Work for free if you want to, but don’t work for nothing

This debate kicked off again recently thanks to a New York Times piece, presumably paid, by Tim Kreider, calling unpaid writing online “slavery”. It’s not, of course, but there are issues here: skilled professionals struggle to make a living, or to charge what their time is worth, while brands build businesses on the back of workers who don’t know what they’re worth, who are disempowered from organising for appropriate remuneration, or who are willing to forgo financial compensation for the sake of other concerns.

For many people trying to break into journalism or other creative industries – a group that doesn’t include established folks like Tim Kreider – sometimes working for free is the only option, and let me be clear: that sucks. It means certain careers are only open to those with the financial wherewithal to support themselves through months, sometimes years, of unpaid work. It means creative jobs are increasingly only open to the upper classes, and that’s a problem for the arts and for the media.

For others who work part-time or outside their day jobs in creative spaces – hobbyists, craft workers, dabblers, amateurs, the folks who couldn’t afford to give up the paying work to gamble on the unpaid – there are issues of accessibility and the appropriateness of charging for small works, which take some tricky balancing with the need for artists to earn a living. The situation is starting to evolve: it’s interesting to see Anna Anthropy charging for a new Twine game; it’s good to see Forest Ambassador getting a funding route through Patreon. There’s a sliding scale between free and paid, now. More people have the option of pursuing many paths at once, building portfolio lives rather than diving into singular pursuits; that’s a reaction in part to the closing down of paying routes into creative careers. It’s becoming easier to make small creative projects pay for themselves – so long as you own them and they don’t live on someone else’s platforms.

Working for websites or companies that don’t guarantee you anything but generic ‘exposure’ isn’t usually anything more than a gamble. If you’re going to write for no money for the New York Times in a piece which you know will grace their international front and which links back to your personal work, that might be pretty exciting. But if you’re writing something that might get a thousand views or fewer for a site that doesn’t do much to jazz up your CV, then it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d be better off cutting out the middle man and putting it on your own blog. After all, big media companies don’t own exposure on the net; if anything can go viral online, it’s worth asking yourself if you’d rather those views went to your portfolio site rather than someone else’s platform.

And sometimes working for money works out as working for nothing, when you take other factors into account. Working a low-salary job that doesn’t pay overtime but that requires an hour or two every day extra of your time, or where the commute is also costly in terms of time and cash. Taking on a commission that balloons far beyond its original remit, taking up more and more of your time, so that the rewards no longer outweigh the stress and the energy and the work involved in completing it.

There’s a sliding scale between unpaid labour that offers tangible benefits, and straight-up exploitation. Coffee-fetching internships on film sets seem straightforwardly the latter, but most unpaid entry-level work isn’t so clear cut. When it comes to making the decision to take something on, I’m in a much more privileged position than most; I can afford to turn down opportunities that don’t quite fit my priorities, and I can decide to do things that leave me out of pocket because I want to do them. But wherever you draw your own personal lines, whether through desire or necessity, there’s a list of things worth thinking about before you commit.

Does it give me an opportunity to learn, or to teach? Is it for charity, or non-profit? Is it going to be fun? Is it going to be interesting? Is it going to lead to paid work – and if the folks involved say it will, do I have any confidence in their assertions? Is it creative work that I’ll enjoy? Is it going to give me genuine opportunities to make connections, or to raise my profile, or to put my work in front of people who I would like to see it? Is my expertise easy to get from other sources? Can I reuse the results? Can I afford the time away from work, family and other commitments, or the extra hours I’d need to put in outside work, or the travel? Is it going to be a pleasant and relatively stress-free experience?

If the answer to all or most of those questions is ‘no’, then: fuck you, pay me.

Unpaid work experience vs market norms

On Monday, Fleet Street Blues posted an argument that the NUJ should not be pursuing their current campaign against unpaid work experience for journalists. Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, something I read today shed some light on the whole affair for me. I’ve been reading a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our desires (thanks @lydnicholas for the loan). There’s a chapter called “The cost of social norms” in which he discusses what happens if you take a social relationship – courtship, for instance – and apply market forces. He sets up an experiment which studies how hard students will work at mindless tasks for researchers if they’re asked to do it for no money, 50 cents or $5. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the students who aren’t paid who work the hardest.

Those who got paid 50 cents didn’t say to themselves, ‘Good for me; I get to do this favor for these researchers, and I am getting some money out of this,’ and continue to work harder than those who were paid nothing. Instead they switched themselves over to the market norms, decided that 50 cents wasn’t much, and worked half-heartedly. In other words, when the market norms entered the lab, the social norms were pushed out.

A whole series of experiments follow, in which Arielly mixes social norms (gifts of chocolate, for instance) with market norms (cash rewards) as motivators and looks at the impact on the work people are willing to do. Money – even the mention of money – always sours the social norm. When the social contract is based on goodwill and barter that doesn’t mention a monetary value, people are willing to work for very little. The minute money is mentioned, people switch to using market norms, and suddenly discover that their reward for working is way under the market rate. So, with the NUJ campaign, the fight seems to be happening between those who see the work experience relationship as a social exchange, where inexperienced journalists gain experience, knowledge and bylines in exchange for their work, and those who see it as a market exchange where the journalist is not being fairly compensated. Just as, in the row over HuffPo bloggers not being paid in the aftermath of the $315m sale to AOL, people who were accustomed to seeing their work as part of a social exchange suddenly, at the mention of money, reframed it as a market exchange and decided they weren’t getting a fair market rate for their work. Suddenly, a lot of ongoing conversations about the value of free work make an awful lot more sense.

Who can work for free?

Since Arianna Huffington sold the Post to AOL, there have been lots of posts on all sides of the debate about whether bloggers working for free is a good thing, a bad thing or simply an unavoidable thing.

It’s true that many HuffPo bloggers arecelebrities or working people or other types who pure and simple don’t need pay, who do it for the platform. But more are unpaid, community bloggers who write for love, for dedication, and in some cases in the hope that their work for free is a gateway, a way to build their profile and to end up with a paid writing gig. No one’s forcing them to write for free. But to me this issue seems to fit neatly into a continuum with a free guest post on one end and months-long unpaid media internships on the other. Media and writing careers are desirable; people want a way in; editors want a portfolio of cuttings; the only way to get one is, often, to work for free. Online or off.

And that means that media diversity shrinks. There are thousands of aspiring, talented writers who can’t afford to work for nothing but expenses paid; hundreds of students who have to earn money during their summer breaks and can’t take time out to go do unpaid work experience. Very few people can afford to be a journalism entrepreneur or start up a hyperlocal blog, and genuinely spend the time and the money and the energy involved in covering their community well, when there’s rent and utilities and bills to pay.

Further down the line, what about those who can’t afford to drift from freelance paycheck to freelance paycheck, with no sick pay or holiday or job security, in the hope of getting something more permanent? Do they capitulate, go over to much-derided “content farms” like Demand Media or Suite 101 just to get some writing credits and try to earn money at the same time? Or do we lose those voices from the conversation because of the economic barriers to entering a media career?

I’m not saying that the HuffPo can or should solve those problems. But I do think they’re problems that need thinking about when we think about paying writers – because if media businesses don’t pay people with no experience, we’re guaranteeing that the people with experience will be a certain type of people. And that, in the long run, means a poorer public dialogue and a skewed view on the world.