Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Please Stop Working for Free

I was pleased to see that Stephen Colbert levied brilliant criticisms against CNN’s iReport social network on his Monday night show:

It’s wonderful to see a satirist or critic taking on the topic, but it’s important to keep in mind that CNN is far from being the only organization to uncompensated labor from the public, at the expense of actual jobs. If CNN is the worst offender, it is only by virtue of its being an exceptionally large and visible organization. But some content on the front pages of Yahoo! is drawn from its amateur contributor network. And while it does allow people to earn nominal payments based on page views, ultimately Yahoo! is relying on a large pool of writers and photographers who are willing to work for free and consider any compensation whatsoever to essentially be a gift. AOL and the Huffington Post utilize the same model, and of course the latter is also infamous for simply reposting paid content from other news sources. On top of that, there are various sites whose sole concept is to gather creative content from as many people as possible and then present some sort of prize to those that pay dividends on nothing. And each of them seemingly finds a steady supply of willing participants.

That willingness seems unlikely to become the focus of other critics, but I think it is the main issue here. So long as news outlets remain primarily concerned with making money, it is only natural that they will latch onto business practices that allow them to maintain output without the need to pay formerly requisite salaries. Quality be damned, if it brings them any revenue, it is worthwhile because it contributes nothing to overhead. There’s even a business term for this kind of acquisition of labor: crowdsourcing. It serves much the same purpose as outsourcing work to foreign countries, but is even better for the business, as outsourcing exploits the necessity of workers accepting appalling low wages because of their local conditions, whereas crowdsourcing exploits the willingness of workers to accept no payment at all because of their imagination of some future reward.

Certainly, I would be thrilled if there came a breaking point for the news media, and they came to realize that they have an obligation greater than the acquisition of capital. Each person can play a role in promoting that realization, primarily through his choice of what media to consume, but ultimately that breaking point is up to the executives of several corporations, and out of our hands. What ordinary people should realize instead is that they are enabling this sort of exploitation, and contributing to the rampant decay in the quality of news and popular culture. There is a breaking point that every writer and artist must reach, whereby we come to understand that we are being used, and that we are allowing ourselves to be used.

There’s really nothing in it for us if we keep giving away work for free. I’m sure that many people provide content for major websites purely in pursuit of fifteen minutes of fame, but I expect that many people also do so on the assumption that it will lead to some discovery of their brilliance, that the exposure to a wide audience of CNN viewers or Yahoo! readers will open doors for them. What they ought to understand, though, is that that pursuit of self-interest will ultimately prevent those doors from opening to anywhere. Every decent writer who offers free content in hope of future opportunities is evidently expecting someone to come along and pay for what everyone else is getting for free.

Of course, if the decent writers and artists realize this and drop out of the crowdsource, I suppose that would just leave behind the terrible writers and artists, and raise the question, would CNN, Yahoo!, AOL and the like continue to drink from a tepid pool? They might. But the subsequently accelerating deterioration of quality just illustrates the way breaking points work. If we keep quality content out of the hands of those who would exploit it for free, won’t there come a point at which the dreck they’re channeling into public view just isn’t worth looking at anymore? There simply must be a lower limit to what we’re willing to accept and popularize. There must be, even though there is apparently no lower limit to what many people are willing to accept as compensation for their creative efforts.

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