Ars Gratia Artis

art for art's sake

My father called this week to ask why I’m not spending every minute of every day pursuing job leads, sending out résumés and going on interviews.  He expressed concern that a fiftysomething middle manager could become unemployable and impoverished if he stays out of the workforce too long.  I could tell that he was following up on my mother’s call of last week (she was of the opinion that my ambivalence toward writing job applications must indicate that I am depressed over having been recently laid off).

This doesn’t take into account the fact that I knew about the layoff two months in advance and that I’ve applied for more than 25 positions to no avail.  That I am not applying for dozens of jobs right now appears to be the issue.

“You have to have somewhere to go in the morning,” was my father’s advice.  I responded that it’s also nice not to have to go anywhere in the morning.  I omitted mention of the fact that he has been retired for twenty years and doesn’t have to go anywhere to go in the morning other than outside to mow the lawn or into town to a doctor appointment or the grocery store.  I also thought it circumspect to skip the part about how the only thing this night owl wants to see in the morning is the back of his eyelids.

Dad pointed out that there is a difference between not working because you’ve been thrust out of the workforce due to the economy and not working because you’ve decided to retire and have a nice pension from the state retirement system.

It’s not as if I haven’t thought long and hard about whether to keep working or to throw in the towel.  I tried to explain that I’ve had enough of the cubicle life and that I would like to work in a results-oriented environment in which I can exercise my nighttime creativity rather than being stuck in the 9-to-5 routine.  I fear I was not very successful in my efforts to relate how much I love blogging every day and, hopefully, finally finishing the last part of my memoirs.

“And what will you do then?” he asked.  I offered that I hope to market my manuscript around and hopefully attract the attention of a publisher who can afford me the services of a professional editor.  I’m realistic, I told him; I don’t expect to earn a penny from this endeavor, although I won’t be self-publishing the book either.  Why, then, would I waste my time?  Good question.  My answer:  To satisfy myself that I can do it.

This got me to thinking about how, along with my fellow writers, I am a member of a society of professionals who work without compensation.  In a capitalist economy, this sounds crazy.  Who would work for free?  Plenty of us, apparently.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” Oct. 26, 2013), author Tim Kreider observes that those who wouldn’t think of giving away a haircut or a can of soda for free think nothing of asking writers to compose work for publication for no pay.  The applicable currency, the theory goes, is not money, but “exposure.”  In other words, no compensation is really needed because the public gets to see what great writers we are so that they can ask us to write more stories, poems and articles for free.

The whole idea of us creative types pouring out our blood, sweat and tears for love (not money) struck a chord.  Kreider’s article took me back to my “volunteer” work for America Online in 1995, 1996 and 1997.  I worked as a message board monitor, a content provider, a leader of virtual “tours” through AOL’s Entertainment Channel and a “love doctor” (facilitator in a love, sex and relationships chat room called The Hot Bed).

I’ve heard anecdotally that several of my fellow chat hosts and content providers have unsuccessfully attempted to sue AOL for back wages.  I am told that AOL’s legal people took the position that all of us willingly and eagerly volunteered our time in order to be a part of the excitement of the early days of the Internet.

I believe it is true that we agreed to work for free, but not necessarily for the “coolness” factor. Like myself, many of us were addicted to the friendships and connections we had made online back in the days before Internet access was essentially free. 

In the mid-nineties, AOL was behind a firewall and the charge to use its services was three dollars per hour.  Quite a few of the volunteers were students, unemployed or just too poor to be able to pay the huge bills that we tended to rack up.  I recall working 20 hours per week as a combination desktop publisher and technical writer for a tiny Silicon Valley startup, getting paid ten dollars an hour, crashing with my sister and sending almost all of my paycheck to AOL.  I just had to get my chat fix at any cost.  See?  Addicted.

When I ended up unemployed and broke, I found out a way I could stay online.  Those who were willing to perform tasks such as hosting chat rooms and message boards would be “compensated” by being credited with an hour of online time for every hour worked.  In some of AOL’s channels, it was possible to earn two or even three hours of online time for each hour worked.

And then there was Nirvana, the Holy Grail, the mysterious “overhead account” that was only whispered about and was rumored to be a myth.  It wasn’t a myth, however.  Some of us managed to cadge content wrangling volunteer positions that required many, many hours of research and HTML coding, compensated by an entirely free AOL account.  For addicts like myself, it was the ideal situation.  As long as I got my work done, I could spend all day and all night online.  Which I frequently did.  I wouldn’t sleep until I collapsed in my chair.  To buy food, I borrowed money from family and friends.  I freeloaded, I mooched.  I moved from California to Connecticut and back to California again.  Anything to avoid working so I could be online all the time.

I loved hosting the chat room, particularly on Saturday nights when the place would be rockin’ and rollin’. This was a double-sized chat room that held 46 rather than the usual 23.  There were always a few “snerts” in attendance, kids who had no interest in taking part in the conversation and would repeatedly violate the no polling/no scrolling/no profanity rules.  We had macros, pre-typed scripts, that could be sent into the chat room at the touch of a button to warn these miscreants that they risked being tossed out by the higher-ups.  For most of the chatters, however, it was one big party and I was the emcee.  I would have thought-inducing questions prepared ahead of time; if I received responses, I would type follow-up questions.  I would do my best to recognize participants by addressing them by their screen names.  As the text scrolled down the screen, it was my responsibility to try to keep up with all the threads of the chat and to make additional comments to provoke the expression of a variety of opinions.  It was a heady experience, quite the thrill.  And I did it all, if not for free, than at least for the free account.

At one point, my “supervisor” asked me to conduct a seminar to let my fellow chat hosts in on the secrets of my success.  That was when I finally put my foot down and demanded compensation.  Of course, AOL was unwilling to pay actual money, and so I stood my ground and took a pass.

These days, I can’t help feeling that I am falling into a similar pattern by blogging in this forum.  None of my fellow WordPress bloggers are paid a penny; we do what we do as a labor of love.  As the old saying goes, “writers write.”  The instant publishing tools that WordPress makes available to us at no charge enable writers to gain, as Kreider terms it, “exposure.”  I love the Times graphic attached to his article, a bank deposit slip that lists, in part, “1,530 page views, good karma, 872 likes, 490 comments, 2 days notoriety… Total: $0.00.”  He points out that, despite all the feel-good vibes, a writer cannot eat and pay the rent on this.  He cites the old joke headline “Artist Dies of Exposure.”

Kreider proposes that writers could remedy this situation if we’d only stop giving away the fruits of our labors for free.  “Not getting paid for things in your 20s in glumly expected, even sort of cool,” writes Kreider, while “not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, [is] considerably less so.  Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift.  Now I am 46, and would like a bed.”

Being a considerable number of years past the age of 46, I can certainly appreciate Kreider’s perspective.  He rails against a public that, by expecting us to work for free, relays the opinion that “our vocation is worthless.”

Clearly, Kreider doesn’t believe that our vocation is worthless.  And this is where he and I part company.  Say what you will about the virtue of the starving artist, the fact remains that, in a free market economy, things are worth exactly what people will pay for them.  In that respect, my work and that of most of my fellow writers is indeed worthless.

But that’s okay.  Just as in my days as a chat host, I do what I do because I enjoy the process and take pride in the product.  More than likely, Kreider would argue that I can’t have very much pride in my work if I am willing to forego compensation and simply give it away.

I respectfully disagree.  I blog for the same reason that I spend time with my little grandniece:  Both pursuits light up my life.  They make me smile, and hopefully they make you smile, too.

Ars gratia artis, baby.

NaBloPoMo November 2013