Monday, April 27, 2015

You Ain't Worth What You Think

Why can't The Internet just get along?

In the 1990s, the basic, accepted premise (amongst users) underlying the Web was that information was to be shared - pretty much everything else was the same it is today, only in different forms. Twitter has replaced AOL chatrooms and Facebook posts have largely replaced blogs but the underlying principles remain the same. What has changed is the inflated sense of self-worth many Netizens bear and this has lead us right back into the "information as commodity" thought-pattern so prevalent in modern, American society prior to the Internet. Everyone wants to generate revenue online largely because they think it's easy to do, or at least easier than whatever it is they're doing now.

"Information as a commodity" has a trickle-down effect: I would be foolish to share my business secrets if I want to remain competitive and I will surely fail if I flatly refuse to compete in the market.

I put together The Weirding almost free. I paid for some software but that was it. Other than that, I used stock images and freeware programs alongside original content. However, I trolled newsgroups and chatrooms off and on for years, looking for like-minded people to help in exchange for a link to their own site or content, or my services. Instead, I found that everyone wanted to do their own thing, their own way, without any oversight or input, and steadfastly refused to work with anyone who didn't entirely support their personal vision.

I watched them all fail. Most of them never even got started!

Recently, I've read several rather respectable insiders tell newbies never to settle for less than their going-rates and never to work for free. These comments were aimed directly at services such as Fiver, which offer low-price art to publishers for use in commercial work. It still struck a chord, though, as I found it to be terribly short-sighted and one-dimensional advice - more platitudinous than practical.

I've had guest-bloggers but I have never paid any of them - legally, I'm not even allowed to! Instead, they linked back to their own blogs; the return on their contribution was access to my audience and the opportunity to promote themselves and their work. Either that or I guest-posted on their blog a time or two in exchange. I've guest-blogged all over the Internet, sometimes without so much as a link back to my own work, just to get my name out there and into the minds of readers who enjoy the kind of things about which I write. Beginning musicians can't command rock star prices because they do not draw rock star crowds. TV shows employ (mostly) unpaid interns and some of your favorite authors hire ghostwriters to script their bestsellers - a pittance compared to the return they receive just for putting their name on the cover, I'll add.

Obviously artists should not be expected to work for free and maybe there is something larger going on in the digital production industry which escapes me but it's been a long while since anyone suggested, "Let's collaborate on this project so that it best benefits us both," instead of, "Fuck you, pay me!" And make no mistake about it: Until investors start seeing a return on those kickstarting fundme go-go campaigns, that's what they are: "Fuck you, pay me!" buttons. Worse yet is the number of amateur artists and writers who demand professional rates and launch kickstarter campaigns for every fleeting idea they have or just in general.

I don't need anyone's work. I built all of this myself but I would have loved others' input and contributions. I certainly availed myself of stock works and public domain materials because that's why they exist, but I spent the time finding and modifying them for my use. I've heard that anyone can do these things but I've literally seen how few people do. I know there are many who can do these things better but I can't afford their rates. I also know that there are quite a few who can do these things better and need both the work and name recognition but I can't afford their rates, either.

On the one hand, it isn't whether or not my site is any good but the fact that it's done at all; on the other hand, if I'd been able to meet and collaborate with more open-minded, gifted amateurs in their respective fields - one of the founding hopes of the Internet - it would all have been done better, faster, and we would all have a showcase for our work to be proud of. Sadly, most of the self-proclaimed content creators I approached with hopes for collaboration were too egotistical to recognize a good thing - some were downright rude, even confrontational, and most were overly competitive and delusional. I have never seen any of these people succeed.

This forced me to become a jack-of-all-trades. It has taken me far longer to accomplish the goals I have and few are as competent as I aim but, should I ever become part of a larger team, I now have the rudimentary skills to handle almost every aspect of webmastering, blogging, social media maintenance and interaction, AV recording, graphics manipulation, and more - all of which make me a nigh-essential part of any collective, capable of individually handling almost any issue that should arise. It all but guarantees me an entry-level position into any of these fields at a smaller firm. Finally, it has provided me with the insight to know how best to delegate responsibility and maximize available resources, which theoretically makes me a qualified consideration for a managerial position. Yet I still haven't been paid - I've made money from my efforts but I certainly have not received anywhere near the amounts professionals in any of these individual fields command!

The only way to truly learn is by doing and the Internet is largely compartmental. If you make a viral video, it's going to be viewed on hundreds of sites and your name is going to be on all of them, but probably not on any checks. Viral content occurs every day and is almost entirely forgotten by the following week. Don't be taken advantage of but don't shoot yourself in the foot by withholding your work and making demands before you've proven yourself or anyone even knows who you are. There's far too much competition online and far too little constructive cooperation and it boils down to personal attitude. Instead of giving-in to your ego and paranoia, do some research, foster a relationship, determine the details of the possible arrangement, and make an informed decision. You may be entering a no-compensation agreement but your contribution may be just the thing that creates the  success your new partner was unable to access on his own, ushering you both into beneficial positions.

The only piece of solid, traditional advice I cannot stress enough is to get something in writing. You don't have to finalize a legal-binding document but if someone isn't willing to write down some concrete expectations, they aren't making a valid offer. This doesn't automatically make them a sleazy opportunist but it is definitely shady practice.

The next time someone asks if they can use your DeviantART (which doesn't pay artists) work on their site, don't make unreasonable demands or dismiss them out-of-hand - it may be a great opportunity to reach a larger audience that would be interested in your product, one that you might miss otherwise. Avail yourself of the opportunity to guest-blog for the same reason, to post your band's video on YouTube (which barely pays even the biggest artists), and so on. And continue to promote yourself and your work on your own social media profiles (that do not pay for your contributions) and/or sites and blogs (the free ones barely pay, if at all) just as you always have, including links to the sites on which you have agreed to share your work.

I'm not telling you to "work for free" because, unless the contributor fails to reciprocate in some way, you aren't "working for free" - you're building relationships and name recognition, gaining practical knowledge and experience, developing a portfolio of online work (or adding to your reel, or whatever the case may be), and so forth.
I've worked for "free," many times over actually, and have promoted innumerable artists, sites, and ideas I found interesting when there was absolutely nothing in it for me. I wasn't under contract nor did I receive any compensation (nor reciprocation, overwhelmingly), but it did help in small ways.

Working with (or on) a small site which can't afford to pay you, a struggling artist or writer or whatever,may be the very collaborative effort which launches you both to new heights.

© Copyright 2015, The Cyberculturalist

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