Content Perils of the Exposure Economy

Michael Barnwell   June 22, 2009


Take the plunge into the exposure economy at your own risk. (image via Edward McGowan)

Yet again, Google has led the way in defining the art of the profitable deal. In exchange for donating their labor and talents and finely crafted image files, a number of renowned illustrators were recently offered the opportunity to be exposed by Google. Yes, a week’s worth of work for the chance to have your illustration seen by millions. Any takers? You bet. (Let’s ignore those naysayers—they just don’t get it!)

News of this opportunity-of-a-lifetime spread fast. The smart set quickly climbed aboard. Rumor has it that both Sony and Loews are fighting ruthlessly to extend the concept. Get this—you independent filmmakers with your fierce independent voices—we’ll expose your films to paying customers in exchange for the donation of your months or years of work. Is there no end to this brilliant plan? Apparently not. A friend of mine who has worked as a chef in some of the better restaurants was recently offered the opportunity to have his stove-top artistry exposed to brimming rooms of diners in exchange for a non-paid 70-hour work week.

Seriously, the question comes back, naggingly, to the unresolved issue of free versus paid content—this time from the creator’s side of things instead of the reader. Is there a future for paid content when it’s up against the allure of free exposure? But then again, what happens after you’ve been fully exposed? Will you feel less inclined to work for free? Or does the sphere of exposure expand like the universe in perpetuity? Clearly, everything hasn’t been thought through, but doesn’t it make common sense that at some point, people observing, recording, interpreting, building, thinking, creating, i.e., working, need to be paid, and that revenue needs to be generated to pay them?

This week and last, CNN and the BBC have gained a windfall of free content by exposing tweets of those on the streets of Tehran. But no one seriously following the story can survive on tweets alone. On the finer points of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s reformist point of view, wouldn’t you need some longer-format reports (working knowledge of the Farsi language a plus)?

Is this what it comes down to? If it easy to do or lots of people are doing it, then it’s free, but if the works require some sustained mental exertion and some measure of expertise, then you should be paid. Maybe. But, again, to repeat the question, Why pay someone cash money when you can you offer them full exposure in all its glory? C’mon, no one ever died of exposure.


3 Responses

  1. Jason Scott says:

    Notably, however, the common complaint by professional creators of being exploited is tempered in things like the special case of Google – in this situation, you truly ARE being exposed to a worldwide audience, for the donation/contribution/cost of a certain amount of work. The trade, in other words, seems entirely fair.

    It’s when the stereotypical framing of this offer occurs that we truly see exploitation: a website that will barely see a thousand people in its functioning life, or a contest in which your work might not even see the light of day but which the contest organizers will gain an exclusive/shared license for your work.

    To bring it to your (understandably humorous) chef example: while the idea of cooking meals for free for a 70-hour work week might seem like a bad trade, would it still be so if your week was spent in the white house, with acknowledgement of your name in cooking for the visiting dignitaries and a line on your resume and biography for life? All a matter of degree, I think.

  2. mark evertz says:

    I am fascinated by this free/paid content discussion. I’m living on both sides of the debate and have been for years as a creator and buyer of premium content for IT clients, sustainability-minded brands and others seeking to gain the attention of consumers or business prospects.

    I don’t know what the future holds on this as a writer and strategist, but I hope my voice and opinions have gained enough credibility or the last 15 years to garner at least enough money to feed, house and clothe my wife and kid.

    I do think that third-party analysts like Forrester, Gartner and other credible voices are going to have a tough time charging thousands of dollars for research that is increasingly becoming available and verifiable online and in social media circles for free. I think the answer lies somewhere in the idea that smart people who stay plugged in to their areas of interest and involve their communities in content creation will always be able to monetize it by sidling up to people who haven’t figured it out yet.

    I’m definitely not a name brand that will command big bucks like Forrester can, but I’m getting smarter every day.

    Chris Brogan is my personal Forrester Research in this space. I get a lot for free from him, but I will also go buy his book…so there you go. Great topic. Thank you for catching my attention.

  3. Tim Wild says:

    I used to have a friend who was an electrician. A self-employed electrician. He told me he used to price every new job when he was walking up the driveway of the house. Big car? Double garage? That’s an extra 500 bucks on the bill, before he even knew what the problem was.

    It’s a slightly facetious example, but it makes the point – most people trying to make a living independently know what they’re worth, and what they want, and tailor their prices accordingly.

    The beginning of the article nails it – the chance to be on Google has already attracted some of the top illustrators in the game, because the fame is probably worth more than the money long-term. And if it isn’t, then what’s been lost?

    Exposure competitions like this are nothing new, after all. The long history of internships in the US (something we’ve never quite figured out how to do here in the UK) is probably littered with its fair share of horror stories – ‘Intern Forced to Clean Manager’s Car, Dance Humiliatingly’or whatever. But those abuses don’t stop the system being one of the strongest routes into well-paid or interesting jobs.

    As to the point about exploitation, then yes – at some stage, someone has to get paid, but if you’re good, then you always will be. Competitions like the Google example don’t really represent the state of the creative economy, because they’re outside of time. Good creative people always get paid not just because they make beautiful things, but because they can make them at two days notice because the events manager forgot to order the ice sculpture for the summer party and is about to get fired f she can’t fix it.

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