Slaves of the internet giants?



In an interview this week on Scratch magazine, writer Jonathan Franzen talks about the impact of the internet and social media on writers and journalists and on the larger literary industry. You can read the full article here.

I think the tech corporations are like the nineteenth-century coal magnates, and the free-lance writers are like the people slaving in the mines, the only difference being that the tech corporations can’t stop congratulating themselves on how they’ve liberated everybody. I think the Internet should be really strictly regulated, the way the airwaves used to be. If an entire region of the country had its main industry suddenly lose 90 percent of its paying jobs because of the predatory practices of a different region’s industry, you might, if you were the government, step in and say, “We can’t actually let this entire region starve. We’re going to subsidize prices, we’re going to redistribute some income.” 

My response:

The thing that struck me most on reading this article, was the thought of internet writers and contributors working like slaves. Also his notion of maintaining “avenues for establishing a literary reputation” keeping the traditional status quo and if it is changed or disrupted radically, the danger of “handing over” the gatekeepers “of the literary world to the personality types who are … less suited” for it. For me, there is a double standard at play here. Gatekeepers of the old realm often did not crown themselves in glory! And many an artist and writer had to jump through countless hoops to “get in” or get noticed.Often, the process was not transparent or easy to negotiate and for right or wrong, many of the old gatekeepers kept the gates firmly shut.

So then, the question comes to quality. And that is what he is getting at here. Too many crappy writers will get through because no one is looking after the standard. And then, the fear is that this crappy standard will rub off on my work. Or  no one will realise how amazing my work is lumped in with all the rest!

This quality debate has been long in the making and the hierarchy of low and high art has always been a rude point of debate. On one hand, the quality argument was used as a way to limit the amount of published work or access to publishing or gallery space and now on the other, these teeming masses of underpaid, internet contributors produce far too much (for free) for the man (tech giants, with no quality)!

Last week at a workshop, I spoke to an artist who is represented by an agent. This artist, to the rest of the world has made it. Unfortunately, she has no access to her marketing. The agent does it all for her. Under the contract with the agent, she cannot put up an email capture form on her website. All her customers go through the agent, she has no access to their details. I was quite shocked at her story. This artist with a lifetime of work, cannot access the people who love and buy her work. I understand the complexities at play here; I understand the business needs of her agent’ I also understand the requirements and needs of the artist. But somehow it felt far too heavy handed. Surely there is a win-win for both parties by sharing the marketing and for the artist to have more of a role in communication with her buyers? I came away with the question, did she give away too much control?

Reading this article brought these questions back to me again. If anything, the internet has afforded artists and writers more control, more ways of communicating with their audience. An audience they build, nurture and cherish themselves. Artists and writers can drive the story, co-crate and co-curate. Surely it has to be about the reader, the user or the buyer too. How much of a say do we want them to have. This article struck me very much as as the “cooth telling the uncooth what to do.”

Fortunately, the internet and social media gives artists options, options as James Altucher would say to “choose yourself”.  To build your own platform, to tell your story to get up on your own stage.

I love people who tell a good story. I wonder though, if Franzen had not made it by the time 2013 came round, would his relationship with the internet and social media be different?

What is your stance? Do you agree with Jonathan?

Thanks to Claire Bruge for bringing me in on the discussion. You can also add your thoughts over on Facebook or in the comments below.

Image (CC) Andrea Fjeld


  1. David Quaid

    October 24, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    Hi Mary,

    There’s a lot to be said for protectionism, and mostly in places like Wikipedia and history departments.

    Protectionism is ever present – France, Germany, the civil service. Its really mentioned in the same sentences as innovation, forward thinking.

    The problem with copywriting isn’t the employer, its the fact that its a universal skillset.

    If you went to an interview a candidate for a CxO for any company – be it Google or be it Citroen – would you accept that the guy with the MBA or the guy with 15 years experience in doing whatever the x is at your bigger competitor is the same playing field as 10 candidates with only a leaving certificate?

    I’m (not) sorry but most content writers are just people who like writing. It’s like the 10,000 social media people who keep posting up photos of kittens and “happy friday” or “hit like if you don’t like Mondays”.

    That’s not engagement, or marketing, or awareness, or even intelligible.

    Copywriters are people who just want to write and don’t have a direction.

    I’m a growth hacker – be it SEO, PPC, Social – whatever gets people to my product in the fastest, most effective way and avoids all of the wrong people <<< people pay for that.

    Skills are valued because they solve problems. Content for content sake fills pages.

    All we hear today is: Content and Social. Businesses who've been making millions from E-mail marketing and Search don't need to tell everyone what they're doing.

    Its a circle jerk and somebody needs to wake up.

  2. Enormous

    October 24, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    I always think it’s ironic that we would never know about these grumpy old men harrumphing about the internet if it wasn’t for the internet. I have actually written about culture and mining on my own blog some time ago while wondering how the “slaves” of the creative industry could make a living.
    No matter which way you cook it there will always be art superstars and there will be those who haven’t “made it”. What I think is morally questionable are those who profit from other’s creativity through, for example, the music publishing industry but the reality is that not all artists have the time, energy or interest in promoting themselves. The truth could be said about many professionals 😉

  3. Mary Carty

    October 25, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Hi David and Roseanne,

    thanks for your thoughts. Content by itself is not worth very much unless you have a plan for it; and it’s true that many writers don’t get the marketing job that has to be done on top of the writing or the making!

    Roseanne, you are right, many other professionals don’t get it either. At a games conference last month in Denmark, gamers were urged to spend 50% of their time at growing an audience for the game. It doesn’t matter if it is Kickstarter, PR, email, or social it takes time and thought. And if you feel it takes away too much from the making, then bring people into your team who can do it for you.

    Making and writing is a skill sure, but if no one knows about you or your product, then it’s time to tell them.

    Thanks guys.


  4. Cecilie Stranger-Thorsen

    October 25, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    Hm, I don’t get the juxtapositioning of content and “functionality” – for lack of a better word – in these comments and on Twitter and Google+ (the snippets I’ve picked up, anyway).

    I think successful online ventures rests heavily on storytelling – but if you think that “storytelling” is about cnteent or text production, then you’re seriously limiting your toolbox. Getting people to visit your website, giving them a good experience while they’re there and having them buy something on the way out is all part of the story:

    Storytelling isn’t only about mythbuiling and high end branding, it’s about basic narratives and a structuring of emotional responses to your brand and to your product.

    In this discussion on Twitter, @primaryposition said: “Nobody buys flights, people go from A to B”. Well, Ryan Air has made this their business idea and it works for a lot of people.

    Personally, I value the ease of booking, Scandinavian service and lounge services of the SAS, and this relies heavily on their storytelling – noticable in their communication, experience design and in their delivery of services. One big story that draws me back.

    My point is that there are many segments in the market to tap, you just have to find the story and experience that corresponds with your users ‘wants’ and ‘feels’ (supposing your product meets their needs). We’re human beings, we love being engaged, moved and enticed (let’s not use examples of bad content to illustrate this when what we need is more examples of good content).

    I think we all understand the need for balance – otherwise you’ll have the worlds greatest cocktailbar, but no booze to get the conversations started.

    The thing about bad content is that some people think that to get the conversation started you have to provide content in the form of the barman talking alot. Uh, no. The content is the booze. The booze is the stuff the gets the juices flowing. If you’re a bartender, focus on the booze.

    Excuse the inelegance of this metaphore that I thought of just now :)

    Also, Mary – I think your points on gatekeepers in your response to J.F above are spot on. JFs success rests on him getting through the established channels, but today there are many roads to success and the most interesting thing about his piece is how mad he is. You’d think he feels threatened 😉

    However, I think it’s irrelevant to compare JF and copywriters as they’re clearly trying to do two different things with their writing. It’s much more interesting to compare JFs success to the success of, say, Vine stunt-artist Jerome Jarre to see the dramatic shift that happens when everyone can contribute. That is the biggest threat to brand communication today, we can get our stories from so many more sources, and most of them are more entertaining and more authentic.

  5. Mary Carty

    October 25, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    Hi Cecilie, I got that from the article too, he’s mad and using the quality argument to have a go at other aspiring writers who use the web. Then he has a go at the platform builders, the tech giants, when in reality there is a threat to the old ways of working. To stay interesting and on brand is so important now. Hubspot and Dodocase are great examples. By telling a better story they charge more. The other thing we have not mentioned here is segmentation. Better segmentation, targeting the right users, at the right time based on their needs. Companies with great email strategies do this well and translate this process across the web to social and offline too.

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