The (relative) thanklessness of working on the internet

Warning: this is a stream-of-consciousness (more so than usual) sort of entry.

Not long ago I was on a conference panel called “meet the editors”. All of the other panellists were (are) in charge of a printed publication, peer-reviewed or not, and I was there in my capacity as a web editor. In advance of our editors’ roundtable, I had asked some colleagues and my closest contemporary on the panel whether or not there would be a point in my presence at the event, as I imagined any questions the audience would have are likely to be directed at the journal and magazine editors. You may call this a case of sour grapes, but I considered it merely a statement to be acknowledged. As a matter of fact, I was right. Of course, I did sit on the panel in order to discuss the newly revamped website of which I am in care, what content we are working on, and to make some bad jokes along the lines of “please don’t use the contact-us form to ask me if I can tell you more about a 16th century ship called [name]; I always aim to help, but in these cases, I unfortunately, really cannot.”

In academia, as much as we are assimilating into the digital world, and in some cases even questioning the usefulness of our paper journals when most of them are digitised anyway, the printed form of publication still feels like a validation to strive for. Online presence certainly counts in terms of outreach, but it is often seen as the less formal cousin; albeit the sort of cousin that gets away with being snarky and sarcastic about any given topic. (Nonetheless: Hurray for outreach!) Having a regular, paid spot at online outpost, writing about your field of interest is a step further up the ladder, but nothing will beat a hard-copy journal with your name on the contents page.

Does the reasoning for this lie in the fact that “anybody” – provided they have internet access – can self-publish on the internet, or because a lot of content can be obtained for “free” on the internet, and therefore must be of sub-par quality compared to paid-for material? The matter of fact is that a lot of people spend a lot of time producing content for the internet, whether it is their job, or whether they receive compensation for their efforts. I am a consumer of a healthy number of lifestyle blogs, fan-works (art, fiction, etc.), academic columns, and news-channels of the internet; some of these creators have grown from creating their content out of goodwill to turning their channels into one of their main occupations. You can be a blogger or a youtuber for a living, it’s no different from being a writer and a producer (except you might have to work MORE), yet some of these creators still get asked – especially by members of the older generation – “what kind of a job is that?”

And if you are a fandom member producing content for other fans, the comment above this picture is not an uncommon thing to hear.

If you think about it, asking your friends on facebook if their university has access to a particular journal paper you can’t get hold of on your own system is essentially crowdsourcing one job (fine – one task) for a librarian, yet the action of asking across the internet feels less formal than if you actually had needed to approach a librarian or records officer to do the same job. (It probably also works out much faster; I never said there weren’t any benefits.) So the internet makes things informal.

*cough*signing up to buy from online shops or even to comment on popular websites takes forEVER*cough*

The informality is a double-edged sword. For one, copyrights are often breached. Theft happens in the world of fandoms, but here there are vigilantes who report stolen work, and maintain the sense of community. Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour is not uncommonly also exhibited by large websites towards individual producers, who in turn are protected only be relatively weak creative commons licences and cannot take proper action against plagiarism.

On the other hand, the informality allows mass-engagement. The recent discussions surrounding Jeremy Hunt and the NHS have made the rounds online, and where social-media users are often referred to as a “mob”, the fact that healthcare professionals are able to express their thoughts on the matter and engage the public in this debate can mobilise greater action on the cause.

However, sometimes the informality is just that – informal. If it isn’t an official statement on paper with a proper letterhead and a billion signatures, people won’t take it seriously.

So where does that leave us?

  • If you make things for fun online, even though your creations are appreciated by the like-minded, you have “too much time on your hands”.
  • If you are paid to do things on the internet, it’s not as valid as doing things “IRL”. (In real life, to the Luddites.)
  • If you are a social activist on the internet, you are part of a mob that gets over-excited for very little, under the protection of your relative anonymity.

So far, so negative. With that being said, online is certainly fertile soil for people to practice their art and become even better at writing/painting/producing/editing/entertaining. And nothing is going to stop people from being creative, because frankly, “blogger” and “youtuber” have made it as legitimate jobs despite all the suspicion.

So I’m at this panel, nodding along to my seniors answering questions about getting published, scribbling notes for my own benefit, and gradually come around to a question rather than a conclusion: while web-editing is providing me a list of professional experiences, how can I use “my” platform, a website for a learned society and all its media channels, to lift my fellow academics’ non-academic skills?

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