We didn't mention the whole AOL buying Huffington Post story earlier this week, because there just didn't seem to be that much to say about it. It was an interesting deal, to be sure, and I'll be curious to watch what AOL does with the property, but, beyond that, it seemed like just another content acquisition deal. However, almost immediately after the deal went through, I started seeing some rumblings on Twitter, picking at the scab that has always annoyed a certain group of people about The Huffington Post: that it doesn't pay most of its writers. Sure enough, it didn't take long for this issue to start to spread, with the inevitable summary line of: "Hey, HuffPo became famous because all these people worked for free, and yet, they don't get a cut of the sale."
That story is now snowballing. Dan Gilmor wrote a blog post arguing that it was the "ethical" thing to do
to start paying bloggers. Douglas Ruskoff said that he'd no longer blog on the site for free
. And, of course, a bunch of cranky HuffPo contributors have created a whole campaign
arguing that Arianna Huffington had no right to sell the site, since it was built off of their free labor.
They're all wrong.
Of course, we've been through this before. Five years ago, Nick Carr tried to argue that all the various big Web 2.0 sites like (at the time) Digg, YouTube and MySpace were really digital sharecroppers
exploiting labor. As we argued at the time, this was hogwash. People were using those sites because they provided a valuable service
. The reason they provided labor was because they got something of value in return -- whether it was attention or hosting or distribution or reputation.
Three years ago, we saw an almost identical controversy after AOL bought Bebo and musician Billy Bragg demanded some of the $850 million
AOL paid (in retrospect, a massively bad decision). Bragg argued that Bebo made this money based on all of the "free labor" of musicians who used the site. But that ignored the fact that those musicians got tremendous value
in using the Bebo platform to connect with fans and distribute their music... all for free
. The folks who got to keep the money were the ones who took the actual risk. The ones who had to cover the expenses to keep the site and the service running, even when it wasn't making enough revenue. They took the risk, they should get the reward. The people who used
the site did so of their own free will
knowing quite well that the benefit they got from using the service was worth it to them at the time. Along those lines, if Bebo had struggled and faced bankruptcy instead of a massive buyout, would Bragg have felt obligated to give them money to keep it going? Similarly, if HuffPo had been running out of money, and Arianna had gone back and demanded that those who used the platform pay up retroactively, how would these people have reacted?
There are more ways to "get paid" than with money.
The reason that people chose to blog for free at the Huffington Post was because it's a fantastic platform
for exposure. It brings traffic like no one else out there, and if you want to present something in a way that's likely to get more attention than on your own blog that no one visits, posting at HuffPo can be quite a good way to go.
And that's the point: the people who chose
-- of their own free will -- to post at the Huffington Post for free did so because they clearly got value out of doing so. Otherwise, why would they have done so in the first place? To then say that the only proper thing is to pay them is completely missing the point. It's an attempt to retroactively go back and change the terms of a deal. If you wanted to get paid directly for what you write, fine, don't write for the Huffington Post. It's that simple. Go out and pitch your stories to publishers who pay freelancers. But don't go back and complain afterwards when the folks who actually did
take the risk of putting together the site, financing it, organizing it, hiring the staff, buying the servers, paying for the bandwidth, and building it up so that it was such a successful platform, then get paid for their efforts.