Yesterday over at Cato, I poked some fun at an ill-conceived boycott of the Huffington Post, which has committed the sin of (a) making money and (b) inviting an assortment of people to voluntarily contribute unpaid blog posts. Matt Yglesisas wrote a rather less snarky post similarly defending the practice, prompting a response from Erik Loomis with the bizarre premise that Yglesias—who has been making his living writing on the Internet for his entire professional life—is somehow unable to conceive of the Internet as a workplace. I think Loomis is the one who “doesn’t get it” here, but it may be instructive to unpack why. His guiding principle is that “large corporations have the obligation to pay workers for labor.” And there’s the rub: The Internet economy does tend to blur the lines between “work” and things that are done for pleasure, or at any rate, from motives other than monetary compensation. If your main mental point of reference is an industrial sweatshop, it’s easy to assume that this is some kind of cover for exploitation—downtrodden workers “agreeing” to work for subsistence wages because they have no other choice if they want to feed themselves. The trouble is that Loomis is trying to impose an industrial model, where people fall neatly into categories like “worker” and “employer” and “capitalist” on an Internet economy characterized by what Yochai Benkler calls “peer production.” At the heart of that model is the idea that lots of people, acting from motives other than direct expectation of monetary compensation, can produce enormous social surpluses in aggregate.
Consider open source software. It’s produced by hundreds or thousands of coders, many of whom are not paid directly for their contributions to the software they help produce—and which, because it’s often distributed at no cost, is an enormous economic benefit to (among others) corporations that might otherwise have to license software. Some contributions will be useful, others will not, but an evolutionary process will tend to preserve the improvements. If you shoehorn open source into an industrial model, all of those programmers might well look like exploited “workers.” But the genius of open source, as Benkler so ably explains, is that it allows a range of talents to be brought to bear on coding problems in a way that simply would not be possible if every individual coder had to be treated like an “employee” of the companies using that software. It works, in large part, because open source licenses allow anyone to take and use software with the assurance that individual contributors aren’t going to come along and demand their share of whatever profit their code helped generate. Creative commons does something similar for creative works, allowing authors to declare: Take this, use it, remix it, redistribute it, and (depending on the specific license) make money from it. Some of those authors just want to share their thoughts; some may be hoping to drive attention to their other endeavors (buy my book!) or raise awareness for a cause; still others may, indeed, hope that that exposure they get will lead to paying work down the road. It makes no sense, in this context, to just lump everyone together as “labor” just because some third party gets a benefit from the writing.
One odd aspect of Loomis’ argument is that, like a caricature of a Chicago School economist, he seems to want to insist that the economic motivation must really be the dominant one, though that actually seems pretty seriously implausible for the vast number of HuffPo writers who are clearly not young, unknown, aspiring writers—but rather established academics, celebrities, or activists. Here’s the reduction to the “cash nexus” for you: If some people write for money then all writing (at least if it appears in a for-profit publication) must be treated as “labor” and not truly voluntary or done for its own sake. As the existence of vanity presses shows, plenty of writers aren’t just willing to write for free, but will pay money to get their work out to an audience—maybe because they’re hoping for a lucrative deal with a conventional publisher down the line, but maybe because they just want someone to read what they have to say. Does anyone think we’d do those writers a favor by forbidding vanity presses from taking their money (and turning a profit)? Would it make a difference if the vanity press were paid, not by the author, but by an advertiser who stuck a flier in each book?
Even in the case of the aspiring writers who are hoping for a paycheck down the line, of course, “write free for exposure” (like “let a coffeeshop hang up your art for free might very well be a reasonable choice. Loomis’ argument relies—explicitly—on the paternalistic presumption that all those people are dupes, that their hopes are false, and that he knows better than they where and on what terms they ought to write. Hell, maybe they are: Lots of aspiring writers ultimately discover there isn’t a market for their work. But isn’t that up to them? It’s one thing to argue that a low-skilled worker with kids to feed and few employers to choose from isn’t really acting voluntarily when he “agrees” to low wages or poor conditions. But when that kind of argument isn’t pretty strictly limited to the most “coercive” types of circumstances, it risks meddling with people’s genuinely free choices.
The irony here is that it’s the unknown writers looking to get started who’d most likely lose out if HuffPo were bullied into only publishing paid content. Sure, they curate their blogs now, but they can afford to be relatively inclusive when it comes to the free writers—handing the keys to a large number of people and saying, in effect, “write as much or as little as you please.” If they’ve got to start paying people—which means administrative overhead on top of the actual fee for the writer—there’s a strong incentive to be more selective. So who gets cut? Not the “big names” Loomis says he’s not worried about, but the no-names who aren’t guaranteed to pull in traffic, or maybe the marginal paid staffer who’s no longer sufficiently subsidized by the ad revenue from the volunteer bloggers.
When Yglesias got started, I don’t think he planned to make a career of blogging. But it was easy for him to start a free Blogspot blog, because Blogger made their software and hosting service available so they could profit from running ads on all those free blogs—some of which were only ever read by a handful of people, some of which became wildly successful. Maybe Loomis is right, and it’s impossible for anyone starting out as a writer with a free, ad-supported blog to be the next Yglesias or Ezra Klein. Then again, maybe he’s wrong. Or maybe there are lots of people who benefit from sites like that who don’t want to be the next Yglesias—they’re just happy to have an audience, even if it’s a small one. Either way, I think we’re all better off having left the choice to those unpaid bloggers and their profit-seeking blog hosts rather than letting Erik Loomis decide, on the basis of his deep insight into writers’ motivations and the future of online media markets, what terms were acceptable.