Over at Popmatters (for whom I’ve written concert reviews, artist interviews and CD reviews), Rob Horning has written a thoughtful column about the very 21st century transactional phenomenon that Popmatters thrives on: writers who’ll give away their work for free in the interest of personal brand-building. Horning cites a recent business week article by Stephen Baker that describes the efforts of entrepreneurs to harness the power of people willing to work for little more than a byline and whatever status comes with a good-sized Google footprint. Baker writes:
“Beyond brand-hungry strivers, masses of free laborers continue to toil without ever seeing a payday, or even angling for one. Many find compensation in currencies that predate the market economy. These include winning praise from peers, earning an exalted place within a community, scoring thrills from winning, and finding satisfaction in helping others. But how to monetize all that energy? From universities to the computer labs of Internet giants, researchers are working to decode motivations, and to perfect the art of enlisting volunteers”
Maybe even more interesting is Horning’s commentary on an article by David Hadju in the Columbian Journalism Review, in which Hadju laments the “weird and totally unwarranted authority” earned by amateur criticism in the Internet age, calling it “one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.”
Sounds like sour grapes on the part of an old media stalwart, and Horning argues as much. It would behoove him to do so, seeing how he represents a web site that doesn’t pay its writers. As for me, I quit writing for Popmatters shortly after I got my first paying journalism job, but went back to it about six months ago — not for status or any shifty self-branding agenda, but simply because I really like writing about music, and figure I might as well publish it in a place where it’ll find a wider audience than here at my low-traffic blog. But when a review of mine does run at Popmatters, you can bet I link to it here. And this makes me think that I — and probably a lot of other Gen X (and Y) writers — have self-branding and self-promotion hardwired into our writerly DNA. We do it not so much because we have designs on success, but because it’s just what one does in the 21st century if he wants to make a living as a media professional. It’s hard out there for a copy hustler. But if Horning’s future-looking final paragragh is at all prescient, that might change as consumers of online copy start shying away from amateur content:
“[A]s more outlets for uncompensated content creation proliferate on the Web—Amazon.com and social networks being the most conspicuous ones right now—the perception that it’s all hobby writing and/or self-branding online will become even more entrenched. Sites may have to go more explicitly capitalist—pay writers, collect subscriptions, feature advertising, etc.—to ensure that they are regarded as “professional” and worthy of being read by people who otherwise limit their consumption of amateur copy to those they have friended.”
Anyone who writes for a living would be lying if he said he didn’t hope this was true. And he would be being equally mendacious (or just plain delusional) if he didn’t admit that he doesn’t think things’ll go down like that.