The commodification of the uncommodifiable

Earlier this year Lottie Lodge knitted a pair of socks and put them up for sale on Coriandr. As any craftsperson should, she worked out the costs of her materials and time and set that as her list price. They socks worked out to be £208.70.

The disparity between the cost of creation and the price that punters are willing to pay is a significant problem for crafters. I learnt this through my jewellery making, which I had hoped would be a self-sustaining hobby rather than a new career, although it was nigh on impossible to sell enough to even be that. I still have a stock of necklaces sitting about that I just haven’t been able to sell.

The same problem affects content creators too. I have a number of friends who are professional authors. All bar one get paid less for their books than the time it takes them to write them. Most authors I know don’t even get paid that.

I suffered the same problem when I was a music journalist. Whilst I was writing for the now defunct Melody Maker, freelancers had the first pay rise the paper had enacted for ten years. Cunningly, however, they counteracted the pay rise by reducing the word count, meaning that I went from earning just over £200 per article, on average, to around £180. The music press didn’t need to pay more. Behind every eager young journalist was a long, long queue of younger, more eager journalists willing to work for less.

Whenever you have a popular activity where the number of people who want to do it exceeds the number of professional opportunities you create this imbalance. This means that the price of the socks or books or articles gets driven down even though the cost of production is going up, at the least, in line with the cost of living.

In an industrialised environment, this is what unions are good at stopping. A good union forces those who act as intermediaries between producer and consumer to pay a fair amount to the producer, which ultimately means higher costs to the consumer. (A bad union, on the other than, just goes on strike at the first sign of change and wastes everyone’s time and money.)

The internet facilitates disintermediation but that is itself a double-edged sword. Whilst a direct relationship with your buyers can result in higher quality sales, it also removes the protection from abuse that numbers, e.g. belonging to a guild or union, can (sometimes) provide.

The combination of a disintermediation of the production cycle alongside the industrialisation and commodification of that same production cycle creates two production pipelines:

  • hand-crafted objects, often very high quality, that cost a lot to produce, but which few are willing to buy at that price
  • industrially produced objects, sometimes very low quality, that cost very little to produce but which many are happy to buy at that price

I think this is a significant cultural problem, but not because I think that industrial processes necessarily produce inferior goods. That’s clearly not true as industrial processes often allow us to create things that are impossible any other way, and that is of massive value to society. So this isn’t an anti-industrialism rant. But what we as a society risk by expecting hand-crafted objects to be sold at the same price as mass produced goods is the squeezing out of the crafter and the resultant loss of skills. Culturally, the loss of skills such as bobbin lace making or stained glass making is a cause for concern.

The same isn’t true of content. The industrialised processes of Demand Media do not achieve something that a more considered, better paid process can’t do. The Huffington Post’s model of relying on writers willing to work for free ‘for the exposure’ is more exploitative than the music press was when I was a hack, and it puts no bread on the workers’ tables.

We need to start messing with the business models of creation. The ones we have clearly aren’t working very well and the cynical exploitation of people’s passion is turning the internet into a tool of oppression instead of freedom. Publishers need to get away from this idea that the only way to be profitable is to drive down the cost of content production by driving down their wages bill by exploiting writers.

We need to examine the role of the ad sales departments and ask whether they are doing everything they really can to place appropriate ads on the appropriate pages. Twice recently I have heard of commercial departments throwing up their hands and abandoning blogs and social media content because they ‘don’t have relationships’ with the right vendors. Well, surely it’s your job to go and create those relationships?

Now, it’s a simple repost to say that there are no successful business models for online and that there’s no way to have an online content business that isn’t predicated on making the cost of that content as close to free as possible. That too easily ignores companies like Federated Media or the specialist blogs that aggregate passionate and focused readers whose clicks are worth more to advertisers than those of a generalist publication. Sure, it’s hard work, but it is possible.

But stil,l we need to start looking outside of the traditional models that are based on mass sales and mass audiences. Good content takes time to create – and I’m not just talking about investigative journalism either! Whether it’s a well considered blog post, a feature article or a novel, the key cost to writing is time, and if we don’t start to understand and value that, we risk turning our written culture into mass-produced schlock.