Thursday, September 15, 2011

why do they pay bloggers, anyhow?

Yglesias has always written very thoughtfully about the university, so I'm a little disturbed by his recent forays into fortune telling. (I wonder if its a matter of that product differentiation he's always talking about.) His argument is that newspapers have been dying out because delivering information online is very cheap, and their business is delivering information in a more expensive way, and the university's business is also to deliver information, and so the university is imperiled. No, not imperiled, which implies there's some chance it'll survive. It's just doomed in its current form. As is usual with this sort of "digital revolution" talk, essentially evidence-free speculation is married to a rhetoric of certainty.

Now, I could respond to this in several different ways. I could point out the vast differences between what newspapers do and what universities do. I could point out that everything but the feel and smell of the newsprint can be delivered entirely digitally, but that only a tiny fraction of what universities do is adequately digitized. I could point out that universities are willing to offer this content online for free precisely because they know it represents no threat to them. I could point out the simple fact that the purpose of the university has never been solely, or even primarily, or even largely to deliver information,  that this is not why they are funded, and that this is not why students attend them. If I'm provoked enough, I might write all that out.

But let me try a different tack and take Yglesias's analogy in a much more convincing direction: paid blogging is doomed. Utterly, totally doomed. It's only a matter of time, and anyone who maintains otherwise is simply standing against progress.

How do I know? Well, many, many people are willing to blog for free. Thousands. Some of them are quite good at it. And since the costs of starting a free blog are close to zero, and even poorly paid bloggers cost a lot more than zero, professional blogging is doomed. You might well argue that the quality of blogs would decline without for-pay blogging, and I might even concede the point. But as Wikipedia shows, pretty good and free trumps great and for pay all the time. So clearly, professional blogging is dead. Like me, Yglesias should be hitting the want ads, because our professions are doomed.

Of course, I haven't remotely proven anything at all, and I would never act as if I had. That kind of speculation can be fun, but it doesn't have anything to do with genuine knowledge generation. It's perfectly reasonable to think that paid blogs, like other paid media, aren't going to survive. And, indeed, analogizing paid blogging to paid newspaper writing is vastly more coherent and convincing than the analogy to college. But reasonable analogies can be applied to an entire host of topics without having any genuine predictive value at all. Life is like that: difficult to predict. Yet there isn't the remotest indication in his post that Yglesias believes his prediction could fail.

As it happens, pay blogging has actually been on the uptick, as Yglesias himself has pointed out-- with reference to evidence, making this post vastly more valuable than his recent ones on college. If he treated them in that way, I wouldn't mind the conjecture, but that's not the case. There is no indication in these posts that Yglesias takes one more seriously than the other, or that he recognizes the value of empirical evidence and the poverty of speculative claims about the future. This is a really good example of what I was recently complaining about on Balloon Juice, the conspicuous lack of epistemological distinctions and accountability in the blogosphere. Yglesias is essentially making things up here, whereas he was responsibly reading empirical data when it came to the blogging boom. Yet there's no consistent system of knowledge generation that privileges the latter over the former, and no accountability to be found within blogging to correct his poor reasoning.

Somehow I doubt that Yglesias will sign on to my claim about paid blogging, even though consistency would seem to require it. Personal investments are like that, and adopting a breezy, showy certainty about the supposed doom of a cherished institution strikes me as cruel.


  1. While I agree with Yglesias' conclusion that universities are imperiled, I'd lean towards this fictitious explanation from JM Coetzee:

    "It was always a bit of a lie that universities were self-governing institutions. Nevertheless, what universities suffered during the 1980s and 1990s was pretty shameful, as under threat of having their funding cut they allowed themselves to be turned into business enterprises, in which professors who had previously carried on their enquiries in sovereign freedom were transformed into harried employees required to fulfill quotas under the scrutiny of professional managers. Whether the old powers of the professoriate will ever be restored is much to be doubted."

    "In the days when Poland was under the Communist rule, there were dissidents who conducted night classes in their homes, running seminars on writers and philosophers excluded from the official canon (for example, Plato). No money changed hands, though there may have been other forms of payment. If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has been wholly subordinated to business principles. In other words, the real university may have to move into people’s homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates." (Diary of a Bad Year, pgs. 31-2)

  2. Yglesias is predicting, as I understand it, that in the future some combination of these things will happen:

    --university tuition will be lower
    --there will be fewer students at traditional high-priced universities
    --there will be fewer and/or lower-paid professors teaching those students

    If he's right, then in 20 years he'll be able to point to hard data about declining enrollments, declining tuition, or skyrocketing use of Stanford's Engineering Everywhere and its successors.

    But I don't see why he can't make the argument before the process he's predicting begins in earnest. His evidence is both specific (top universities putting new, free education-for-all programs on the internet) and general (if tuition goes up while it gets easier to learn by other means, future teenagers will have different incentives than today's).

    As for the claim that universities put free lectures on the internet because they know it isn't a threat, perhaps some actors within universities feel that way, but they could be wrong. I expect many of the professors who give the lectures believe in radically greater access to education for its own sake.

  3. As long as there are hot young co-eds, there will be young men signing up for college. Information delivery wasn't the only thing college provided for me!

  4. Lectures are not education. A trove of research demonstrates that lectures are an inefficient way to disseminate information. And lecturing is always the easy part. The hard part is assessing whether students have absorbed the

    Also: tuitions have been going up for years. People are not deserting the university. Precisely the opposite. This is because, again-- to call the point of the university "knowledge delivery" is just absurd.

  5. Neo-liberals specialize in making up arguments and pulling stuff out of their own asses in order to justify undermining public institutions. It's what they do, it's what Matt does. Other than for small-p political or civility reasons, I don't know why you make your periodic gestures of respect and obeisance to him, because he isn't worth it. I get why Ezra Klein does this shit (careerism now that he's in the MSM), so that's somewhat understandable if not laudable, but Matt actually believes this no-evidence crap as a matter of genuine conviction (the market can magically change an institution that has evolved over a thousand years into an efficient knowledge delivery mechanism!). Even the language he uses is mechanical, reductive, eliminative, detached from and uninterested in the reality of how real humans can talk to each other, communicate information, and evaluate in a hands-on way how well they've learned it. It's a rhetoric empty of humanity and perfectly reflects the ideology behind it, while promising an analytical rigor without any real foundation. Dude, the emperor has no clothes!

  6. Ygelsias isn't trying to describe reality. He and those like him are tying to make the misery of a neoliberalized future seem like a "natural" development over which we have no control.

    Plus, he's a silly little man with a sharply limited set of facts.

  7. I think you're being unnecessarily harsh here. Yglesias authors dozens of posts on a whole slew of topics every day. Anyone who writes that much and that broadly will inevitably produce a spectrum of quality. Some posts will be better than others. It's a bit much to claim that Matt doesn't "recognize the value of empirical data." More likely, he quickly wrote this in 10 minutes and didn't think about it too much.

    Readers bear some of the responsibility here too. As blog readers, we should understand the medium before we engage in it. Don't read blogs if you want in-depth research. Read the in-depth research.

  8. I don't think it's unnecessarily harsh. Nobody forces any blogger to post "dozens of articles" per day. In fact, most reasonable people would think that attempting to make that many policy proposals on such a wide array of issues on a daily basis all but ensures frequent lapses of judgement and sanity.

  9. The primary purpose of the university isn't information delivery, though. It's credentializing. Ask a hundred college students why they're getting a diploma, and most will say it's because they want a good job, and that requires a college degree. Certainly, there are students who are getting a college degree because they want to learn. But there are many ways to learn, and most don't involve spending five figures.

    As tuitions continue to increase, and wages stay flat, there's going to be a breaking point where the gains of a university diploma are less than the cost of tuition. And at that point, other forms of credentializing will become more common, and the university will be forced into a dramatic re-evaluation of its costs.

  10. Just because Yglesias is making a dumb argument doesn't mean that higher education isn't off the rails. If you proposed to a department chair that he or she is in the business of information dissemination, you'd probably find agreement. I don't know what else would explain the fact that most college courses are taught by adjuncts.

    I suspect you're at a dandy R1 institution and aren't privy in first-hand fashion to what goes on down the ladder. It's ugly, though. The beast has been starved. Yglesias is just doing the neo-lib part of ushering the thing people like him ruined into oblivion.

  11. I don't know what else would explain the fact that most college courses are taught by adjuncts.

    They're not.

  12. It's good that they do this actually. Because they have given stagnant bloggers the chance to improve their career and talent. Having this kind of passion would benefit. There are many writers today who are actually thankful of it.


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