The first half of that 15 years was spent writing and studying/researching No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart. Whimsley started off as an attempt to promote the book, but soon moved into technology & politics, where it has stayed ever since. The total cost of this writing project to me and my family is now well into six figures in foregone income: several years ago I “negotiated” a four-day working week, largely to pursue this project. On the other hand, it has to coexist with a nearly-full-time job, which means that although much of what I write has a pseudo-academic bent, I doubt that I’m in a position to obtain qualifications relevant to what I write about. … That is not a picture of success, and given the generous support I have received, the responsibility for remaining mistakes clearly lies, as they say, with the author. My major reward from blogging has been to discover a small but select group of very smart people who have continued to read this blog, promote it from time to time, and engage in conversation. Thanks to each of you.
… writing to have an impact at the age of 53 feels very different from writing at the age of 38, and the numbers make it clear that it’s not working. To reinforce that feeling, the traffic for an individual post at the blog depends hugely on whether some of a small number of individuals link to it: I am still dependent, that is to say, on patronage and on chance, and I have not managed to build an audience of my own to sustain significant interest. I write slowly and infrequently, and usually long pieces. Clearly the style and content of my writing has failed to build a significant audience. … I have no credentials behind what I write, I’m terrible at self-promotion, my networks related to my writing are minimal, and although some pieces have been provocative I am uncomfortable in the culture of quickfire debate that drives much political writing. None of those things is likely to change. If anything, the effort has emphasized to me the importance of credentials
Three ways to respond to this. The first is to say that there’s a bit of a Velvet Underground phenomenon going on here. If Tom Slee only has a small number of readers, there are some very interesting people among them – he’s a technology thinker’s technology thinker. Notably, he gets a lot of respect from people whom he has sharp disagreements with, and who strongly disagree with him (e.g. Clay Shirky and Steven Berlin Johnson, whose basic take appears to be that if the critics they had to engage with with were all as intelligent as Tom, they would be in a far happier world). The second would be to draw the broader sociological lesson that he hints at Russell-Jacoby-like – that it is ever more difficult for people outside the academy to make a living as thinkers. When I think about the six or seven writers in the North American sub-continent who are on my shortlist to be declared National Treasures if I ever assume dictatorial powers, four of them are in different versions of the Jacoby situation – Tom himself, George Scialabba, Doug Henwood and our own Scott McLemee. There is a new marketplace for ideas emerging, linked with TED, corporate talk giving and the like, but it is, for very obvious reasons, not a marketplace that a specifically anti-big-corporations writer like Tom Slee would ever do well in.
The third is more practical. I’ve touted Tom’s No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart before, and will doubtless do so again. It’s a book that everyone should read, and furthermore give to their annoying niece/nephew/cousin/acquaintance who has taken Econ 101 and think that it explains the world. Buy it from Powells, Barnes and Noble or Amazon. I ordered a copy myself for Megan McArdle back in the day (I can’t say that it has taken – but then that’s a particularly tough nut to crack). Building on a suggestion by Cosma Shalizi on pinboard – if you teach a large (or small) undergraduate course that touches at all on markets, society, collective choice, politics or similar, strongly consider assigning it as a text. It is highly intelligent, lucidly written, and will give your students an excellent practical understanding of collective choice and behavior (as well as inoculating them against various lamentable and pernicious myths that are near ubiquitous in modern society). If you are a publisher with an eye for a good text, consider buying out the copyright and commissioning Tom to write a second edition, with blurbs on the back from famous economists. Also, solicit a proposal for his Wikibollocks book, which is certain to be excellent. Tom may be right that he is a rotten self-publicist, but he has many people – including myself – who will cheerfully and shamelessly do all that publicizing stuff for him. If you run a leftwing magazine with an empirical bent, commission pieces from him, and indeed make him a contributing editor. You won’t regret it. Finally, CT readers should really go to some of the earlier posts he links to in the piece I excerpt above. I suspect that he is radically undercounting his readership (readership on infrequently updated blogs tends to happen via RSS aggregators such as Google Reader, which don’t necessarily show up in hit counts), but more readers (and measurable readers) always feel good. And Happy New Year!