NYT op-ed: Pay Internet writers!

Boy, does this ever speak to WW4 Report‘s existential dilemma! Your struggling writer recently griped: “The dumbing-down and contraction of print media generally has dried up much of the freelance market and forced me into self-publishing on the Net. The irony is that the hypertrophy of the Net has been a key factor in the decline of print media. So I have been forced into the arms of my enemy, so to speak. It seems to be like the Borg. Resistance is futile.” It is very vindicating to see Jaron Lanier, one of the original cyber-utopians, eating crow in the New York Times Nov. 21, and admitting the Internet has been a bad deal for writers:

Pay Me for My Content
Internet idealists like me have long had an easy answer for creative types — like the striking screenwriters in Hollywood — who feel threatened by the unremunerative nature of our new Eden: stop whining and figure out how to join the party!

That’s the line I spouted when I was part of the birthing celebrations for the Web. I even wrote a manifesto titled “Piracy Is Your Friend.” But I was wrong. We were all wrong.

Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry — Google, Facebook, MySpace and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft — are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users. (Disclosure: I’m the scholar at large for Microsoft Live Labs, and I once was part of a company that Google bought.)

There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated.

How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results.

To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.

We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.

People happily pay for content in certain Internet ecosystems, provided the ecosystems are delightful. People love paying for virtual art, clothing and other items in virtual worlds like Second Life, for instance. Something similar is going on for music within the ecosystem of the iPod. (I am an adviser to Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life.)

Affordable turns out to be much harder than free when it comes to information technology, but we are smart enough to figure it out. We owe it to ourselves and to our creative friends to acknowledge the negative results of our old idealism. We need to grow up.

See our last post on the politics of cyberspace.

  1. All in the same boat and it’s leaking
    First they came for the buggy whip manufacturers, but as I was not in the horse drawn carrage business, I did not speak up.
    Then they came for the musicians, but as I liked sound in movies, I did not speak up.
    Then they came for the hat makers, but as I didn’t wear or make hats, I did not speak up.
    Then they came for the novelists, but as I liked watching TV, I … uh … what were we talking about?
    Then they came for the air traffic controllers, but as it was morning in America and I felt strong again, I did not speak up.
    Then they came for the actors and screen writers, but as I liked renting videos, who cares?
    Then they came for small business, but as they felt my pain and there’s a ‘free’ in ‘free market’ and the economy was getting better, I did not speak up. Besides, who cares about wages and working condition overseas when I can drive to Walmart and buy cheap.
    Then they came for the musicians again, but I liked drum machines, rock videos and getting music downloaded for free so like whatever.
    They kept coming for the unions, but they’re a bunch of lazy old people who should just get with the program – besides, I was going to get work in the blogosphere.
    They came for writers a while back but I finally noticed it so I spoke up, name droping consultancy jobs at flavor of the month buzz word factories but worrying about next year’s paychecks.
    (the future)
    Then they came for Tom Friedman, and a cheer went up from the crowd.

    1. Money for writers
      Why the heck should anyone care about paying writers?

      After all, this kind of thing (writing, literacy, intelligence etc.) is just the foundation of our civilization…. And the founding geniuses of our civilzation never got paid, either. Has Homer received a royalty? Does Virgil get residuals? No! So of course, why should other writers get a dime?

      After all, we all know that our current actors (all brilliant minds, of course) like Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, John Travolta, Jennifer Aniston, Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins and Tom Cruise write their own dialogue and make up their lines. Heck, that’s why they get $20 million or so a picture, right?

      So why should the writers receive a dime?

      And we all know that Hollywood classics like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, The Godfather, Mutiny on the Bounty, etc. we all improvised by the actors… Which is why they’re all established classics.

      It was the brilliance of the acting crew. The writers had nothing to do with it.

      Obviously, we will all be better off with reality TV taking over our TV sets! “Hulk Hogan Knows Best”? Pure genius! “I Love New York”? What a show. Her and Tila Tequila obviously deserve their status as cultural icons, so why would we need writers to script a show… “The Search for America’s Most Smartest Model?” Well, that last TV title says it all. Obviously we are on a journey to a new, more sophisticated and smarter world society–without writers!

      Finally, I would like to thank the Writer’s Guild and the TV/film industry for excluding people like me over the years who might have been able to write something new and different… Thankfully they have stuck to the same old formulas–for both TV and movies. Let’s give thanks to the TV/film community for being a closed shop. After all, only rocket scientists could possibly come close to the genius they have exhibited over the years with all the excellect sitcoms and dramas and movies we’ve enjoyed so much for so long…

  2. NYT op-ed: Pay Internet writers! (Again)

    Well, seven years later and things have only gotten worse. This time the op-ed is entitled "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" by Tim Kreider. An excerpt:

    [In] our information economy…"paying for things" is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word "content" used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, "content providers" — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called "art" — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

    Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism's ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It's especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989. More recently, I had the essay equivalent of a hit single — endlessly linked to, forwarded and reposted. A friend of mine joked, wistfully, "If you had a dime for every time someone posted that …" Calculating the theoretical sum of those dimes, it didn't seem all that funny.