Are writers the slaves of the Internet?

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

…This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them.

…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.

That is Tim Kreider writing in the New York Times this weekend. I’m a big fan of Kreider’s pieces, but this one got me riled up.

I’m reminded of a story I heard Friday night. Jeannie and I are lucky to have in our lives two veteran New Yorkers, one in her 70s and the other in her 80s, both ladies made of steel. The elder reached, in her middle years, head of pediatrics at one of the great public hospitals in the city. This is a remarkable feat for a woman in her time. And she was grossly underpaid compared to her male colleagues. Before her, there had been maybe one generation of eminent female heads of medicine, and they had the honor of being paid nothing.

I recoiled at one story, and felt cynical about the other. Why is that?

In my doctor friend’s case, the culture and the profession colluded against her. She was willing to work for free because it was better than the feeble alternatives that the world offered a person of ambition and generosity who sought fulfillment from work. I’d find this cultural collusion reprehensible even if it it didn’t discriminate by gender.

Why does Kreider’s writing example feel different to me? It’s not just writers who have this experience. People work (initially) for peanuts in a great many professions–the humanitarian aid worker, fashion designer, or restauranteur often make next to nothing at first.

I don’t see collusion of the buyers here. I see professions where entry is not so difficult, and people find fulfillment and esteem in the work itself. There is excess supply, at least on the lower rungs of the profession.

But this has always been true. What is new about writing? The Internet. It has lowered the barriers to entry and so increased supply and competition.

At the same time, writers can reach a wider audience at lower cost, and so (in principle) there is less demand for people who produce content for a mass audience.

The same might not be true of niche or quality content. People who have a differentiated talent, specialized audience, or skillful ways will command good sums, maybe even bigger sums than before.

I feel for Kreider, but he tells only his side of the story. Writers were, to a degree, protected by costs of entry and distance and communication. That protection is falling away. This is painful and disruptive, especially because it is so abrupt. But the other sides must be told.

One is that more people get a shot at an audience than ever before, from academic development economists to North African activists to precocious 20-year olds with talent. Another side is that more people get more information and ideas at a lower price than ever before.

If good writing and ideas are valuable, surely making it cheaper and more widely available is a good thing? Especially for the people in the world who before could least afford it.

Kreider’s suggestion sounds like a guild–basically to raise the barriers again. Indeed, he urges sellers (writers) to collude–to raise their prices (or at least do nothing for free). This is a time-honored tradition: Cartels and guilds are good for the insiders but bad for the outsiders. I’d need to hear why it’s good on net to buy in to his idea, and I don’t see it.

I think there are good arguments in Kreider’s favor, but they are different than the ones he made.

If professions like journalism, fashion or aid require people to work for free to eventually enter, it will keep out the poorest. Sort of like law and medicine. This will be terrible if true. (On the other hand, the voices least heard–developing countries where real wages are low–will have an advantage.)

One also worries that the trend is towards bad content, poorly researched, with little work behind it.

I was once concerned about this, but am not now. One reason is that every time I return to my hometown, Ottawa, I am struck by the horrible quality of news reporting. And this is the nation’s capital. If access to news and ideas on the Internet is an unadulterated good thing in much of the world.

Also, I can honestly say that I’ve never had such access to high quality, in-depth researched pieces than I do now. I don’t know if there is more or less investigative journalism going on in the world, but I see and can access more of it. Plus I hear the voices of activists and academics that would otherwise be condemned to silence. the content is more and better, but much of it is coming from new players.

The tragedy of technological change and the market is that people get caught in the middle of change, and suffer, most of all when that change is fast. Journalists and news organizations are hurting, and this is worthy of concern. But journalism and news, in my mind, are doing better than ever, and this is worthy of note.

I’m eager to hear the counterpoint from journalist and writers who read the blog.

The fist one should start with: “Easy for you to talk about the beauty of markets, jerk, when the government and your students’ parents pay your salary, subsidizing you to give away for free what the rest if us have to work for.”