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Content is King

I am a techie at heart. I love making computers do what I want them to do. I also love information. I love organizing it, and finding the sometimes surprising patterns that appear.

Therefore, it is perhaps predictable that I’ve created several websites over the years, combining my techie and information-loving streaks. I am old enough that my first website was built using HTML and CGI, using a PostgreSQL backend. I installed and configured the database server myself (on an SGI Indigo 2!) then designed a schema, populated it, and wrote CGI scripts to query the database and create HTML pages displaying the information. CSS didn’t exist yet, so anytime I wanted to change the look of my site, I changed my CGI scripts.

Tungsten Hippo is my latest website. Setting it up was a far different affair. I clicked a button on my web hosting site to install Drupal, and I add new modules with a click of another button. I still had to decide how I wanted to organize the information, but the underlying database schema was defined by the people who created Drupal, and is opaque to me. I haven’t written a single line of SQL or scripted in any language. I did finally learn CSS so that I could tweak the look of my site, but for the most part, setting up a website has gotten much, much easier.

However, one thing has not gotten any easier: the work of producing meaningful content for the site. In my view, this is the hardest part of setting up a site, and always was, even back in the days when I had to install and configure database servers. And yet, there is a pervasive attitude that content should be free. The web is full of tales of writers being told they should write for some website or another without pay, for the “exposure.” In some cases, this may truly be a good deal- for instance, the Big Idea guest posts John Scalzi posts on his blog Whatever are a great way for authors to reach a large audience of interested people. The investment an author makes by providing a guest post to Whatever is almost certainly going to pay off in more book sales. In fact, I hope to eventually do something similar on this site, and have a standing offer to authors of short ebooks to write guest posts introducing their books here. However, I would not expect any author to take me up on that offer until I grow the audience of this site enough to make it worth their time to write the post. I will work on making this site useful to readers (and publicizing it to them) before I expend even an iota of effort convincing an author to write a guest post for me.

So it is not that I think people should never, ever write for free, or that every opportunity to do so is necessarily exploitative. It is certainly true that people get opportunities for actual paid work based on things they have shared for free. In many cases, the website is being run as a community, and the people running it are essentially donating their work, too. I think a commercial website that expects all of its content to be essentially donated is on far shakier ground. Did they ask the developers who set up the site for them to donate their time? Do they expect their web hosting for free, too? In most cases, not only do the site owners pay their developers and hosting companies, but they expect to garner income for themselves, too. In this case, I find it repugnant for them not to pay the people who provide their content.

I’m not sure why so many people who would never think of asking someone to set up a website for them “for exposure” have no qualms whatsoever about asking someone to provide content for their website for that nebulous return. Perhaps it is because we don’t all know how to do the tech stuff, but we all know how to write. What we don’t realize is that we don’t all know how to write content people will want to read.

Those of us who consume the information and entertainment available to us online are often not much better than the website owners looking to convince authors to write for free. We complain about ads, rage against paywalls, and impatiently click through pop ups imploring us to subscribe to the magazine whose articles we read for free online. We talk dismissively about favorite blogs or sites “selling out.” We’ve even come to expect free apps for our expensive electronic toys, even though those toys would be very dull without the apps. At least in that case, the developers have the option of trying to get us to pay for their work via in app purchasing opportunities.

When we refuse to pay for our information and entertainment, though, we undermine the flow of independent information and entertainment born of an artistic spark. We will find ourselves in a world where the things we read come only from people privileged enough to have the spare time to create things without remuneration or corporate machines trying to trick us into buying something else. I want people to write things I will want to read, not just what some corporation wants me to read, and I want to read things written by people from all sorts of backgrounds, not just people who do not need to be paid for their effort. The only way to make sure this happens is to pay the people who write.

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