Labour + Industry

Free Labour in the Digital Sweatshop? Free Yourself!

Next time some website asks you to work without pay, summon your inner-artisan.

By Shannon Rupp 1 Nov 2013 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Is the web destroying your chance to join the middle class? Empty pockets image via Shutterstock.

When talk turns to the business side of journalism, as it so often does in the reams of self-obsessed publications out there, I know just how those early 19th century hand knitters felt.

You remember them? They were supposedly led by some guy named Ludd to take sledgehammers to the early machinery of the industrial revolution. Which is why anyone who dares to question the worth of any gizmo-du-jour is christened "a Luddite."

That's not quite an accurate interpretation of the views of those workers in the midst of what we now call economic disruption. What they were angry over wasn't the machinery, but the way the machinery created a new economic landscape. The textile artisans, who were displaced by the less-skilled factory workers, didn't understand what was happening so they blamed the machines for killing their livelihood.

That's how writers often sound when talking about the Internet. And photographers. Graphic designers too. Book publishers have been getting in on the whingefest lately. And college instructors of all sorts are beginning to grouse about online courses reaching students around the world and killing the local market.

The machines are destroying our world. At the very least they're destroying the middle class economy, says online visionary Jaron Lanier. He's one of the Internet's pioneers, although he's soured on the idea of it being the gateway to a new Utopia.

But I don't think the Internet is any more to blame than the textile factory was, although that doesn't stop anyone swinging a metaphorical mallet. This week it's essayist Tim Kreider in the New York Times muttering about the explosion of publications that want him to write for free for "exposure."

It left me wondering if he wouldn't be better taking an economics course than ranting. There's a fine list of MOOCs here.


Everyone knows that when there's an oversupply of something, the price drops. Since the Internet made publishing cheap, owning a press is no longer a license to print money. In effect, everyone owns a press. And a dark room, and a recording studio, and a video camera...

Kreider, a talented writer and cartoonist, captures the frustration of the outraged artisans I know when he argues that people have one helluva nerve asking writers to work for free. And they do. Although to be fair, asking doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers and host of other professionals for free advice has long been a common practice. Innovations like WebMD have probably spared them some annoyance.

"I've been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn't ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing," Kreider writes, adding that it is a "heroic exercise in restraint" to remain polite.

Maybe it's because I'm a woman, but in my experience there's always somebody out there trying something on. A firm "no," sometimes punctuated with laughter usually works.

The Luddite metaphor is almost perfect, but unlike the hand knitters of yore, many of the currently disenfranchised curmudgeons also have multiples degrees. Given their sophisticated educations, you'd think that they might have noticed that people asking for free copy are just using the Internet as a plausible excuse for exploiting others.

Take newspapers. (No jokes, please.) I recently spent an amusing hour with the representative of one of the publicly-traded corporate chains who regaled me with the company's digital strategy, which amounts to a scheme to persuade bloggers to work free on their behalf.

It raises a crucial question: Why would an independent writer want to subsidize a publicly traded corporation in which the CEO makes more than a million dollars a year?

"Those papers are not making any money," said the company's representative, with a straight face, as he explained why they couldn't possibly pay bloggers to toil on their behalf.

As the old newsroom saying goes, if someone tells you it's raining, go to the window and check. So a quick Google turned up the financial reports on this allegedly unprofitable enterprise, which appears to be making a whack of dough.

They also spend money like water. The company doubled its board members' annual pay to $20,000 in 2010 plus giving them $1,000 for every meeting they attend. They began paying six-cent share dividends despite share prices tanking, which seems a pittance until you realize management owns about one-third of the company's shares via another company. That earned three of the executives a tidy little sum of about $1.8 million.

And so it goes. Meanwhile the company's profit margin is regularly north of 20 per cent -- hence the fat executive pay packets -- but it is somehow reduced to a loss on the balance sheets.

Huffington's chutzpah

I'm awestruck by this kind of monetary magic and the disingenuous patter that always comes-with. It's sort of like watching Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. If straw were bullshit, that is.

But it's unclear why they think anyone would be seduced by their offer of a "free blogging opportunity" in an era when anyone can build a blog for a few bucks and sell ads themselves. And after Arianna Huffington's spectacular success, in which she made $315 million off the backs of free bloggers when she sold HuffPo in 2011, I suspect most writers know better than to subsidize big business.

There is one good reason to blog for "free" on well-trafficked sites like HuffPo and that is if you're promoting something. But that's a form of advertising, and the advertisers pay for the writer's service. That sort of brand journalism or native advertising is what is most commonly found at these kinds of outlets -- and, increasingly, at some of the traditional media sites. There's nothing wrong with it, if you happen to like reading that sort of promotional prose.

At this stage in Internet evolution, everyone knows the game. So it's the rage of Kreider and the neo-knitters that mystifies me, since they have huge advantages over the Luddites of other eras, not least because we've seen it all before.

The Internet's arrival isn't all that different from what happened 200 years ago when textiles went from being a relatively scarce product to a plentiful one. Clothing became literally "run of the mill" -- the expression comes from the cheap togs -- and prices for the poor quality goods dropped accordingly.

But the old industry didn't disappear, it got smaller and more skilled, developing new expertise and new buyers. The quality lace makers, tailors and milliners ignored the factories and went upmarket.

They evolved into small business people who offered more discerning consumers a good alternative to run-of -the-mill clothing. They worked in couture houses and bespoke clothing shops that featured exquisite tailoring. Eventually some of them became Chanel and the 20th century's fashion industry got its start.

You can still buy their wares all over the world or in little local shops.

Digital artisans

Artisans like this serve people who can afford something better than the crap produced in factories. So I would say that the Internet has been more of a boon than a bane for those in the creative trades. Virtual marketplaces like Etsy and Big Cartel have sprung up to allow the makers of hand-crafted goods reach their niche markets all over the world.

And since broadband arrived about a dozen years ago, we can see something similar happening among the information and entertainment artisans. People are producing profitable blogs, launching YouTube web shows, and self-publishing popular books.

So perhaps it's time to shift the discussion from moral outrage to economic facts. Yeah, it sucks to be one of the workers hit by an economic shift that has given mass media the first real competition it has seen in more than 30 years. But isn't there some truism about a crisis being opportunity?

The only mystery in this increasingly tired debate over whether creative workers should labour for free is why anyone in the Internet age would volunteer to fill someone else's website with anything but free advertising for their own purposes.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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