I was just offered £1,000 to write four twitter posts in praise of a product I have neither used nor even heard of.
Um. In a word: no.
When I mentioned this to family and friends they were baffled - why would I turn down something so easy and lucrative? The reaction went something like this: it would take you three minutes to write it, and the price per word rate is awesome. The task is, after all, just writing something for money - and that is your job. If you don't like the product, so what, think of it as fiction, and you are not opposed to reading or writing fiction, right?
Well, actually, accepting money to lie is not technically my job. And anyway, I wouldn't do it even if I loved the product. I accept samples, review copies, free tickets, trips, and sponsorship funding, but never with the guarantee that I will give positive reviews (or anything) in exchange.
Doing so is contrary to the ethics of my job and industry, though you might not think so given how standards have slipped in the last few years. It has become common practice to accept fees for placement, in part because internet sites are not exactly one thing or the other. But I run a magazine, in the old-fashioned sense, and I can't even accept many of the ads people want to place on hipmama.com. Why? Because they are antithetical to the point of the publication.
I am frequently offered 'advertorial' - sponsored editorials that glorify products or places - but I do not accept them, on principle, and I never will. There are very few magazines still operating with this principle, but I trudge along. I have also refused venture capital and other forms of investment, because doing so would have required a dissolution of the editorial perspective. When you take money, you give up power. I refuse, or rather, my price is higher than the market is willing to pay.
Because of this, despite our popularity and high traffic, we're lucky to make enough to cover operating expenses on the publication. I've made an executive decision that we operate in a principled fashion, never contaminated by lower impulses like greed, nor even a sensible acknowledgment of market forces. The point of the publication is to give marginalised people and ideas a venue, to create a public dialogue, to nurture communities. Not to make money. Though money is certainly required to keep the doors open, and I tend to rush from one crisis to another in the pursuit of sustainable financial models. That is just life, as it has always been and will remain.
My own income comes from freelance gigs, consulting, and book royalties, all of which is tricky at best. But my reputation is worth something tangible because it is the foundation on which I build the rest of the work. I am incredibly cautious about getting mixed up in magazine world scandals, because I plan to do this for a long time. I don't have an exit strategy, I'm not trying to get rich, I'm instead trying to strike a fine balance that allows me to keep working on my own stuff while funding the public projects.
These concerns look quaint and archaic when nearly everyone has capitulated to the allure of commercial web sites. Friends who are meticulous and passionate about consumer choices, who buy union cotton and fair-trade coffee and farmer's market vegetables, who would never shop at Wal-Mart or similar chains, see no problem in using Facebook. They treat it like a public utility, when in fact it is simply a scheme to make money for founders and investors.
Twitter in my opinion is worse, because the format solicits the most pithy of my friends to contribute their work - quips they would have been paid for until recently - for free. They are volunteering their own brilliance, in pursuit of what? Audience, attention? Well, good luck with that. I use the sites myself but remain aware of the hazards.
Twitter is not a public service project, or even a fun toy. It is a business and as such has the fundamental goal of translating commodities (in this case, you) into profits. Have you wondered how they manage it, since the site is blissfully simple and uncluttered with advertisements, surveys, special pleading, spam? Easy. They sell the data stream.
Your comments, observations, opinions, and concerns are collated and evaluated by investment banks and major multinational companies to track trends and build investment strategies. For every incidence of an activist or revolutionary achievement, you can bet with absolute certainty that some suit in a remote office is selling or buying stock as a direct consequence.
Twitter and Facebook might reunite you with friends from grade school, or allow your cohort to navigate a protest, but that is immaterial to investors. They don't care why you turn up, they only care that you do, in vast numbers, so they can decide what product to bet on next.
And this is all of course completely normal. Business is as business does. The exasperating part is the fact that many participants appear not to notice or care. Here is one small thought: if you "like" an independent product or publication or site, it is more helpful to actually use it, directly, than it is to chat about your appreciation on Facebook and Twitter.
If you adore a magazine or newspaper, please consider subscribing. Buy the books, records, t-shirts and paraphernalia offered by your favourite artists. Go to the live shows. If you can't afford that level of support, use their direct web sites, because that traffic is how we all sell ads, pitch projects, fund our work.
I've been doing this long enough that the whole thing just makes me shrug. I'm irritated but also idealistic. Commercial web sites come and go, according to their ability to make money. What is ascendant or sexy today might be gone tomorrow.
And like Samuel Johnson said way back in 1753:
General irregularities are known in time to remedy themselves. By the constitution of ancient Egypt, the priesthood was continually increasing, till at length there was no people beside themselves; the establishment was then dissolved, and the number of priests was reduced and limited. Thus among us, writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must necessarily cease.