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.

If you buy this weblog your life will be better

Over at Batflattery, Stephen ponders the nature of gadget addiction, iPod love and other 21st century obsessions.

Some of the most creative of us spend their working time persuading us that we can have it all, or at least that we can have what their clients are selling. (Spending so much time at it, no doubt, that they have no time to actually live out the precepts of their own creations.) And they are very, very good at it. The cumulative effect is a kind of life-spanning Attention Deficit Disorder, as we flit from one product to another, trying to capture the portrayed lifestyle and experience the ersatz pleasure we see acted out with such consummate skill before our eyes, but without enough precious time to invest in any of them to really make it work. Serial frustration, always falling short of the impossible dreams of advertising.

I suspect that, as someone who spends most of his time writing for consumer magazines, I’m one of the creative types he’s talking about: as the word “consumer” suggests, most magazines have an overt or covert agenda, which is “buy stuff”. The agenda’s overt with “what car”, “what camera”, “what stick” and so on, but Whether it’s Q, Empire, Word, GQ, computer magazines, Official Xbox magazine or any other title, the purpose of most consumer publishing is to persuade people to buy things. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it keeps me in a job, for a start – but it’s important to keep your brain working when you read that a £500 laptop case will change your life.

Cash machines, again

Following on from my earlier rant about cash machine charges, it’s good to see that the ATM operators are making good on their promise to be open and honest about their charging systems. For example, the ATM at the end of my road has been reprogrammed and has a brand new interface; the main change is that the text is positively gigantic. This is a good thing, as the machine is at roughly knee height.

Interestingly, though, the new font size doesn’t apply everywhere: there’s one bit of text that appears in rather small print. Here’s what you’ll see on the final screen when you’ve selected the amount of cash you want to withdraw:





withdrawal charge £1.75

Anti-bullying scheme backfires spectacularly

Oh dear. It seems that the anti-bullying scheme’s bright idea – persuade kids to wear blue wristbands – has backfired:

school pupils were quick to spot the reality of wearing the wristbands. Writing on the BBC’s Newsround website, Rosie, 13, from London, said: “Ugh… I’m sorry, but in one school near me, it’s made it a whole lot worse… [the bullies] basically thought ‘Hey! Everyone who’s wearing a wristband must be scared of bullying!’ So they decided to bully the people wearing wristbands.

Available from all good newsagents, and bad ones too

It’s plug time: the new issue of .net reached subscribers today, and should be in your local newsagent within the next few days. As ever I’ve written the software reviews and news section, but there are also two good features in there that might interest you if you’re into web design. My one is a look at reselling and other ways to make money from web hosting, and there’s a very entertaining feature by Oliver Lindberg that uncovers the reality of web design work – what designers drive, their favourite excuses for missing deadlines and why coffee is so important.

Magazines: what? where? why?

Regular readers will know I’m something of a magazine junkie: in addition to the tech press, newspapers and online publications, I read Private Eye, Word, Q, Uncut, Empire, Total Film, Esquire, GQ, Hotdog, Top Gear, Car… and those are just the regulars. But I’d be interested to know what other people read, and why. Are there particular magazines you can’t live without? Is it because of the writers? The jokes? The practical bits? Something else? I’m fascinated by this stuff, so any comments would be welcome…

Bloggers beware

Influential blogger Jason Kottke has run into a spot of legal trouble with Sony after he blogged about the TV show jeopardy, and the situation has exposed one of the biggest differences between blogs and Big Media: newspapers and magazines have legal teams and big pockets, and bloggers don’t.

Inevitably, as blogs become more influential they attract the attention of lawyers, and it’s very important to know the law to make sure you don’t get into trouble. For UK bloggers, there are three key things you need to watch out for: copyright, malicious falsehood and libel. These things are drummed into every trainee journalist from day one, and as the lines between blogging and “proper” publishing continue to blur, bloggers should pay attention to them too.

Libel is the biggie. Put simply, libel – often described as “defamation” – is when you write something that’s provably false, and which damages someone’s reputation. Such cases are open to interpretation, and because libel cases are so expensive they are often seen – rightly, in my view – as a way for rich and powerful people to suppress legitimate criticism. Robert Maxwell was a big fan of libel cases, and won countless cases against journalists; after his death it emerged that most of the supposed libels were in fact true.

It’s important to note here that you don’t need to be the person who started the libel: under UK law, repeating the libel is enough to land you in hot water. There have been a number of cases where sites have been held responsible for their users’ posts on message boards, and they have set the precedent that the site owner is the publisher – which means it’s the site owner who gets sued. In the case of a blog, that means you.

It’s also important to note that it doesn’t matter where your site is actually located. Successful legal action has been brought against site owners in the UK and Australian courts over material posted elsewhere, on the grounds that while the material may have been on a US server, it was available to readers in the UK or Australia and therefore still damaged the person’s reputation in those countries.

(Incidentally, libel and slander are often confused. Slander is verbal, libel is written.)

Copyright is a fairly common one, and the main thing to watch is content that encourages others to infringe copyright – such as links to illegal software downloads, or files that break copy protection. If you’re unlucky enough to catch the attention of a firm with deep pockets, the penalties for copyright infringement can be severe.

Malicious falsehood is similar to libel, but works in a slightly different way. It applies when a false statement is published maliciously and causes (or is likely to cause) financial loss. So for example if you say a firm has gone out of business but it hasn’t, then that is potentially a malicious falsehood: it isn’t defamatory – you’re not suggesting that the firm’s boss eats babies or has sex with Saddam Hussein – but it’s a false statement that could cause the firm financial harm.

David Price has an excellent guide to this stuff here. If you’re writing controversial content on your blog, it’s worth reading up on media law. The last thing you want is a lawsuit.

Good music journalism spotted in the wild. Well, in Q

Things are afoot at Q: the new issue (which reached subscribers yesterday and should be on the newsstands within a day or two) has two excellent and very different articles.

The first is a look at the iPod that asks the question, “what happens if it’s attacked by a toddler? Dropped from a great height? Set on fire?” – something we’ve all wondered, I’m sure – and the second is an interview with Pete Doherty of Babyshambles, formerly of the Libertines.

The interview reminds me of one of my all-time favourite bits of music journalism, when NME sent Danny Baker to interview Michael Jackson (if anyone can find it on the web, I’d be eternally grateful) on his last UK tour. Like Baker’s interview, Q doesn’t just print the Q&A; rather, it talks about the background to the interview itself. In the case of Doherty that means repeated cancellations, incoherent ramblings so pointless that the journalist turned off his tape recorder, repeated requests for/offers of cocaine, and Doherty’s falling asleep mid-interview.

The picture of Doherty that emerges from Johnny Davis’s interview is a desperately sad one, and it’s an interesting contrast to those sections of the music press that have dubbed Doherty the “coolest man in rock” – not, one suspects, because of his talent, but because they derive vicarious thrills (and increased newsstand sales) from watching someone self-destruct. At the risk of sounding like Alan Partridge, is this cool?

Pete Doherty, however, looks shocking. His eyes are watery pink. His voice has a husk. There are open sores around his lips. His teeth are ruined.

It’s an excellent (and fair – Davis clearly believes that Doherty has talent) piece of music journalism – and worth reading whether you care about the Libertines/Babyshambles or not.