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Free Content &#8211 At What Cost?

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Of course, it had struck me before, but when talking it over with a good friend just yesterday (and for over three hours or so in which we discussed, among this, many other things, the idea seemed even more important than ever. The concept is this: How does a serious writer go about making any money by writing articles for the Internet and specifically, the very many (and I note, some very good sites) that ask for free and demand excellent content. Such sites are discussed here, and while some may be worth the time and effort, others may certainly not be and it’s important to know which is which.

I’ve long-written for journals and newspapers and magazines and one expects a nominal fee of at least several hundred dollars and for a two hundred word review, about one hundred. For a piece in The Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, and the like, the sum can go all the way up to several thousand. Even Parnassus and Partisan Review (when it existed, that is, measly as it was or had become, alas) paid something. In short, all print publications paid hard cash, unless they were real start-ups by a good friend just out of college who was starting a new small lit magazine and felt generally, deeply sorry that s/he couldn’t pay you for your two bit poem.

But now, we (collectively, writers and critics here, so this means you) write great content (and I don’t mean here, because there are other reasons to write for Blogcritics beyond money and that was not the intention of the site in the first place ~ designed first as a type of blog, it was never intended as a pay source on the outward end, but perhaps a revenue on the other side if not that, then some money so that the site owner (who has to pay on the back-end) could and can afford to host the writings of others, meaning in effect, that we ought pay a certain amount, even a nominal fee of say $10 per annum, to the owner of the site each that will cover basic hosting and other costs. In exchange, we get high ranking on search engines, syndications, and our content and our reputations get excellent exposure and we are in good company for the most part, I should say. To me, $10 in the very least is worth it. Yes, much blogging should and is free, but let’s face it, a site like Blogcritics is no longer simply a “blog” but a true reference in the real world, not just the Blogosphere (does that make sense here? I hope my meaning comes through). In short, we get something that I think is highly valuable for free when we may want to rethink the fairness of that arrangement. That much is a sort of fair exchange and in this writer’s view, anyway one that has proven well worth the time and effort.

But let me continue before you start judging and deciding on your comments now… please read on…

But what of other media outlets that I may admire, even truly love for their mission and what they do, but know in the back of my mind that somewhere, someone is making a profit. For instance, MSN spaces and Reviews does not provide you with a place to blog out of the goodness of their heart. IT seems that the minute you sign up for a space, your information is used – read: they can sell that information and kids, list brokering is a very big business as you likely know because who you are, which demographic you fall in is a very sellable commodity to many corporations who wish to pitch their goods to you.

To test the software, I set up a space on MSN Spaces, and of course, you all know undoubtedly that there are a number of problems with this so-called “blogging” software. For one, it is not what I would call standard blogging software by any means. It seems more like an advertising site and and a point of purchase location on the Web that uses your content to sell than anything else, but more, a week or so ago, or maybe it is coincidence (?) I received forty-one messages from a service called Match.com that I see advertisements and markers located all over MSN spaces and remembered that MSN spaces had even asked if I was Single or Married or Taken.

I selected Married, of course, but would have selected, “Absolutely No Way In Hell” if there had been that option, yet regardless, I received 14 messages from someone named “Rock Star” who “liked my pictures” (I tested the uploading function with a few vague shots) and thought I looked like “a really nice person.” Another guy asked I would be interested in “getting to know him” this time, through a mutual exchange of photographs and instant messages.

Both, it would appear, had come through Match.com (why I would be on Match.com is beyond me and maybe I’m not, but the messages came through there and when I signed into Messenger a little pop-up window would appear saying “Rock Star wants to meet you” seem to be coming from them and another company called “Lava Life” (I don’t know them, but the name would indicate some match making type of deal again… am I wrong?) A “meeting service” shall we say? Is this what blogging has come to? A seedy and smoky and hokey and ticky-tacky singles Web site where you put up your “interests” and your “hobbies” and your “musings” and your “favorite songs” and “faves” and “links” to all of your little friends so that we get some “sense of who you fucking are” because shit, if you know this about me, then by golly, you must really really know who I am. What nonsense.

But I digress. The point is, someone is making a profit and further, they’re not being honest about what it is they are selling or providing to you the consumer or you the writer. As the writer, you are, if you’re any good, providing them with a valuable commodity that in my case anyway, I would charge the Boston Globe or New York Times or Publishers Weekly several hundred to almost a thousand dollars depending on the piece.

If I review a book for MSN or Amazon what do I really get in return besides the exposure and gratification of being able to say what I want to say (I don’t undervalue this, I just know that it is not our bread and butter.) I don’t even get a discount from Amazon or MSN . More, and I find this frustrating just personally, I don’t even get enough word-space for my count: I get minimal space for my review which means cut cut cut) which is fine; brevity is key on the Web, though clearly, this writer cares little for that particular rule. But what am I getting? I’m helping move product again. For Amazon, my opinion will help make someone else money, for MSN, I am beginning to think that I that you that people and demographics are the commodity of the moment. That our personal information is being traded and sold like so much cattle herded in for the slaughter.

Why are we not making more noise? Why are we not mooing our little heads off? Why are we heading like sheep to the slaughter, kids?

Ourmedia is another great site as is Archive and the two are connected and who wouldn’t want to be on there. Ourmedia provides audiovisual blogging, photoblogging, text blogging and more, you can make it onto the front page if you are any good and why shouldn’t you? Again, if you are more than blogging; if you are writing opinion pieces, if you are a professional ecrivante, writer, etc., then you ought to be paid for your work ~ but here again, you are not.

You are essentially giving your work away in the hopes that, for me anyway, the exposure will make it worth my while because I am in the process of job hunting and I am a professional writer who makes a living evaluating and judging all manner of things. So here, I judge services (this particular article, which to me is worth it).

On Ourmedia, I may judge a film or I may simply put up a completely selfish (gosh!) audiovisual of myself reading a poem because, hell, nobody is paying me for this and if I want to write and post some love or it’s opposite, a revenge poem, then by god, I will and I have.

There are other means as well, those photoblogs: What of those images that we create that can be so beautiful. Here too the artist ought be paid: Flickr is a great site and allows us to showcase the best of our photography and for me anyway, has been and remains an excellent source of being able to document my life in such a way that is both interesting, has won some small awards (always nice) and has received the accolades that I have wanted.

Yes, there is a downside or has been at times. Flickr, sadly, has become a place for trolls and lurkers who hang about waiting to pounce, particularly on women, who show any skin at all (even tastefully, appropriately or perhaps those in particular because what is hidden remains a lot more interesting than that which is offered up freely.).

There has always been something more interesting about the girl or guy who holds back and doesn’t give it all at once, or give it at all. Someone like the photographer Ralph Gibson who could and still does create the most erotic and sensual images that remain regardless, not sexual or pornographic in the least.

At Flickr, while there may be a lot of junk, there is also a great deal of real talent and I think Flickr is an excellent place for talented people to find each other and work and collaborate, be they artists and artists or artists and models and so on.

Flickr, in the final account, may be one of the few places that will enable those of us willing to offer up our goods for free on the Web in the hope that something good or better will come of it not only from the exposure, but from the introductions we make and the people we meet. Yes, there are far too many creeps and trolls, whom, I will say to their great credit, Flickr dispenses with immediately, all you have to do is report them through their easy email system.

Should anyone leave an inappropriate comment on what I would and likely, you, would consider a rather innocuous albeit sensual photograph of a woman’s leg or shins, or slope of breast (covered), Flickr will see to it that the person is banned right away.

More, they have set up precautionary measures for users so that, for instance, you can make it so that no-one can zoom in on your photographs and save them to their hard-drive so they cannot right-click and “save as.” You can also block certain people from commenting, make specific photographs private if you feel at all concerned and select who can see those photographs by making select contacts “family” or “friends.” When you do this, the image appears only white to everyone else, but shows up for those in your select contacts.

Further, you can create a Flickr Group (I recently did ths as part of my research here for this piece) and created a group called Almost Nude: the Best of Flickr. I invited only select people of my choosing ~ those whom I felt had appropriate taste and would not make the group pornographic. Two, each member had to have a Public Profile, meaning they could not “hide” and not reveal who they were. Three, when I wrote “almost nude” that meant, and this I do realize is up for interpretation but as Judge Black says, I know it when I see it, no pornography, no genitalia, no absolute or frank nudity, and no nudity that is explicity sexual. This group is intended as a group of what I would call art nudes, but with clothing on. An example: a woman with a shirt on and perhaps a bra showing and her stomach would be a good shot. A man’s back as he removes his t-shirt another excellent example, and so forth.

You get the idea and you can picture it, or I hope you can.

We now have almost two hundred and seventy members at last count and I would not be surprised to see that number increase to three hundred very soon or more. It would certainly be more had I made the group Public, but I specifically chose Private so that 1. only those in the group can see the photos for safety reasons, thereby making women and men feel safe about exposing photographs that they may otherwise, despite the tastefulness of the photos, be hassled about, and 2. creating an outside and blog for the best photos of each week. This gives members the impetus to not just post some half-assed (no pun intended) photograph of themselves in their panties, which frankly, is really dull and I’m so over it, but to push the envelope and come up with something truly beautiful along the lines of, dare I say, Weston, Gibson, Newton (all these “on” names – how odd, I never noticed before), Sally Mann, and so on. You get the picture, so to speak.

The experiment has worked out well and I think that some deals have or will be struck between members who will either introduce each other to their various galleries for there are certainly some gallery owners involved. For certain, there are serious artists involved who have real agents and have had shows who may form friendships and offer advice and perhaps connections to real agents to those floating in a sea on their own ~ this is highly valuable and the sort of thing I think Blogcritics can provide if people are willing to cooperate (and I’ve certainly been willing to put my money where my mouth is for someone whose work I feel is good, because if I’m going to recommend them, or you are, lets say, remember that it is your or my name who will take this reflection at the end of the day and we hope it is a good one.

We risk our reputation and we only do that, if we are smart, for real talent. The trick is knowing who and when that is and who and where to send that person – a sort of match-making that can be successful. You can’t just do favors to “be nice’ no matter how well-intentioned, not when your reputation is riding on it. But here, we can gain.

The bottom line: use the sites that you can to further your reputation. Don’t expect compensation here, but use it to gain compensation and authority elsewhere. And if you find a site that does pay or if you are one and you read this, email me. Contact me. I’m certainly interested.

Thanks for reading.

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • I addressed this, partly and not quite so extensively several months back.

    Basically there are a lot more consumers than creators.

    There are even fewer …..

    Well, I was going to say there are even fewer quality creators but I guess the market would ultimately judge that. Sort of. Kind of.

    There’s a lot of people who think they have something interesting to say, and fewer who do.

    Still, in the meantime, the good is drowned by the junk. Still further in the meantime, the need for paid content is logarithmically diminished. And the freelance compensation goes down.

    There are reasons – often to do with livelihood – why the idea of prestige is one best kept around. The quality of work demanded in print is also a factor.

    [typos fixed – to terrible even for me to swallow]

  • Eric Olsen

    HI Sadi, very nice, persuasive post and I appreciate the special dispensation and spectacularly kind words for us!!

    Yes, this is certainly an issue of concern and even alarm for real writers.

    I was just talking to Natalie Davis about this yesterday, who is an excellent, experienced writer and editor who is having a very difficult time making a living in the new writers’ economy, largely created by the Internet.

    Temple is correct about the devaluation and it’s hard to say exactly how the problem will be rectified beyond the boring, underpaying advertising-and-affiliate model. Something is missing – there is some way to make all of this work that no one has come up with yet.

  • i think this will ultimately pay out by allowing writers several things instead of instant compensation:

    1. write good stuff and think toward compiling those articles for a book project or an antholgy that is taking submissions.

    2. use these writings as tear sheets when applying for new jobs or a promotion etc, as this kind of exposure and number of web hits lends you a legitimacy and authority that you may not otherwise have.

    3. develop an expertise, as i sort of fell into, and b ecome THE authority on that subject on the Web and then start to try to get radio bookings or make it clear to television programs, new media and paying outlets that you are available to write about this issue for them,


    4. if you do become an expert and a primary reference (your site, for example, gets thousands of hits per day), then you have a legitmacy right there that will help you get a real literary agent.

    so there is compensation at the end, i believe. you just have to think about how you are going to apply the work that you are doing now in the future.

    and too, not all of this work IS for free. Some is paid, but for the work that is free, remember that in the final account, you can make it pay off…

    just my opinion and thanks to RJ for a real interesting conversation about this topic as well… it helped me to think about my own views on the topic and get going on this piece as i said i would and ~ ta dah! ~ did.

    Eric, of course ~~` not special dispensation, per se, just a logical statement to me that follows from what you do and our many discussions about that as well… speaking of…… ring me sometime…

    cheers all, and thanks for reading my absurdly long works.