I’ve been calling myself a Freelance Writer for years now despite the fact that I’ve never earned a penny from anything I’ve written. Unless you count prize money, that is. Five years ago I won Grand Prize in the Tales From The South competition. I received a check for that effort. If winnings qualify as earnings, I suppose I once made 100000 pennies. My story was broadcast twice on NPR and it was published in the TFTS compilation from that season. Looking back on it now I suppose the participants earned prize money in lieu of royalties. I didn’t enter the competition for the money. In fact, I wrote the story long before I entered the competition. The money was simply a nice surprise at the time. I only bring it up now because I want to be truthful when I say I’ve never written for pay.
Last month I wondered if I should try writing for pay. I’m now entering my fourth month of the Spending Fast. I joined an Uber-Frugal Challenge for January. Lots of the companion material to those programs includes tips for earning extra money (to save) on the side. Freelancing is usually included among those tips. Although I’m busy enough and my writing here is fulfilling enough, I wondered again what could happen. What if I tried to write something to earn a wage, or a fee, or a salary? The worst that could happen would be I wouldn’t get hired, right? That’s no big deal; I’m not hired now and everything is just peachy. I’ve kept my day job. I’ll go on keeping it. There’s nothing to lose but my time, right? So why not?
I opened an account on a freelancing site. I created a portfolio. I groomed a profile. I set some parameters that seemed smart for a newbie: only work for clients in the U.S., only work for a flat fee instead of hourly, etc. I chose a “free” membership on the site and accepted that I’d forfeit a small percentage of my fee if or when I got hired. Fair enough, for no upfront cost I declared myself open for business. Then I hit the classifieds to see who needed my skills. This is when my heart got sad. So, so sad. All of a sudden I found myself in the red light district of freelance writing. It was so dirty and cheap and disposable. I sifted through pages of open jobs looking for something I could feel good about writing. With each page I realized how naive I had been. No one wanted to hire me to write something I could proudly link to my portfolio. They all wanted to turn me out like a whore.
It really did shock me that there were so many business owners willing to pay someone to write 10 positive reviews for their business in 10 different styles so they each appeared to come from 10 authentic customers. The jokes people make about bumpkins who fall off the turnip truck unwise to the ways of the world? This was me. I probably shouldn’t have been shocked. I was more than shocked. I was disgusted. And yet I was tempted. Sure, I could do that easily enough. I could bang that out in half an hour and make some quick and easy cash. But it felt wrong. It was a shitty thing to do. My conscience didn’t jive with that kind of easy money. So I paged on. It only got worse.
I’ve been spoiled by years of following bloggers who write all of their own posts. I knew that some blog sites hired other writers to contribute to their blogs. I didn’t realize that so many of them paid writers to write all of their posts for them. It was astounding; page after page of classifieds seeking blog writers for very specialized blogs to churn out massive amounts of content each day, all gussied up with SEO. Many were nonchalant about the fact that every word is generated by paid freelancers though the blog administrators claim ownership of the content once they’ve paid for it. And there seems to be a never-ending supply of content. Gigantic blogs, very popular and intensely followed by thousands, all filled with paid content, all of it written to increase traffic, none of it worth a damn if it doesn’t connect eyes to ads.
On I clicked through page after page seeking ghostwriters for books. I mean, I knew ghostwriting was a thing. I had no idea almost no one writes his or her own book anymore. Those books everyone loves in a wildly popular series by beloved authors? Fake. How do they write so many? Well, it’s like a puppy mill for books. They pay freelancers. They pay a pittance compared to what the books generate in revenue. There are hundreds of anonymous freelancers whoring themselves out for this work, and the profits are steady for the pimps. My naivete? Huge. My innocence? Lost. My reaction? Nausea. Despondency. Let-down. I want my mommy. I want to go home. This is what it means to be a writer now? Count me out. I’ll get back on the next turnip truck. Nobody’s going to call ME a freelance writer! Hell no.
Worse still is the fact that I can’t unknow any of this. I’ll never trust another business review on the internet. I’ll never again trust a blog that publishes more than a handful of posts per week. I’ll never again trust a bestselling author with more books than freckles on my left shoulder. And although part of me thinks I should have known all this, and maybe part of me did know a little of all this, having it all served up in my face this way made it real and crude and appallingly unsavory. The absolute worst, though? You’re going to hate me for this but I have to say it.
If I ever thought it was a good idea to get off social media, let me rephrase. It was critical. I cannot say it enough. I have now crossed an invisible line and gone militant. Label me. Judge me. I don’t care.
I am now a zealot.
I am now a fanatic.
I have lost my shit. I am now ready to spearhead counterculture.
If you care about your wellness, get the hell off of social media. You are being worked by freelancers. You’re being played. Yes, I mean YOU. I mean your parents and your teenage kids and your pastor and your Aunt Vesta and your friends. It is now a bona fide job to be someone else’s social media specialist. I don’t mean a marketing assistant who puts up a post when the boss is running a sale or a promotion. I mean a screen slave who is paid to work social media strategies for eight to twelve hours per day. These strategies include following you around the internet interacting with you so you’ll establish a positive relationship with the content creator. Slowly, a little bit at a time, they build a fake kinship with you. The more time you spend on social media the more exposure to your heart and brain you provide.
A social media specialist is paid to mine your social media content for any and all data specific to your preferences so that it can be used to seduce you, including following you to your personal page and being the first person to like pictures of your dog, or kid, or lunch. Harmless? No. Private groups? They aren’t really private. Private messages? Not private. Every time you use social media you’re telling a freelancer how to make you feel good. How to motivate and excite you. How to break your heart. The better you feel, the easier it is to separate you from your money. And someone is being paid to make you feel good. Or validated. Or included. This is a thing now. It’s a paid position with a skill set and experience levels. You can apply for it just like a job washing dishes or delivering newspapers—only the point is to lull patsies into a place of sweet complacency so they will feel good about surrendering their money.
Do you hear me, people? This is not a joke. It is someone’s J-O-B to follow you around social media and make you feel good about your choices; to stroke you, like you, like everything you like, like everything you post, agree with you, support you, and align so closely with what you think and feel (because you’ve made it all available) that you’ll willingly look, click, and pay. You’re probably already do it, thinking you’re acting on your own impulses, but you’re likely simply responding to a pull of the strings. And it was someone’s J-O-B to create those strings. And business is good, my lovelies. Business is damn good. The algorithms work. Curating your news feed translates into sales even when it seems innocently populated with pictures of your friends. There’s a reason that an image of your bestie in a cute tank makes you buy cute tanks. You both got played.
Social media platforms have permission to tell anyone who will pay where you go on the internet, what you read, what you buy, what you hate, what you believe, who you love to the moon and back, what pisses you off, where you’re going after work or this weekend, your favorite place for lunch, where your kids take karate or dance, as well as everything you’ve ever deleted from a feed or profile. Who gives them permission? You do. Stop selling your souls. All the rhetoric surrounding this newly acceptable level of “sharing” is bullshit. You are a feed source. You are an easy mark. Stop checking the box next to the user agreements. Stop blindly accepting the terms.
Who are these alleged spies who spend all day every day studying you and your lifestyle as if you were an endangered species? They are freelance social media specialists paid by clients, hired through a site that employs millions of freelancers. That’s not an exaggeration. They are already following your friends. They already know everything you’ve ever shared. The information they’ve accumulated is already predicting your next online behavior. It’s legal. It’s not a hoax. It’s not paranoia. It’s commerce. Your behavior is a commodity. There is nothing you can do about it except stop using social media.
Are all freelancers doing this dirty work? No, but upwards of 7 million of them are getting paid to do it. Is all freelance work this dirty? No, but to find work with integrity you have to sift through an overwhelming amount that is this dirty and dirtier. So I’m chalking this up to a successful experiment to discover what I do not want to do. My curiosity is now satisfied as to the worst that can happen. I did lose more than my time. I lost my faith. I’ll pass. No thank you. Here’s my cardboard sign that reads Will Not Write For Food.
I should have known that if the site was free to use it probably meant selling my easily deceived writer’s soul to the devil, as the old saying goes. As with all things that seem too good to be true, free puts the lance in freelance.
— Strut Sumpter Pomfret
(trumpet for strumpets)