Looking back, I can put my finger on part of it I couldn’t reach before.
Chris Anderson, author of FREE, argued to Malcolm Gladwell that writers don’t need to be paid, but the people who wrangle writers do. Writers, after all, get reputation and praise, so they don’t need to be paid, is Anderson’s argument. Editors don’t get the same praise, so they earn money. This is like directors and actors working for Oscar noms and thumbs-up while studio executives get a cut of the box office. We could discuss several ways the argument is flawed — Guy LeCharles Gonzalez has a great post about here about Free versus Freemium — but I’m going to start with this one: it poisons my excitement.
Part of what troubled me about this argument of writing for free being not just viable (which I do not contest) but also fine and unavoidable (which I think is tricky and, coming from a working editor, insidious) is the way it interacts with the messages of your Merlin Manns and your Matt Joneses. They advocate enthusiasm and creation over doubt and preparation. As Matt Jones puts it, “get excited and make things.”
The idea is to not fret over the perfect process, to avoid all the bullshit deterrents and procrastination, to dodge those obstacles we put in our own path and just go forward. Just make things. Make a lot of things and increase our average; embrace the ones that stand out and celebrate the fact that you’re making things, even if some of them suck.
Do it because you love to do it. Be excited, and use that excitement. It’s a wonderful and useful message — a psychic pry bar. Good stuff.
But how can I trust that message if I think the reason it’s being given to me is to keep me happy and singing and toiling in my plot of land so the guy above me can get paid out of the ad revenues for posting my work to his blog?
Why should my work be the free content of an intermediate landlord’s freemium marketing strategy? It makes me nervous that I’m being motivated to produce a lot of free content so that the tier above me can get paid for it.
I have this awful (and unrealistic, I know) image of old boys, seated in club chairs in a smoke-filled sepia-toned parlor, scheming about how to get people to give their work away for free. “Tell them the fun and satisfaction is it’s own reward!” says one.
“The only reward! Writing’s worth nothing — it only generates value for the things we’ll sell afterward,” says the other.
“Yes! Yes,” replies the first, “encourage them to make things for nothing, after they get home from work, and we’ll collect a fee to organize what they make.”
“Writing will be worth nothing,” smiles the second, “and we’ll have struck the mother lode of free writing!”
They toast to their genius.
Obviously, no such scheme is happening. I don’t think Merlin Mann is actually in league with Chris Anderson to devalue my work while increasing my productivity. The point is, they might as well be.
But if somebody’s going to give away my writing, why not me? If it’s going to be the free half of a freemium plan, shouldn’t it be half of my own plan? Why be a part of just the free half? That’s a sucker’s game.
I want to be excited. I want to make things. And I want to work with publications I’ve admired, like Wired, but is it right for the writer to work for free so that Wired can sell its premium content to a percentage of the audience the writer helped build?
(Except, and this is important, Anderson’s not being entirely accurate when he says the GeekDad writers aren’t paid. They get a bunch of free materials to review, don’t they? That stuff’s worth money. I’d write a free review of an iPhone in exchange for the device and the contract, but that’s not really “free,” is it?)
I grok why a certain amount of writing gets done for free — and as the writer’s prerogative, that’s fine — but I hope Anderson sees the other half: when writers realize that they can get a fraction of the audience they’ve built at Wired to follow them back to their own freemium content, they’ll have good reason to take advantage of it. Whatever fraction of that audience that follows the writer back to his own site, generating his own ad revenue and premium-buying subset of the audience, stands to generate more money than the zero dollars Wired was paying them.
The (albeit valuable) privilege of standing under Wired‘s tent is worth less the more the writer under that tent personally builds his own audience. Since Anderson’s vision of future writers posits a class already employed and writing on the side, maybe they’ll stick around for the kicks, but they’ll also have the option of becoming their own brand and generating their own revenue — like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com.
Wired, pretty soon, becomes a machine for generating visibility for future independent competitors. Big enough competitors to hurt Wired? I don’t know… but the magazine’s been getting thinner every month.
I like getting excited and making things, and while Anderson’s vision of the future makes me nervous, I’ll make things anyway. Because what’s the alternative?