So. You’ve all no doubt heard about the $315m dollar acquisition of the Huffington Post by AOL (and, no doubt, already made the T&A CD-ROM coaster joke on Twitter). With $315m in your coffers, one would think that calls for Arianna and her new corporate overlords in Silicon Valley to finally — FINALLY — start compensating their unpaid writers (approximately 6000, according to MSNBC) for content produced would be welcomed by all who claim to love wordsmithing.
Alas, reflexive contrarianism is the gonorrhea of internet pontificating, and it would appear we have a particularly nasty breakout over at the personal site of Time Out Chicago web editor Anna Tarkov, who takes GREAT exception to Dan Gillmor’s apparently beyond the pale expectation that writers who provide content to a major private for-profit corporate enterprise that just sold for hundreds of millions of dollars should, y’know, be paid for their work (an argument that is apparently invalid partly because Gillmor has a book coming out or something).
Tarkov outlines why she holds great disdain for what she casually dismisses as “a frequent and whiny complaint”:
[T]he reality as we all know is that people chose to write on Huffington Post for free. They chose to do it because HuffPo gave them a platform where a lot of eyeballs would potentially see what they wrote. Most people can’t get that kind of visibility on their own blog. Maybe Dan Gillmor can, but I can’t. So if I decide to write on HuffPo for nothing more than attention, then I’m getting paid in a sense, just not in dollars. How is this different than a business buying a billboard on a busy expressway? They could put up the same ad in their storefront, but not many people would see it there. They put the exact same ad on the billboard and suddenly thousands of people see it. So here they’ve gone and actually paid for the privilege of putting their message before lots of eyes. At least HuffPo doesn’t ask you to pay 😉
Note how Tarkov frames her addled view of the contemporary online writer’s market: writers are no longer workers looking for fair compensation for their work; rather, they’re parasites leeching off a giant host, which graciously allows the bloodsuckers to get their fill of nourishing eyeballs that would otherwise gaze elsewhere for temporary distraction.
Which is fine, if one is privileged enough to possess a secondary income (or outside support) stable enough to sustain one’s efforts to patiently build their personal brand, along with the extraordinary amount of time required to do so (a fine balance, indeed). Of course, not everyone has the luxury of receiving a regular paycheque from Time Out Chicago. Some of us actually have to work soul-sucking service jobs for menial wages and few (if any) benefits, on top of trying to navigate the barren wasteland (or gaping suckhole, as per Susan Schindehette of MiWorld) that is today’s freelance market.
Arguably, part of the reason why contract writing is in such an apocalyptic state is because so many writers are perfectly happy to produce free content for, and provide to, for-profit entities that said entities have no incentive to start paying writers for their contributions, as noted on Twitter yesterday by Emily Zenotti:
Yeah, we have a “choice”: more and more, it’s either write for free, or not write at all — which Tarkov seemed to acknowledge with blithely obtuse indifference:
Look, Anna, not to get all whiny Marxist on your Marie Antoinette ass, but, to paraphrase Team Dresch, writing’s not magic, it’s work — yeah, it’s cool, but it’s work. Hard, goddamn, time-consuming, sometimes frustrating, hopefully fulfilling WORK. And it takes a lot of nerve (and no little unexamined class PRIVILEGE) for a fucking EDITOR to say that writers should STFU and be grateful for the privilege of merely being noticed, as if that alone will pay the bills and bring home the turkey bacon.
Bottom line: If HuffPo is going to turn the content its writers have provided over the last 5 years, largely gratis, into a highly profitable online media empire, it’s only fair to, in the words of teh POTUS, “spread the wealth around a little”.