So here’s one totally out of left field : a true story about — feel free to stifle a yaw right now if you must — blogging.
I’m not in the habit of talking much about blogging itself on my blog since it seems like opening the floodgates to a near-fatal self-referential loop, but I’m wondering, since I know there are other bloggers out there who read my blathering, if anything like this has ever happened to you or, if not, what you’d do in regards to such a scenario if it were to happen. For my part, I found the answer I came up with to be a very easy one indeed, but if you disagree with me, then by all means, tell me why!
Here’s the set-up : a few days back I got an email from somebody I didn’t know who claimed to be a reader of my site. Okay, that’s cool, I get a fair number of random emails from people who want to shoot the shit about various movies or comics I’ve reviewed, or from indie filmmakers who want me to take a look at their wares in the hopes of getting me to review it. In short, getting a random email from somebody is no big deal to me at this point. This one, however, seemed a little different right from the outset.
The person writing me seemed to have very definite ideas about what she was requesting me to do — but on the other hand, maybe not so much. She suggested that I “talk about a foreign film that has an American remake and discuss the differences, with special emphasis on points that had been lost in translation directly due to language.” Given that there are plenty of Americanized versions of foreign flicks to choose from, particularly in the horror genre, I wrote her back and asked if she had any specific film in mind. She said no, I “could choose for myself” (gosh! thanks for giving me the option of what to write about on my own blog!), all she cared about was that I draw plenty of attention to the differences between the two and highlight “how language can affect the way we experience a story.” I told her I’d think about it — more to be polite than anything else — and then came the sales pitch.
Later the same day, I got a fairly lengthy email outlining precisely what this individual — who, I feel the need to point out again, I didn’t know from a hole in the ground — wanted me to do : she laid out the whole European-or-Asian original vs. American remake scenario again, then asked if I could please mention a particular software product (which I won’t name) made by her company (which, likewise, I’ll refrain from naming) that has a tangential relationship to the theme she was hoping to get me to write about, and to talk about how this product can help to “bridge communication barriers caused by language differences.” She also said there was a deadline of next week to have the post up, but that they “could be flexible on that if you’re not able to have it done that soon.” She then politely implored of me : “please don’t disclose that you were contacted by us and asked to do this” because — get ready to laugh — “we’re only reaching out to select bloggers who we feel can adequately convey our message.”
In other words — shill for our product, but do it in a faux-casual way, and please don’t tell anyone that’s what you’re doing, or our cover is blown.
She closed by asking me to please send a link to the article once I was finished writing it and wished me a good day. All this after having the unmitigated gall to a) tell me what to write about (at least in a thematic sense); b) tell me when I need to have it done by; and c) insist that I include a free plug for her product, which I knew nothing about, and to do so on the “down-low” without being upfront with my readers about it.
My inclination at this point was already to say “thanks, but no thanks,” but I figured, what the hell? Like anyone else, my conscience can be bought at the right price, so I asked her what this assignment — and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it was — paid. In fact, the exact words I used were, “not to be too blunt, but what’s in it for me?”
Are you ready for the kicker? Because here it comes.
After beginning her email with a “Dear Ryan” for the first time, my new-found “friend” said “unfortunately, there is no budget for this project, so we’re not able to offer any monetary compensation for participating, but” — get this! — “think of it as a way to start a conversation with your readers about language and film, and look at it as an opportunity to drive traffic to your blog.” She said that she “understood” if I “declined to participate since there’s no money involved,” but let me know that “we’ve had plenty of other great posts from other bloggers who have participated and they’ve all generated terrific conversations.” She also said that “at some point in the future” her company “may decide to link to your post” (where, exactly, she didn’t say, but I’m guessing on the company website) and that will “generate even more hits to your site if we decide to do so.”
So, to recap in the simplest possible terms : these folks wanted me to surreptitiously pimp their product for them in exchange for absolutely fucking nothing. Unless you consider a half-assed promise that they “may” link to the post “at some point in the future” and that said link “will generate hits to your site” some sort of payment-in-kind/trade — which I most assuredly don’t. And my “blog traffic” is just fine without their “assistance,” thanks very much — in fact, I’m betting they know it’s pretty damn good or they wouldn’t even have bothered to contact me in the first place. Nobody cares about advertising to an audience of zero, but when you get something like 400 or 500 “hits” per day, like I do, I guess companies feel like you’re talking to some folks they’d like to reach.
So — I wrote back, saying “Dear (fill-in-the-blank), thank you for your offer, but as a simple matter of principle, I don’t believe in advertising for somebody I don’t know without some sort of compensation. Still, I’m intrigued by the idea that a campaign such as this could somehow work and that others have agreed to spend their time working for you for free. Your salesmanship skills must be extraordinary indeed. If you could please send me some links to these other posts you mention that have gone up and generated these terrific conversations and increased blog hits for people, I’d be happy to take a look, and maybe I’ll reconsider my position” — not that I would, mind you, I just wanted to see if anybody was dumb enough to actually do this.
Her response? None. I’m still waiting — and I’ll always be waiting, because I can guarantee you that nobody’s taken her up on her “offer.” At least I sure hope not.
Look, I’ve been doing this for a few years now and I get how the new “zero-wage” online economy works : nobody’s got any money, so almost nobody pays a dime. Blogging should be looked upon purely as a hobby, but if you do manage to “get noticed,” as I have, you might get offers to write for other sites — and almost none of them pay anything, either, because they’re just as broke as you are. It’s one big digital plantation. But you know what? I think there’s a hell of a difference between providing free content for a site that doesn’t pay and advertising for a major software company — or a major company of any kind, for that matter — for free. If this person who contacted me was a friend of mine who needed some help marketing their product, that would be one thing, but for somebody who doesn’t know you to contact you out of the blue, make very specific requests about how they want you to advertise their product, and then offer you jack shit in return — well, that takes some real nerve.
It’s also pretty indicative of a total lack of respect on the part of the person making the “offer” toward the person they’re making it to, is it not? And if somebody were to agree to do it, then it’s a sign of a pretty serious lack of self-respect on their part, since they obviously agree with the corporate stooge pitching the assignment to them that their time and effort isn’t actually worth anything. But, ya know, thanks for working for us for free all the same, sucker. Even the most dead-broke filmmaker or wannabe-filmmaker who wants you to review their movie either sends you a screener copy in the mail or hooks you up with a link to watch it digitally. This software company worth millions of dollars wasn’t even willing to pony up a free copy of their product in exchange for me doing their “guerrilla marketing” for them.
So, my question to anybody reading this who blogs or does any other writing online is this : are there any circumstances under which you’d have told this person “yes”? If so, thenit’s no wonder that there’s no way to “make a living” as a writer online these days — after all, if we think so little of what we’re doing that we’d be willing to help sell a product for free, then it stands to reason that the “suits” making these “offers” have a directly- proportionate lack of regard for our efforts. Shit, a company isn’t allowed to do that to its employees — working without pay is called slavery, and we fought a war to get rid of it about a century and a half ago. Why, then, is it legal for companies to “employ” people online without compensation when it’s totally fucking illegal to do so in the “real” world?