I have wanted to add these thoughts to our Feed for a long time: Though I suspect that nothing of value seems easy to accomplish these days, being a knowledge worker and content developer seems especially difficult given that the bar for being a content developer and, at least, pretending to be a knowledge worker has never been lower. It has become all too easy to become a producer of content given the tools and interconnectivity of the digital era. This state of play is somewhat paradoxical in light of the fact that knowledge, experience and creativity are the least likely categories of work to be automated away anytime soon.
So, in order for knowledge work and content development to be economically viable these days, business models and consumers of digital content are going to need to change with the times.
Author and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, who hosts the intellectually-stimulating Waking Up Podcast, has made the case for supporting digital content as well as anyone I’ve heard. Here at Alphacution, we are learning to adopt and emulate some of these methods.
If you enjoy and want to continue to receive quality work – like ours and others – find a way to support it…
We’ve all begun to expect everything online for free. And, I include myself in this. I want to read articles and watch videos, and I don’t want to pay anything for them. If someone sends me a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal, and I hit their paywall, I’m not going to read it. I don’t want to subscribe to another newspaper or magazine, certainly not for a single article – and, money aside – it’s too much of a hassle.
But, of course, everything can’t be free online or no one will be able to make a living producing quality work. We have yet to find an elegant solution to this problem. But, the problem runs deeper than this because people actually make a significant effort to find content for free rather than buy it. I’ve heard from several people – ostensibly fans – who are waiting to find [some of my work] for free on a file sharing site that is illegally pirated.
There are people who express a totally positive orientation toward my work, but they just don’t want to spend $4.99 on a video. And, in fact, I’ve heard from people who bought the video and really enjoyed it, but regretted that they had purchased it before they realized that it was available on a file sharing site for free. And, of course, it’s only available on a file sharing site because somebody – some fan of mine, I suspect; I actually don’t think this was malicious – but, some fan bought the video and then uploaded it because he felt that he is a better judge of whether it should be offered for free than I am.
So, this is an interesting problem because I completely understand the expectation that information should be free. Again, I feel it myself online. Paywalls suck. We need to find a more elegant solution than repeatedly asking people to input their credit card information. But, we are all experiencing a race to the bottom now, where it is becoming harder and harder to charge for content online, and therefore, harder to have a career as a writer or musician or photographer or filmmaker or journalist.
Now, content creators are all in competition with one another but they are also in competition with free versions of themselves. It’s interesting to see what’s happening here: I’m losing a competition with a free version of myself. I was being penalized for having written blog articles that were so long and fulfilling – apparently – that they seemed to undermine any justification for charging for something of similar length in the future.
This is a weird situation to be in. For instance, I just spoke about a book that I am writing. Now, its of similar length and format to some of the longest conversations that I have had on my blog. And, the question will be asked: Why not just release this on your blog for free? Well, there are several reasons, but the main one is that it takes a lot of time to do this well. And, I asked a lot of [my collaborator’s] time to get this book written. And it is just unsustainable to spend this kind of time – again and again and again – for free. And most of the writing I do is for free – and most of the speaking I’ve done has been for free, but it has to be subsidized by work that is financially viable. If you like reading my blog articles or you like listening to podcasts or seeing videos of me online for free, the only way to support this work is to buy the thing I’m selling when I’m selling it.
Now, my concern is that this is all sounding more mercenary than it is. It is an immense privilege to do the work that I do. I actually get paid – sometimes – to do work that I would do anyway for free. I’m not working in a coal mine. But, the general picture here, that you should all be aware of, is that it is increasingly difficult to figure out how to get paid for doing work of this kind. I’m in a privileged position to absorb this difficulty and many other writers and podcasters aren’t. So, if there’s a podcast that you love and you have been listening to it for free for months and there is some way to support it – for instance, they have a donate button – I would encourage you to support it. Because we are all trying to find some way to cross over into this digital future of media. And, free really is the enemy. Free has made it almost impossible for musicians to get paid for their music. Now they’re just forced to tour endlessly to make up the difference. The problem for writers in particular is that touring is generally not an option. Many writers are not people who can make money speaking. They were writers, after all.
Unless we can figure out how to subsidize the creation of quality content with something other than banner ads, the entire world is going to become the Huffington Post. Now, unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is, but personally for the moment at least I intend to occasionally charge for something that took a lot of work to create and then do the rest for free.
So, think of this in light of my forthcoming book with [my collaborator] which also could be offered for free on my blog. If you are behind the project of speaking honestly about these topics – and you think I am contributing something useful to that conversation – then when we are selling something, then the only way to cast your vote – not just about the book, but about podcasts like this – is to buy it and read it and talk about it – and not wait for some pirated version of it to be scanned and put online for free…