a drink now and then... bloggers who stay with other bloggers on overseas trips... bloggers who find work or a new place to live with the help of other bloggers... bloggers who buy wish-list presents for other bloggers... all sorts of things that have real value, and would not have happened without blogging. And who are the ones who tend to have these things happen to them? The ones who write good blogs.

Are those people writing for free? Would they have kept writing for long in this public format if they'd received no recognition of any kind?

So Sullivan feels that his recognition has to come in the form of cash to feel it's worth blogging—well, just because ours takes a different form doesn't mean that we don't share that same basic need for recognition. All of those comments boxes, trackbacks, permalinks and blogrolls are ample evidence of that.


I don't really see a particularly conceited attitude in Sullivan's pledge-drive post. Sure, the "pledge drive" angle is unusual for a solo blog, but in other ways he's just going through the sort of occasional blogging angst that anyone who's done it for a couple of years has gone through: "I simply can't do what's becoming a full time job for nothing any more. And I really want to avoid making people pay for the site, through a toll-booth or paid-only access. After two years of voluntary work, it's time to move forward."

The only difference is that for most bloggers a feeling of exhaustion or time-pressure is followed by a hiatus, closure of the blog, a dramatic reduction in posts, or some other radical shake-up. Sullivan's saying—explicitly—that financial support from his audience will keep his enthusiasm levels up enough to keep going at his current pace. It's hard to argue with that—getting paid to do something is great motivation to keep doing it (though not the only possible motivation). If his audience want him to keep doing what he's doing badly enough, he's given them the chance to make a difference. And really, the main difference here from just having his tip jar link is that he's trying to get it all out of the way at once: "I hate interrupting the site all the time to beg. So we came up with the idea of a pledge week..."

People have been concerned about the effects of money on blogging since the first PayPal button went up. But what about the effect of knowing that strangers are reading your words? Putting comments boxes on your blog runs just as much risk (more, in some ways) of audience "interference" with what you write—but a writer can feed off that involvement with the audience, as well.

Good ol' linkslutting, no money involved, can be more of a threat to the "real voice of a person" than cash, for some people. Money is anonymous, and doesn't send much more of a message than "keep doing what you're already doing". (If you get paid insane amounts then being rich changes you, but that's hardly an issue here.) But referrer links, trackbacks, comments, all come with opinions attached, good and bad, and those definitely can affect what you write, whether it's seeking more praise or trying to defend yourself from attack.

The whole pledge-drive thing may not be to one's personal taste, but the unbiased blog of purest "realness" doesn't exist. To avoid any possibility of undue audience influence it would have to have no comments, no trackbacks, no permalinks, no email link, no search engines indexing it, no links to other blogs, and not be on the web in the first place.

13-17 December 2002



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