The Cost of Writing for Free

I rather enjoyed my experience with La Redoute, in fact. The company markets its own take on “Frenchness,” perceived as good taste and functionality in the area of clothes and home furnishings. I made a mistake with the order, then had a perfectly pleasant conversation with a young man who straightened everything out and went on to arrange for home delivery — as a gesture of goodwill. I was a very happy customer.

Then the company invited me to review their service — in writing. Not only that, they offered quite a substantial prize — worth £100 — for the “best” review. Should I feel flattered that my writing might be worth that much, or annoyed with them for an arrangement that relieves them of having to actually pay people for very, very skilled work? £100 might be a fair price for a few hundred words. But although I think I write reasonably well, I’m not interested in competing with anyone! Of the dozens of people who may submit reviews, only one will win. The others — and they may also be very good — have spent their time and energy for nothing, for free.

I’m thinking back to Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now. Lanier’s is a virtual reality guy — loves the Internet, loves real reality, and is certain that actual human beings are far, far more creative and interesting than you’d ever suppose from looking at social media. His objection is that the platforms, being completely free to users, present themselves as valueless. So whatever people create and upload — words, photographs — are free (read: no protection against that work being hacked apart, mixed up, or simply stolen and attributed to someone else). Lanier would prefer tiny payments both directions — get paid when you upload, pay when you access and read — I can’t remember whether he mentioned this, but it would presumably leave an electronic trail of who wrote what when, a modest insurance against wholesale cutting and pasting. People who post a lot and have lots of readers establish a value in currency.

Another e-mail arrived just now, asking whether I received the book I ordered. I click on the link — it’s only polite — and find an invitation to review the absolutely fascinating experience of buying a book…

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