counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

February 16, 2018

(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love

I saw the worst thing ever two days ago, which was an Instagram account where one photo included the following caption: Happy Anniversary to my adorable hubby! I love the life we created together including our fantastic son:. #ad”. Another photo was of a bowl of soup and a link to a post about how blogging had allowed this writer to find her passion and make it her career, and that passion was for, apparently writing posts about canned soup, and there’s even a giveaway to win $500 so you can get started on following your dreams and writing about soup too. “Love what you do! Keep chasing your dreams!” chimed her commenters, who are surely part of a weird scheme of override Instagram’s algorithm, because I can’t think of any other reason so many people loved the soup post. Which didn’t even mention the soup, which is a travesty, because I love soup, and could read about soup for days. 

This Instagram account seemed unreal in more ways than one, and was particularly resonant for me just one day after I’d finished reading Brooke Erin Duffy’s (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work. Loving what one does and chasing dreams were a recurring theme in Duffy’s interviews with fashion bloggers, Duffy’s thesis being that there’s a lot of chasing and you sure better love what you’re doing because you’re probably not going to get paid for it, except maybe with soup.

I heard Duffy talk about her book a few weeks ago at the McLuhan Centre’s Monday Night Seminar Series, “MsUnderstanding Media,” and it was a fantastic discussion. One that was right up my alley in lots of ways, and not, at the same time. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. Duffy’s ideas about aspirational labour in the fashion blogosphere not entire applicable to where I’m at in book bloggerdom, but still discomforting in a few respects and her book would end up problematizing my own work and ideas in an interesting way.

But still. There are many blogospheres, I remind myself. There are many book blogospheres, as there are many fashion blogospheres, I presume. And as I type this now, having always considered these multitudinous blogospheres a positive thing, albeit difficult to catalogue or classify, I think of the Ellen Ullman book I read a few weeks back, the essay about the internet as the opposite of democracy. Is saying, “Not my blogosphere,” I wonder, the equivalent of saying, “Not my blogosphere, not my problem?” Is relegating the entire internet to a serious of unconnected spheres—each one with a self-absorbed user at the middle—a sorry statement about the possibilities of online connection and the possibility for societal change in 2018?

I wonder. The internet is a blurry place. My friend, Dr. May Friedman, talked about this in her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, when she wrote, “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge.” In her book Friedman is more open to the amorphous nature of the blogosphere(s) than Duffy seems to be, open to the potential of the grey areas, to the possibilities represented by blogs being, as Duffy puts it, “murky conceptual spaces.” Although Friedman’s ideas about the radical potential of blogging were based on last decade in the blogosphere. We talked about this the other day and she suggested that perhaps the radical possibilities she’d written about had failed to become reality. So much so that Duffy’s understanding of the blog in 2018 as a hybrid space is devoid of radicalism altogether. Duffy writes, “Portmanteaus such as pro-sumption, produsage, pro-am, and playbour capture the nuanced ways in which production and consumption, work and play, and amateurism and professionalism bleed into one another in digital contexts.” Grossest hybridity ever.

In her book, Duffy is writing about our current moment, “…an era where the web’s non-commercial roots are largely forgotten, buried beneath a veritable heap of sponsored messages, native content, and cookie-tracked conversations.” Except that I haven’t forgotten those roots, roots that are blogging itself, I think. Roots I take my students to when I try to inspire them to write blogs and read blogs, real blogs instead of those pseudo-blogs that have hijacked an art form and turned it into a cheap commodity. #SoBlessed.

Realness and authenticity are indeed blogging’s roots, as Duffy writes, set in oppositional to magazines and advertisements, glossy and posed. Except that even realness been co-opted, underlined by market logic. To be authentic is to be “relatable”, but as a blogger becomes successful she becomes more difficult to relate to and her authenticity becomes a pose. Further, “…for many aspirants, individual expressions get refracted through considerations of audiences; one’s creative voice is synonymous with her commoditized brand…. Authenticity, thus, becomes a means to an end—namely drawing readers and potential advertisers.”

Which is why I tell students to “Blog like no one is reading.” Clever because, for most of us, often no one is. Those superstar bloggers who’ve been able to quit their day jobs and live off the fruits of their leisure/labour/soup are clearly exceptions to the rule. These bloggers have won what Duffy references, via Andrew Ross, as “the jackpot economy.” For the rest of us, we’re going to get paid a pittance, if anything, and this is Duffy’s complaint with the soup we’re being sold, “the dubious reward structures for aspirational labour.” The idea of a “partnership” between a huge corporation and a twenty-three year old woman with a Bachelors degree working out of her bedroom. How calling it a partnership makes it almost seem like fairness, which is another way the labour of blogging is rendered invisible.

And the labour is only intensified by the need to have it all seem so effortless. The work must necessarily be concealed. “I just happened to be doing a yoga pose halfway up a tree,” says the Instagrammer. Except: you had to climb the tree, someone had to take the photo, someone had to buy the camera, fix your dress so that your underwear wasn’t showing… “Their shots are often cannily staged to ensure a particular aesthetic—one that cloaks the staging itself.”  And the statistics are likely that you’re never going to make it to the upper echelons, so what’s the point of all this work? (Me: If blogging is a lot of work, you’re doing it wrong. The point of the blog is to be raw, and unpolished. Immediate.)

Immediacy is the opposite of aspirational, which was what I kept telling myself as I read Duffy’s book about the problem of aspirational labour. Instead of aspiring, I urge the writers in my blogging classes to focus on the immediate. Blogging is about capturing a moment, writing right now. Which is why I don’t do scheduled posts. Which is why I take holidays a few times a year, weeks away from my blog, because it’s good to have a break and also because it reminds readers that there’s an actual human writing here. Which is the reason I’ve been able to maintain my blog for more than 17 years and not expire from burnout. We don’t use our blogs to get to some place better, but instead to be present in the current moment, a moment that becomes obsolete in thirty seconds. To try and fail to capture some of the atoms as they fall.

(Blogging is very much about failure. Imperfection. It’s a project that will never be finished. It’s about typos and weird formatting, and things that seemed like revelation a decade ago that these days make you want to die when you read it. So you don’t. Archives are only nice in theory. But even still, to wish to banish your archive [although you don’t] only means that you have grown, learned, and a blog is a document of that process. Your blog, like your life, is a work in progress.)

But am I an aspirational blogger? Have I been one? I wonder this. When I started blogging in 2000, I definitely wasn’t, because there was no template for blogs as a path to anywhere. I was just glad to have a place where I could write things, and people might read them. I had a voice. It seemed like a powerful thing, and not the opposite of democracy. Around 2004/2005, I was reading a lot of book bloggers, and aspiring to have a blog like that, I suppose—but that I aspired to have a blog like that is not the same as being an aspirational blogger. (Also, at the time I did not have a book blog.) By 2005 I was in graduate school, and did a project on “blooks” (whose title was, “Oh no! Not Another Portmanteau!”). So by this point, I knew that blogs could be a path to somewhere, but I don’t think I ever thought about being on that path. I was blogging for the same reason I’d been blogging since 2000, which was to make sense of things, for posterity, to ask questions. My blog turned into a book blog because my life had turned into a book life, and that’s the way it goes.

In 2007, a publisher offered to send me books. This was the first time I remember feeling vaguely aspirational. I felt legitimized, recognized, more than “just a blogger.” Was I selling out, I wondered? For about five minutes, but I said yes because I wanted books. And I thought about this too as I read Duffy’s book: are  books “product”? Is me receiving books from publishers different from fashion bloggers receiving items for promotion? Maybe, maybe not. I’m thinking towards the latter because I don’t see it as my job to market books. I review a small fraction of the books I’m sent for review. I also obtain books by other means: I buy them, I borrow them from the library. And the people who read my reviews can borrow them from the library too. It’s not all necessarily driven by “market logic.” But when I was listening to Duffy speak, she gave the example of bloggers who make a big deal out of having purchased certain items—as though partaking in capitalism was a more legitimate way to appreciate something. And I do this too, I realize, making a big deal out of the books I buy “with my own money”.

Why I am I photographing my book hauls? Telling you about the bookshops I bought them at? Again, with books, I suppose it is different, and bookshops too—books are culture, the shops are cultural centres. There is an argument to be made that this is distinct from me writing a post about the new boots I bought at Nordstroms. Except that I do frequently write posts about buying things that aren’t books—I love photographing my brunch at cool restaurants I visit. I love tagging locals shops and designers when I’m wearing their clothes. When we got our new couch last month, I was all over Instagram because my couch had its own personal hashtag and I thought the brand was cool, and I was a bit cooler because of proximity. Social media had allowed me to feel connected to these brands, to feel like there was a relationship—which is kind of weird, and Duffy writes about the strangeness of your friends being brands, and brands being your friends.

That I am purchasing items and services from these brands underlines my authenticity though, or so it seems. (Even though I also want you to think I am cool because I have a mid-century modern sofa, for example.) Demands for “purity” means real (or “real”) bloggers don’t do it for the money or sponsorships. Getting paid is selling out. Although isn’t it only fair to want to be compensated for one’s labour? Should we necessarily denigrate someone for wanting to get paid for doing what they love? (Except, of course, one rarely does. One gets paid to write stupid posts about soup.) We turn down our noses at aspirational bloggers. Which means that everyone has to tell the same story about how they became a successful blogger but by accident.

So much of this is gendered. Women aren’t supposed to be aspiring. Also, the “partnering” and the promoting of brands they love is a gendered form of labour with a long history. Women are “social.” Do women face more struggle for trying to get fair compensation for their work? In general, yes. Is shitting on bloggers for “selling out” part of that same pattern? It’s more difficult for women bloggers, I think, because they must necessarily invest their personality in the work they do. (We make fun of self-branding, but also expect women bloggers to give of themselves.) And so the balance is harder, and the terribleness is obvious when the balance is lost—see the soup post, and the Happy Anniversary #Ad. “Authentic” and “real” are terms that get thrown around, but I think that most of us still turn to blogs for the human voice, which has been the appeal from the very start. And when the blogger is writing about things she doesn’t actually care about, the whole point of the endeavour is lost.

I don’t think that blogs can be successful commercial endeavours. There are a few exceptions to the rule—I can thing of a single blogger whose sponsored posts I ever read and shared—but in general, if you want to make money, you should do something that isn’t blogging. Which is why I insist that my students that they should get a pay-off from their blogs in other ways (that are not soup): my blog taught me to write book reviews, to engage deeper with the books I was reading. My blog was useful to me; it still is. And not just because I use it in lieu of possessing a short-term memory. These days I am challenging myself to write a post like a column once a week. I’m still learning from my blog, still growing because of it. My blog serves me, and not the other way around. (See my previous paragraph about blogs being raw and unpolished. About taking holidays). I get around the idea of blogs being unpaid labour by insisting that they shouldn’t take up that much of your time. A lot of professional writers, academics in particular, struggle with this, imagining that ever post demands hours of research, references. Or, I suppose, the labour I wrote about above with the woman doing yoga up the tree—and add to that obligations to promote that post via a lot of social media platforms. If you’re doing that much work and not getting paid for it, it’s not the blog’s fault, it’s your fault.

“But aspirational labour has succeeded in one important way; it has glamourized work just when it is becoming more labour intensive, individualized and precarious,” writes Duffy. I am older than a lot of her interview subjects. I have been blogging for almost half my life, and blogging fits into my life by now as easily as reading does, as breathing does. I am fortunate that my blog has delivered me to a writing career, even though I didn’t see it as a tool for that exactly. I mean, I always wanted to be a writer, and my blog was just a place to exercise, to practice. When I finished my Masters degree and failed to publish my novel, I saw my blog as consolation instead of a launching pad; a place to write that was mine, and where in my moment of failure I could still be creative. Creating. Another thing though: I have a husband with a full-time job and health benefits. If I didn’t have children I would be able to work more and earn more money; but if I didn’t have a husband with a full-time job and health benefits my lifestyle would be severely compromised. I’d be taking photos of fewer stylish desserts on Instagram, is what I’m saying.

But still, it’s easy for me to say that, “Blogging should be easy,” when I’ve got a brand, like it or not, and an audience, a platform. If I was young and just getting started, the rules I play by might no longer apply. Although I like to think that they do. Yes, if you play by them you’re unlikely to hit the professional jackpot, but blogs are inherently marginal and obscure. “Well-known blogger” is an oxymoron, remember? But if you blog by my rules you won’t get stuck doing yoga halfway up a tree. Self-expression won’t become linked to marketability. You will be blogging like no one’s reading, and figuring out what you really mean, learning what your voice sounds like, what you think, and what you have to say. And you might be aspiring, yes, but isn’t everybody? Aspiring to get to the next work, the next sentence. Everybody who writes anything is aspiring to be read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mitzi Bytes

Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month!
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post