Whither the professional journalist when we all write for free?

The Guardian reports on the 19-strong “Facebook Users’ Union” which wants Facebook’s users to have more control over where the company’s money goes.

…people are effectively working for free to create wealth for Facebook’s shareholders. “Online tools really aren’t free. We pay for them with micropayments of personal information.”

Buchanan wants someone to calculate the value of each Facebook user, based on how much money Facebook (or Google, or MySpace) makes from advertising next to their information. “It may be a small amount but it adds up when scaled into the half billion. Thus I feel we, the users, should have a say in how the profit gets distributed. We should be able to donate some of our annual value to good causes.”

Sounds all lovely and fluffy in a post-Web-2.0 way, but the argument’s wrong.

We don’t work for free on Facebook. We choose to use the services Facebook offers us and, in return, accept a small amount of targetted advertising. It’s how business works: you get something you want, I get something I want, money comes along in some way, shape or form.

The idea that we should have a say over how Facebook spends its profits makes no more (or less) sense than saying the same for any other company.

What the Guardian could have picked up on, though, is the way unpaid user-generated content is increasingly being used to prop up journalism and the media in all sorts of ways, often at the expense of paid professionals.

Why bother paying a journalist when “citizen journalists” will give you stories for free? Why bother paying a professional photographer when every man and his dog with a camera phone will sent in their snaps, no payment required, and a few of them might even be half-way decent?

Here, too, there’s no good reason for these kind donors being paid. When we write articles for publication (like this one) with no expectation of payment, it’s because we get other things out of it and we think those make it worth our while. That could be a fleeting fame, the ego boost of seeing our names in print, the quiet satisfaction of knowing that something we’ve created is “out there” in the public domain or whatever else.

But there is a sensible debate to be had over the direction this takes the media, and where it leaves people who want to make a living from journalism or photography.

People are still willing to pay for professional media. We pay our Sky and Virgin Media subscriptions, not to mention our licence fee, when we could just spend our lives watching You Tube videos for free. Lots of us still buy newspapers even though there’s no shortage of news and comment on the Internet.

But the more the mainstream media uses those unpaid resources, the less distinction there is between what you pay for and what you can get for free, and the less reason to buy that newspaper or that expensive pay-tv subscription.

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3 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Aug '10 - 1:59pm

    Why bother paying a journalist when “citizen journalists” will give you stories for free?

    Well, it’s supposed to be because professional journalists research the subject carefully, study anything involved, and write a robust and well-sourced article.

    But of course, none of them bother doing that.

    We don’t work for free on Facebook. We choose to use the services Facebook offers us and, in return, accept a small amount of targetted advertising.

    It’s very close to an interesting argument though. When you purchase something from a web store, they often have a tiny concealed checkbox that says “click here if you do not want us to pass your details on to our advertising partners”. Now, obviously since it is optional, this is not offered in trade. So why shouldn’t the consumer get paid for the use of their data?

    There’s some interesting scope for data protection reform here. The existing laws have various exceptions which are justified because they are “valuable to both parties”, which basically permit some aggressive marketing techniques. There is no particular reason why that revenue should not be shared with the people whose personal data is used…

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