The Fight To Not Work For Free

I'm a little late to the game on this little online kerfuffle, but it's still worth me weighing in.  A week ago, Nate Thayer, a freelance journalist/writer with a long and distinguished career on his vita, posted to his blog complaining about being asked to do some work for free by The Atlantic.  They wanted him to re-write and summarize a piece that he had done previously for another site, and then they wanted to put it on the Atlantic's website. He declined, and then publicised the incident.

A couple days later Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor of The Atlantic, responded on his blog to Thayer. They both have some good points, but they're both also guilty of representing their end of the debate with their own particular slants (of course). 

I think the original reporter, Nate Thayer, is speaking in his original post and other comments he had made, from a place of pain and hardship. He clearly is having a hard time making ends meet, and his frustration at that situation got the better of him in this case and he sort of lashed out in ways that were a little impolitic and impolite (most seriously, posting the name and email of other parties without their prior assent), and possibly counterproductive to him getting future gigs.  But he makes really good points, and they apply to a lot of other fields, especially in areas where people make content intended for the Internet. 

The Internet, over the last 20 years, has unfortunately conditioned consumers of content, whether it's music, video, writing, or whatever, to expect to get that content for free.  Perhaps in the early days when that saying "Information wants to be free" was first getting batted about (I forget who first said that - Bruce Sterling, maybe?), people should have made clear that they were talking about, as Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and other open source advocates are fond of saying, "free as in speech, not free as in beer." Part of the problem is that English just has one word for 2 concepts, which in latin-based languages have separate words - gratis and libertas.

So now it's time for pushing back against that assumption that everything should have a zero price.   Professional content creators need to pay their bills, and they do it by writing, taking photos, making videos - and those things are of a high quality, because they're professionals.

The concept goes beyond this, even, to other areas of business. The other day I was talking to my brother-in-law who has his own gourmet, all-natural, handmade candy company (btw, it's really good candy). He told me stories about how often he gets people objecting to the price of his products, and comparing the prices to the normal cheap candy one can pick up at any drugstore or supermarket. Customers have to be educated - including that they have to personally taste the difference - to understand why the price is different.

It's the same way with any creative work. The flip side of the democratization and commodification of production tools (desktop publishing software, cheap digital cameras, audio recording gear, etc) is that non-pro people often think that all they need to do is buy the tools and then they can do stuff that's just as good as the professionals. They don't understand that more goes into it than owning the right gear - experience, skill, talent, practice, time and patience, dedication, and more.  And the people who they end up doing stuff for free for think that too, at least until they are educated.  And so the dilettantes are bringing down the pay scales and making it harder and harder for the professionals to make a living making the higher-quality stuff they are capable of making. Meanwhile the corporations, especially the social networking sites, are exploiting those misconceptions and just exploiting people's innate need to share and communicate their creativity and expression with each other, and making money every time somebody else clicks on a pretty photo or a smart piece of writing someone made.

It's a very difficult ecosystem to live in.  It's a race to the bottom for everyone except for the corporate masters at the top. The small and the large, conspiring unwittingly to squeeze out the middle.   And it applies to everything, not just blog posts and youtube videos - from the music you listen to, to the food you have at your wedding, to the furniture you sit on and the clothes you wear. The exploitation extends to the natural world as well, because most things cheap also end up screwing with the environment too, as well as other people. With everything you use and buy, you're either part of the race to the bottom, or you're part of supporting a community that's economically and ecologically healthy. Think about it. Every day.