Friday, May 8, 2009

Are we selling our soul to the devil?

I just recently learned that blogger will allow me to "monetize" my blog and, in theory, make money off my blogging efforts.  That scenario, of course, rests on the assumption that there is someone out in cyberland that actually reads this (and I'm not convinced yet that is true, but I press on nonetheless).  

When I first heard about all of this I was somewhat excited.  The thought of generating even a little money from blogging (something I would do for free anyway) seemed like a good thing.  I was ready to click on the "monetize" tab at the top of my page and start building my kingdom. But, then my irksome conscience kicked in and I had to pause.  I'm not ready to say that those who do post ads on their blog are unethical or breaking some unwritten rule of blogging; however, I do think that this issue warrants some discussion.

The argument for or against revenue producing blogs seems to rest on two key questions:

  • What is the purpose of a blog?
  • How does one's knowing they have a real audience, impact what they write or blog about?

I would argue that there are two major types of blogs:  the "mommy blog" and the amateur scholar blog.

The Mommy Blog--Hopefully this doesn't offend any one too much, but I couldn't think of a better way to put this.  These are the blogs packed with pictures of family vacations, trips to the park, etc. and that individuals use as a year-long christmas card letter of sorts.  They tell about what is going on in their lives, share funny stories about themselves or family members, etc.  It's almost like an electronic scrapbook open to the world.  

The Amateur Scholar Blog--These are the blogs like the one you're reading right now, maintained by individuals who feel like they know enough to attempt to write intelligently about a topic or field and who hope to get connected with others holding similar interests.

Neither blog is inherently good or evil.  The point is that they have different objectives and different audiences.  My sense is that ads on the mommy blogs  of the world will never really take off because, other than family members and close friends, who wants to read about how your three year-old vomited on the rug?  However, there are a handful of the "scholarly" blogs that probably have enough of a following that an advertiser could see benefit in using that space to market their product or service.   My initial excitement about "monetizing" my blog rested on the probably naive beliefs that one day my blog might have traffic like that.  

There is a problem, though, in all of this.  My feeling is that blogging is mostly for the blogger (see this clip for a concise and thoughtful description of this argument).  Blogging forces us to reflect, make connections between ideas, and articulate our thinking in a way that is at least somewhat coherent.  While some readers might benefit from the ideas I have posted here, the real value is for me because I am engaging in a behavior that promotes active learning and deeper thinking.  What's more, when I blog, I know there is a chance that someone might read it and I work harder to flesh out my ideas and articulate them clearly.  I want people to read my blog because I want to be part of an intelligent dialogue about higher education, learning, design, etc.  

Some would argue that this focus on audience makes "monetizing" a blog seem like a natural fit.  We want an audience anyway, why not get paid for bringing people to the blog.  The problem I see is that catering to an audience of advertisers and consumers is much different than writing for an audience of professional colleagues.  A good example of this same principle is the difference between popular magazines and scholarly journals.  Magazines have to be fun or entertaining because they depend on ad revenue and advertisers want to be sure that what consumers read in the magazine is interesting enough that they keep coming back.  Entertainment, not accurate information or learning, is the objective.  While scholarly journals definitely want a readership, their ultimate goal is to advance knowledge, not entertain.

When we start to blog in an attempt to make money, something seems to change.  No longer are we writing for ourselves or for an audience of peers, but we're writing for the advertiser and for the consumer that we hope will visit our site.  The reflective and pedagogical value of the blog seems to be diminished at that point.  If I'm a big time blogger about design and have a good following, would dipping into the ad pool eventually change the way I write?  I don't know, but it seems like a slippery slope.  Would I start blogging about design software in hopes that the company might approach me about an ad?  Is this really the best software I've seen?  etc.  There just seem to be some problems here, but I recognize that my ideas are still embryonic.  

Am I wrong here?  Can a good scholarly blog also be a marketing & revenue tool?  

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