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Capitalism Is Devastating Independent Voices Online


In my world, what is good for my neighbour is good for me, and in the course of my day job my neighbours are vegetarian and vegan food bloggers, a group of people who have a passion for the earth and the food they get from it. It’s like a magical online community where people understand that their place on this planet is tied directly to what they eat. These are the type of people I like.

And it’s true; I love the work these people are doing. They care about animals and the earth as much as they care about themselves, and that’s pretty fucking rad. By many standards, they are competitors. They own and operate websites that compete openly with two of my company’s own. By free market rules, the last thing I should want to do is be generous and help them and instead focus on leveraging every advantage I have to take their market share, reducing their revenue until they can no longer operate. That’s just business.

But being the good community steward that my company is, we instead planned to carve out a budget to promote smaller bloggers through a free “Best of 2017” e-cookbook for vegetarian and vegan cooks, which my company would produce and market on their behalves, including international press releases and a strong social media blitz. All they would do is submit a recipe and a photo from their blog, and we’d handle the rest. We routinely produce free e-cookbooks for our own audience, so adding one more during the year would be easy. For us, this was a way of saying thank you for being a part of our community. We like giving away things.

Our goals for the “Best of 2017” had nothing to do with revenue or any other performance metrics. We just wanted to say thank you to the larger vegetarian and vegan community. There was just one hiccup I hadn’t foreseen.

Luckily, we have an amazingly patient and understanding managing contributor at work, and she was kind enough to explain to me why going to bloggers with that proposal would be a huge, monumental mistake sure to backfire.

“But,” I argued, “they would get high-quality backlinks from high-authority domains.” “What if we give them rights to use the ebook to promote newsletter signups on their sites?” I wanted to push. “This could really help their domain authority,” I stressed. “We won’t make money doing this,” I pleaded, desperately trying to justify why these bloggers should trust me.

“What am I missing?” I exhaustedly and defeatedly asked.

According to our managing contributor, the thing I was missing is that I had never been shit on by a big media company before.

The American media landscape is rubbish—if I’m being generous. Online, in the digital media world, it is getting scary. If you’re unfamiliar with how the internet works, you basically have millions of websites all fighting for the same limited number of clicks every day. Clicks mean page views. Page views mean ad revenue. More page views mean better ad revenue per page view. So, the bigger a website is, the more money it makes off of you. Not exactly a good environment for smaller independent websites.

Which gets back to that desperate drive to get clicks, and for this you have a few different avenues, most notably social media and internet search engines. There are of course other ways to source traffic for one’s website, but bloggers and smaller sites are often limited to social media and Google.

By having so few options to drive traffic to their websites, bloggers get trapped. Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter have all changed their algorithms making it a pay-for-play scenario, wherein the algorithms these social media platforms use are designed to depress reach by publishers unless they can afford to market their content to their own fans. Essentially, Facebook won’t show your content to many of your fans unless one of two things happens. One, the post needs to be insanely popular, with nearly every person who sees it engaging (Like, Comment, Share, click, etc.) with the content, or, two, someone is paying Facebook to reach their existing fans and others. This summary of the situation is a gross oversimplification, but it could also be called succinct. If you want proof of this, check out Facebook’s revenue over the past few years, and you’ll see the fruits of their labour.

These changes have been taking place slowly, but over the last year, they’ve fully taken effect. This reality puts more pressure on bloggers to get traffic through search engines, namely Google. The art of getting search traffic is called search engine optimisation, or SEO. You can read about SEO from MOZ, but the gist of it is that there is no gist. It’s complicated. For bloggers to stand a chance in an SEO war with larger media companies, they are pressured to give major media companies free content for a lowly link back to the bloggers’ websites.

Does that link provide much traffic? No. Does it achieve much in the way of boosting a site’s domain authority, which allegedly helps overall SEO performance? We can not be certain, but probably not. The piece of content a blogger gives to the larger media company has far more monetary value than any link back. Without handing over their intellectual property, the blogger doesn’t get a high-quality link back from a high domain authority website, which one needs to improve his/her domain authority to compete for Google clicks against larger media companies.

And, to add insult to injury, one’s SEO authority is also dependent on one’s social media performance, which has been depressed unless one can afford to pay; primarily, only large websites do.

To summarise: Bloggers either need to act as indentured servants or have cash or both. Further compounding matters, quality online ad networks have begun cutting off publishers who can’t meet very high thresholds for minimum page views each month, reducing the revenue streams for emerging and smaller privately-owned websites. Of course, it is far more complicated than that, but people only have so much attention span, so let’s keep going.

“What am I missing?” I now ask myself rhetorically, laughing, sighing, wincing. I was so tone deaf.

You see, I’m not a Stalinist communist. I’m a real communist in the sense that I want to see communities of people working for the betterment of all within the community, not just themselves. Bloggers have these communities already. They have them on Facebook, Reddit, Google+, and various forums. They support each other, share thoughts and ideas, concerns, advice, and information. That’s how our managing contributor could recognise a bad idea when it was presented to her.

In context, the confusion evaporates as to why bloggers wouldn’t see my company’s benevolence as benevolent. It would be a, “give me something free and you can have a link back,” with the key difference being that we weren’t going to make a penny off their work—just like them. Replace “link” with “thousands of links”, and at the end of the day, we are just promising, literally, more of the same.

I’m proud that my company thought it was a good idea to spend money promoting other people and their work. These bloggers are visitors of our websites. They subscribe to our newsletters, read our recipes, scold us when we include honey in a vegan recipe, and support our community by spending their time working on their websites. We are legitimately thankful for them, in all facets. And we did just want to give them a leg up because the landscape isn’t kind to them. We would have provided tremendous value compared to our competitors if bloggers shared their recipes with us, but we were missing the point.

Up until I sat down to write this piece, I kept asking, “What am I missing?” I had been missing that these people are at a disadvantage, bullied by larger media companies to work for free so that they can get a few crumbs. They have to work twice as hard and often for a lot less money than the guy who emails them asking for free shit and offering a single measly link in return.

Tomorrow, a vegan food blogger is going to get a canned email sent by some intern at one of the large media companies in New York asking to use her recipe in a roundup about vegan barbecues this summer. “We just LOVE your blog!! Especially, this recipe that’s conveniently on your homepage. And good news, your blog can be prominently featured in our vegan BBQ roundup about three-quarters of the way through the article if we can just use the work you’ve already done. Don’t worry; we’ll give you a link! Now, of course, people won’t actually follow the link, but you do get a .001% bump in Google’s search algorithms. We’re even going to—surprise—post it to our super big social media audience, some of whom we’re literally paying to reach instead of paying you. All I need is your permission to take your hard work and copy it. Do we have a deal?”

When people think of the “media,” they imagine CNN, Fox News, The Young Turks, etc. Also, primetime programming, movies, other television shows, and books will come to mind for some. After reading this, I hope you’ll also think of small bloggers and independent digital media companies for whom resources are scarce and the competition fierce.

Media consolidation is a very real threat. The fewer companies that own more outlets, the worse off the public is going to be. What was I missing? I was missing that these bloggers are at war with bigger, badder companies with more resources, hell bent on taking what limited market share the bloggers have. They’re in the same fight the mum and pop grocery store has been losing for decades. They’re feeling the same pinch that has put independent pharmacies out of business, as well as small home builders, and thousands of other types of privately owned businesses. In so many of these cases, where big media empires are given an advantage and use it to its fullest potential, the very victims of this bullying are forced to hand over what limited resources they have to the bullies in the hopes that they can somehow turn it into profit down the line. We see this when the small bookseller goes to Amazon to look for a hard-to-find book for a loyal customer, literally paying the enemy to keep a patron happy. We also find it when a food blogger gives permission to a media giant to use her recipe in the hopes that a single link can somehow turn into one thousand page views so she can make $4.00.

The same wealth consolidation that has hit society as a whole is being felt online too. That’s what I was missing; these people have been victims of an economy that does little to help the little guy.

Do me a favour, unfollow Delish, and Tasty, and Tastemade on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Then find twenty small food bloggers and follow them instead. If I truly intend to help these people, I’ll start by bringing their struggles to light, and you can assist me with that.

If you stand up for the little guy, share this piece to social media. Help them out. And do so so we don’t have to pay Mark Zuckerberg.

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