No, writing for free isn’t slavery, and other misconceptions about the economics of online media

66 Comments

Even if you didn’t know that the media industry was in turmoil, you’d be able to guess that something was wrong based on how often financial questions seem to intrude into discussions about journalism and writing in general — questions like “Who is going to pay us? How are we going to make money?” and so on. The most recent eruption along those lines occurred on the weekend based on an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

Writing for free, of course, is nothing like slavery, as a number of people pointed out in their responses to the piece on Twitter. For one thing, it is largely voluntary. But author Tim Kreider’s argument is flawed in a number of other ways as well — and even contains the seeds of its own destruction in a way.

Writing is not like doing surgery

In the piece, Kreider — whose bio describes him as an essayist and author — talks about how he was receiving numerous requests to write things for zero compensation, or to give prepared speeches in return for nothing but “exposure.” Most of the rest of his essay was devoted to complaining about the injustice of this kind of behavior:

“People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.”

Like many similar pieces complaining about the new economics of digital media — especially the ones that involve paywalls and charging for things like the news — Kreider even falls back on that old standby: a variation of the “no one does surgery for free” argument:

“My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.”

Plenty of people like to write for free

As Derek Thompson at The Atlantic notes in a response to Kreider — and as I tried to point out to a number of people during a Twitter debate about the topic — writing isn’t even remotely like surgery, or practicing law, or being a plumber. Very few people do those things for free (although it should be noted that many lawyers do “pro bono” work), but thousands of people write for nothing.

https://twitter.com/Choire/status/394496172158894080

Why do people write for nothing? Is it because some capitalistic conspiracy has decided that their work is of no value, as many of Kreider’s supporters seem to think? No. In some cases it’s because they like to do it, and don’t need the money. In other cases it’s because writing helps publicize other things that make money, as Dan Lewis pointed out in a post about why he writes for free — things like newsletters or books, or speaking engagements. Kreider even acknowledges in his piece that this strategy works when he says:

“The first piece I ever got nationally published was in a scholarly journal that paid in contributors’ copies, but I’ve never had a happier moment in my career. And it’s not strictly true that you never benefit from exposure — being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal.”

As more than one person pointed out during the debate on Twitter that followed the publication of the piece, there have always been people willing to write for nothing — the barriers to entry are just a lot lower now. To some, that is a great thing, a democratization of content that allows anyone to reach a potential audience, but to others these writers who work for free are like virtual “scabs” crossing a picket line and endangering the livelihood of other writers.

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity

A number of people tried to argue that publishers are the ones who set the price for things, and they are ruining the industry by not paying writers — although even Kreider admits in his piece that most of the people asking him to do things for free have little or no money. But the point is that this view of the industry gets things exactly backwards: the reality is that media or content broadly speaking has gone from being primarily supply-driven to almost totally demand-driven, and that has changed the economics in some fundamental ways.

As media theorist Clay Shirky has put it, “abundance breaks more things than scarcity,” and any form of writing (or music, for that matter) is a great example of that in action. Writing hasn’t become free or cheap because no one wants it any more, it has become free or cheap because there is so much of it that its intrinsic value has eroded — and the advertising content that used to help pay the freight for that writing has eroded just as quickly.

Is this a bad state of affairs for many people? Sure it is, just as the amateurization of photography and other fields is difficult for some professionals in those fields. But it’s arguably good for many others — some of whom can now create a life that includes doing something they love, reaching an audience or connecting with other artists, and maybe even getting paid for it. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Carol Anne

66 Comments

glenninboston

I think it is a personal decision on whether or not one chooses to write for free – but I do question the evolution, and worry about the ramifications.

This is not a perfect metaphor – but my partner moved here from Italy five years ago – she is an MD, and after her residency she found a good job where she worked for two years – ALL FOR FREE, with the promise of some future salary.

The truth is, the Italian economy is sclerotic, with little movement or change at the top, where the people in power (whether a department head, or company leader) stay in the same position for years with little turn-over, and if they pay the ‘young’ people, it means less of the pie for themselves, so they don’t.

While I understand everything is about supply and demand (many of her colleagues would have done anything for her job…), it is a sad commentary on our society, where everyone is trying to make a buck off of other people’s labor, and selling it as something that is good.

In the end, I’m agnostic about the author’s comments, but I do wish people could appreciate that this is really just a symptom of a larger socio-economic shift, where class mobility is increasingly a myth.

(and as a follow-up to the author’s response to another poster – it is good that your wrote for free for yourself, but let’s distinguish this from key points in your article – being asked by someone else to write for free. you made the choice to write for your own blog – and it was a good one, but it must be acknowledged that this is completely different from what you discuss in your article)

Patti Hall

I’ve been reading about this topic all over the internet, and I think I finally have settled on my opinion. Who cares, I know, but it feels good to have it settled.
Almost all professionals work the longest and worst hours, and work from the bottom of the ladder to get to the top. So, I am okay with working my way up the ladder to become a professional writer who is paid for my work as I get closer to the top. I may choose to write for free under certain conditions, like for non-profits, but once I reach the top I expect to be paid.
I feel better now. Thanks, I think I’ll go practice writing by writing up a blog post about my conclusion.

Neil Saunders

I was waiting for the disclaimer where Mr Ingram informs us that he has received no remuneration for this article and merely wrote it out of a public-spirited concern and warm personal regard for his fellow human beings combined with the sheer joy of sitting down at a keyboard and not getting paid.

Maybe I just haven’t read the article carefully enough, but I can’t find it.

Philip Michael

But your philosophy is precisely why the article was written in the first place. And it is articles like this that gives the general population the wrong idea.

The VFX industry is dying because of precisely this notion that just about anyone can do the sort of thing. And this is happening all over the creative industry.

Just because there are tons of people out there who enjoy writing and are actually doing it does not mean people who are doing it professionally should do it for free too.

When you’re asked to write (your expert opinion/skill) for free and are given the whole ‘exposure’ for payment, that’s just like saying your work is just as good as the next guy, so you shouldnt be offended if we tell you to go screw yourself and use the next guy. (of course in a much more professional way)

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the economy works on values for values. If you’re starting out, and exposure is valuable to you (i.e getting your work published in some major magazine) then thats value out and value in. But there comes a time when the level of your skill has reached a certain point, getting exposure is just not as valuable as your skill is. Perhaps just like you, writing and blogging for free all those years, perhaps you’ve gained a certain skill, such as creating such reaction from people like me, which makes us read your articles/engage in some sort of debate, hence why you get paid.

Barney Hoskyns

Mathew, no one is saying one shouldn’t be *allowed* to write for free. The issue is publishers’ coercion of professional writers into thinking they *should* write for free. The principle at stake is that if your writing is making money for a publisher, you should share in that money. To that end, I think it is legitimate to make content creators think twice before giving *anything* away for free. Which is why I co-founded the Stop Working For Free group on Facebook (https://m.facebook.com/groups/263804607094399) and why a group of musicians, writers & photographers have launched the Content Creators Coalition (http://contentcreatorscoalition.org). I urge anyone who disagrees with Mathew’s piece to have a look at these.

Linda

I believe you are correct in the fact that anyone who is capable of putting fingers to keys is capable of writing something, which you allude to in your article. The issue is if that something is worth anything or not. The old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ is most assuredly true in respect to writing. It is true many of the ‘free’ writers on the internet today have at least a reasonable sense of the English language (some more than others.) There are schools which teach the finer details of writing that these ‘free; writers may never get the grasp of. Such details would include, but not be limited to: keeping personal emotion out of it, being able to look at a situation from all angles instead of just the one which resonates with them, the ability to do enough in depth research to make truly informed choices and write well thought out and detailed articles or blog posts.

One’s passion for something, a topic of any number of varieties, can make a person a good blog writer if they devote their time to that particular subject and learn as much as they can so they can share their passion with others. But if they want to do more than just enjoy themselves and share their enjoyment, they will need to fine tune their love of the subject with the ability to be a professional about it. That requires much more than simply expressing one’s feelings.

I guess what I am getting at is, if someone wants to write something for free, I have no issue with that because they will never be able to do the same job as a professional journalist or novelist. And if someone who is a professional in the art of manipulating words wishes to do something for free, that is their choice. But I also agree it can be highly offensive to those of us who have worked hard and gone to college when people to assume our love for writing should be given away. At the very least, offer us some recompense for it … even a token of goodwill can go a long way.

As for myself, if it is to benefit some greater good then by all means ask as I may very well consider it. But if you want me to write for you something which I normally get paid for, and you expect it for free just because you don’t value it enough to offer to pay me, you are out of line.

Ondrej

Matthew, you are very smart man! While I am in a completely different industry, i printed this article out and went over it with a highlighter. Hat tip!

tishgrier

I’ve known you online for years Mat, and I have one question for you: have *you* ever written for free? As I recall, you were a paid blogger–and paid to write your own blog for whatever Canadian newspaper it was that you worked for–for years before you were writing for Giga Om and now for Paid Content.

So if anyone should perhaps not be saying a single word about writing for free, it is you, my esteemed colleague. If you weren’t being paid, I doubt you would be pontificating, yet again, about how others shouldn’t gripe about not being paid.

Further, you are continuing the same old b.s. arguments that have been foisted on anyone who protests writing for free: it’s not plumbing, it’s not surgery, it’s not fill-in-the-profession-of-your-choice. I am so tired of the people of your ilk, those duplicitous ones, who have perhaps had wonderful professional careers, complete with masters degrees and editorial staff along for support, and have been paid while having your work looked-over by others, say that writing isn’t a skill comparable to other even blue-collar skills. Maybe for you it because, even now, you have others looking it over before it ever reaches the outside world, but for many of us, who are constantly pitching and putting work out to others, we have to be able to work with words in a way that perhaps you are not able to. Since I have never seen any of your work in unedited form, I cannot vouch for your wordsmith abilities, but there is one thing I do know: you really should stop yakking about others just taking one for the team and accepting offers to publish without pay. When you are able to do this, and I do indeed doubt that you will,given you are a married family man, then might I suggest, as one of your “crowdsourced” editors, that you re-think publishing insincere articles like this in the future.

rememberingbob

Thanks for the comment, Tish — my posts aren’t edited before they are published, so whatever you read is what I wrote (for better or worse). As for your question about writing for free, I spent years writing for free on my blog, at night and on the weekends while I had a different job. I think that’s a big reason why I have the job I do now — it certainly isn’t because of the writing I was actually getting paid for.

I am not suggesting everyone write for free, by any means. I’m simply saying that lots of people do write for free, and many of them do so because they enjoy it, and they are compensated in other ways. That’s just the way content works now. I don’t make the rules.

tishgrier

Well, if you are being paid, and I’m being paid (yes, I have paid writing jobs) then apparently the whole non-payment for content thing really isn’t the way it is nowadays. So why not stop working against others who are writing professionals and stop perpetuating the fallacy that “it’s just the way it is.” BTW, the folks of which you speak are, perhaps a minority of writers, yet you make it sound like it is the majority. By giving it that spin, and continuing to harp on the idea that writing is a lesser skill than, say, plumbing, you are simply bolstering the bullshit. I’ll ask again: please stop being so insincere when you write these pieces, admit that you get paid for writing, and that your career aim was to write what you wanted to and get paid for it. You didn’t want to have other occupations and write for someone just for funzies. So stop suggesting that it’s ok, and preferable, to hire the “amateur” writer and not the professional because that’s just the way it is. By insisting that’s the way it is, you are simply keeping money in the hands of those who already have it and blocking those who want to be duly compensated for their time and efforts (and not work 80 hour work weeks to do so.) That is, unless you believe yourself to be one of the “blessed” in the 18th century mode of capitalism.

Joe

This article couldn’t be more wrong. If you want to be a 100% capitalist, young college graduates will pay companies to work there, because it will help them in the long run; their CV is going to look better and they will gain professional knowledge. Right? of course not.

Dave

Writing for free helps get rid of professional writers and quality literature. That has to be worth something, right?

utahkitchenwitches

One of the other things not mentioned here is how often the ‘little thing’ a writer is being asked to create is NOT a little thing. I’ve seen it often. ‘Will you jot this up? Oh…and by the way, optimize it for SEO, format for MLA and it needs at least three citations.’ Um…no. That’s not a freebie. That’s something requiring both my time and my skills to do and the benefit of just being seen on your page may not make up for the time I’m spending doing this work when I could be pursuing a paid opportunity. I find myself very annoyed when writing is treated like it is less than other careers because you’re ‘just putting words on a page’. Well, how do you think that Doctor learned to take care of you? Did you consider he might have read a lot of books written by a lot of good writers? Aren’t you glad the writer did a good job so that the Doctor could do his or hers? Don’t devalue the work or the worker simply because it is ‘abundant’ or ‘behind the scenes’.

Sounds good to me

Matthew I would like you to write my bio, album liner notes, blog on my website and a couple of sales proposals for free. I mean I’m offering you a chance to do something you love to do! Oh yeah I have plenty of other opportunities for you to write or free. My Face Book page needs to be updated regularly so pick an interesting daily topic and write about it on my page. I’ll have to admit I’m being very generous giving you all these chances to write but hey, I’m all about unselfishness.

Lon Cohen

Disagree with this whole article.

The author of that op-ed piece is a professional working writer being asked to write for free. A professional worker should never be asked to do anything for free so he can “get exposure.” If you are asking because you will benefit from a professional working writer in your publication then say so. Or if you are a charity and need that professional voice to get donations, then say so. But never ask a professional writer to do so for free because it will benefit them with exposure in your blog, magazine or media. If you’re asking a professional writer to work for you for free then your media outlet whatever it may be is not on a professional level yet and your media will benefit much more than a professional working writer will.

Let the professional decide what is good for his career.

This is what they do for a living. As does a doctor or lawyer or plumber. Many experts in other fields try to write for free and exposure because they are promoting something else they do for a living. A writer gets paid to write on the professional level and should have the choice to produce work on his own for free if he wishes. Writing (journalism) is not an art. It’s a vocation that takes years of training to get right. There are people who do it better than others. But it is not something anyone can just pick up and do. And no it is not “just poetry” as one commenter said. That comment degrades both journalism and poetry- both professional jobs.

There’s a lot of shoddy writing out there and if consumers want to get the free stuff and call it news, so be it. But never confuse a professional writer with an hack or an amateur or someone who has a good grasp of the English language and can put a few words together. I can put a bandaid on a a cut and replace a leaky pipe under my kitchen sink but those minor skills do not make me a professional nurse or a plumber. I can do an oil change but that doesn’t make me a professional mechanic. A professional writer is on a whole other level than someone who can write a letter.

David

As a staff writer who gets a regular weekly pay check, you’re who cares if professional writers get paid seems incredibly callous and ridiculously high-handed. I’m curious if your company decided to pay you for only certain stories, or only for ones they determined were worthy of compensation if you would feel the same way. Would be great if they didn’t pay you for this one.

JT

You cannot, by force of will, maintain the illusion of a world that no longer exists. You “disagree” with this article like a child disagrees with the need to eat their vegetables. Under what rock do you live?

What exactly is a “professional” writer? You don’t bother to define that label. As if we’re all supposed to know what that means. In the pre-digital era, when publishing was constrained by the physical world, writing was part of a different economy. Your nostalgic definition no longer applies.

Writing, like so much else, and as accurately alluded to by Matthew Ingram, has been commoditized because publishing has scaled digitally. Medicine, not so much. Plumbing, not so much. These are still practices that have not succumbed to digital democratization. But writing has.

If one chooses to be a writer (it’s not slavery, ‘cuz you got a choice to do what you do — it’s a free market), then one chooses to work within the current economy for writers.

I would counter that in this economy, a “professional” writer is one whose work is sufficiently unique, that publishers, aggregators, and consumers deem it of sufficient value that the writer gets paid for what they write. As Matthew says, it’s a “demand-driven” economy. Your degree means little. Today, it’s your ability to deliver value that trumps your credential.

To counter Jason Pontin’s pontification, information is a commodity, and publications like Forbes, struggling to hold on to whatever value they have left, are forced by the market to grab content as cheaply as possible.

Writers like Tim Kreider (and you, presumably) are, unfortunately, bemoaning an overall disruption that is simply a new reality. The solution is not to rail against the prevailing wind, but to either make yourself a more valuable writer and develop a voice that people will pay to hear, or explore other ways to create value in this insanely disruptive digital economy.

tcwriter

The problem isn’t that writing for free is inherently bad. There are plenty of instances where it makes sense for the writer. What’s changed are the number of online “entrepreneurs” who are asking for free/next-to-nothing work from creative folks — and then profiting from that writing.

Nicholas Carr has written about the modern creative class, who are increasingly playing the role of digital sharecroppers. Writers are expected to exist in the attention economy — grubbing the digital earth for hits and eyeballs — while those doing the asking are playing in the money economy.

Making others cash-rich while you accumulate (largely overrated) exposure isn’t exactly a winning plan.

People can torture themselves over comparisons to doctors or plumbers all they want. Ultimately, such comparisons are flawed (and from both sides of the aisle). The digital revolution hasn’t much touched doctors or lawyers or car mechanics yet, but it has landed hard on the creative class — the apparent sharecroppers of the digital era.

Carlos Martin

To me, basically the problem relies in that if you are not absolutely amazing as a writer and the weight of your opinion is so important that lots of people will really care about what you will do, you have no value.

The internet is so big that even those who are absolutely good are just mediocre. So, I can understand that if an editor wants someone to write a small piece of text, he doesn’t really care if it’s ”mediocre level 10” or ”mediocre level 9”, because in the end will be the same. The only way a writer will get paid is being ”astonishing level 100”. If the learning curve has not a really high rise, if it’s not that difficult to get just good, then you don’t expect that just for writing correctly you’ll get paid.

Randal

I think Carlos nailed it here, except it’s not just “mediocre” talent that is being discarded, and it’s not just writers. It’s graphic designers and movie animators and call center workers and technical support and factory workers and anyone else whose work can be done by somebody willing and able to work for nothing or next to nothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a professional writer being displaced by some 12-year-old cranking out “Top 23 Greatest NHL Goals” for Bleacher Report to intersperse with their cheerleader T&A photos or an assembly-line worker for GE in Somersworth, NH, whose last job for the company was to pack up the machinery he had spent a lifetime working on, ship it to Mexico and teach Mexicans to operate it for $1.17 per hour (true story).
Exposure is only valuable if there is a reasonable chance of getting some benefit out of it down the road; otherwise it’s just a con job. Right now, the American economy consists of four groups: Those who are in a race to the bottom with overseas workers/the Internet; those who are not yet in a race to the bottom but will be as soon as the technology is ripe; the service sector, because nobody in Mumbai or Kowloon can serve coffee, shine shoes or cut grass in California; and the 1 percent, who are making out like robber barons (check the stock market for proof). The sooner self-satisfied idiots like this author stop muddying the water, the sooner that will become painfully clear to everybody and maybe we can do something about it. I’m commenting as a guest with a throwaway email, btw, because I’m not giving Gigaom my information as payment for this garbage.

Evan Howell

Mr. Ingram,
Did you get paid to write this post or did you write it for free?
I hope you got paid.

ranjanxroy

Were you paid to take part in this discussion and post this comment?

D.R. Bartlette

And yet landlords, utility companies, and grocery stores still demand actual money. Until they – and everyone else – accept “exposure” as payment, writing for free is still exploitation.

John Reason

I agree that the slavery metaphor is off, but I have long noted the irony of full-time paid staff (sometime well paid staff), generating revenue from interns they can’t afford to pay and writers they can’t afford to pay, all in the service of publishing content products that pay THEIR salaries. And this way happening WAY before the Internet…

Steven Lyle Jordan

“Writing is not like doing surgery”… “Plenty of people write for free”… those two phrases alone indicate how little Ingram thinks of people who take their writing seriously, and have obligations to the rest of the world. And finally, assuming that abundance removes the value of writing, is saying that writing is worthless because anyone can put two sentences together.

I’ll write for free when all my bills no longer need to be paid.

Arno Laeven

It’s tempting to blame consumers as they are the ones that do not value the works of professional authors like Mr Kreider but at a deeper level the consumer has never known what the price of content is.

Buyers of newspapers or magazines don’t divide the price of the publication by the number of articles (only McKinsey consultants do this to produce another shiny slide) to deduct what they pay per article.

It takes time. It takes experiments. But I am a strong believer that it will work out. One author’s revenue model will be that he/she writes for free but makes money as speaker or moderator at conferences, others will write for free and make money on their books, and still others will make money because people will pay for their article.

Name

Ha! Writers are finding out that their educational attainment is the equivalent of a man who spent four years perfecting his hammer swing, but couldn’t be bothered to learn about home construction or even nails.

No one values word craftsmanship. People value useful information. Poets went out of fashion simetime around WWI. Stop pretending you’re anything but a poet and become a subject matter expert in something meaningful.

Guest1

I agree that there is value in useful information. That’s not a surprise. But I have to disagree that there’s no value in craftsmanship. That’s flat wrong. And I’m not talking about poetry or a feature story on the evolution of pillows; what about. Finley crafted analysis of the Mideast crisis or Putin’s reign or a column on the World Series?

johnwiththelens

Many writers trade in useful ideas and information. These are the people we need to pay, but are finding themselves marginalised by people with lesser ideas and information keen to be heard to satisfy their own curiosity as to what it would be like to live their dream of being a writer.

Craig Bamford

People don’t do law or medicine for free as amateurs because it’s Very Much Illegal to do so. Didn’t somebody let you know about that one when you were one of the the lucky few who was getting paid back at the Globe?

(And for that matter, how on earth does someone who cites lawyers as an example not know about the enormous oversupply in that field? It’s kind of a whole big thing. )

lauraleeauthor

Democratization of creative pursuits is neither good nor bad, like pretty much all things in life it has positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect is that people who previously were stopped from having an opportunity to share their work at all can make their projects available. This means that a greater variety of voices can, in theory, be heard. Access to raw, unfiltered voices that were once locked out is a great thing and there is a possibility that we’ll find many diamonds in the rough. Also, there is something to be said for the communal creation of art as it was done before it became professionalized. Art was something you did, not something you bought.

What is at risk of being lost is specialization by people who train for years to hone their skills. If there is no mechanism for paying writers a living wage then the field will only be open to hobbyists and those who are independently wealthy and do not need an income. It is the vast middle that is damaged.

Even in old societies there were arts specialists. They were acknowledged to be specially gifted in song or poetry or humor and they were supported by the tribe or by rich patrons. If we want to support the creations of people who specialize then there has to be some mechanism for them to be fed and housed so they can keep working. In modern society this is done with paychecks.

One thing I often find missing in the “anyone can do it” argument– here phrased as “it is not brain surgery”– is that there is a difference between the work of someone who has dedicated years of time and effort and often eduction into mastering a craft and someone who does it as a hobby. We do not say, for example, that because anyone can put on a garage sale that commerce has no value and people who open stores shouldn’t be compensated. Both are market places, but we know there is a difference in those two things. Professional sports are like art in that people both play and watch them for their amusement. We like to watch specialists play in professional leagues and we compensate them for that. Very well, in fact. Even though we know that throwing a ball is not “brain surgery” and “anyone can do it.”

People tend to talk about “artists” as one thing, lumping in any person who dances with the specialists who dance at American Ballet Theater, the kid who likes to play guitar with the full time musician, the person who sings in the shower with the woman at the Met, and anyone who can write a blog with a seasoned journalist. Yes, anyone can do it, but there is a level of professional commitment that has value and which, if we want to retain it as a society, we need to find a way to support. In fact, I am confident this will happen. It has always happened historically. Artists have been supported (badly) through all sorts of historical changes. I am sure they always will be.

pix819

Well, as the old saying goes, why buy the cow when the milk is free? The debate rolls on just as it has for many years. The problem is really that in the eyes of most people, all writing is equal. In their eyes the person who writes for enjoyment, self-expression or to entertain family and friends and the person who’s studied and worked hard to make writing a livelihood are just the same. That means that publications and other writing markets are going to snap up free content from those eager scribes rather than pay the person who’s trying to make a living. And that does devalue the work. Ideally we’d all be giving art away for free to celebrate the creative process and make the world a better place, but putting food on the table makes the world a better place too. Professional writers shouldn’t have to be competing with somebody who’s just looking for an outlet.

Veasey Conway

Last paragraph: “Is this a bad state of affairs for many people? Sure it is, just as the amateurization of photography and other fields is difficult for some professionals in those fields. But it’s arguably good for many others”

This isn’t a bad state of affairs just for the creators. It’s a bad state of affairs for society.

The democratization of creative work isn’t inherently good. (Giving every American a box of paint and a brush doesn’t mean we will have better painters.) Capitalism, journalism, and society must have functioning systems that nurture and reward quality.

Mathew Ingram

I disagree — I think the democratization of creative pursuits like writing, photography etc. is fundamentally good not just for artists but for society.

Veasey Conway

But the work isn’t finished once you give everybody a paint brush, pen, a camera. That’s just the beginning. There need to be institutions that push these things to higher planes.

Will

Exactly. In my industry (Internet media — sports writing), there are tons of free bloggers, but over time, the very best build a loyal audience, and — if/when they put up a paywall — are rewarded with subscriptions and can then make a living at it.

Does that make us an “institution that pushes these things to a higher plane”? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly provides opportunity, and the cream rises to the top. Those with no talent or nothing interesting to say are ignored and fade away.

Syed Karim

No. That’s antiquated thinking. Sure, some institutions add value and credibility, but their approval is no longer a requisite to succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

johnwiththelens

‘Marketplace of Ideas’?? Last time I went to a market I had to pay money to trade. There weren’t a whole lot of people saying that milk was so abundant in society that it had no value. If, on the other hand, there was no law to protect farmers from anyone milking their cows, at that point there would be a surplus of free milk. And why would such a law be useful you ask? Why don’t we, indeed have the ablility to go milk any cow we want? After all it’s a democratisation of nature – man shouldn’t be forcing us to pay for what nature provides. Thing is we want to keep farmers in business so that there is a supply of milk that is both Quality and Available. If copyright laws are not updated and upheld to shore up the hole in the fence that the internet has created then am afraid a lot of creatives with amazing credentials and abilities will be out of business. And the service won’t be there when you need it.

johnwiththelens

‘Marketplace of Ideas’?? Last time I went to a market I had to pay money to trade. There weren’t a whole lot of people saying that milk was so abundant in society that it had no value. If, on the other hand, there was no law to protect farmers from anyone milking their cows, at that point there would be a surplus of free milk. And why would such a law be useful you ask? Why don’t we, indeed have the ablility to go milk any cow we want? After all it’s a democratisation of nature – man shouldn’t be forcing us to pay for what nature provides. Thing is we want to keep farmers in business so that there is a supply of milk that is both Quality and Available. If copyright laws are not updated and upheld to shore up the hole in the fence that the internet has created then am afraid a lot of creatives with amazing credentials and abilities will be out of business. And the service won’t be there when you need it.

Veasey Conway

I think it’s less about adding ‘value’ and ‘credibility’ and more about recognizing that not every mode of thinking needs to be thrown out just because of the internet. The internet is what, 15 or so years old? That lifespan is not enough for me to abolish hundreds/thousands of years of thinking about how creativity is harnessed and improved. The internet disrupts many things, but not every thing.

Veasey Conway

I get the most value out of creatives that spend tons of time doing what they like. To me, more often than not, these are the people who introduce the best thought-provoking ideas and ways of thinking about the world.

Professional creatives don’t have a monopoly on ideas and creativity. And their ideas are not inherently better than other ones.

But their experience brings wisdom, skill, and understanding. They know when to work quietly and when to unleash their ideas on the world.

I want people who are able to work 8, 10, 12, 16 hours a day on their craft. I’ll take one creative who can do that over three creatives who can’t. Any day.

And that means giving creatives that money, loot, guap, skrilla, paper, bread, cash, benjamins, and greenbacks to do it.

Pete

There need only to be experts at the craft willing to coach, counsel and mentor others. There do not “need to be institutions,” in which these higher-paid “slaves” toil.

Stephen Moffitt

If the discussion were about just democracy, then having greater diversity is better than less; however, democracy does not exist in a vacuum. In our case, it is fused to capitalism. The debate here is about how one is compensated for one’s labour. Some people, such as Kreider see writing as a scarce commodity, that is there is only one of him, so his output should be paid for, per the logic of capitalism. It seems that the other argument is that words are abundant, therefore there is no need to pay for them.

Neil Saunders

How is it good, Mathew? Would you care to elaborate (rather than just throwing a vague hurrah-word like “democratization” about, together with fuzzy feelgood expressions such as “creative pursuits” and “fundamentally good” (for “artists” and “society”, no less!))?

Dan Selakovich

Matthew, what the hell has not getting paid have to do with “the democratization” of art? If you want to write on your blog, have at it (but I do notice advertising on this blog, so somebody is getting paid somewhere). But when a publication or some established, money making organization asks a professional to do it for free, they are making money off his talent. Talent that’s taken years to develop, just like a surgeon, plumber, or lawyer.

People are just used to getting creative work for free; your democratization comment is the same argument pirates use when they steal movies, books, or music (I know, I had a book stolen). I too have been asked to lecture for free. I always turn them down. Because, let’s face it, neophytes in their field are not the ones being asked to work for free. It’s those of us who have spent years developing our craft.

In the end, this democratization you speak of is just another word for the race to the bottom where art is seen as valueless.

realjjj

“writing isn’t even remotely like surgery, or practicing law, or being a plumber. Very few people do those things for free (although it should be noted that many lawyers do “pro bono” work), but thousands of people write for nothing.”

That makes no sense , Writing is like all of that , the lack of pay doesn’t make it different. The “problem” is that it’s not payed and writing does require training so it is a problem since vast majority of writers that do it for free are not trained in any way and at the very least lack ethics.
It’s also amusing to think about how feminists think about stay at home moms vs the logic you are trying to push that writing is not a job.
From an economic point of view it is like slavery , the publisher earns money while the slave doesn’t.Slaves got some minimal shelter and food so exposure or w/e other upside free writing has is similar.
From a social point of view , i don’t see much upside from writers being free ( like the social upside from what stay at home moms create) , if anything the lack of ethics creates major problems.
Then again i am not very sure what you want to say here , that free writing is ok or that free writers are here to stay or both.
Anyway , overall this is a negative thing and maybe regulators should protect creators with both minimal fees and copyright legislation (as long as copyright exists – i am in no way advocating for the existence of copyright but if we have it it should protect everybody not just the MAFIAA) . We do have a minimal wage but that doesn’t offer any protection here and the laws are behind the times. Look at unemployment ,there is clearly an oversupply of workforce but we still enforce minimal wages, this is a segment that is not protected at all.
And you don’t seem to have any valid arguments at all, you like the idea and are defending it somehow but it makes no sense.

sam

Writing isn’t like those other jobs because the level of entry is non existent. Everybody can write an article, maybe not a good one, but many professionals write terrible articles as well. Additionally the ability to do direct harm is far less than any of those other jobs. Imagine if your surgeon, lawyer or plumber had something like the broad protections journalists have when it comes to messing up, even when it’s (semi-)intentional.

Working for free, any kind, writing, internship, etc. is nothing like slavery. No-one is forcing these writers to write for free. There might be no payed work for them, as there isn’t for a lot of people. But more importantly no-one is forcing these people to be writers in the first place. If you think this is anything like slavery you have no idea what actual slavery is.

If you choose a (on average) low paying profession, with a massive surplus of workforce and then choose to keep doing it despite not getting payed then you are nothing like a slave. You’re just not making smart financial and life decisions.

Simon

The point is that those slaves who got food and minimal shelter didn’t choose to go into a career of slavery. They didn’t end up having their labour exploited by owners making a profit because they were competing in a race to the bottom against other workers who envied their position and were prepared to work for even less than them. There were no slaves who wanted to have the same conditions as them even without a master.

The only way that slavery can exist is through force – this is not true of free writing. There are thousands of people who want to write for free (or who are happy to lose lots of money self publishing) and it is they who are bringing the wages for writers down, not the publishers.

Call this a terrible state of affairs if you like, but your comparison to slavery doesn’t hold water.

V

So you’re saying that money = ethics? A writer grows ethics as soon as he gets paid? Taken a look at the paid journalists out there lately in the ethics department? As an editor, I see every day for a fact that writing takes no “training” to accomplish. It’s my job as an editor to clean it up to be ready for publishing – again, however, it’s nothing I was ever trained for, I just turned out to be really good at it. We’re not able to pay our writers – and I dare you to tell them to their faces that they have no ethics! I’m sorry, but YOU are the one not making any sense.

Thomas

Realjjj, you do realize that by writing your post, you are creating content for this website. You are writing for free and benefiting this website. Are you getting anything in return? You must think so, otherwise you would not have written for free.

Barney Hoskyns

Surely you can see there is a difference between me penning this quick reply – or even a rather longer reply if I so chose (which I don’t) – and professional written work that draws on craft and expertise accrued over some (in my case many) years?

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