THE CONTEST EVERYBODY LOSES

Posted in Rants on November 28th, 2012 by Ed

I have always wanted to write for a living, although I certainly can't complain about the regular paychecks and benefits that come with this less exciting job. Many of you know from bitter firsthand experience that making money writing is very difficult today. It has never been easy, of course; there's a reason Kafka was an insurance clerk, TS Eliot worked at Lloyd's of London, Vonnegut ran a Saab dealership, Harper Lee made reservations for Eastern Airlines customers, and Orwell was a cop in colonial Burma. No one will claim that writing professionally ever has been anything but risky and difficult.

Today, however, people who generate creative output for a living – this problem isn't limited to writing, of course – face the additional obstacle of changing expectations. Namely that they are expected to work for free or close to it. If you think all those writers on big name sites (Slate, HuffPo, Gawker, etc.) are being paid more than a pittance or at all for the content they generate, you are mistaken. Consumers now expect to be provided with content for free; behold the wailing and gnashing of teeth across the internet when something is put "behind a paywall" at Harper's or the NY Times. Can you believe that they actually expect us to pay for information and entertainment? That's so 20th Century.

Another more insidious type of work-for-free arrangement has become disturbingly common among people who work in art, graphic design, and web development: the "crowdsourcing" of content. Crowdsourcing is one of those horrid buzzwords crafted to sound techno-libertarian and empowering (Harness the power of collective ideas!) but in reality, media outlets use it to get for free content or services they would otherwise need to pay a professional to do. Need a new logo, or perhaps some cover art for your next issue? Paying someone is a waste of money. Just have a "contest" and legions of unemployed, publicity-seeking artists/designers will gladly produce your artwork on their own time and freely hand it over in the hopes of winning five minutes' worth of exposure and attention.

By now we have all realized that musician Amanda Palmer is probably the worst person on Earth, what with the fiasco of asking for a million bucks from her fans to record an album (I guess her multimillionaire husband couldn't finance the endeavor, nor could Palmer from her previous earnings). She followed that up with a truly reprehensible scheme to "crowdsource" the backing band for her subsequent tour, getting a group of volunteer musicians in each city on the tour to join her on stage. Compensation would consist of "beer, merchandise, and hugs", said the repugnant excuse for a human. Isn't that neat? What a great way to let the fan community take part in creating the performances, and as a total coincidence I guess she won't have to pay, feed, transport, and house any musicians throughout the tour!

This kind of explicit middle finger to people attempting to make a living writing, drawing, playing an instrument, painting, and so on can only succeed when there is a critical mass of people desperate for work and struggling to make ends meet. It's an interesting collective action problem; certainly each artist knows that submitting designs for free is hurting every artist's efforts to make a living, but the individual incentive for publicity, credentials, ("winner of the….") and attention is too strong. And of course the internet makes it remarkably fast, cheap, and easy to harness the creative talents of thousands of people with the promise of nothing more than a pat on the back. The majesty of the new economy is infinite indeed, with its myriad ways of providing things that are ostensibly free but carry great hidden costs.