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

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.

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