For the sake of humor, I am generally a big fan of hyperbole. Miley Cyrus is cheaper than a half-off sale at the flea market. The Chicago Cubs are more futile than a company that builds igloos in Hell. See? When you're trying to be funny, hyperbole just works. However, when you're trying to make an actual point, comparing people who have agreed to write for free on the internet to slaves doesn't work, isn't funny, and deserves an argumentative kick in the rocks. We saw this previously in a ridiculous lawsuit by writers of The Huffington Post who somehow thought that their previous agreement to write for free entitled them to untold amounts of cash.
Yet, despite the stupidity of that lawsuit, we're back on the topic again thanks to a New York Times piece that somehow conflates asking for a free written work with slavery, not calling people after you have sex with them, and the nuclear bomb (and, no, I'm not kidding about any of those three). Here are some highlights from Tim Kreider's screed against the world.
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.
Aaaaand we're off, and on shaky ground, no less. I have received numerous cans of soda and even haircuts for free in my life, but I understand what he's saying. If something has value, thou must pay for it. Which would be all fine and good if the concept of writing on the internet were a one-way street, a la a soda can. If Mike Masnick comes up to me, says he's thirsty, and asks me to simply give him my soda can so that he might drink the sugary goodness of it, I am left without my soda can and have gained nothing in return, economically speaking. However, if Mike Masnick asks me to write for Techdirt for free (which he did), and I agree (which I did) with the idea being that I'd get some pleasure from it, build up some reputation that might lead to future paid work (which it did, for Techdirt, actually), and so that I can include that work when I send out query letters to literary agents in the future (which I did), then the transaction works both ways. We both attain something of value and the price tag on my writing is only one part of the equation. In other words, this analogy sucks.
But Kreider takes this on directly.
A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer.
Well, you know what, chief, not all of us are willing, capable, or privileged enough to write silly op-eds for the New York Times. Many of us actually do
value that exposure that Satan is offering us, which is why we, you know, agree to do this stuff
. It seems to me to be the height of arrogance for someone who has done well for himself attempting to unite a population against what they themselves had agreed to do, on the notion that he knows better for the masses. Now for some of the fun stuff:
-This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them.
-Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.
-Here, for public use, is my very own template for a response to people who offer to let me write something for them for nothing...
I have to admit, that last one is my favorite. The simple irony of completing an op-ed about how you should never give away your writing for free by then giving away something you wrote for free is the kind of thing I couldn't think up. At some point when the idea formed inside my head, the synapses would all shut down, angrily insisting that something so stupid should never be put into print.
That's why this former slave is thankful that he had the opportunity to write for free, which became writing for pay, all while avoiding writing an entire op-ed with a culminating line that negates the entire thing.