False Dichotomies

LITERATURE HIP-HOP ISRAEL INDIA LOVE MISCELLANY

The New Slaves?

I know how they feel. Out of nowhere, you suddenly get the opportunity to write for one of the biggest media outlets in the world. Instead of a trickle of people reading your articles, thousands do. Hundreds join in the talkbacks. Your pieces get linked far and wide: you are a big player in the blogosphere.

At any rate, that’s how it felt during my first few months blogging for the Guardian’s flagship ‘Comment is Free’ site. It was genuinely thrilling to watch the responses roll in, to do battle with adversaries, and to see my pieces at the top of the comment leader-board. In my case, I also got paid for it (albeit not vast sums); if not, then I might now be as disgruntled as Jonathan Tasini is.

Following the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, Tasini has launched a class action lawsuit on behalf of “a putative class of over 9,000 writers and other content providers to The Huffington Post”, requesting at least $105 million in damages. According to Tasini, “Ariella Huffington is pursuing the Wal-Martization of creative content and a Third World class of creative people. Actually, that is unfair to Wal-Mart because at least Wal-Mart pays its workers something for the value those workers create. In Arianna Huffington’s business model, economic gain is only reserved for her. Everyone else, apparently, is expected to work for free regardless of the value they create. Greed and selfishness is the order of the day.” It’s true that the Huffington Post doesn’t pay its bloggers. It’s also true that the work of the Huffington Post’s bloggers has played an important role in making the site what it is. Without the bloggers, AOL probably wouldn’t have bought it for such a tidy sum.

But what’s missing is the bit where somebody held a gun to those 9,000 writers’ heads and demanded that they provide content. As they weren’t being paid for their time, we can safely assume that – unlike the guys at Wal-Mart – they didn’t desperately need the money in order to provide for their families. We can also assume that – whatever her other sins might be – Arianna Huffington was savvy enough to make it clear that writing for the Huffington Post didn’t mean you were entitled to any chunks of a future sale. So why did they do it?

Read the first paragraph again. If the bloggers didn’t do it for the fortune, they probably did it for the fame. They reasoned, not unreasonably, that writing at a site like the Huffington Post would be a good launch-pad for their work to reach a wider audience. Like an intern, they thought it would be good for their careers. You’d have to ask them whether they were right or not. But to turn round now and start moaning about the injustice of it all seems rather unreasonable.

That’s not to say they don’t have a case. I’m less interesting in the legalities than in what this story tells us about how a blogger should go about his craft. I agree with Tasini that writers should be compensated for work they do for a commercial enterprise. So the first thing an aspiring blogger should do is say no. It’s all very well calling for a picket line now, but if you had refused to write without payment when the Huffington Post was getting started, all of this might have been avoided. You knew the terms and conditions, and you went ahead regardless. Arianna Huffington’s only crime, in this case, is that she knew the mindset of the wannabe media type all too well.

It will be interesting to follow this case over the coming months. I very much hope to explore some of the issues that arise from it. For the most part, I suppose I’ll be doing it for free. For a blogger, such is the price of freedom. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Eamonn April 27th, 2011 11:54 am

    “. It’s all very well calling for a picket line now, but if you had refused to write without payment when the Huffington Post was getting started, all of this might have been avoided. You knew the terms and conditions, and you went ahead regardless.”

    Exactly.

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