Friday, July 31, 2015

My unpopular opinion about free content.

Earlier this month, I happened to tweet that I had read and enjoyed Patrick Ness's THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE. Mostly this was to get the recommendation out quickly, so that I could take my time to do a more expansive review in the future.

Part of why I enjoy the book is that it discusses not needing to be The Chosen One. It refreshingly features a story about living a good life outside of the spotlight, which resonates a great deal with choices that I've made over the past year.

The tweet started I had a quick exchange with a former colleague who plans to talk up the book at every opportunity, and soon after the author favourited it, because I had tagged his account and he happened to see it.

Then someone I didn't know favourited the tweet. As I tend to do when random strangers come favourite things and it's not immediately clear why they're doing it, I clicked on the username. Found out it was a verified account and thought "a BuzzFeedUK staff writer who does book stuff favourited my tweet about a book." Then I thought how that would probably thrill someone who wasn't me. I mostly found it suspicious.

I find BuzzFeed mostly suspicious in general. I know that's a state of doublethink because it's not like I've never read or shared any of their stories. But when I read them, especially the complied/crowdsourced list ones, I always feel a bit...concerned about how they repurpose posts from other sites. It nudges awake that same instinctive response I have to raise my eyebrows whenever someone says "social media is public domain!"

Yes, what you say on social media is in public view. But too often when people are declaring things public domain, they're actually saying "But why can't I casually exploit people for free content? They put it on the internet!" This is not a new problem, either. Being old as the sun, I remember the early art theft days of DeviantART. It's one thing to share content; it's another to profit off it.

The only way BuzzFeed could thrill me is if they added "get permission and then notify people of use" to their company policy. (And replaced staff writers who wouldn't adhere to it.) That's unlikely, because it means changing a model that their business is built on. A company that made $100 million last year isn't going to fix what it doesn't believe to be broken.

Earlier this week, a follower messages me about being on a list. I click the link thinking she's written something and is letting me know she used my tweet. Nope. It's a BuzzFeedUK article about 35 Brilliant Books to Read This Fall written by the staff writer who had previously favourited my tweet. I'm not the only one; as I scan the the article looking for which of my tweets was used, I see at least ten other users have had their tweets included.

For thirty seconds I blame the writer for the death of ethical journalism before I take a deep breath and remind myself it's not entirely his fault. I think it's unethical to use other people's content without their consent to write your stories, but it happens way more than any of us probably realize. Who knows how many BuzzFeed lists I've had tweets in? It's not like they notified me, and I wouldn't have known about this one had someone else not pointed it out.

Given that Twitter doesn't have the technical capabilities (yet) to allow me to disable external sites from embedding my tweets without my permission, it falls to the writers of these crowdsourced pieces to ensure they have received permission to use the tweets and/or—if they don't believe permission needs to be granted—notified the users their tweet has been featured.

Favouriting my tweet does not grant permission to profit from the use of it on an external site. And he did profit, because he's a paid employee of BuzzFeed whose job is to produce these articles. Not notifying me that my tweet had been featured is additionally frustrating, because the follower who told me then also provides BuzzFeed free labour.

The question I had to ask myself was if telling this writer that I thought he had been a bag of dicks unethical would accomplish anything other than hand-delivering him hate. Given the current state of the internet, I decided if it garnered any response someone else would escalate it into an argument that diluted the actual issue. Yes, I could've emailed him. But he's not the issue; he's an example of the issue.

With respect to the fact he did as much as he felt ethically required to do when he favourited the tweet, I've left his name out of this post. Do me courtesy of not sending this to him or contacting him on my behalf in some mistaken attempt to "help" or because you need your daily hit of conflict.

Anyway. I did what I felt was the kinder thing for both of us, and I deliberately did not take a fight to his door. Instead I quoted the tweet that notified me so I could clarify that it had been done without my consent and I'd recommend reading a different book than the ones on the list.

I don't subtweet people. If I didn't bring someone the fight, it's because we aren't having one. (Also, I know people are just as likely to go look at the list anyway.) I trust you'll make your own decisions about what you read, because you're an autonomous human being. Maybe I make you a recommendation, but you're going to be the one who makes the final decision.

Not everyone is aware of the process involved when a site like BuzzFeed uses your content. My follower was surprised that I hadn't been asked. Also confused as to why I didn't think the writer using my tweet was a bad thing.

I invested several hours in reading the Patrick Ness book. I considered carefully how to phrase the tweet, because I included the author in it and I knew at least one member of the publisher's marketing department would see it. When I write about books, I've got my marketing hat on. I'm bookselling.

Writers—all creative professionals, really—get told that our passion ought to be compensation enough. That we should feel grateful if someone "showcases" what we've done. Some writers are happy to be showcased. Some writers review books with no intention of being showcased.

When I do a review, yes, part of it involves a love of that book. But I also get to practice my critical analysis skills. If it's an early review, I probably received an ARC from the publisher or author. Getting to read the book early is the compensation for helping to market the title. I'm digitally hand-selling it each time I message someone to recommend the book. I'm doing work.

I know how much authors appreciate what I do. I know how much publishers also appreciate it. I used to get paid to do this. Now I do it as a side-project. I'm grateful we all continue to work together. I'm also well-aware of how much work I'm willing to do without financial compensation.

This isn't about how BuzzFeed wanted to market a Patrick Ness book. It's about how I didn't agree to go without compensation for the part I played in it. Between me and the staff writer, only one of us got paid for that story—and it wasn't the person who invested the time into reading the book and then tweeting about it.

When I tweet a review to an author or a publisher, I've given implied consent for it to be used. I didn't tweet to this BuzzFeed staff writer. I wasn't answering his ask for crowdsourced opinions. I didn't use a hashtag he created to collect book reviews.

I don't subscribe to the notion that just because I put content on the internet means you are allowed to profit financially from the use of it without even notifying me you've done so. But there are people who do. There also people who haven't thought about or questioned it, so they don't understand why anyone would have a problem with it.

I guess the TL;DR is if being showcased by BuzzFeed is on your bucket list, good luck and godspeed. However, being exploited by them was never on mine.

No comments: