Paying for it

A freelance journalist recently published his correspondence with an editor of The Atlantic on his blog. The magazine with a claimed circulation of 13 million wanted him to submit an article in exchange for the “exposure” he’d get instead of actual pay. The whole exchange is quite interesting and humorous, but it comes down to this from Nate Thayer: “I don’t have a problem with exposure but I do with paying my bills.”

Earning money is always problematic. We live in a society that demands value be placed on effort in terms of a straight monetary value. We can, of course, place our own value on some bit of work, but that’s not going to pay rent, buy food, keep lights on, kids clothed, etc. Feeling happy isn’t culturally prioritized: There’s no way to convert it into goods or service. Doing something in exchange for money, though, means you’re agreeing to accomplish a task to someone else’s standards and requirements instead of your own, ergo, there’s an increased likelihood that you won’t be as satisfied with the quality of your work that you would have been had you the luxury of doing it for the pure joy. Other people aren’t going to know how you should be doing something as well as you do, hence they pay for you to do something that looks akin to what they think they want.

With that out of the way, I don’t think anyone should ever work for free if someone else is going to profit. Seems like a simple enough standard (with which many of us would agree) until you apply it to how the world currently works. We all agree to this until it applies to how we pay for things. When you go shopping, you buy the less expensive of two items of roughly equivalent quality and rationalize it in whatever way that works best:

  • Sure, one says it’s ‘Fair trade’ but how do I know it is? Since I don’t I’ll assume it can’t be and just buy the cheaper one.
  • People who produce these clothes/gadgets/food items live in a different currency than I do, so they don’t need as much.
  • There’s no way of knowing an egg is from a free-range hen, so I’ll buy the cheaper one.

We tell ourselves what we need to hear to justify something we were already going to do, anyway, because we don’t want to think of ourselves as assholes. That’s just what we think about other people who make similar decisions. We had to.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a whole roster of editors, freelancers and publications who’ve joined the debate after Nate’s blog post. It’s interesting, because it shows the value of supposedly “free” work. Nate posted the item on his blog, and we can assume he didn’t make any money for that effort, but it’s kicked off a whole lot of internet chatter and commentary, including this unfortunate lack of insight at Slate. But, to borrow from a Sinatra classic: he did it his way. He got exposure, and without shilling for The Atlantic or bending to their editorial needs. He got his point across as he wanted it, so in the market of doing things for yourself, he did get paid.

Exposure only goes so far, though. It may seem like that in our social network society where people monitor Twitter followers more than their bank statements that how many people know you exist should count for something when you try to take out a car loan, but it doesn’t. You know who gets a lot of exposure? Homeless people. I’m just now forming the beginnings of a small technology consultancy. Once launched it will — in large part — function as the result of freelance workers. Should I pay them? I think so.

All around me I know people pining for experience to add to their CV and competing for places where they’ll simply get a couple of lines and a recommendation in exchange for months of no-pay toil. Here on this dumb blog, I put on it what I want and in the order I want to, and hit the ‘publish’ button and forget about it. I enjoy writing sometimes. The writing could possibly be better with editors and a staff of researchers. Maybe they’ll do it for free, or to get that much needed exposure. So here’s a little cheat-sheet for standards:

  • You create something exactly the way you want to and don’t adopt it to anyone else’s standards or requirements: This is likely free work. The exposure is what happens when you publish it yourself. If someone gives you money for this, it’s a nice bonus, but don’t expect much. If people share it: that’s a slight kudos, but don’t quit your day job over it.
  • You create something at the request of someone else, for their needs and to fit their expectations: You might also get some satisfaction out of this, but it’s work you should really get paid for, and if you don’t then you’re kind of wasting your time. How are they using it? Did it support something they’re getting paid for? (I realise that there’s an argument that altruism is a genetic trait that confers survival benefit, but it doesn’t upscale to market capitalism where you’re the nice, sharing member of the tribe surrounded by sociopathic cannibals).

Here in UK, and in many places around the globe, we see work placement schemes, unpaid internships, work experience ‘opportunities’ that all come down to mean one thing: slave labor. Someone wants you to complete a task that will help their business objectives. They need it done, but they’ve found a cost effective solution to paying for it. In exchange, you get the exposure as someone who does stuff for free. Let’s turn it around now, and look at it from a consumerist point of view:

  1. Proprietor X has got Unpaid Worker Y to create Product Z.
  2. You’re expected to pay £XX.xx to access this product.
  3. How much do you think you should pay?

If I spend nothing to create something that you’ll consume, how much does that say I think of you? If you’ll pay to consume something I just had someone produce for free, what does that say about you? Even inexperienced work should be compensated. It still represents effort that someone did for someone else’s benefit. If someone is doing something for you, then it’s time they aren’t spending on making sure their own situation is sorted. You are stealing from them if you’re not paying them (charities not withstanding… kind of). It is unfortunate that we live in a monetized society, but it’s the fact. It’s fascinating that capitalist organizations such as large media franchises still don’t appear to get this simple concept. It’s more amazing how many people go along with it.