Friday, November 04, 2011

The Overwhelming Question: How Does Anyone Make Money Online?

Feminist writer and novelist Courtney Martin has written a recent column in The Nation explaining the challenges in fundraising for online activism. Though her column specifically pertains to online feminist activism, especially for young adults, much of what it covers is pertinent for other many groups. This is especially true as regards the not-so-simple matter of funding. The tedious argument which leads us to an overwhelming question is this: How does anyone really make money on the internet?

Feminist activism is certainly not lacking for drive and motivation. What appealed to me the first time I dipped a cautious toe into that passionate stew was the energy I observed. Impartiality is rare. Often fiery, routinely forceful, one could never say that the subjects under debate were for the milquetoast. I have to say that in the beginning, I brought a few subtle misconceptions with me, many centered around gender, biases that were proven to be unfounded not long after I arrived. As is also true with many men who choose to be active, I had to learn that criticism of certain offending souls who shared my assigned gender had nothing to do with me. I wish others would take the time to recognize the same thing I have.

With the misunderstandings that can often only be resolved by direct participation, an especially frustrating challenge that faces Feminism is a question of branding. Although the movement has deliberately taken a broad focus, it finds itself compartmentalized by the outside world. Although it has debated queer and transgender equality, abortion rights, racial diversity, disability rights, and class privilege, among other important issues, it often finds itself judged on a small fraction of its real concerns. Its impact in the greater discourse gets pushed off to the side, which is unfortunate, to say the least. This phenomenon can be observed easily when browsing through a bookstore. No matter how wide in scope the subject matter, feminist writers, much to their frustration, usually find their written works consigned to the “Women’s and Gender Studies” section.

If all that was discussed within online feminism was esoteria, then this qualification would make sense, but it is not the truth. Some writers and thinkers, in particular, have sought to broaden their appeal, not wishing to be typecast only as feminist writers or women's writers. It is true that there there are a few instances in discourse where discussion turns strictly inward, towards those who have absorbed the requisite amount of theory. However, most of the time, activists are more concerned with very tangible aspects and proposed strategies to improve the lives of real women. Few specific problems are mentioned in the abstract, nor is the call for specific solutions any less than plaintive.

So the matter then returns to the difficulty that many bloggers and online-based groups face. Money's always a problem, isn't it? Those who have struggled to make ends meet through publishing online content have often reached the same conclusion. Under the current model, there just isn’t enough of it to go round.

Martin writes,

Other content providers have recently made strides in charging for content; the public service mission of feminist blogging and organizing sites would be undermined if we created barriers to access. Not-for-profit content providers solicit foundation support; this often requires the services and skills of a grant-writer, the kind of institutional staffing a scrappy start-up site doesn’t have. And if a grant-writer were to seek out foundation funding, “Foundations and donors that historically and primarily give to media tend to be stuck in the old paradigm of ‘objective media’ and shy away from advocacy journalism,” says Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director of the Media Consortium.

Blogs like Feministing, of which I am an editor emeritus, have operated without any formal structure for years. Third-party advertising networks, like Google Adwords, provide the majority of our revenue, but most often there is no money left over—after tech and hosting fees—to pay any of our eleven bloggers. We’ve been caught in a seven-year chicken-or-egg-cycle; at annual retreats, we discuss next steps for formalizing our structure and focusing on becoming financially sustainable, and then our full-time jobs (largely as communications consultants at feminist nonprofits and freelance journalists) crowd out any time to follow up. We’re too busy trying to make ends meet to figure out how to make ends meet.

Understood in Martin’s analysis is the reality that making many aspects of the blogosphere financially tenable will require new ideas. The old models are increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful. A strict reliance on advertising revenue and private donors only promises a hand-to-mouth existence. If ever visionaries were needed, their services are required now. Even if activist websites lowered their standards, I doubt their financial health would be appreciably improved. It isn’t the content providers who need to step up, it’s the monetary sources.

I regularly write about how I am a member of a small faith group that numbers only a few thousand in the United States alone. With time, blogging has become an effective way for us to debate, propose, and revise pertinent theological issues. There is one Quaker site I know of that is somewhat similar. Called QuakerQuaker, it actively solicits contributions from readers, without relying heavily on a team of editors and contributors. Like Feministing, it does rely heavily on ad content and donations from individuals to keep its head above water. I have even made a few small donations here and there to do my part so that it stays up and running. My financial contributions provided hosting and tech fees. Relying almost exclusively on user contributions means that the content varies considerably in quality, but that it does allow every Friend to speak his or her mind.

As it stands, Feminism is not a niche interest pertinent only to specific people. Quakerism can provide a helpful perspective and spiritual guidance for more than other Quakers. The established beliefs, in the meantime, are so strongly grounded in group consciousness that few people are willing to think beyond them. Activism and life are not nearly as meaningful if both are not lived. And as I have noted more recently, too many people see systems and functions in the same way they do consumer goods. To them, there’s always a better deal elsewhere, and there’s always a model designed to fit their own specific instantaneous need. Activism is meant to challenge. Consumerism is meant to placate and pacify. People desperately need to be stretched and exercised, otherwise crucial muscles atrophy.

No comments: