Destroy All Monsters: Pay the Writer?
The news last week that Entertainment Weekly was kicking off a program to shanghai unpaid internet writers into their content delivery system didn't raise many of my hackles. This was only because my overall opinion of the future of journalism is so dismal that a mega-sized media corporation (Time Warner in this case) trying a maneuver like this has long seemed to me to be a question of "if," rather than "when."
At least the branding seemed relatively pleasant: 'You'll be paid in prestige!' EW promised. I suspect prestige falls just slightly under actual folding currency in the ambitions of the bottom half of the internet's freebie opinion-spinners, and well above other ephemeral considerations like following one's muse, sticking it to one's father, or getting properly laid.
Full disclosure: I'm not paid (in either money or prestige) for my contributions to ScreenAnarchy.com. This, incidentally, turns every single instance of a comment troll accusing me of contrarianism for the sake of driving up my net worth into a launching pad for a ten-minute laughing fit.
I've been paid for writing for other outlets, but for the most part, I think of my writing's market value so infrequently that the question of remuneration never really pops into my head when I'm offered assignments and opportunities. I did some time as an independent web developer in the early aughts, working for a variety of startup companies, grant-fueled production shingles, and the like. I learned a long time ago that just because someone claims that they'll be able to pay you - and even gets you to go through the needlessly fussy process of submitting invoices and such - doesn't mean they aren't completely full of shit.
The internet age is full of people who like to play Businessman, with no more understanding of the mechanics of running a monetized service than they had when they were borrowing daddy's briefcase for a bit of cosplay.
My disinterest in the money side of things, of course, makes me a bad friend to the writing profession. I'm a big fan of Harlan Ellison's half-century war with the propriety of paid writing, and watch "Pay the Writer" on a regular basis, and feel bad about my absolute, and often entirely unthinking, contravention of his basic rule. I know I'm giving away for free something which many of my friends and colleagues, with much greater intention and seriousness than mine, have shaped their livelihoods around.
My friend Andrew Parker wrote a gargantuan and deeply personal analysis of his own writing career - and the motivations for same - after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, which is a kind of clarion call for those content creators who have bet the farm on their ability to "get there," commercially speaking, and maybe ain't gonna. Andrew's piece really put the screws to me on the question of whether I ought, as a person with at least an aesthetic fondness for the craft, to be taking writing more seriously.
But I just can't figure it. I write about movies, and all around me I am watching the sub-profession of film writing disintegrate like a drip sandcastle in a dry heat.
The internet's an interesting thing, in that it essentially has the capability within itself to eradicate pay-for-product media from the human experience forever. It may get there, or it may not; but built into the bones of this worldwide online infrastructure is the sure and certain reality that any artistic or entertainment content that we could read, watch, or listen to, could be acquired for free.
On the far right side of the moral/emotional spectrum, we have things like movie piracy, which movie folks like us will insist to all and sundry is an unconscionable crime upon the filmmaking artistic community (even if its cross-promotional potential doesn't seem to be bothering HBO much). If you remove considerations like technical quality from the equation (and even this, likely not for long), media content is "gettable" pretty much across the board. Those of us who continue to pay for it - even if we're buying pirate DVDs in Chinatown that come in at a tenth the price of the "real" DVDs on Amazon - are doing so voluntarily.
In the middle ground, there's our greasy inability to hang on to any of the miscellaneous content we generate, where "we" are the non-professional content creators. Sure, I technically own the photos I put up on Instagram, but they're gone from a controllability standpoint as soon as I've posted them. If I take a particularly spectacular artistic shot of a sunrise and post it without thinking in my Twitter feed, and someone downloads it to post to their Pinterest page for the enjoyment of their half-million followers, the best I can do is ask them nicely to take it down.
And on the far left, there's the simple human willingness to create and distribute something for free, with a total lack of any guile or shame about doing so. I've been blogging in some form or another since 1997, and it never occurred to me to license any of my content for distribution. Even if writing for ScreenAnarchy were my main source of income, I'd still be chucking out free content on a daily basis for most of the rest of my life through other platforms and venues, because it's just what I like to do.
The disintegration of paid film writing is certainly the internet's fault in some respects, coupled with the general public's near-total disinterest in anything approaching actual craft in either the writing or the critical spheres. The Entertainment Weekly experiment will give us a better idea of how much the general reading public gives a crap about whether Hannibal recaps are written at an AV Club level of thoughtfulness, or if they only care that the recaps are presented in something recognizably like English.
But I suspect there's something more underneath all of this, which is simply the utter collapse of respect for opinions more considered than our own. We've spent about a decade in a very "democratized" era of public opinion, where (again, thanks to the internet) the average gal or guy can locate and interact with a group of people who are their general equals in political opinion, media fandom, sexual interest, or anything else. Self-reinforcing beliefs are the intellectual currency of the day.
With that being the case, why wouldn't you kick open the doors of your online community to let people generate and receive writing from contributors exactly like themselves? In a wide enough sample size, every reader would see exactly what they want to see: their own thoughts reflected back at them, by a writer whose only compensation was the prestige of having done so. In the meantime, the ad clicks just keep clicking along. It's a marvelous idea for a closed system, and writing has very little to do with it.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.