Blogging and the underpant gnomes

One of my favourite South Park episodes features the Underpant Gnomes, who have a plan for world domination:

Step 1: collect underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

I’m reminded of them any time I browse the various journalism jobs sites, where you’ll invariably spot jobs that aren’t jobs, all of which have been posted by the internet equivalent of the Underpant Gnomes.

Jobs that aren’t jobs? Underpant gnomes?

A job is something you do for money. Jobs that aren’t jobs are those job listings that look like job ads, read like job ads, have the same requirements as job ads, but have one key difference from job ads: there’s no cash involved. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Instead, you’ll be offered “exposure” and, if you’re lucky, an unspecified share of the unspecified profits that will result from an unspecified level of success at an unspecified point of time.

This, then, is what they’re offering would-be writers:

Step 1: write stuff for us
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

And this is their business plan:

Step 1: get people to write stuff
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

As I said, they’re underpant gnomes. But the explosion of blogging has given them a new lease of life, and the same old ads are starting to reappear – but this time they’re headed “bloggers wanted” rather than “writers wanted”.

The reason for the resurgence in such adverts is that the people behind them have looked at weblogs and thought “hey! People write for free! That means they’ll write for free, for me!”

What amazes me about the write-for-free crowd is that their ads wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry. For example, some people like tinkering with cars. Can you imagine if a garage placed ads looking for mechanics, charged its customers for any work carried out, but expected the mechanics to work for free? Some people like doing DIY. Would a firm of painters and decorators hire new employees on the understanding that they wouldn’t get a penny for their efforts (Work experience aside)? Yet when it comes to writing, there’s this assumption that businessmen and women – which is what the people behind these ads believe themselves to be – should pay for every aspect of their business except for the important bit: their site content.

Think I’m exaggerating? I saw one ad a few weeks back (can’t remember the URL, sorry) looking for bloggers, whose content would be syndicated across 17 different web sites. The pay? Zero. The promise? Exposure. The employer? A large chain of local newspapers – that is, a perfectly profitable business that pays its existing writers, but expects people to provide its online content for free. Meanwhile the firm will sell ad space on its sites, and the blogs would drive traffic to those advertisers – and the bloggers wouldn’t get a single penny. You can bet that the firm asked its existing writers first, and those writers said “sure, at the usual rates” – so the newspaper publisher thought “aha! Bloggers!” Is it me, or is that taking the piss?

Journalists have some experience of this – and we’re pretty good at spotting the scams. For example, about a year ago I was approached by a music site who wanted to re-run an article I’d already stuck on the web. We talked for a bit and it turned out the site was strictly non-profit, designed as a resource for musicians. Great, I said. Go ahead, reprint away. And then a month later I visited the site and discovered that my article was being used to sell advertising, the profits of which were being kept by the site owners. Underpant gnomes. Cue some very irate emails and the article being removed from the site (it’s still online, ad-free, on my own music site). Writing for free? Sure. Writing for free so that someone else can make money from my work? No chance.

It’s important to point out that the internet underpant gnomes aren’t hobbyists, or charities. They’re people who have decided that there’s gold in them thar interwebs, and that the way to get that gold is to get lots of people to provide content for nothing. That’s the online equivalent of opening a shop and expecting Nike or Armani to give you all your stock for nothing, with no cut of any sales.

Of course, bloggers write for free – but free of charge doesn’t mean free from benefits. You might run an amazon wish list, or google ads. You might blog because you want to flex your writing muscles, or because you’re obsessed with a particular firm, film star or technology, or because you’ve found that blogging is a much easier way of communicating than posting on spam-filled newsgroups or avoiding flame wars on messageboards. Or you might blog because you’re a journalist who wants to mouth off about any old crap (raises hand). There are almost as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers, and they’re all valid.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t blog for others at all. For example, like-minded bloggers could and do get together to create multi-author blogs for no financial reward, and that’s great. However, far too many of the “writers wanted” (and now, “bloggers wanted”) ads are something very different: someone that intends to set up a business and wants people to help them do that for nothing.

In most cases those “businesses” are doomed from the start: let’s start a gadget weblog! Yeah, that’s a great idea, because Engadget and Gizmodo don’t exist. Let’s start a Republican blog! Aye, because there aren’t any of them on the web. A music weblog! Yeah, that’ll sell lots of ads. In most cases these sites will disappear in a fairly short time without generating a single penny, and the time and effort you’ve put into such sites would have been much better spent on your own weblog. If you’re not being paid, any benefits that derive from your writing should go to you.