Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Digital Sweatshop Strikes Again (The Piecework Army Wants YOU)

Last month, one of my longtime writing outlets -- a local entertainment rag that kept me busy for six years, interviewing comedians, DJs, and every type of band that you can name -- closed its doors. The situation arose for the usual boring reason. Many of the businesses on which the publisher depended to keep the enterprise going have also closed their doors. The TV talking heads may continue to claim that we've finally clawed our way out of the Great Recession. Out here in the provinces, that's not happening.

Coincidentally (or not), that same week, I got an email from out of the blue, about writing for some mobile app platform or other. I only had to answer a questionnaire, which, assured the project manager, would "pair your interests with your potential," or something along those lines. I duly filled it out, sent it back, and forgot about the matter for a couple of weeks.

Last week, I still hadn't heard anything, so I emailed to ask: "What's going on?" My contact apologized. He'd been out of town, but a response was in the pipeline. Sure enough, I got it a day later. After much deliberation, the email said, the product and ops team have decided to go with bloggers with proven followings, not freelance writers.

Not to worry, though: the company was working up an "Uber-style" option for people like myself, and would reach out soon enough on that score. 
I can hardly wait. Incidentally...the company's based in Beijing. Need I say more?

<Artwork: Chairman Ralph>

I'll just have to keep plugging away, I suppose, and see what else is out there. But the landscape isn't looking too pretty. Lots of ink has been expended on the "content farm" model pursued by the likes of, Demand Studios and others of that stripe.. Though that model came in for a well-earned kicking, what has sprung up to ease the freelancer's lot? So far, what I've seen doesn't look terribly significant.

In full disclosure, I did a fair percentage of this work to fill in the monthly blanks, but never expected anything more from it, and didn't stop look for better-paying assignments -- unlike the legions who cranked up their efforts to full-time levels (minus, of course, the wages and benefits that a "real" full-time job promises). For many, I suspect, the withering of the content mills has slammed the door shut on such delusions with a sickening thud. 

I recently checked the Demand site, where (lo and behold) I still have permissions. These days, however, there's no work, since the corporate entity (Demand Media) has shifted to a different model of trying to boost corporate brands (or something along those lines). The giddy era of cutting and pasting dozens and dozens of 500-word mini-masterpieces for $15, $25 and $50 apiece are long gone, just a distant memory to share around the virtual water cooler....if you still get to hang out there.

I noticed that the forums -- where so many Demand denizens spent countless of precious time jawobning, nattering, and woolgathering -- are long gone, too, unceremoniously wiped away like so much used Kleenex. All that chatter faded away...."not with a bang," as T.S. Eliot would say, "but a whimper." The digital sweatshop had the last laugh, after all.

<Artwork: Chairman Ralph
Lyrics: GBH, "Do What You Do" (1984)>

I think about my fellow travelers who spent so much time on these forums. What's become of them, and where have they gone? Did they finally get the message, and start to try realizing some of their own dreams for a change - whether it's a blog, a chapbook, or umpteenth draft of that oft-threatened Great American Novel, or zombie-versus-vampire exploitation film script? Or did they go back to brainwashing themselves yet again, with a resigned shrug ("Hey, it's the best I can do"), and search for some new content farm or mill that somehow escaped the Google's Great Search Engine Purge?

If they chose the latter route, they'll keep searching for a long time, I suspect. Many of the blogs and platforms and websites that have popped up since the Purge kicked in are even worse, if anything, than their predecessors -- demanding a lot of the writer's time and effort, yet committing little or nothing in return, while paying rates that make the original content farms seem positively princely, by comparison.

It's time to wake up. While nobody wants to revisit the pre-Internet era of compiling (and then updating) endless mailing lists, or such equally brain-rotting mindlessness. Let's keep one other thing in mind, however. Behind the online world, like everything else in the real world, is an array of corporate interests that never stops trying to shift the tide in tis direction. Virtual reality doesn't automatically equate to virtual utopia. Before we put all our hard-won eggs in that particular basket, it's worth asking, "What else is out there? What else can we do? What other options do we have? What other possibilities can we imagine?"

The day we stop asking those questions is the day we'll hear these words below, clattering in our ears, uttered by Johnny Rotten after the Sex Pistols' final live appearance on January 14, 1978, at Winterland (San Francisco, CA), when he'd decided that his own rock 'n' roll swindle felt like it was running on empty....take heed of the dream. Enough said. --The Reckoner

"A-ha-ha! Ever get the feeling
 you've been cheated? Good night!"

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