The Blurring Line Between Amateur and Professional

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On Monday, over at the AEI blog, Charles Murray had a post complaining that the New York Times paid him only $75 for op-ed contributions. "Do you suppose the red ink has really gotten that bad," he asks?

It's interesting to unpack the unstated assumptions behind Murray's post. The 20th century media industries divided us into two distinct classes. There were professionals who produced content, and were paid for their trouble. And there were amateurs who consumed content and paid for the privilege. This is such a deeply-ingrained part of our culture that Murray doesn't even state it explicitly: he's a professional writer, and so he's entitled to more than $75 when the New York Times runs his op-ed.

Yet there's actually nothing obvious about this. As Matt Yglesias points out, there is no shortage of people--some of them quite knowledgeable and talented--who would gladly write for the Times op-ed page for free. Writing a good op-ed requires a certain amount of skill, but it doesn't require the kind of serious legwork that a lot of straight reporting does. The Times could easily stop paying for op-ed submissions and it would have no difficulty filling its op-ed page every morning.

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues that what looked like a fact about human nature turns out to be merely an artifact of limited 20th century media technologies. Because only a small group of professional writers had access to the technologies of mass publication, it seemed obvious that writing for publication was a job for professionals. And because the rest of us had never participated in the process, it was widely assumed we didn't want to.

We now know that assumption was wrong. Many ordinary people jump at the chance to be producers as well as consumers. They blog. They tweet. They upload YouTube videos and Flickr photos. They create Wikipedia. They leave comments telling bloggers like me that we're idiots. Moreover, it turns out that we sometimes prefer amateur content such as Charlie bit my finger or ICanHasCheezburger: what they lack in polish they make up in charm.

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One consequence is that the line between professionals and amateurs is blurring. And as the line blurs, the professionals find their once-stable professions turned upside down. Seasoned journalists and credentialed experts have to compete for attention with Daily Kos and RedState.com. Media companies begin asking whether they really need to pay for content when so many people are willing to produce it for free. Insiders warn of the grave dangers that await us if society doesn't restore the insiders to their previous, privileged position in society.

Cognitive Surplus is a handbook for this strange new world, which Shirky argues is neither as alarming nor as simple as its detractors claim. The title is a reference to the immense amount of time that people spend watching television. This time represents a surplus of human attention that is increasingly being turned to more rewarding or socially beneficial activities online.

This is Shirky's second book, and truthfully, it's not as good as his first book, Here Comes Everyone, which I reviewed here. Every chapter of Here Comes Everybody is bursting with original insights; it had a huge impact on how I think about the social effects of technology. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky retains the crystal clear writing style and eye for engaging stories that made his first book such a joy to read, but the density of brilliant ideas isn't as high. Perhaps 2 years simply isn't enough time to accumulate a book's worth of brilliant insights.

So what will happen to Murray and his op-ed payments? Like any revolution, this one is unpredictable. It's safe to say that the media landscape will look radically different in a decade than it does today, but it's hard to say much more than that. Rather than try to predict the future, Shirky focuses on the rapid changes that are happening right now. Shirky is a gifted story teller, and Cognitive Surplus is worth reading just to see all the creative ways ordinary people are using the Internet to make the world a better place. The Internet revolution is keeping some media professionals up at night, but it's almost all good news for the rest of us.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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