A Friendly Reminder to Pay for the Things You Care About

Or: The Problem With Free*

I wrote most of this piece a few months ago, and then got caught up in another project and promptly forgot about it. Now that it’s holiday shopping season and we’re having a national conversation about how our news is created and shared, it seems like a good time to post.

You possess a power: the power to give your money to other people. It’s very easy to forget, because on the internet, we get a lot of things we love for free*. That asterisk doesn’t go to a footnote. I mean that a lot of the things we get for “free” are just that: free, asterisk.

The problem is that if it’s a truly great thing we’re getting for free* online, it almost certainly wasn’t free to make. Making truly great things takes time and effort. And being able to devote time and effort to something almost always requires money for things like food, shelter, and, if it’s a creative pursuit, a couch to lie on for many hours while the creator wonders if she is a talentless fraud.

Basically, just because you didn’t pay for something doesn’t mean nobody paid for it. It just means that the money came from someone who isn’t you.

There are a two places the money often comes from when something is free*:

  1. The creator
  2. Advertisers or other corporate sponsors

The first is mostly the domain of independent creatives. Basically, this just means that unless they come from wealth, people who create things have day jobs. Having a day job isn’t a bad thing (and it might even give you the time to secretly read articles like this one). But it means that the creatives aren’t devoting all of their time to the creative pursuit that you enjoy the spoils of. In fact, they might be devoting very little of their time to it, and they might not even want to be giving so much of their work away for free* online — but they feel like they must, because it’s a way to possibly get discovered by someone who wants to pay them, or it’s the only outlet they have to share their stuff with the world.

The wonderful thing about giving money to independent creators you love is that it can have a powerful and direct effect. Whether you’re donating to an IndieGogo campaign, buying an album from an artist’s Bandcamp page, or just sending a creator an unsolicited donation to help them do more of what they do, you’re directly contributing to making something you love exist.

The second way that free* things are funded — by advertisers or other corporate sponsors — can be more problematic. It can shape the direction and content of what people make, and it can affect everyone from independent artists to the major websites where we get our news.

Let’s take that last one — where we get our news — as an example. Say you care about getting well-researched, unbiased news online, and you get that news for free*. You know not to get your news from Facebook, as 61% of millennials claim to do, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, because you don’t want your “friends” and Facebook’s algorithm deciding what stories you do and don’t see. You also make sure to go to a site that seeks out original sources and utilizes fact-checkers, because you don’t want your news to come through the game of telephone that so many blogs play in aggregating the news. And you get your news from a company that has a code of ethics, so you know that their advertisers don’t influence the content of their stories.

Even then, free* can be a problem, because if the site is partially funded by advertising dollars, it needs eyeballs. And that need for eyeballs affects the stories that publications decide to run and how they present them. In his piece “Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved,” Joshua Topolsky wrote about how the drive to reach the most eyeballs in order to keep attracting advertisers has driven online publications to create, as he put it, “cheap shit.” Or, as you probably know it, clickbait. Articles — usually quick to produce — that attract the most eyeballs, not the most-interested eyeballs.

And this isn’t just happening to bloggers; it’s happening to almost everyone. In late 2015, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story by Jack Murtha about how The Washington Post surpassed The New York Times in clicks for the first time ever… by basically running clickbait. The article does note that “softer stories still come with news pegs and promote high journalistic standards.” And you can choose to not read those “softer” stories that are created to attract more eyeballs. But a publication’s resources are finite, and if they’re producing stories that chase clicks in a free* world, that means they aren’t putting their time and effort to make something you might care about more.

In his piece, Topolsky was hopeful about clickbait’s eventual demise, noting,

The truth is that the best and most important things the media (let’s say specifically the news media) has ever made were not made to reach the most people — they were made to reach the right people. Because human beings exist, and we are not content consumption machines. What will save the media industry — or at least the part worth saving — is when we start making Real Things for people again, instead of programming for algorithms or New Things.

But part of this requires fighting for the things you love. Consuming the good things is one way to do that, but the stronger thing to do is put your money where, if you’ll forgive the cornball phrase, your mouse is.

If you read the longform journalism from a magazine for free* online, buy a subscription to that magazine to keep funding that great work.

If you love the work a painter does on her free* Tumblr, buy a painting so she can buy more supplies and spend more time painting.

If you love the humor and social commentary in a comedian’s free* videos, donate to the Kickstarter for their passion project, subscribe to their work through Patreon, or send them a direct donation through PayPal. Even if the comedian doesn’t have a “donate” link on their website, I can almost guarantee you they won’t say no if you email them and ask how you can give them money.

Basically, if you truly love what a person or organization is doing, whether it’s because they’re doing important, in-depth research or making art that inspires you — don’t just get that work for free*. Give them money, no asterisk attached. This doesn’t need to be a big, radical change in your life, but hopefully it will help you think about the things you want to exist in the world, and remind you to vote for them financially when you can. And if you don’t have the money, do other things. Share creators’ work. Let them know you care.

Yes, money isn’t everything, but money does something important: it lets people who do work you care about continue to do that work.