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Yglesias Really Doesn’t Get It

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Yglesias takes exception to my support of the Huffington Post boycott. He is misguided on several points:

1. Yglesias seems to think that I am trying to take away his internet where people can write whatever they want for free:

Those of us who write or a living on the internet might well benefit from a rule banning amateur content creation online. No more professors giving opinions on political issues away for free! No more videos of cute cats on YouTube! Heck, no more Wikipedia! More traffic for me! What’s not to like? Obviously there are free speech problems with trying to legally ban amateur internet writing. But should we boycott all free internet writing? My view is that we shouldn’t, even if Wikipedia is reducing the demand for unionized teamsters to deliver physical encyclopedias.

Not at all. What I’m saying is that large corporations have the obligation to pay workers for labor. In other words, a basic tenet of all progressive thought for the last 200 years. And yes, AOL/Huff Post is a large and profitable corporation. Obviously people can and should write on the internet without getting paid. Hopefully, they can find a way to get compensated for their work. But the idea that somehow I and the journalist unions are trying to punish workers/writers by not reading their work is absurd. What this boycott hopes to accomplish is to get those writers a tiny bit of the profit going into AOL stockholders and Arianna Huffington’s bank accounts.

2. He seems to believe that the internet is not a workplace.

In the information economy, we need to rethink our ideas of the workplace. People have bought into the information economy. They go to graduate school with the hope of becoming tenure-track professors. They write online, hoping that they will be read. They take an unpaid internship, hoping they will get a good-paying job down the road to make up for their current poverty. They understand and explore new media, hoping to make some kind of a living disseminating and evaluating information. Outside of these more intellectual pursuits, workers try to retrain themselves to be flexible in a modern economy.

But many of the promises of an information economy are a chimera. We produce too many PhDs (and while I have found tenure-track employment, I will openly say how incredibly lucky I am. It’s not because I’m better than others). We had a brief flash where people could make money writing political opinions on the internet and then most of those opportunities were snatched up. The information economy has completely failed to provide steady employment for millions of Americans as we near 4 complete years of recession. Young people can’t find work, but unpaid internships abound.

Just put in your time (adjunct, HuffPo writer, unpaid intern) and surely you too will enjoy the benefits of the new economy!

It’s one thing to say people should be able to write for free on the internet–that’s obvious. It’s another to say that it’s totally fine for a corporation to make millions of dollars off people’s free and voluntary labor. Yes, those people could stop writing at Huff Post. But Huff Post also promises writers the opportunity to be read and someday, that far distant someday, maybe you can get paid too! And many of these writers buy in, like I have, that your hard work on the internet will pay off for you some day in the bright new information economy.

I realize I am writing from a marginally privileged position here. I am newly at a fairly prominent blog that big bloggers read and link to. And I have every intention on using that position to produce posts pointing out the injustices of the modern economy, of which a corporation the size of AOL not paying writers some amount for the internet traffic they generate is one. It’s not ironic, as Yglesias says, that I would write this post. Am I, because I have a tenure-track job and get a piece of the very small amount of advertising money this website makes, not suppose to point out exploitation of labor at other sites? Am I now part of the internet middle class, committing virtual class suicide by undermining my own position?

3. He switches the terms of the debate. He focuses on Gary Hart, of all people, essentially saying that I argue that it is immoral for HuffPo to not pay Hart for his editorials. I really don’t care about Hart or Reich or any of the other big names who write over there. This is an argument about the hundreds of unpaid bloggers. Maybe Hart should be paid too but moving the argument away from the new highly educated working-class to elite politicians and journalists is sadly indicative of how little consciousness there is of the new working-class, even at many leading progressive sites.

4. Based upon his first Twitter comment on this post earlier today, Yglesias seems to believe that this post was a veiled attack upon him. There are two possible reasons for this that I can think of. First, that he believes the blogosphere is a meritocracy and that he is read because he earned it. Well, that’s not entirely untrue of course. But I made the point in the post that the blogosphere was all about timing. Yglesias was right on that, much like Klein, Marcotte, Valenti, Kos, and many others. This site, in a lesser way, benefited from the same good timing. Nothing wrong with that. So that’s absolutely not meant as an attack. But a 22 year old today wanting to write about politics simply can’t become what Yglesias became. I don’t see the problem in just admitting that.

Of course, Yglesias has never shown much inclination toward labor and this leads us to the second possible reason for him becoming upset. When I said that the progressive blogosphere ignores labor, I wasn’t singling Yglesias out or even had him mind per se. But it is true. His slighting of teachers’ unions and support for anti-worker, anti-student education reform has always been the weakest subject in his writings. He rarely writes about working-class issues except from a technocratic perspective. Caring about improving health-care is caring about working-class people, yes, but when your leading discussion of working-class organizations on your site is denigrating teachers’ unions, well, that’s not good for a progressive blogger. Even if you disagree with the Huffington Post boycott, like Robert Reich for instance, if you write about working-class people and actively support labor unions I can take the argument as a legitimate disagreement.

But when you are widely recognized as a leading progressive blogger and you don’t seem to have much respect for one of the last core Democratic constituencies, yeah, that’s a problem.

In our brief Twitter war of the last hour, Yglesias noted:

still don’t see why it’s wrong for people to work for free voluntarily.

Well, Matt, why don’t you become part of the internet proletariat for awhile and find out? Quit cashing your paychecks. Write for free. Become the person you would be if you were 23 years old in 2011 and wanted to be the next Matt Yglesias but you couldn’t because you can’t get a readership.

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