Unfortunately, this is what digital media has delivered so far.
The inherent weaknesses of data-driven analytics and algorithms. Especially when it comes to aesthetic content.
I reprint this article in full because this is exactly what we’ve been arguing at tuka all along. Serious dedicated writers can no longer write, as so it goes with the development of other creative professions such as music, photography, and video. So collapsing creative incomes means the dominance of mediocrity and purely commercial values for artistic expression. A good example is the proliferation of reality TV. It all becomes rather tired and boring and audiences turn to better options. It’s a vicious downward spiral.
Crashing author earnings ‘threaten future of American literature’
January 8, 2019
A major survey of American authors has uncovered a crash in author earnings described as “a crisis of epic proportions” – particularly for full-time literary writers, who are “on the verge of extinction”.
Surveying its membership and that of 14 other writers’ organisations in what it said was the largest survey of US authors’ earnings ever conducted, the Authors Guild reported that the median income from writing-related work fell to a historic low in 2017 at $6,080 (£4,760), down 42% from 2009. [Yeah, who survives on $6K a year?]
Writers of literary fiction are particularly affected, said the Authors Guild, with those authors experiencing the biggest recent decline in writing-related earnings – down 43% since 2013. Isolating book-related income, the decline was even steeper, down to $3,100 in 2017 – more than 50% down on 2009’s median of $6,250. In total, 5,027 authors provided detailed responses to the survey.
The Authors Guild said the reduction in earnings for literary writers “raises serious concerns about the future of American literature – books that not only teach, inspire and elicit empathy in readers, but help define who Americans are and how the US is perceived by the world”.
“When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers,” said Authors Guild president James Gleick. Vice-president Richard Russo added that “there was a time in America, not so very long ago, that dedicated, talented fiction and non-fiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best, while contributing enormously to American knowledge, culture and the arts. That is no longer the case for most authors, especially those trying to start careers.”
Author TJ Stiles said: “Poverty is a form of censorship. That’s because creation costs. Writing requires resources, and it imposes opportunity costs. Limiting writing to the financially independent … punishes authors based on their lack of wealth and income.”
The survey found that even those who consider themselves to be full-time writers are forced to hold down multiple jobs to earn enough money to survive. Just 21% of full-time published authors derived 100% of their income from their books in 2017, with the need to focus on other avenues for income meaning that literary authors are writing and publishing books less often.
“It takes writers longer to research and write books, since they have to do it between other money-earning ventures,” said the Guild, describing the situation as “a crisis of epic proportions”.
“The quality of books written by authors holding down other jobs may be affected since their attention is divided and writing is often pushed to what spare free time is left,” it added.
The one bright point in the survey was for self-published writers, who were the only group to experience a significant increase in earnings – up 95% in book-related income between 2013 and 2017, with the number of authors self-publishing up by 72% since 2013. But the Guild pointed out that self-published authors still earned 58% less than traditionally published peers in 2017. [Self-publishing is the best financial strategy, but how do we separate hobbyists from serious writers in a sea of content?]
The Authors Guild blamed the crisis on the “growing dominance of Amazon”, which it said forced publishers to accept narrower margins and then pass their losses on to authors, as well as publishers’ focus on blockbuster writers at the expense of lesser-known names, as well as a 25% royalty rate for ebooks.
“Amazon, but also Google, Facebook and every other company getting into the content business, devalue what we produce to lower their costs for content distribution, and then take an unfair share of the profits from what remains for delivering that reduced product,” said Russo. “We get that they like to move fast and break things, but it’s no longer in their own interest to break us. If even the most talented of authors can no longer afford to write, to create, who’s going to provide the content?” [What we have discovered is that the big digital distributors like Amazon and Apple don’t really care about the intrinsic value of the content they distribute. More is better and cheaper.]
The survey follows similar research conducted in the UK in 2018, which found that median earnings for professional writers had fallen by 42% since 2005 to under £10,500 – well below the minimum wage of £15,269.
This excerpt from an article in Guardian…
…Facebook is something that too often spoils things.
This is particularly true of the way we enjoy other people’s creativity. A recent article on the music website the Quietus by the writer Jazz Monroe nails the essential point. “When we submit to a profound experience of art, it’s a rare reprieve from the everyday torrent of triviality and distraction,” he wrote. “Likewise, when you finish a great book, there’s supposed to be a moment when you reflect on it. But it’s so easy to just check your phone, or tweet some earnest statement about it.”
Facebook has been under constant fire for more than a year now and seems unable to answer its critics. Under such criticism the company’s executive team has promised to make user privacy its primary concern, until the next revelation exposes its duplicity. Now it seems every other week another article is written demanding that Facebook be broken up or regulated by government oversight.
We might wonder what exactly is wrong with Facebook and why can’t they fix it?
The answers are in the faulty logic of Facebook as a social network that connects the world and the financial business model required to fund that mission. Both efforts are fighting a natural contradiction when it comes to real reasons people use Facebook.
Let’s address the social aspect first. Facebook started as a on-campus online gossip network at Harvard University. This is the secret of its appeal – people like to gossip about others within their network of peers. The behavior went viral and expanded from Harvard to Yale and Princeton and other Ivys. Then it spread to universities across the country. Nobody really is as concerned with social status as young people between the ages of 13 and 21.
But then Facebook decided its gossip model should go public and proudly marked its rapid growth of the social network across the globe – to the tune of more than 2 billion users. We even got a movie out of it. But let’s consider the logic of such a global gossip network because, frankly, it makes no sense.
Gossip serves a very useful social and evolutionary purpose, despite it being popularly dismissed as “small talk” or “idle talk,” or even malicious or “nosy.” Robin Dunbar (he of Dunbar’s Number = 150) explains how gossip helps us maintain social relationships in groups and also helps community members sanction free riders or those who break established social norms (“Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective”). In this way, gossip provides a means of gaining information about individuals, cementing social bonds, and engaging in indirect aggression; helping people learn about how to live in their cultural society. Gossip anecdotes communicate rules in narrative form, such as by describing how someone else came to grief by violating social norms.
Certainly there appears to be something about gossip that is innate: our entertainment world is pretty much driven commercially by celebrity gossip. But we don’t know these people!
Dunbar actually extended his research to online social networks, specifically using Facebook as a test case of whether network technology relaxes the constraints that limit the size of offline social relationships (link). What he found was that the 150 number still holds for any meaningful social networks. In other words, the human brain is developed enough to maintain 150 social connections, after which the connections fall to the level of casual acquaintances. According to surveys, this is the experience of most Facebook users. Facebook “friends” are not really friends in the vernacular meaning of the word.
So, a network that connects us to roughly 2 billion users across the globe doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the benefits of gossip. Rather, a gossip network that extends to people we have no personal relationship with tends to reinforce the negative aspects of gossip, i.e., meanness and rudeness. We can observe that celebrity gossip tends to focus on caricatures that emphasize the extremes of hero worship and cruel pettiness. In similar fashion, Facebook is very useful for small friendship networks that cohere around common interests or personal relationships, and the limits on that tend to approximate around 150 people.
The second reason Facebook is failing as a social network relates to its ad-driven revenue model. If I am using Facebook as a way to connect to my friends, I certainly resent a third party advertiser trying to insert itself into the middle of that communication channel (just imagine advertisers interrupting in the middle of your phone call!). How many of us were turned away from Facebook about 2+ years ago when our feeds were suddenly flooded with advertisements for things we had no interest in? The network data Facebook is selling to advertisers is weak, not robust. We know what our friends like, if they are friends, and Facebook algorithms do a poor job of approximating that. “Like” clicks are not really likes and digital advertisers know it.
The problem here is that Facebook ad rates are a function of the number of users FB claims to reach and the flow of network information across those user nodes, even if it’s Candy Crush games or humorous cat tricks. Facebook cannot really evaluate the subjective value of the information flow, so it merely sells it all in targeted user bundles. This does not serve end users (or advertisers) very well and the attrition rate is evidence of general user dissatisfaction. I would guess that most users stick with Facebook for the positive value they receive from far-flung friend networks and the lack of a viable alternative. But then we end up ignoring most of the white noise on our feeds, threatening the financial viability of FB’s revenue model.
So where does this lead?
Frankly, I would argue Facebook’s longevity under its current business model is challenging. Gossip makes sense and can be tolerated in small community groups, while wider social networks make sense if they are somewhat limited to common interests. Facebook “Groups” seem to exhibit some of these qualities, so perhaps that is a direction FB can move towards. But the problem then is that it is a much less valuable Facebook under its ad revenue model. Market competitions and alternative OSNs may eat into FB’s global network, forcing FB to adapt to a smaller footprint. That is likely to be a difficult financial adjustment for a company of FB’s size and reach. But technology cuts both ways and today’s Facebook may just be tomorrow’s obsolescence. Personally, I would prefer a social network that delivers more meaningful connections to other people and allows me to filter out a lot of the white noise. That can’t happen as long as the network servers make money off white noise.
As we can read from this article and Facebook’s internal management debates, Web 2.0 (of which the GAFA companies are the archetypes) is built on a data land grab. It’s rather similar to the actual land grab that the European powers battled over for the New World, then with the colonization of Africa and Asia.
Data is now a valuable resource that has been priced up there with land and capital. Naturally, the tech oligopolies and their startup wannabes all want to grab as much as possible. And who are they grabbing it from? The network users of course.
Web 3.0 is all about democratizing the value and monetization of personal networked data. It’s about decentralized ownership and control, much like the desire to own and control the fruits of one’s labor that ended slavery. Web 3.0 is the future, because Web 2.0 is unsustainable.
in 20 tweets…
A couple of interesting articles on social media and tech dominance…
Good, thorough, and l-o-o-o-o-ng article on data privacy issues, legislation, and network value. From the NYT Magazine. Read about what’s being done to you behind closed doors…
Almost by accident, though, Mactaggart had thrust himself into the greatest resource grab of the 21st century. To Silicon Valley, personal information had become a kind of limitless natural deposit, formed in the digital ether by ordinary people as they browsed, used apps and messaged their friends. Like the oil barons before them, they had collected and refined that resource to build some of the most valuable companies in the world, including Facebook and Google, an emerging duopoly that today controls more than half of the worldwide market in online advertising. But the entire business model — what the philosopher and business theorist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — rests on untrammeled access to your personal data. The tech industry didn’t want to give up its powers of surveillance. It wanted to entrench them. And as Mactaggart would soon learn, Silicon Valley almost always got what it wanted.
Through the Obama years, the tech industry enjoyed extraordinary cachet in Washington, not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Partnering with Silicon Valley allowed Democrats to position themselves as pro-business and forward-thinking. The tech industry was both an American economic success story and a political ally to Democrats on issues like immigration. Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week.
Mactaggart … faced an American political establishment that saw the key to its future in companies like Google and Facebook — not because of whom they supported but because of what they did. The surveillance capitalists didn’t just sell more deodorant; they had built one of the most powerful tools ever invented for winning elections. Roughly the same suite of technologies helped elect Obama, a pragmatic liberal who promised racial progress and a benevolent globalism, and Trump, a strident nationalist who adeptly employs social media to stoke racial panic and has set out to demolish the American-led world order.
In the end, not a single lawmaker in either chamber voted against the compromise.
Political power is a malleable thing, … an elaborate calculation of artifice and argument, votes and money. People and institutions — in politics, in Silicon Valley — can seem all-powerful right up to the moment they are not. And sometimes, … a thing that can’t possibly happen suddenly becomes a thing that cannot be stopped.
The promise of blockchain is to disrupt this Monopoly game.
As we’ve argued previously, here, here, and here, algorithms are no magic wand for sorting subjective content, artistic or otherwise. Here the top brass at Apple admits to the fact in a criticism of one of its competitors, Spotify.
Two take-aways from Mr. Cook’s argument. One, he claims that Apple uses the human creativity of its users to create playlists, but tuka uses it’s entire network of users to reward human curation of all content. Yeah, web 3.0 is about the human, not the machine.
Second, the race among the streamers, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play, and Spotify, Pandora, etc. is another loss-leading attempt to build out a user base to monetize the data flow. In other words, streaming doesn’t pay unless you can monetize the network in some other way. As I suspected, the pricing model of streaming is likely financially unsustainable in the long-run as the true price of streaming content is several times what consumers are now paying. Direct ownership of content may be far more economical than renting it without ad support.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently revealed the company’s streaming music service, Apple Music, has clearly surpassed Spotify in subscribers in the US, Canada, and Spotify.
Instead of gloating, he humbly downplayed the achievement.
“The key thing in music is not the competition between the companies that are providing music, the real challenge is to grow the market. If we put our emphasis on growing the market, which we’re doing, we’ll be the beneficiaries of that, as will others.”
In a recently published article with monthly business magazine Fast Company, Cook revealed his true feelings about his streaming music rivals. Taking a clear swipe at Spotify, he said,
“We worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft.”