Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing social

Your words, your world, our money, that we get to keep.
Air New Zealand launched its recruiting campaign for ‘volunteer writers’ at noon yesterday. The idea: to outsource the content of the company’s Flying Social marketing initiative, in exchange for exposure through its media channels. Each applicant was invited to declare their interests, describe their ‘social media skills’, decline their Twitter and LinkedIn details (both compulsory) and tell Air New Zealand ‘why they should be a Flying Social contributor’. Applications would close on 4 March 2014.

I guess one may choose to find it heartening that people aren’t completely inured to these scams yet, as evidenced by the backlash that led the company to abandon the plans within two hours and pledge to ‘come up with appropriate compensation’. We can still grasp how obscene it is for a company that made a $182 million profit last year to ask aspiring writers to work for free, dangling in front of them the prospect of an exposure that they would be just as likely to get by keeping their own blog. No, writing for Flying Social is not going to improve your CV. No reputable media outlet is going to trawl a second-rate infotainment channel ahead of their next intake of staff writers. You may hone your skills, but the web offers plenty of other ways of doing so which don’t involve volunteering to be exploited.

And yes, I’m aware that Blogger, tumblr, Wordpress, Facebook, Twitter and so forth also profit from the content that its users upload onto them. I think it would be misleading to equate these relationships with the one that Air New Zealand sought to establish with its writers, however. All of those other companies offer services which are a mix of a self-publishing and communication platform; their profit model is not based on the specific value of the content – how good it is, what it is about – but rather on the aggregate number of users and the frequency of their interactions. Blogger (hence Google) doesn’t ‘commission me’ to write these posts, nor does it care in the least what they’re about. Without consideration given to specific value, there is no ‘writing’, but rather an amorphous mass of ‘content’ to be profited upon in indirect ways. And without writing there are no writers (again, strictly from the point of view of the owners of these services).

Flying Social, on the other hand, is a product. Its content is akin to advertising copy, and is editorially commissioned and selected. Consideration is given to specific value as well as to appropriateness. Hence, it is writing.

Should it even surprise us that Air New Zealand tried to avoid paying for it? Perhaps not. There is no shortage of both old and new media outlets that have gotten away with it, most infamously the Huffington Post. It is possible the company thought that if they called it a ‘social network’, people would fail to see Flying Social as the piece of corporate marketing that it is.

There is a detail that caught my attention, though: namely, the fact that the job requirements include having a social media presence and demonstrating social media skills. So not only did Air New Zealand try to pay for writing work in that most dubious of currencies – exposure – but hoped that the writers would be able to generate and amplify some of that exposure themselves. In other words, they weren’t looking just for volunteer writers, but for marketing professionals, too. A moveable, continually replaceable workforce willing to give away their labour for the privilege of being plugged into the company’s network, and motivated to add value to the company just to see that network grow.

There are a number of apps that exploit the diffuse, anxious desire to monetise social activity on the web – a desire which we may view as a response to the much more common and effective transformation of regular work into unpaid social interaction. One such app (How Much is My Twitter Worth?) just informed me that my Twitter account is worth US$3480.06, and offers to keep me up to date with the most minute daily fluctuations of this value for as long as I keep asking it to; whereas the service known as Klout (‘the standard for influence’), assigns me a score of 62, enough to place me ‘in the top 10% of all social media users’. The algorithms that lie behind these calculations are proprietary, so it’s impossible to analyse the exact criteria involved and their relative weight, but one thing they have in common is their uncanny precision. My twitter worth is a value expressed down to the cents. My klout graph keeps me up to date of daily variations and long-term trends.

Of course this precision is entirely self-referential. It’s a mere expression of the algorithm. But the will to knowledge of our age being what it is, who’s to say how much stock people actually put in these numbers? Even if it were a knowingly played game of collective make-believe, I would suggest that it isn’t an innocent one; that it betrays a deeper search for value, even if it is the crude, nonsensical value of a virtual stock price, to counteract all the things that have lost and continue to lose their value as the digitisation, gamification and socialisation of labour eats into our new territory.

The attempt to recruit a permanent army of unpaid interns for Flying Social ended in a short-lived public relations disaster. We can take a little heart in that. But only a little.

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