There’s a Digital Sucker Born Every Minute

Earlier this month, I tried giving 1,500 Web page exposures to my landlord for rent, 149.35 of them to the supermarket, and 35.41 to the electric company. I’m now homeless, hungry, and writing this by candlelight. My creditors weren’t conned by what I was offering.

Every month, I receive e-mail from some publisher who wants me to write for his commercial Web site for free. Here’s a recent example (I’ve redacted the names and numbers to protect his identity, although I’ve left his boldfacing intact):

    Dear Vin:

    We would like to invite you to be XXXXX.com’s New Media Columnist beginning in April 2008.

    Your column will be featured on our home page each month and included in our weekly email newsletter reaching over ##,### users.

    More than ###,### unique visitors come to our site each month searching for the next evolution in their advertising, marketing, media or PR careers. In fact, our site has been named by XXXXX Magazine as one of the top-five industry sites on the web.

    We provide our readership with insightful monthly commentary from respected and notable industry professionals: this is why we are extending this invitation to you. The New Media Column focuses on new media initiatives and technologies used in advertising, (advances, limitations, new ideas, etc) and we would love to feature YOUR insights.

    • Each installment of your column will be featured for one month on our homepage receiving more than ###,### impressions and in our email newsletter to over ##,### recipients.

    • Your column will include a bio, headshot, links to your website and your e-mail address.
    • Your column will be archived on our website.

    The exposure you receive should benefit you, as well as the Advertising Technology community as a whole.

    Best Wishes,
    XXXX XXXXXX

I immediately replied:

    Dear XXXX:

    Thanks for your inquiry. However, the portion of your e-mail that mentions what XXXXX.com will pay me for my work didn’t come through. Would you please resend that part of your message to me?

    Sincerely yours,
    Vin

And he responded:

    Dear Vin:

    Thank you for responding so quickly to our invitation. As XXXXX.com serves as a platform for a writer’s exposure in a mutually beneficial partnership, we do not pay our contributors for their submissions. If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me back. Thank you for your time.

    All my best,
    XXXX XXXXXX

People like that are digital con artists and harm online industries. If you write for such folks, you’re not only being conned but conned by a horribly obsolete pitch. There’s nothing mutually beneficial in it; it’s a shakedown, not a partnership.

Had Phineas T. Barnum been born 160 years later than 1810, he would have giggled in glee at the temerity of these digital con artists. The founder of America’s most famous circus was attributed as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Mark Twain, a contemporary of Barnum, knew a thing about cons, too. The most famous episode in “Tom Sawyer” is how Tom flatters and cons two friends into whitewashing a fence for him:

    He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while — plenty of company — and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

    Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

Online publishers who want people to write for their sites for free, in exchange for only exposures, is running a late 20th century version of that con. They’re worse than Tom because they make money from advertising, event, or subscription revenues, while refusing to pay their writers even minimum wage. Those writers would be better off flipping hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant.

Digital con artists get away with this con because what Barnum observed long ago is still true. The digital con artists flatter digital suckers into working online for free.

Why do I call their flattering pitch a late 20th century con and not a 21st century one? Because the suckers who fall for it don’t realize the key presumption that underlies it became obsolete years ago.

Prior to 2001, the technologies needed to publish online were costly and difficult to use. So much so that generally only large organizations such as publishing and broadcasting companies, corporations, universities, and governments could publish online. An aspiring pundit or writer who wanted an online audience had no choice but to deal with a publisher or publishing company. Since then, thanks largely to Moore’s Law, however, those costs and difficulties declined so much that nowadays anyone can publish online — including any pundit or writer.

Although digital con artists will tell you their sites will give a writer an immediate audience, they won’t admit that nowadays writers who provide readers with good advice on their own sites can attract that sized audience within a year or two while keeping all the resulting advertising, event, or subscription revenues for themselves. Even if those writers gain only a fraction of the digital con artist’s audience, they’ll keep all the revenues from whatever audience they get, which is a better deal than working for free and letting all revenues be kept by the digital con artist.

A digital con artist might retort, “But if you work for me now, you’ll gain an immediate audience and some of those people might follow you to your own site if you later decide to create your own site.” But ask him to guarantee in writing now that he’ll market on his site any site you create for yourself after you’ve begun writing for him, and you’ll see just how much he believes what he said. He’ll refuse. He wants you to work for him for free, but he’ll refuse to do the same for you.

How do these digital con artist harm online industries?

First, these sites compete against sites that do pay writers. It’s unfair competition and depresses the economic market for good writing. Though digital con artists might claim that theirs isn’t unfair competition simply because some suckers are willing to work for free, the fact is that what they do is as much unfair competition as a restaurant that’s conned its employees into working for free would be to the restaurant industry (the sole difference is that minimum wage laws apply to cooks but not writers).

Second, the content they publish tends to dumb down or corrupt industries. No established or experienced writers will give away their work or time. The people who the digital con artists ensnare are most often inexperienced or fuller of vanity than probity or already have a vested interest in writing about that topic. The con artists know that those suckers will soon get tired of working for free, but they also know they can be replaced by new suckers. As a result, the content on the digital con artist’s site is rarely worth more than what was paid for it.

Next time you read a site whose writers aren’t paid, no matter the publisher, know that you’re trafficking a con and that its publisher is harming the industry under the guise of helping it. If he’s willing to pay his writers only in Web exposures, ask him if he’s willing to put his mouth where his money is and live off just Web exposures himself. He can’t, and neither can our industries.

Shame on those con artists. And my thanks to ClickZ for long putting dollars into my bank account.

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