Should there be ads on a blog called “Publicly Interested”? The question started to nag me as soon as I decided to start a blog. I can imagine how bpNichol or another concrete poet might begin to approach it, before doing something way more creative:
I mean this in different ways. Ads on the web are a nagging presence, and, of course, they add up—to big numbers of ads, to big potential revenue, and to big distraction. I want this blog to be not only readable, with the zen of print, but also commercially neutral (not that print is). Sadly, I assume that eventually the nice folks at my web-hosting service are going to ask me to pay them to keep this blog free of ads.
My questions are about the extent of my right or privilege to keep it free. Is this blog mine? It’s free of both ads and costs at the moment, so was it a gift? Or is it a loan? Is it public or private space? Let’s say for a moment that it’s mine, as some of my private property is—perhaps not something I paid for, but something I made: not something I made on campus, but perhaps a painting or, better yet, a diary.
A diary is the epitome of a private text, but, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner observes that it does address a "partial stranger" (125): the diarist's future self, a future public. Interpreting a scene of totalitarian surveillance of a diarist in George Orwell's 1984, Warner also suggests that, in an era of social media, our privacy will ultimately be policed (127). The concern for me is not as it is in 1984, where government surveillance is a major problem. Although Orwell remains compelling, I worry more about corporate surveillance and the link between profit and privacy.
In my book on stardom in poetry (if you can believe it—I want to quote that phrase again: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), I remarked upon an admittedly obvious tendency of celebrities to relinquish their privacy for the sake of gaining and maintaining a public, as many of us now do on social media such as this blog—arguably part of a trend toward diminishing privacy and increasing publicity.
Or you can think of it as the total opposite: not a drift to publicity but to privacy, if privacy is inseparable from the idea of private property.
Your privacy includes your own self and your own space, and in a capitalistic society it competes with the private sector: wanting a house to be your private space, you have to offer more than another person or corporation offers for it. You can also profit from it. Let’s think of that diary. It’s not for profit, unless you’re Elizabeth Smart publishing what Dee Horne calls a “novel-journal.” With By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in the 1940s, Smart effectively went public with her journal, which is what bloggers do today—but not necessarily with money involved.
Seemingly different from privacy, publicity is to some extent one’s publicness or condition of being public. In the sense of advertising, publicity is also the incursion of the private sector into public space, which is a space defined partly by its not-for-profit status. Ads on “my” not-for-profit blog would be publicity. As soon as we allow ourselves to talk about “privacy” and “the private sector” in the context of social media, privatization can overtake privacy. "My" privacy might be coterminous with someone else's profit.
An arising concern is that attempts to address and thereby create a public, which is the precondition that Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics (82, 129), will become a privatized activity—very different from standing on a soapbox in a park (insofar as parks remain public), calling out to others with poems or slogans, or blogging. The difference is that the activity is, at least by proxy, selling something.
So I wonder if my web-hosting service would ever censor me for advising people not to look at or click on ads if this blog had them. Presumably the provider can take down a blog for any of the mutable reasons that it or its future parent company might dictate. In the future, “my” blog could be part of a sale, which suggests that my writing is a labour worth something to the provider, as it is to a publisher controlling a copyright.
The recognition of a "labour" involved is both a blessing and a curse. Its recognition as work or a work can be nice, but it means my writing is co-opted into a discourse in which we create property through labour, when I want it to be exist as something other than a commodity. Or, if it must, in addition to a commodity—there's the problem of the "add" again.
So, the fact that I wrote this blog is one explanation for why the provider gives or lends me this public-private space, free of ads. The content, however, is unimportant to the provider, because (in theory) the very fact of my writing is the advertisement. There's an emoticon for this: not knowing how to feel about it, but definitely not good.
Adding to this feeling, the commodity here, for you, as a public, is what Richard Posner calls the "credence good" (49) of informed opinion. A web-hosting service will care about that opinion only rarely, such as when it breaks a law or is somehow harmful to the company. Posner wouldn't care much either, partly because he thinks that this kind of public engagement lacks accountability (7) and quality control (2), in that I am my own editor and am basically just moonlighting from my job as a prof.
If this blog were mood lighting, it would be dark but not romantic.
The irony is that, as a prof, I am a professional writer, but at my publicly funded university (and at others) professors are increasingly expected to be publicly engaged beyond the public of the classroom—to help rationalize public funding of universities—and in so doing we might also engage in the private sector and thereby seem to justify Posner's market-based analysis of our own decline.
In effect, much of my work is also yours: your taxes (and tuition) help to fund my university, and my publications help the corporations that own presses and journals to make profit, very little of which comes to me directly. Whether I like it or not, this blog has a part in what is, in effect, the public-private partnership of today's university.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "No Ads on 'My' Blog." Publicly Interested. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.