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The exposure economy

Last year Margaret Simons wrote on Crikey about the inconsistencies in payments for freelance writers working in the Australian media. The data she collected from freelancers led her to conclude that securing a fair price for work ‘seems to depend on who you deal with, and how you deal with them.’1 Simons’ survey revealed, for example, the story of a freelance writer who had composed twelve feature stories for Fairfax without once receiving payment.

Clearly, when it comes to freelancing the operative word is ‘free’. The work isn’t just inconsistent, it is an object lesson in insecurity. That Fairfax freelancer, for instance, justified the situation by explaining: ‘Of course, I only just started out, so at least everything that I write is being published. This is a comfort, as it tells me that the quality is adequate.’2 In her understated response, Simons pointed out that twelve published features should go some way to affirming one’s professional value. In the case of writers, insecurity doesn’t only plague the work but the worker – and as a breed, writers seem all too content with their deprivations.

The digital revolution in publishing and communications has been celebrated for liberating writers from their struggles with the monopoly structure of production and consumption. Thanks to the internet, a new vision of creative life is emerging: instead of lonely garrets there will be myriad opportunities for engaged and enthusiastic creation, distribution and critique on a level playing field – a second-generation do-it-yourself culture.

Despite such optimism, it is important to keep in mind that creative enterprises facilitated by the internet are no more independent from capitalist processes than their traditional counterparts are. Take, for example, the rise of blogs and social networking services that allow creative individuals to connect, create and distribute online. To participate, users are bound to profit-making service providers, and, in many instances, these providers not only make profits via advertising but by extracting the maximum value from their users via ownership of all those uploaded playlists, videos, photo streams and blog entries.

Writers, in particular, face something of a conundrum, often being caught between hope and panic. There has never been a time in which text and writing have been so central to and accessible in our daily lives as in the present. As media platforms have proliferated, the demand for written content has increased – but more demand doesn’t necessarily equate to more dollars. Largely unplanned expansion online by media organisations has meant workloads but not budgets have increased, just as traditional revenue streams (especially advertising) have dried up. In a bid to save money while finding niche ways to attract consumers, online media outlets have hit upon what appears to be a mutually agreeable solution: content is routinely produced free of charge by the audiences that also consume it. The scheme is attractive because it allows for the possibility of saving money while building audiences via the same mechanism: readers enjoying seeing themselves as co-creators of online media content.

Such changes affect the value, production and authority of the writer’s craft – none of which is a bad thing. Writing is evolving to take into account the collaborative, networked authorship demanded by video games, scripted reality television and crowd-sourced journalism, to say nothing of blogs and tweets. Writers are now likely to be rewarded for tasks inspired by their traditional roles but adapted to suit new requirements. But one should not overstate the self-empowerment afforded to writers by the internet. While there are new economic applications for writing – and new writing formats – these don’t always translate into profits for creators. As Publishers Weekly recently reported, so far the most serious challenge to people writing in the digital age is ‘the fact that it’s become very hard for writers to get paid’.3

Many writers have enthusiastically embraced the new opportunities, accepting that such experiments come with little in the way of financial compensation. After all, in the literary world it has long been standard to produce work in this way. Writers have a place in our cultural imagination as quasi-professionals prepared to work long hours under their own management, motivated by creative rather than financial rewards. In 2002, when Richard Florida coined the term ‘creative class’ (an amorphous category in which he includes artists and writers, as well as almost all contemporary ‘no collar workers’, from software developers to financial consultants), he was inspired by the personal drive and focus of creative workers, rather than any inherent aesthetic concerns. The uncertain conditions that have long characterised writers’ experiences (irregular employment and remuneration, a dearth of professional organisations and a system that encourages competition) are now commonplace across the majority of employment sectors. In our era, the writer represents the idealised version of the successful modern worker: able to accept precarity as flexibility, isolation as liberation and radical self-sufficiency as creative thinking. One need only look at advertising to see how the accessories of the freelance writer have become desirable consumer products. Liberated by a lightweight laptop, the freelancer has wi-fi savoir faire, an iPhone in one hand and a latte in the other. It is the Romantic notion of authorship updated for the twenty-first century – Wordsworth ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’; now he could roam digitally, enabled by cloud computing.

Unfortunately, reality is less glamorous. As American author Keith Gessen observes:

In the age of the internet there have never been so many people writing and publishing and living in terror of oblivion. All those unread websites – what do they say if not that, there but for fortune and a copy of Strunk and White, sit you?4

Historically, writing work has always involved a double economy: remuneration and reputation. Writers learn to value the attention of their peers and their public as much as a pay cheque. Even the ‘hack’ writers on Grub Street, unambiguously ‘for hire’, recognised that staying in work meant maintaining their profile. Writers are thus ever keen to get their names in print and, increasingly, on air and online. Indeed, the need to promote the professional self has only become more urgent. When there are many highly-trained individuals with the same skill set, talent levels and ambition all vying for the small number of positions, it is name recognition that distinguishes any one person from another. In the early days of newspaper and magazine publishing, journalism was sometimes cynically referred to as a device for advertising advertising. But for any writer, their work is more meaningfully understood as art and advertising, since it is only through readership that a writer builds reputation.

In most circumstances, writers are paid for their work and extract the additional professional value of a boosted reputation from publication. Increasingly, however, as publishing belts are tightened, many writing jobs attract no fee and instead offer exposure as payment.

You don’t need to search hard to find examples of this practice. Overland has cited exposure as a drawcard in attracting writers to work on its blog, for instance. ‘We can’t pay bloggers,’ said the journal’s editor, Jeff Sparrow, early last year on the website.

But we can offer guaranteed exposure for your writing on a high-traffic site of a prestigious journal. You’ll make connections with other writers; you’ll get your words out there; you’ll build something of a profile.5

Overland is by no means alone in making such an offer: the ABC as well as many magazines, newspapers and cultural organisations claim to provide exposure to writers in exchange for free content.6

The publishing industry has long relied on volunteer labour for proofreading and promotion, in order to balance the ledger, but, as a general rule, even small publications traditionally prioritised the payment of their writers. This tradition has evaporated with the rise of digital platforms for writing, the dissolution of the old model of supply and demand in the media and the increase in writers demonstrating their skills on self-managed blogs. Paid writing work used to operate on the basis of two assumptions: the demand for content (the need to fill that blank space that advertised the advertising) and the writers’ demand for payment. ‘Show me a writer who, when not writing for pay, deliberately writes for fun or for self-expression, and I’ll show you one of the rarest cases of freakish misapplication in the entire dime museum of the human race,’ wrote the fiction writer and humorist Irvin S Cobb in 1941.7 Writers’ willingness to experiment online was a case of letting the cat (or the freak, in Cobb’s lexicon) out of the bag: will work for fun.

There is nothing wrong with volunteer labour. In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that about 3.5 million Australians worked for ‘some or no pay’ in a cultural activity over the previous year. The only stipulation made by the ABS for defining this involvement was that it had to exclude activities that were only for personal, family or friends’ use. Asking for and supplying services in this manner is the essential aspect of the ‘gift economy’ that is at the very heart of creativity: you give, but we all gain. Without the provision of skills for free, some of the greatest literary achievements would never have seen the light of day (Sylvia Beach edited and published Joyce’s Ulysses at considerable personal and professional expense, for instance). But the promise of some amorphous ‘exposure’ in return for volunteer work complicates the simplicity of the scenario. It becomes a transaction. And a bad one at that, since the promised return currency is dubious.

While the concept of exposure seems obvious enough, it can be very difficult to pinpoint precisely what is meant and, thus, its value. Being exposed isn’t always a good thing, of course. You might be caught out in public, naked, for instance. Or left exposed on the side of a mountain for days. The salient feature being that, whatever you’re doing, you’re undefended and unprotected. In the context of writing and publishing, exposure refers to the possibility of an audience, the opportunity to be placed before the public in the hope of getting noticed. But the Oxford English Dictionary records the mutation of the word throughout the 1990s as it comes to allude to having practical skill in a specified work. Essentially, exposure and experience have been conflated.

Once there existed a time-honoured tradition of volunteer labour in publishing, involving cadetships and apprenticeships for vocationally minded juniors, offering practical instruction in exchange for discount work, all with a view to a permanent position. Today, cadetships are more commonly called ‘internships’, a term that simply means a job for the recently graduated. This change is not insignificant. The prevalence of internships has grown over the last twenty years as higher education institutions, informed by the rhetoric of the ‘creative industries’ (which emphasises the potential for profit-making in sectors not traditionally associated with artistic enterprise, such as tourism, business and government), increasingly provide vocational degrees, in which unpaid internships are often an essential component of the qualification. This perhaps partly explains the propensity for emerging writers to offer their services for free. The practice of interning, which offers no promises for permanent work, instead boasts this new form of industry ‘exposure’, an intangible form of experience that is exceedingly difficult to measure. This creates a system in which skills are strangely devalued because few people ever arrive for work inexperienced in their chosen profession. What matters is the profile of the exposure you’ve managed to accrue. In this respect, offers like those by Overland are representative of the times: writers are more professionalised but no better off financially. It’s the position, not the pay, that is the prize.

To be sure, the lure of exposure is not confined to writers, or to creative workers who specialise in online production. Sociologist Andrew Ross has noted, for instance, how the notion of working in exchange for personal and professional publicity was popularised during the dotcom bubble of the 1990s and has now become:

further institutionalized in the social networking frenzy of the Web 2.0 era where users have unlimited access but no rights over their content. In that world, all manner of active, volunteer content serves as the lucrative raw material … [T]he prize for users is to win attention, accumulate ‘friends’, score a hit, and draw some bankable advantage from the exposure. But for the business entrepreneur, the outcome is a virtually wage-free proposition in which users, or prosumers, as industry strategists call them, create all the surplus value.8

Working in exchange for exposure means individuals tie their identities to their work in new ways. In this new labour landscape, self-consciousness stands in for collective cohesion (in the form of unions, say, or even a shared office space) and work conditions become biographical struggles. It is not a question of work/life balance, or rather, it is not only a question of work/life balance; instead, it is the tendency to equate professional development with personal development. For example, difficult work conditions can be transformed into a narrative of individual merit involving personal development, creative expression and self-sufficiency. If finding work that is satisfying means working flexibly, without pay or without benefits, then so be it – if it feels good, do it.

The narrative means that one can celebrate a personal achievement while coping with professional insecurity. What matters is not the work, but its emotional content. Employment becomes a manifestation of an expressive self that seeks attention and affirmation.

But is exposure really an adequate reward? I’m reminded here of a recent web comic on Cat and Girl in which the characters are shown doing hard labour at an ‘internship camp’, each justifying their work with progressively worse explanations: the first takes home a dismal wage, the second gets university credit and the third ‘is doing it for the exposure’.9 Perhaps the most distressing part of this satire is that, for all the effort involved, the promised exposure seems non-existent. To whom are you really exposed when you’re digging ditches in digital media?

This is not to suggest that there are low readerships online, or that there aren’t professional gains to be made (undoubtedly, writing online for a national or international audience gives a writer a great chance to practise skills, commit to routine and holds the potential to develop an online professional network). Rather, my point is that both the concept of ‘exposure’ and many writers’ willingness to accept it as fair currency is more than a little dodgy. As one writer astutely observed:

How would a plumber feel if you called him up, told him your toilet was busted, and said, hey, if you come and fix it, you can use it as a ‘profile building exercise’, great exposure! You could even stick it on your CV … How’s that for payment?10

Despite dissatisfaction with the system, the evidence suggests that writers are, at worst, ambivalent about refusing unpaid or underpaid work. Consider Simons’ Fairfax freelancer, or the many bloggers who complained about Overland’s unpaid job offer, yet still concluded their angry online posts with ‘I’ll probably apply, though’.11 The institutionalised competitive drive of the precarious new labour market facilitates what I believe is an unfounded faith in the rewards of an exposure economy. The rationale goes, ‘If I don’t do it, someone else will …’ This is, effectively, a version of the logic problem known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, those who find themselves in the trap of free work could reach a better outcome by colluding (making a pact of some sort) than by acting independently. But as Simons’ study pointed out, the dictates of the freelance economy obfuscate clarity and communality, so that everything ‘seems to depend on who you deal with, and how you deal with them’.

In a recent edition of the British magazine Prospect, Leo Benedictus reflected on creative writing courses. He declared, ‘Like all writers in search of readers, we will always willingly exploit ourselves.’12 Perhaps this is so – history certainly confirms that writers are willing to suffer for their art. But exposure and readership aren’t always the same thing. Readership involves becoming part of something: it is a club of sorts; it relies upon sharing knowledge and experience. Exposure is the opposite: by its very definition it means being left out, defenceless. Writers are their own worst enemies in this respect. Ironically, the appeal of self-employment is having power over one’s economic destiny, but unquestioningly accepting the value of exposure means accepting disempowerment.

This speaks most forcefully to the continued insecurity associated with creative work. No matter how many advertising campaigns depict cool freelance creatives sitting before glowing laptops in cafes, the reality is that individuals working in fields where they are judged on what they produce come equipped with less pleasurable work accessories like anxiety, shame and uncertainty. Why else would employees tolerate long hours, pressure, discounted pay and promises of exposure in return for their chance at satisfying work? Even when work is fun, writers feel guilty that they should have such a sweet deal.13

It doesn’t need to be this way. To be a freelancer need not mean accepting a place on the margins of work. Personal sacrifice is not a precondition for creativity, nor should we be content to accept the proposition that only a small group of individuals in possession of high-quality consumer electronics will be given access to personally gratifying work.

The absence of organisation and regulation in freelance work is both the cause and the outcome of its individualisation, with working hours and conditions largely beyond scrutiny, and inequities that are routinely personalised and internalised. Scrutiny needs to be directed onto this situation and to the (il)logic that supports it: that providing ‘exposure’ is equivalent to providing experience, or readership, or representation. The exposure economy sustains the notion that writers need the imprimatur of others to legitimise their labours. It feeds upon and exacerbates the insecurities of those who have put their faith so radically in themselves. Given that so much of the action and innovation in our culture comes from freelancers and other forms of distributed labour networks, these workers cannot – and should not – consider themselves so peripheral to the decision-making centres of the workforce.

  1. Margaret Simons, ‘What are freelancers paid? The Wrap’, Crikey, 8 February 2010, http://blogs.crikey.com.au/contentmakers/2010/02/08/what-are-freelancers-paid-the-results/, accessed 23 January 2010.
  2. As above.
  3. Calvin Reid, Andrew Albanese and Rachel Deahl, ‘Hit and miss and more’, Publishers Weekly, 16 December 2010, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/conferences/article/45539-hit-and-miss-and-more-mediabistro–s-ebook-summit-returns.html, accessed 23 January 2010.
  4. Keith Gessen, ‘Dave Eggers: Teen idol’, n+1, vol. 1, no. 1, 2004, p. 41.
  5. Jeff Sparrow, ‘Blogging for Overland’, Overland (blog post), http://web.overland.org.au/poetry-prize/blogging-for-overland/, accessed 23 January 2010.
  6. This situation was the cause for much online discussion at the time of Overland’s announcement of its unpaid blogging positions in early 2010. Inspired by a similar project created by the ABC Radio National program ‘The Book Show’ (in collaboration with youth-oriented media group Express Media), both organisations received considerable criticism for seeming to reinforce the notion that blogging was an illegitimate mode of writing work. See, for example, Lisa Dempster, ‘The (il)legitimacy of blogs’, Unwakeable blog, 11 September 2009, http://www.lisadempster.com.au/?p=1775; John Birmingham, ‘Aunty? I want some answers’, The Geek blog, 22 January 2010, http://blogs.brisbanetimes.com.au/technology/thegeek/2010/01/22/itsnotofteni.html.
  7. Irvin S Cobb, Exit Laughing, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1941, p. 319.
  8. Andrew Ross, ‘The political economy of amateurism’, Television & New Media, vol. 10, no. 1, 2009, p. 137.
  9. Dorothy Gambrell, ‘Internship camp’, Cat and Girl, 22 April 2010, http://catandgirl.com/?p=2448.
  10. Brad (comment thread), in reply to Dempster.
  11. See the comment thread attached to Dempster.
  12. Leo Benedictus, ‘The write stuff’, Prospect, no. 178, 2011, pp. 74–7.
  13. As part of research into emerging artists’ attitudes to free work in creative industries I am collecting data via an anonymous questionnaire, ‘Giving it Away: Stories of Working for Free in the Arts’. Early results from this survey confirm that despite dissatisfaction with increasing rates of free labour in the Arts, workers willingly accept that they need to work for exposure, often explaining away these inequities as the inevitable downside of an otherwise ‘sweet deal’ (not being stuck on the corporate track). The questionnaire can be accessed via a link at the research project blog: http://printedmattersproject.blogspot.com.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Caroline Hamilton is the McKenzie Research Fellow in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Her research concentrates on the small publishing and literary cultures of contemporary Melbourne.

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