Stelter takes the practical position (as have I) that many social media users and bloggers have become quasi-establishment journalists, supplementing the major media, and helping with “keeping them honest”, as Anderson Cooper often says. So amateurs need to take fact-checking seriously.
This freedom may well be undermined by a number of concerns explored here recently. These include erosion of downstream liability protections for service providers (the Backpage-Section 230 problem), increasing legal exposure to “amateur” journalists for certain kinds of hyperlinks and embeds, the fake news scandals of the past year (really, the observation that “average joe” social media users tend to follow tribal crowds rather than read critically), and particularly the ease with which teens and young adults seem to be recruited into violence, which includes but is by no means limited to radical Islam and gang activity. As I’ve noted here before, these kinds of concerns can make amateur journalism seem “gratuitous” (e.g unnecessary and capable of being shut down) although Trump seems much more concerned about the establishment (Fourth Estate) press than the newbies (Fifth Estate).
But you have to take seriously he demands made on social media platform and search engines to “pre-censor” user ouput.
Speakers on the Internet benefit in different ways from search engines, social media sites (some like Facebook create more opportunity for permanent “publication” than do others, like Snapchat), and shared or dedicated third-party hosting for conventional or blog sites; these providers also usually provide domain name registration. Users also benefit from security services like Cloudflare and SiteLock. Generally, social media sites are taking more “responsibility” for certain kinds of damaging speech (hate speech, bullying, or terror recruiting) than are neutral site hosts. However, after the Daily Stormer matter (post Charlottesville), a few hosts participated in kicking off at least one neo-Nazi site from domain registration.
The “Mediator” Jim Rutenberg wrote a piece “Terrorism Is Faster than Twitter” Nov. 5 in which he traces how NYC bicycle lane terrorist Sayfullo Saipov followed terror recipes exactly, and tries to explain where he found them. There are supporting details in a Nov. 2 story by Rukmin Callimachi There is reference to the magazine Rumiyah (related to Dabiq). A web operation called “Site Intel Group” tries to trace how this material is distributed on the web. Much of it moves to the Dark Web or P2P. Generally, it appears that material from these groups disappears quickly from better known social media and from conventionally hosted sites and moves around on offshore providers a lot. There are articles on the Internet Archive (“WayBack”) which require specific logon (rather uncommon for less controversial material). In general, it does not appear that the sort of material that the Boston Marathon or other domestic “lone wolf” or small cell terrorists tried to use came from the more conventionally accessed and indexed parts of the Web. Most of it seems pretty underground (after initial recruitment) with various encrypted apps. We’re left to ponder what is making some of these young men (and sometimes women) tick, and have to face that modern civilization, with its individualized hypercompetitiveness, seems to offer them only failure and shame.
(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM EST)
Last Thursday, September 28, 2017, I attended a day-long event at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, “The Future of the First Amendment”. I could call it aka “the future of free speech” in the U.S.
Cato has a link for the event and has now uploaded all the presentations, which you can view here. The videos include embeds of the slides and of the audience members asking questions as professionally filmed, better than I can do on my own at an event.
The “table of contents” in the link shows the topics covered as well as identifying the credentialing the many invited speakers, and indeed the presentation was segmented and topical and tended to focus on many narrow, separate issues. I’ll come back at the end of this piece as to what I would like to have seen covered more explicitly.
The earliest morning session focuses particularly on partisan political speech related to elections (the “Citizen’s United” problem) and on commercial speech, including whether companies or commercial entities are separate persons. One concept that stuck out was that listeners or receivers of messages are entitled to First Amendment protections. I would wonder how that concept would play out given more recent reports of Russian attempts not only to influence the 2016 elections but also to spur social instability and resentment in American society, based particularly on the idea of relative collective deprivation (which is not the same idea as “systematic oppression”). There are understandable concerns over wanting to regulate paid political ads (especially if supplied by foreign agents), but we should remember back around 2005 when there were concerns based on a particular court interpretation of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that even free blogs (written without compensation and without ads) could be construed as “political contribution” if they expressed political viewpoints. The discussion of commercial speech recognizes that advertisements sometimes do express points of view going beyond immediate ad content, and that valuable speech, such as well-made studio Hollywood movies about major historical events, made with good faith, can express political viewpoints while being funded through the open securities markets available to publicly traded companies. But one auxiliary idea not explicitly mentioned was something I encounter: that speech available to the public should pay its own way.
The second segment dealt with “religious liberty in the post-Obama era”. Here we have the dubious idea that an employee of a business open to the public is engaging in religiously-connected “speech” when she sells certain products or services to a person of a different faith or who engages in certain intimate personal relationships as now recognized by law (especially same-sex marriage). One speaker in particular (Robin Fretwell Wilson) suggested that states should carve out laws that require public accommodations to serve all customers but allow individual employees (even in government agencies, such as with Kim Davis in Kentucky) to turn over the duties to someone else. While I would support such a solution, if can mean an unequal workplace (such as the catse when some employees observe Sabbath’s explicitly and others cover them without getting any compensation in return, which I have done – an extreme extension of this idea is the “conscientious objector” problem with the past military draft). It’s also true that sometimes “religious speech” can serve as a mask for personal moral ideas that in fact are not really founded in recognized interpretations of scripture, for example, political aversion to working with inherited wealth.
The keynote speaker for the second floor luncheon(well catered with deli sandwiches) was Eugene Volokh, of UCLA Law School and the Volokh conspiracy blog. Volokh gave a spirited presentation on how the Internet has accelerated the application of libel law (well before Donald Trump noticed) because the Internet allows speakers with no deep pockets and little formal publishing law experience to be heard, and also because the “online reputation” damage from defamation, as propagated by search engines, is permanent, as opposed to newspaper defamation in the past. Volokh made the interesting point that sometimes cases are settled with court injunctions that could prohibit a blogger from mentioning a particular person online again anywhere. (That could matter to bloggers who review films or music performances, for example). At 41:07 on this tape, I ask a question about Backpage and Section 230. Volokh’s answer was thorough and more reassuring that it might have been, as he indicated that “knowingly” standard could be included in service provider downstream liability exposures. (He also explained the distinctions among utility transmission, distribution, and publication.) He also got into the question as to whether fake news could be libel. Usually, because it largely involves politicians, in the U.S. it does not. But it might when applied to celebrities and companies.
The afternoon session featured a presentation by Emily Ekins on the 2017 Free Speech National Survey. A number of startling conclusions were presented, showing partisan divides on what is viewed as hate speech, and also a lack of understanding that most hate speech is constitutionally protected. There is a tendency among many voters and especially many college students to view words as weapons, and to view speakers as morally accountable for the actions of the recipients of their speech, even when there is no direct incitement for rioting or lawless action. Many respondents showed a shocking dislike of journalists as “watchers” who don’t have their own skin in the game. A majority seemed to take the pseudo-populist position that a heckler’s veto on speakers was morally OK, and a shocking substantial minority thought that government should heavily sponsor speech to protect special groups. A shocking minority accepted the idea that hate speech should sometimes be met with political violence.
The final session talked about censorship and surveillance. The speakers included Flemming Rose (“The Tyranny of Silence” and the cartoon controversy). Rose mentioned, in an answer to an audience question, that in some countries speakers were arrested for “qualification of terrorism” in public statements. All the speakers noted a desire from the EU to force tech companies to export their rules to the US, especially the supposed “right to be forgotten”. Daniel Keats Citron from the University of Maryland Law School mentioned the Section 230 controversy in an answer, as she talked about distinguishing “good Samaritans” from “bad Samaritans”
At the reception afterward, a speaker from Cloudflare noted that Hollywood has been lobbying heavily on Congress to force service providers to prescreen content, as motivated by the Backpage controversy. Hollywood, he said, has been pressuring agents and Wilshire Blvd law firms to join in the effort. He mentioned the DMCA Safe Harbor, which has a similar downstream liability concept but applies to copyright, not to libel or privacy. The tone of his remarks suggested that this goes way beyond piracy; Hollywood does not like dealing with the low cost competition of very independent film that is much less capital intensive, and taking up much larger audience share than in the past.. Even Mark Cuban admitted that to me once in an email. Cloudflare also said that the law, unchanged, would today handle sex trafficking the way it handles child pornography, with a “knowingly” standard, which seems adequate already.
All of this brings me back to what might not have been hit hard enough in the conference, the idea, as I said indicated in the title of my third book, of “a privilege of being listened to” (my 2005 essay), which sounds a little scary to consider and seems to lie beneath authoritarian control of speech.
I insist on managing my own speech, much of which is posted as “free content”. I get pestered that I don’t sell more physical copies of my books than I do and don’t try to be “popular” or manipulative in order to sell. (That helps other people have jobs, I guess.) I get told that my own skin should be in the game. I get sent into further deployments of the subjunctive mood (“could’a, should’a, would’a”), like in high school French class. – I should have children, or special needs dependents, or be in the trenches myself before I get heard from. (This could affect how I handle the estate that I inherited, which can get to be a Milo-Dangerous topic.) Content should pay its own way (which, ironically, might encourage porn.) Individual speakers weaken advocacy groups by competing with them and not participating. Before I get heard from myself, I should join somebody else’s cause against “systematic oppression” and not be above walking and shouting in their demonstrations. I should run fundraisers for other people on my webpage. I should support other publications’ fund raisers who claim (on both the right and left) to be my voice, as if I were incompetent to speak for myself. Or, as if that capacity will be taken away from me by force. Even the world of writers. I get confrontational ideas, that “real writers” get hired to portray other people’s narratives other than their own. (Okay, I might really have had a chance once go “ghost-write” so-to-speak one of the other “don’t ask don’t tell” soldier’s stories.)
One of the most serious underreported controversies is indeed the idea that speakers should be held responsible for what their readers might do, particularly because “you” are the speaker and not someone else. This is related to the notion of “implicit content” (Sept. 10). This concept was behind my own experience in October 2005 when working as a substitute teacher, see July 19, 2016 pingback hyperlink). That certainly comports with the idea that Section 230 should not exist, and that people should not speak out on their own until they have a lot of accountability to a peer group (family or not). This is far from what the First Amendment says but seems to be what a lot of people have been brought up to believe in their own home and community environments. It goes along with ideas of personal right-sizing, fitting in to the group, and a certain truce on social justice. In the past two or three decades (compared to when I was in high school and college), there has been a weakened presentation of the First Amendment (and Bill of Rights in general) in the way it is taught in high schools and to undergraduates. I could even say based on my own substitute teaching experience from 2004-2007 that even public school staff (including administration) is poorly informed on the actual law today, so you would not expect students to be getting the proper learning on these matters.
Individuals have natural rights, just as individuals; but people don’t have to belong to oppressed groups or claim “relative deprivation” to claim their natural rights.
It is important to pause for a moment and take stock of another possible idea that can threaten freedom of speech and self-publication on the Internet without gatekeepers as we know it now, and that would be “implicit content”.
This concept refers to a situation where an online speaker publishes content that he can reasonably anticipate that some other party whom the speaker knows to be combative, un-intact, or immature (especially a legal minor) will in turn act harmfully toward others, possibly toward specific targets, or toward the self. The concept views the identity of the speaker and presumed motive for the speech as part of the content, almost as if borrowed from object-oriented programming.
The most common example that would be relatively well known so far occurs when one person deliberately encourages others using social media (especially Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) to target and harass some particular user of that platform. Twitter especially has sometimes suspended or permanently closed accounts for this behavior, and specifically spells this out as a TOS violation. Another variation might come from a recent example where a female encouraged a depressed boyfriend to commit suicide using her smartphone with texts and was convicted of manslaughter, so this can be criminal. The concept complicates the normal interpretation of free speech limitation as stopping where there is direct incitement of unlawful activity (like rioting).
I would be concerned however that even some speech that is normally seen as policy debate could fall under this category when conducted by “amateurs” because of the asymmetry of the Internet with the way search engines can magnify anyone’s content and make it viral or famous. This can happen with certain content that offends others of certain groups, especially religious (radical Islam), racial, or sometimes ideological (as possibly with extreme forms of Communism). In extreme cases, this sort of situation could cause a major (asymmetric) national security risk.
A variation of this problem occurred with me when I worked as a substitute teacher in 2005 (see pingback hyperlink here on July 19, 2016). There are a couple of important features of this problem. One is that it is really more likely to occur with conventional websites with ample text content and indexed by search engines in a normal way (even allowing for all the algorithms) than with social media accounts, whose internal content is usually not indexed much and which can be partially hidden by privacy settings or “whitelisting”. That would have been true pre-social media with, for example, discussion forums (like those on AOL in the late 1990s). Another feature is that it may be more likely with a site that is viewed free, without login or subscription. One problem is that such content might be viewed as legally problematic if it wasn’t paid for (ironically) but had been posted only for “provocateur” purposes, invoking possible “mens rea”.
I could suggest another example, of what might seem to others as “gratuitous publication”. I have often posted video and photos of demonstrations, from BLM marches to Trump protests, as “news”. Suppose I posted a segment from an “alt-right” march, from a specific group that I won’t name. Such a march may happen in Washington DC next weekend (following up Charlottesville). I could say that it is simply citizen journalism, reporting what I see. Others would say I’m giving specific hate groups a platform, which is where TOS problems could arise. Of course I could show counterdemonstrations from the other “side”. I don’t recognize the idea that, among any groups that use coercion or force, that one is somehow more acceptable to present than another (Trump’s problem, again.) But you can see the slippery slope.
When harm comes to others after “provocative” content is posted, the hosting sites or services would normally be protected by Section 230 in the US (I presume). However, it sounds like there have been some cases where litigation has been attempted. Furthermore, we know that very recently, large Internet service platforms have cut off at least one (maybe more) website associated with extreme hate speech or neo-Nazism. Service platforms, despite their understandable insistence that they need the downstream liability protections of Section 230, have become more pro-active in trying to eliminate users publishing what they consider (often illegal) objectionable material. This includes, of course, child pornography and probably sex trafficking, and terrorist group recruiting, but it also could include causing other parties to be harassed, and could gradually expand to subsumed novel national security threats. But it now seems to include “hate speech”, which I personally think ought to be construed as “combativeness” or lawlessness. But that brings us to another point: some extreme groups would consider amateur policy discussions that take a neutral tone and try to avoid taking sides (that is, avoiding naming some groups as enemies instead of others, as with Trump’s problems after Charlottesville), as implicitly “hateful” by default when the speaker doesn’t put his own skin in the game. This (as Cloudflare’s CEO pointed out) could put Internet companies in a serious ethical bind.
Timothy B. Lee recently published in Ars-Technica, an updateon the “Backpage” bills in Congress, which would weaken Section 230 protections. Lee does seem to imply that the providers most at risk remain isolated to those whose main content is advertisements, rather than discussions; and so far he hasn’t addressed with shared hosting providers could be put at risk. (I asked him that on Twitter.) But some observer believe that the bills could lead states to require that sites with user-logon provide adult-id verification. We all know that this was litigated before with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was ruled unconstitutional finally in early 2007. I was a party to that litigation under Electronic Frontier Foundation sponsorship. Ironically, the judge mentioned “implicit content” the day that I sat in on the arguments (in Philadelphia).
I wanted to add a comment here that probably could belong on either of my two previous posts. That is, yes, our whole civilization has become very dependent on technology, and, yes, a determined enemy could give us a very rude shock. Born in 1943, I have lived through years that have generally been stable, surviving the two most serious crises (the Vietnam military draft in the 1960s and then HIV in the 1980s) that came from the outside world. A sudden shock like that in NBC’s “Revolution” is possible. But I could imagine being born around 1765, living as a white landowner in the South, having experienced the American Revolution and then the Constitution as a teen, and only gradually coming to grips with the idea that my world would be expropriated from me because an underlying common moral evil, before I died (if I was genetically lucky enough to live to 100 without modern medicine). Yet I would have had no grasp of the idea of a technological future, that itself could be put it risk because, for all its benefits in raising living standards, still seemed to leave a lot of people behind.
The recent queasiness in Congress and the FCC about matters like Section 230 and network neutrality bring this question back. Yes, I’ve talked about the controversies over “citizen journalism” before, like the day before the Election on November 8, 2016. And recently (July 19) I encountered a little dispute about access requiring “press credentials”.
The nausea that President Donald Trump says the “media” gives him seems to be directed at mainstream, larger news organizations with center-liberal bias – that is, most big city newspapers, and most broadcast networks, and especially CNN – he calls them all purveyors of “fake news” as if that were smut. More acceptable are the “conservative” Fox and OANN. Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos (with his own new site) seem to be in the perpetual twilight of a tidally locked planet. Perhaps I am in the same space; Trump doesn’t seem to have the same antipathy (or hostility) to “independent” or “citizen” journalists (which I had feared he would when he said he didn’t trust computers), but a lot of other people do.
I digress for a moment. Coincidentally has set up his “Trump News Channel” on Facebook (Washington Post story) but the URL for it reverts to “Dropcatch”, with Twitter won’t even allow as a link as supposed spam.
The basic bone politicians and some business people pick with journalists is that “they” spectate, speculate and criticize, but don’t have to play, like right out of the script of the Netflix thriller “Rebirth”. Politicians, hucksters, sales professionals, and perhaps many legitimate business professionals, and heads of families – all of them have accountabilities to real people, whether customers or family members. They have to go to bat for others. They have to manipulate others and concern themselves with the size of their “basis”. Journalists can do this only through double lives.
I could make the analogy to kibitzing a chess game, rather than committing yourself to 5 hours of concentration in rated game. (Yes, in the position below, Black’s sacrifice hasn’t worked.)
But, of course, we know that renowned journalists have paid their dues, most of all in conflict journalism. Sebastian Junger broke his leg working as an arborist before writing “The Perfect Storm”. Bob Woodruff has a plate in his skull but recovered completely after being wounded in Iraq. Military services actually have their own journalists and public affairs. Young American University journalism graduate Trey Yingst helped found News2share before becoming a White House correspondent, but had done assignments in Ukraine, Gaza, Rwanda, Uganda, Ferguson, and was actually pinned down at night during the Baltimore riots in April 2015.
That brings us back to the work of small-fry, like me, where “blogger journalism” has become the second career, pretty much zoning out other possible opportunities which would have required direct salesmanship of “somebody else’s ideas” (“We give you the words”), or much more ability to provide for specific people (maybe students) in directly interpersonal ways.
Besides supporting my books, what I generally do with these blogs is re-report what seem like critical general-interest news stories in order to “connect the dots” among them. Sometimes, I add my own footage and observations when possible, as with a recent visit to fire-damaged Gatlinburg. With demonstrations (against Trump, about climate change, for LGBT) I tend to walk for a while with some of them but mainly film and report (especially when the issue is narrower, such as with Black Lives Matter). I generally don’t venture into dangerous areas (I visited Baltimore Sandtown in 2015 in the day time).
I generally don’t respond to very narrow petitions for emergency opposition to bills that hurt some narrow interest group. What I want to do is encourage real problem solving. Rather than join in “solidarity” to keep Congress from “repealing” Obamacare by itself, I want to focus on the solutions (subsidies, reinsurance, the proper perspective on federalism, etc). But I also want to focus attention on bigger problems, many of them having to do with “shared responsibility” or “herd immunity” concepts, that don’t get very consistent attention from mainstream media (although conservative sites do more on these matters). These include filial responsibility, the tricky business of reducing downstream liability issue on the Web (the Section230 issue, on the previous post, where I said Backpage can make us all stay for detention), risks taken by those offering hosting to immigrants (refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly national security issues like the shifting of risk from asymmetric terror back to rogue states (North Korea), and most of all, infrastructure security, especially our three major electric power grids.
My interest in book self-publication and citizen journalism had started in the 1990s with “gays in the military”, linking back to my own narrative, and then expanded gradually to other issues about “shared risks” as well as more traditional ideas about discrimination. I had come into this “second career” gradually from a more circumscribed world as an individual contributor in mainframe information technology. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had suddenly become a particularly rich issue in what it could lead to in other areas. So, yes, I personally feel that, even as an older gay man, the LGBTQ world has more to worry about than bathroom bills (Pulse). I think the world we have gotten used to could indeed be dialed back by indignation-born “purification” (as a friend calls it) if we don’t get our act together on some things (like the power grid issue). But I don’t believe we should have to all become doomsday preppers either. We should solve these problems.
A critical component of journalism is objectivity and presentation of Truth, as best Truth can be determined. Call it impartiality. You often hear Trump supporters say that, whatever Trump’s crudeness and ethical problems, what Trump promotes helps them and particularly family members who depend on them. Of course many journalists have families without compromising their work. But this observation seems particularly relevant to me. I don’t have my own children largely because I didn’t engage in the desires or the behaviors than result in having that responsibility. I can “afford” to remain somewhat emotionally aloof from a lot of immediate needs.
In fact, I’ve sometimes had to field the retort from some people that, while some of the news out there may be dire, I don’t need to be the person they hear it from. I could be putting a target on my own back and on others around me. Indeed, some people act as if they believe that everything happens within a context of social hierarchy and coercion.
My own “model” for entering the news world has two aspects that seem to make it vulnerable to future policy choices (like those involving 230 or maybe net neutrality). One of them is that it doesn’t pay its own way. I use money from other sources, both what I earned and invested and somewhat what I inherited (which arguably could be deployed as someone else’s safety net, or which could support dependents, maybe asylum seekers if we had a system more like Canada’s for dealing with that issue). That means, it cannot be underwritten if it had to be insured, for example. I can rebut this argument, or course, by saying, well, what did you want me to do, get paid to write fake news? That could support a family. (No, I really never believed the Comet Ping Pong stuff, but the gunman who did believe it an attack it claimed he was an “independent journalist.” I do wonder how supermarket tabloids have avoided defamation claims even in all the years before the Internet – because nobody believed them? Some people obviously do.) No, they say. we want you to use the background that supported you as a computer programmer for decades and pimp our insurance products. (“We give you the words,” again.) Indeed, my withdrawal from the traditional world where people do things through sales middlemen makes it harder for those who have to sell for a living.
The other aspect is that of subsumed risk. I can take advantage of a permissive climate toward self-distribution of content, which many Internet speakers and small businesses take for granted, but which can be seriously and suddenly undermined by policy, for the “common good” under the ideology of “shared responsibility”. I won’t reiterate here the way someone could try to bargain with me over this personally – that could make an interesting short film experiment. Yes, there can be court challenges, but the issues litigated with CDA and COPA don’t reliably predict how the First Amendment applies when talking about distribution of speech rather than its content, especially with a new literalist like Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
A lot of “Trader Joe” type people would say, there should be some external validation of news before it is published. Of course, that idea feeds the purposes of authoritarian rules, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, or perhaps Donald Trump. But we could see that kind of environment someday if we don’t watch out.
Last week I went to a small demonstration about the lapsing of network neutrality on the Capitol grounds. After all the speeches, Sen. Markin (D-MA) asked if there were questions, from the press (non-restrictive, I thought). But when I didn’t have a media company employing me (I said I was “independent”) I was “silenced”. Here is my legacy blog account of the incident.
Then, yesterday “it” happened again. I got an email from a PR company about an opportunity to interview a particular transgender activist, who was going to speak in Washington at a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers. I asked if I could just go to the meeting. Apparently, only if I worked for a media company. I got the impression the PR person wouldn’t have offered the interview had he realized I work solo.
In fact, I get a lot of emails asking if I would interview someone. Some, but probably a minority, of them mention the possibility of articles on one of my legacy Blogger sites (like “Bill of GLBT Issues”) which obviously don’t come from a “professional news organization.” Most of these invitations are with persons with very narrowly focused niche issues (sometimes embedded in identity politics), or sometimes very specific products or services to sell (of the “self-help” variety), not of broadband interest, so I usually don’t try to follow up. But what if I got an invitation to talk to someone involved in an issue I view as critical and underreported by the mainstream press, like power grid security?
One of the best links on this issue seems to come from NPPA, “The Voice of Visual Journalists”, which poses the blunt question “How do I obtain press credentials if I do not work for a newspaper or magazine or I am a freelancer?”
There is a US Press Association which appears to offer cards for a membership fee, and I’m not sure how well recognized it is by the industry.
Some videos suggest that “YouTubers” and Bloggers can get press passes for trade shows (like CES) if they are persistent enough.
But many other sources on the Web (for example, WikiHow) suggest that you need to work for someone, and get paid for what you do, at least with a contractual agreement if not an actual employee. It would be a good question if you can work for your own company in this sense. Maybe you would have to register your business with the state you live or work in, or show that it pays its own way with normal accounting.
Of course, it’s obvious that many events have to keep the audience small and limited because of space and security reasons (White House briefings).
On the other hand, many events (such as QA’s for newly released motion pictures at film festivals) are open to the public (buying tickets) and take questions from anyone. Most of the video I present on my parallel “media reviews” blog (older than this one) come from this setup.
There’s a potential dark cloud down the road regarding the issue of press credentials or legitimacy (v. amateurism). Imagine a world a few years from now where all network neutrality has been eliminated, and only the websites of “credentialed” organizations can be connected to ISP’s Sounds like Russia or China, maybe.
On the other hand, Donald Trump has expressed a dislike of mainstream “liberal” media companies (CNN, most of the television broadcast networks, most of the big city newspapers), but respects only outlets like Fox, OANN, and maybe even Breitbart, maybe even Milo. Maybe he actually respects me.
For the record, let me say that I am interested in working with news outlets on some critical issues. I can’t give more details right now.
A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States. (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)
Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace. At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site. But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”
Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever. You can see my conversation with him in the comments.
Whoa, there. OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume). But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over. Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.
That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China). There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11). Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites. In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.
Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order. Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like. None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.) But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval. Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD). Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.
It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s). Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).
But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.
There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies. Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.
Then, some of the punditry get speculative. For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK. Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist. Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”. That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.
Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).
If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it. I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains. It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name. Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally. So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs. (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.) But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain? I expect this will change. SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).
It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP. That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.
We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.
So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems). But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it. Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”: web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems; if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish. (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.) But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal). Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact. And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking. But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.
In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue. And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.
I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense. Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing. That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware). It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like: those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess). It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas. And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well). I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).
Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.
In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it). One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”). I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.
There’s a good question about what “helps people”. “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers. Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect. Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation? I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230). Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)? I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do. But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?
Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn). Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.” If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.
There has been talk of threats to blogging before. One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.
(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)
This Monday morning (like the 60s song), I waited in line at the US Post Office to buy stamps behind people with much more complicated transactions. I asked the manager why the machines were no longer around, and she said that the particular branch doesn’t make enough revenue. I squawked about customer service. (Yes, it’s faster at UPS or FedEx, totally private companies.) When I finally bought my stamps on a debit card, it did not have the security chip. Was that because that branch didn’t do enough business?
Now I turn to the seemingly unrelated topic of user-generated content on the Web, especially those belonging to individuals, ranging from sites (usually embedding blogs), to free-standing free blogs (Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, etc), to “true social media” to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and similar (Myspace?)
Niche blogs, as I noted in the previous post, will go right off the hook here. Generally they support small businesses selling very specific products (which may be authored books or music) or services to customers wanting to pay for them. I know, porn can be profitable and can skew the remaining discussion.
My content, however, presents a more troubling scenario. It doesn’t pay for itself. Yes, I have the money to afford it. Some of it is inherited, which raises its own moral questions for another day. But even before my “retirement” in 2001, I had saved pretty well and had a decent nest egg from my own career. My first book (1997), however self-published, was easily paid for by gains in Bill Clinton’s stock market with profits of real companies. Why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t that just supporting free speech with the normal mechanics of democratic capitalism?
Yes, I get pestered as to why I don’t go on tours trying to sell books, or run by own retail businesses. Or why I don’t play ball and try to make the advertising opportunities profitable on their own.
No, I seem to be a Professional Spectator (the bane of the Netflix film “Rebirth”). Call me a low-level provocateur, a more socially acceptable Milo. I commit the sin of “criticizing” the proposals of others to solve social justice and national security problems without having to put my own skin in the game. So you can see how some people could see me as messing with them, trying to deny them the safety net they might otherwise have (or maybe even indirect claims on my own estate).
What I’m trying to do is account for everything that can affect any political debate than can affect “me”. So I have a repository of playing “devil’s advocate”. I want to make sure that policy makers really do consider everything. And there is plenty of evidence that my “free content” has often reached “people who matter”, even though I seem to be “preaching to the choir”, especially given the way today’s news get aggregated by social media according to the visitor’s previously tracked behaviors.
I am very concerned about the future of user-generated content, as I have written several times before on this blog (especially with my post on citizen journalism on Nov. 7, the day before the Election). While some of us feel personally proud of our own knowledge dissemination, the majority of users seem relatively frivolous at best, vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers (the fake news problem), or, at worst, hostile or criminal, engaging in cyberbulling or revenge porn, sex-trafficking or stalking, or criminal hacking (big with overseas users from some parts of the world), or recruiting for terrorism and radicalism. The degree or volume of “mal-use” has become shocking on the past few years, especially since Syria fell apart (and maybe we can blame Obama if we want to). As I’ve noted before, both Trump and Hillary Clinton had hinted at wanting some sort of Internet kill switch to stop gratuitous activity on the Web if justified by asymmetric warfare threats (statements back in December 2015). Both seemed naïve about how much of the recruiting takes place on the Dark Web or under high encryption, a long way from ordinary social media.
The biggest legislative threat may be the gutting of Section 230, for which there is already some legislation floating in Congress related to the Backpage scandal. We’d need to know how service providers operate profitably in Europe where downstream liability protections are weaker than in the U.S. But the basic premise remains: a social media company, or even a web hosting company, cannot continue to offer its service (even if paid for by user subscription) if it is required to pre-screen every post before it goes public.
I can think of another threat, at least on paper, related to my USPS analogy. (Yes, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Body Heat”: I’ve seen the classic films). Imagine if every user had to make his or her own content pay for itself. In the POD book world, that would mean that books that don’t sell get taken down and off Amazon and BN. In the blogging world, the content would have to show it was connected to products or services that earn their own way by normal accounting. OK, this is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. I hope so.
The way this would happen would be (ironically) the extension of Obamacare to Internet liability activity. No one would be able to justify the insurance if the activity did not make money on its own. Schemes like his were attempted in 2001 (with the National Writers Union) and later 2008 but don’t seem to have been particularly successful (obviously, anti-selection and the subjectivity of the underwriting is a problem; combining this with umbrella policies reflects a superficial idea of the problem).
The ”moral” justification, or legal one in First Amendment terms, starts with recognizing that a speaker may have the right to say what she wants (outside of “fire in a crowded theater” stuff) to people who are available because of her own direct contacts in “normal life” (the narrowest legal concept of “publication” in my previous post here). She has the right to assembly and petition. She has the right to participate in organizing into larger groups that can speak for her. These can include political PACS on the one hand or media companies with the scale to be profitable (freedom of the press). Religious speech (or “the church” or synagogue or mosque, etc) may have more protection. But what’s not so clear (especially now with a conservative majority again in the Supreme Court) is that global ungated self-distribution, which has become within the reach of the average person since the mid 1990s through the Internet and WWW, is by itself a “Fundamental Right”. Previously, people could normally be published only by third parties who believed they could sell, satisfy consumers and actually make money, whatever the objective cultural value of the content. There was a small, clumsy, expensive subsidy publishing industry which did not have a good reputation.
Of course, there are counter-arguments. Some of the language in the COPA opinion in 2007 (and perhaps the Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2004), as well as the way the Supreme Court handled the original Communications Decency Act in 1997 (I went to the oral arguments), might be construed as supporting a “right to distribute” as embedded indirectly into the First Amendment. Again, the law sometimes doesn’t like to conflate “manufacture” with “distribution”; look at how this could play out if applied to the network neutrality debate (not the way we want).
You would wind up with a world where only “established” businesses and organizations would be able to generate their own speech (that would still include authors who actually make money on their books) Everyone else would have to belong to and remain loyal to and in solidarity with organizations claiming to give them a voice. Intellectual honesty would disappear. (Think how Trump played to his base, but think again how the Left often does the same thing.) Some non-profit or activist groups would love it, because they would be able to control the message. Solidarity would become an essential virtue again, in a world where no one was allowed to claim credit for much all by himself. People would have to accept other people’s goals and make personal compromises that in an individualistic world would seem to undermine personal integrity. All of this seems to aim toward a controlled world of personal “right-sizing” favored by states like Russia and particularly China (and authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi Jingping), where discipline of individual expression is seen as essential to a populist version of stability and protection of “the people” from marginalization by “the elites” and “know-it-alls”.
And. of course, it sounds like such a policy, if ever enacted by Congress, would destroy social media companies and maybe even hosting companies if ever enacted – including all their asset values. So I hope it just can’t happen (despite the December 2015 threats). The British Prime Minister Theresa May sounds to be on a real warpath. She wants the whole world to control itself to recognize the grievous security problems especially in Britain and Europe. Ironically, this makes Donald Trump’s “America First”, even his Paris accord pullout, sound a little reassuring.
One can imagine other ideas. For example, an Internet “driver’s license”. You could apply this thinking style to the world a century ago when who should have a personal car and be allowed to drive could construct a similar controversy.
One aspect of the “asymmetry” of the modern world is indeed very hard to manage, especially given the axiomatic nihilism of one particular enemy. That is to say, it is nearly impossible to decide whether some speech could be read as an indirect threat to be taken down (which is a problem Theresa May will run into right away). This gets back to the “implicit content” problem or what I call my “West Potomac High School Problem of 2005”. I could be seen as the Milo Yiannopoulos Problem, too; is his speech simply designed to goad people into overreaction because the speaker knows “weaker” people will react violently? In an asymmetric world, anyone is a combatant, and the normal idea of well-separate personal responsibility starts to disintegrate.
All of this is quite troubling to me. I pride myself in finding the flaws or weaknesses of almost any proposed policy and of rehearsing the mistakes of the past (especially as shown by my own narratives). But often allies of mine – conventional activists – don’t want all the library-archived but forgotten facts mentioned again or reviewed because showing past “dirty laundry” will simply give the “other side” ammunition to continue “oppressing” weaker members of their constituent groups. (A good example of this would be the “chain letter” argument regarding gay men and HIV, a weapon of the religious right in the 1980s but largely forgotten now; another example might be bringing up the possibility of conscription.)
I have another personal side of this. It’s true, I’m not willing to become someone else’s mouthpiece, but I also don’t seem to find much “meaning” just in meeting the real needs of someone that claims to be oppressed or “powerless”. I have a real problem with trying to sell (or “pimp”) victimhood or even trying to remedy it personally, unless I caused it – but we’re finding that what we are as a community means a lot more than what I used to experience.
Let’s think a moment about how mandatory insurance can work, in different areas, like health, auto, property.
Generally, you have to have auto insurance to have a driver’s license (how it’s required varies by state) you need property insurance for a mortgage, and with Obamacare (and previously Romneycare in Massachusetts) health insurance. And Medicare and single payer in most other countries can be viewed as mandatory health insurance, paid for by much higher taxes.
Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) is partly driven by requirement that “healthy” young people will buy coverages they as individuals are almost certainly not going to need, to support otherwise much higher premiums for people who do need them. I’ve said here that we probably need publicly funded props (subsidies — not just tax cuts — and reinsurance, to help pay for health care for the sickest people), which would affect the deficit and maybe require cuts elsewhere (maybe in Social Security, for example, slowly increasing age eligibility) to control spending. I may be OK with some of the aspects of “community rating” – that is, men have to buy pregnancy coverage because it takes two to tango – and we want, as a policy matter, some sort of gender equality. (It wouldn’t hurt me some day if PrEP were covered, although at my age it’s not real likely.)
But requiring people to buy add-on coverages for other people’s risks (“moral hazard”) is generally a dangerous idea, that can set up a bad precedent for other misuse. That’s one reason why I am somewhat behind “TrumpCare” or “RyanCare” or “PriceCare,” if you really get serious about covering everybody somehow. The Republicans want the states to take more responsibility for this area. Under a federal system (compared to a unitary system like China’s) that seems appropriate. We no longer trust the states to manage their own ideas of “equal protection” (from the 14th Amendment all the way to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, ending with Stonewall) but we generally allow states a lot of leeway in just how they want their residents to pay for services or how much to privatize some services. States vary on whether or not they have their own income taxes, and to what extent they want to charge user fees or tolls. As California found out in the late 1970s, they can have their own battles on using property taxes to fund public education. So, yes, the OMB is appropriate concerned about how the reddest states will handle a block grant approach to health care. But our Constitution and federalism limit just how much coercion the federal government can use, even for worthwhile policy goals.
In the past twenty years, auto and property companies have been combining normal property or physical liability (and damage loss, from accidents and storms) with cyber liability from Internet use. The latter liabilities can include the cost of defending frivolous defamation suits (as with review sites) and copyright or even incidental trademark or patent infringement (from trolls), but they can also include losses due to identity theft or cybercrime (recently, ransomware). In some cases, the higher limit auto policies are available only in umbrella policies that have all these other coverages (which have nothing to do with the likelihood of causing an auto accident or of being hit by a tornado). In fact, as we know from the attempts around 2001 or so by the National Writers Union to buy media perils coverage for its members (and another push for this in 2008, shortly before the financial crisis), the risk for an individual consumer of being sued for Internet behavior is extremely hard to underwrite and predict, compared to the risks in the physical world.
I can imagine (especially from the “Left”) pushes to make cyber insurance mandatory components of property policies, and I hope the GOP would apply the same skepticism to this idea it has to health insurance mandatory coverages. You can imagine the pressures: because I have an unusual last name, I’m not as prone to identity theft as someone with an Anglicized name, but should I have to subsidize the premiums of someone more likely to experience it? Because of the “gratuitous” nature of my self-publication (it doesn’t pay its own way) activity “in retirement” (maybe that’s like “in relief” in a baseball game’s bullpen), I don’t face the same risks as other people who actually need to support families with their writing, but I face my own unusual perils (mostly related to “implicit content” as I found out with a bizarre incident in 2005 when I was working as a substitute teacher – the concept has to do with attracting politically or socially motivated targeted risk to others connected to “you”). The main prevention is to know what I am doing. (I do; for example, I know how to recognize scams.)
But the permissive legal environment that has allowed user generated content to flourish does raise serious questions for me, involving some personal matters (how I place value on interactions with others who have more intrinsic need, and how I am willing, with volunteerism, to fit in and belong to a group and speak for its needs – accept “partisanship”). The legal props include Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor, all of which makes me wonder how the Web still works in Europe, where these kinds of protections are weaker and where there is even an enforced “right to be forgotten” (and where, as Trump points out, defendants have to prove they told the truth in libel cases). The permissiveness seems to have led to an world where there is a lot of recklessness and abuse, ranging from cuberbullying or stalking or revenge porn, to outright terror recruiting — largely because writers with sincerely put arguments wind up preaching to their own choirs, created by news aggregation. Again, I could be silenced if I had to be insured, because my speech is not “popular” enough to pay its own way, especially in a mandatory insurance world.
In Terry Gilliam’s artsy futurist film “The Zero Theorem” (2013), precocious and charismatic teen Bob (Lucas Hedges) tells the besieged computer operator Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “I’m nobody’s tool”. (Hedges would play a similar role in “Manchester by the Sea”.)
It’s true, I “went public” with a controversial persona narrative with my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in the 1990s – specifically striking a nexus between the past history of conscription with the debate over gays in the military (as it had evolved then under Bill Clinton). I would wrap every other issue, mapped onto the tension between individualism and the need to belong to the group, around it and become a commentator, a pundit, someone who, however, needed to keep a certain objectivity and distance (even emotional aloofness) expected of journalists.
As President Trump complains, it’s too easy to criticize when you sit on the bench ad don’t play.
So, in the “aftermath” of the book(s), websites, blogs and now social media accounts, I have made it absolutely impossible for me to earn money (in “retirement”) by selling somebody else’s message, or being someone else’s spokesperson. No, I can’t have Sean Spicer’s job.
After my layoff and forced retirement from old-style mainframe I.T. as a post 9/11 sequel at the end of 2001, at age 58 (73 now), I learned “the truth” about what the world seemed to expect of retirees: Sell! One of the earlier interviews (while I was still in Minnesota) as with PrimeVest The interviewer became defensive about my questions over his presentation, even though I agree that for some consumers, converting whole life to term is a reasonable strategy. But a $40 trillion market? The interview was concerned over how “analytical” I seemed. I checked and investigated everything. “We give you the words,” he said. To a writer who has followed his own direction, that phrase sounded very insulting, like throwing an inadequate tip at a bartender (which I once did).
There would other attempted offers to throw husckerism at me. True, life insurance agent or financial planner sounds legitimate enough. But I don’t want to troll people’s Internet ad hits in order to cold call them.
I also find myself resisting attempts to get me to “join a resistance”. HRC is on my regular donation list, but I felt a little taken back by a recent email inviting me to be trained to become a grassroots activist or part of a resistance. I know that Barack Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago at one time, I have my own message set. I don’t need to have an organization tell me what to say.
Even worse was a similar ploy from the political right. GOP candidate for a runoff in a Georgia House race, Karen Handel, writes, addressing me personally (by an automated plugin – again insulting) “This is the email I didn’t want to have to write. But after seeing the latest public polls – I have no choice.” She whines that bigwing Democrats have raised so much money for her opponent, so “Will you help me fight back?”
No, I like to think of myself as better than that (including any public participation in overtly partisan politics). But of course I know the argument. I saved well when I was working. But I also have some of what the left-wing considers a poison pill, inherited wealth. I don’t have to make everything I do pay for itself. I don’t have to sell other people’s messages for a living. But I can imagine people thinking, if there weren’t people like me around to dilute them, they could make a living by “selling” because everyone else would have to.
I’ve railed about identity politics here before, but the way I argue policy issues is relevant here. Of course, I agree that current GOP plans for health care (variations of the Americam Healthcare Act) could, as structured now, throw millions off affordable health insurance, while solving problems of premium hikes for unneeded coverages for some people adversely affected by Obamacare’s implementation (and probably exacerbated by some states). I agree that the changes could affect racial minorities adversely. They could also affect gay men (depending on what happens with PrEP and protease inhibitors). But I don’t argue something because it hurts “me” or anyone as a “member of a group” (even though “belonging to groups” has become, unfortunately, the legal cornerstone of the way equal protection of the laws works). One of the reasons AHCA would affect people in certain groups is the way it would shift the responsibility for Medicaid back to the states. So it becomes a federalism problem. States should do the right things, but we know from the history of Civil Rights through the 1960s that sometimes they didn’t (and we lost young men like Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney as a result in what was the moral equivalent of crucifixion).
I don’t respond personally to “Leftist” appeals for “resistance” because this policy hurts members of their particular client groups (even if I belong to one of them, and everyone belongs to something). I think you have to solve the problem analytically. Some countries, like Switzerland, have kept an effective private health care sector in a way that works, and we could do that. I think you can have assigned risk pools again, so that rich people with pre-existing conditions can pay their own way (an inherent advantage of the GOP setup) but you have to subsidize the premiums of people in the middle class and below (tax cuts alone aren’t enough, you need subsidies, but you don’t need to use Medicaid as the vehicle for subsidies), or use reinsurance for excess claims. You have to be determined to make it work, and you have to pay for it. So maybe you can’t give the rich all their tax cuts.
Likewise, I reject group-oriented resistance politics on an issue like police profiling. I understand Rudy Giuliani’s claims about how “broken windows” policing in the 1990s made New York City much safer than it had been in the 1970s when I lived there. But I have so say, that particularly a couple of independent films (“Whose Streets?” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” and well as “I A Not Your Negro”) have pointed out that in some communities, police departments have regularly extorted fines from black residents with the “garbage jail” approach. This is illegal and even criminal and not acceptable. Why won’t the usual system of litigation put a stop to this?
I’m left to ponder the mentality of the doomsday preppers, who think that civilization cannot be depended on, and that it is morally imperative for everyone to learn to become self-sufficient locally and within the family.
I’ve become somewhat a fan of “BlogTyrant” (Ramsay Taplan, in Australia) even if I can hardly follow his advice. My own online presence evolved over time, starting back in 1996, before I self-published my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book, so I’ve used the blogs and platforms to support my content rather than as an income-generating tool per se. What started with a focus on one issue (gays in the U.S. military back in the 1990s and “don’t ask don’t tell”) enlarged concentrically to covering most public issues from a libertarian perspective.
One of his more interesting posts recently was “One Multi-Topic Blog vs. Multiple Blogs (each) with a Single Topic” (link).
I have twenty blogs right now, sixteen on Blogger and four on WordPress (chart). I won’t go into detail right here over how these evolved (the first of these was set up in January 2006) from flat sites, but they are “journalistic” in intent — commentary, but not “sales oriented”. I can say from a practical viewpoint, it’s easier to get some focus on a critical issue if the blog it is on is smaller and gets updated maybe about twice a week with new posts (that seems about right for getting immediate hits).
What I do agree with Ramsay on is that most “small business” or “individual” or “amateur” blogs that actually make money are single-topic or niche-oriented. (His own original niche was physical fitness.)
It would sound hard to make a living just blogging alone – although, judging from the Adsense and Blogger support forums, many people say that they do (especially overseas). In fact, one problem that would happen on Blogger in the past (especially around 2008) would that people’s blogs would suddenly get removed as spam blogs (wrongfully). This sounds less likely for blogs that are equated to purchased domain names (although you can’t get https yet on custom Blogger domains, largely because of the way SSL technology is tied to domain names).
It’s well to note also that Blogger and WordPress work differently in one main area. With WordPress, you can purchase a shared hosting plan from one of many provides (Utah-based Bluehost in particularly “specialized” in working with Automattic, which owns WordPress), where copies of WordPress and various plugins are installed on your site. That isn’t possible with Blogger (or other packages like Tumblr) as far as I know. WordPress is a “higher end” product with more capabilities and tends to load slower and sometimes have some security vulnerabilities and instabilities (which are being worked on vigorously in recent releases). Blogger is “simpler” and faster to use, but has less support (only the forums) – but it has been amazingly stable over the years, with only one day-long outage in May 2011. I say simpler – the dreaded “bx” codes aren’t very transparent (but in practice a lot of them just result from bad Internet connections).
WordPress hosts are working on providing “https everywhere.” The general idea is that all accounts need to be subdomains of one account.
Let’s move back to the subject – niche blogging. It works best for someone who already has a business that would be successful in the “real world” (of Shark Tank, so to speak). Most successful small businesses (outside of branded retail franchises) meet relatively specific and narrow needs and interests, so Ramsay’s ideas of email lists will work (and will get around consumer squeamishness about spam and malware). These are businesses and supporting blogs that are “for” some base of consumers or clients or stakeholders with narrow, specific needs or concerns. In a sense, they are “partisan”, and they may need to admit to some hucksterism, or at least overt salesmanship.
I can think of a good niche not far from me. I do play in USCF-rated chess tournaments. If I were better at it, let’s say, playing at the International Master level (by FIDE) I could easily envision setting up a blog with opening analysis and endgames. It would draw a large hits and make advertising money easily. World Champion Magnus Carlsen has a news site (here) and is quite likeable, but I don’t see an openings analysis blog. (Actually, his playing style is to use unbooked openings like an early d3 in the Ruy Lopez and simply outplay his opponent – I guess if he had an openings blog, he could give away his competitive plans for future battles! But he could still do a blog on endgames.)
But I can imagine, for example, a blog where the chess player refutes a line in a published opening book (which is static). Here’s an exampleof what such a post could be like.
Of course, artists and authors can have their own blogs (that is, like I have 20, and “give too much away). Libertarian author Mary Ruwart (the “Healing Our World” series) has a nice blog here. But generally authors need to build up some reputation just for “selling books” (at least on Kindle, and preferably in the physical world) before their blogs are likely to have a lot of visitors.
But one area that musicians and authors can explore is education – bringing music and literature into the classroom for underprivileged kids. Music education goes along well with improving mathematics skills.
It’s well to note how successful some mommy blogs have been — most of all, Heather Armstrong’s, which she launched in 2002 after she was “dooced” (fired) for what she had said online about her job. (Heather has trademarked her wordmark, for what has become an accepted English language verb. Subsequent “imitation” mommy blogs by others have come under criticism for being “made up” to please readers and get easier ad revenue.) In the 2000-2006 period, you heard a lot about the potential of employers needing “blogging policies”, which morphed into a whole industry protecting online reputation. One subtle problem was that in the early days, search engines tended to index simpler sites (like mine), meaning that someone like me could develop a reputation as dangerous to be associated with, because he could talk about you later out of “journalistic” (or “alien anthropologist” motives) — hence we get to an evolution of the idea of “no spectators” (like in the film “Rebirth“). Everyone must belong somewhere.
I wanted to note well my previous concern for “citizen journalism” under Donald Trump (Nov. 7). Donald Trump, as we know, continues his Twitter storms (his latest tweet was about noon Monday, today), quite inconsistent with his threats in December 2015 to “shut down” frivolous parts of the Internet. He seems to trust amateur bloggers (or the “Fifth Estate”), including me, much more than he accepts the established press. This is not the same as what happens in Russia and China, where “amateur” dissidents are pursued as if by chemotherapy.