Today I came across two links that I think are both relevant to the topic of this blog post. Today on OpenSource.com there was a blog post titled Open source design is ugly, here’s why that has this question:

Why aren’t there more designers contributing their mad skills to open source projects on their own time?

Then there was this article on Salon.com about actor Wil Wheaton that seems to answer the question on OpenSource.com about why aren’t more designers contributing to open source projects: Wil Wheaton is right: Stop expecting artists to work for free—or worse, for “exposure”.

I look on the job ads on Craigslist every now and then. If I earned a dollar for every time I saw an ad on that site asking for writers/photographers/artists/designers/programmers/coders to work for an up and coming blog or website or next major hip company that has the “potential” to be as big a name as Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever while saying that they won’t get paid but they’ll get plenty of “exposure” for their free work, I’d be earning my first million dollars right now.

It would be one thing if a certain project would take less than 30 minutes to finish and it’s no big deal to work for free on something that’s very quick. But anyone who has ever done any kind of writing, on-location photography, art project, graphic design, or programming/coding would know that, in order to do a good enough job to impress a client or to make a sale, you have to literally spend hours on your latest creation. Sometimes a project is so big that it could take several days, weeks, or months in order to finish the job.

In the meantime there are bills to be paid and other related financial matters that a creative person needs to pay attention to in order to not have any kind of major distractions while that person works on that time consuming project. Asking that person to work for free on a major time-consuming project is not right.

Imagine telling a plumber or doctor or a repair person of any kind that you need him or her to do work for you but you won’t pay that person. However, he/she should still work for you anyway because if he/she does a good job, you’ll give that person exposure by talking about the wonderful work that the plumber or doctor did for you to all of your friends and family. Guess what? That plumber or doctor or repair person would tell you to either fork over the money or piss off.

Most people think that it’s not right to expect a plumber/doctor/repair person to do free work in exchange for “exposure” yet they have no compunction with asking the same of writers/photographers/artists/designers/coders while refusing to consider the fact that creatives need to earn money in order to pay bills too.

A related topic is the idea of a “gift economy” that I’ve seen people in my area espouse as a great alternative way of living. According to the Wikipedia, a gift economy is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. A gift economy sounds great on the surface. I would espouse it myself in this blog if I could use my talents to pay the utility bills or purchase groceries or buy gas for my car or pay the monthly co-op fee on my home. It would be totally awesome if I could give the electric company one of my recent paintings in exchange for not being required to pay my electric bill for a month or two.

Unfortunately the reality is that many places prefer money over gifts or bartered services. And if you’re someone who’s financially struggling, you’re not going to be able to afford to participate much in the gift economy because it doesn’t have immediate rewards. I’ve noticed that the people who tend to wax poetic about the gift economy the most are ones who have stable high-paying jobs or have some other form of reliable income so they have the luxury of participating in a gift economy without having to worry about whether they’ll be able to afford to pay all of their bills for that month.

I’ll admit that I once fell into the “doing work for free in exchange for exposure trap” myself. I had a friend tell me that I can build my own brand (whatever that means) if I write for other sites that have a policy of not paying people for their contributions. I once posted an Inkscape tutorial on OpenSource.com where I didn’t get any compensation. I’ll tell you that I never got much exposure for my effort. No one has ever sent any kind of messages saying “I saw your article on OpenSource.com and you’re such a talented writer that I’d love to hire for my own project and I’ll even pay you money.” In fact, I’ve never gotten so much as a simple message saying “I like it” or “Cool!” or anything like that.

So much for working for free in exchange for exposure. </sarcasm>

For people just starting out, there are alternate ways of getting exposure for yourself that are way less exploitative than working for someone else for free. One is to get a free blogging account from platforms like WordPress or Blogger. (In fact, the main reason why I started my Sagittarius Dolly blog in the first place was because I wanted to promote myself as a creative person in general while convincing you that you should buy my handcrafted products or think about hiring me as a photographer for your next event or major project.)

Another way is to get a free web account from places like Wix.com and upload your own site featuring what you’ve done.

A third way is to take out a free YouTube or Vimeo account and shoot your own videos promoting yourself and your work.

I’m not saying that you should never do free work for anyone. As for myself, I do free work only for legitimate non-profit 501(c)3 organizations or some other type of legitimate non-profit whose goals I personally sympathize with. In this case, I’m not only getting exposure for what I do but I also feel that I’m helping these groups financially as well since they tend to operate on shoe-string budgets in the first place.

However, when a site like the Huffington Post, which is a for-profit company owned by AOL and rakes in large revenue from ad sales, expects people to write for them for free when it could easily afford to pay those writers, then that’s where I draw the line.

Even when I do pro bono work for worthy non-profits I tend to limit myself to accepting such work no more than once or twice a month. That’s because I don’t want to do so much pro bono work that I end not having time to accept paid work that could give me an income of some sort.

All those people who are writing that, as an actor who has starred in two hit TV series (Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory), Wil Wheaton is rich enough to be able to afford to work for free are missing the point. Wil Wheaton isn’t just saying “no” to writing for a wealthy for-profit website like The Huffington Post for free as a way of shoring up his personal bank account. He’s saying “no” out of principle on behalf of all those writers/photographers/artists/designers/programmers/coders who aren’t as wealthy as he is and who really need the income just so they can afford the bare necessities and survive. As the aforementioned Salon.com article says:

But when “free” becomes the way creative work gets assessed, it undercuts the market for everyone, famous and obscure alike. We end up with a race to the bottom. Kudos to Wil Wheaton for blowing the whistle.

You can read Wil Wheaton’s stand against the exploitation of creatives right here.

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