Ready to be a dandelion?

I’ve just been pointed to science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s blog post in which he claims that the characteristics of intellectual work in the Internet age (ease of duplication and transmission, immediacy of reach, lack of reader focus and followthrough, an immense ocean of choices) means that artists of all stripes need to stop thinking like mammals and start thinking like dandelions.

My own job title is Director of Metaphor, so I’m immediately taken with the audacity of this idea.

His argument is as follows.

  1. Mammals have scarce young. Each one represents a vast investment of time and attention. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s tragic.
  2. Dandelions have thousands and thousands of seeds, looking for any opportunity to take root and get fertilized. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s no big deal.
  3. The modern media environment is a dandelion-friendly environment.

I shall now quote, thereby doing my part to spread Doctorow’s seedlings (eight years after the fact):

Dandelions and artists have a lot in common in the age of the Internet. This is, of course, the age of unlimited, zero-marginal-cost copying. If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves.

What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have — given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.

A lovely idea. No words about income or anything, but still, nice to be noticed. Artist Dies of Exposure, and all that…

It takes some degree of bravery to just give work away, whether through a blog or through adjunct teaching or through posting your novel online. It also takes some significant and unspoken degree of privilege, because your bank is not going to accept a big pile of “like”s and “+1″s when the mortgage is due. I “like” my bartender, too, but I still have to give her six dollars for a pint of IPA. And that requires income, income that the dandelion model is deeply shy of for its individual seedlings (or, in intellectual terms, content providers).

I’ll close with the opposing viewpoint, from the New York Times and Tim Kreider (who presumably got paid for writing this):

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

Feel free to amend as necessary. This I’m willing to give away.