Monday, 2 December 2013
The Road Goes Ever On: WhatCulture and the Culture of Artistic Exploitation
I've been writing on topics that inspire me for a long time. I've rarely had the pleasure of being paid to do so; it's simply such a vital part of my being that it would be unthinkable not to.
When it comes to writing for money, however, I've had to resign myself to the reality that my options are limited; I have successfully pursued careers in both journalism and copywriting, and have personally found both to be soul-sappingly dissatisfying. Reporting the facts and representing a client's brand left little room for my own voice and creativity.
When I found an advert on TotalJobs for a fully paid content producer position for a successful entertainment website, therefore, I was intrigued. WhatCulture were offering a permanent writing role with a salary of £13,500 per annum (a modest sum, but one that did not faze me given the opportunity at hand). Employees would be required to write on the topics of film, TV, gaming, music and sport - several of which I take an unhealthily avid interest in.
The post mentioned a three-month probationary period, but I was prepared to undergo a temporary reduced salary so long as I could support myself while writing about the things I love. I knew that this would, by law, at the very least guarantee minimum wage, which was fine by me. The company was even based in my city of abode, which is - and this is important - emphatically not London, which is just about the only crazy joint would-be writers can go to catch a break these days. It sounded ideal. Here is a print-screen of the ad in question in all its enticing, writer-baity glory.
I was invited to interview almost immediately after applying, which should have been my first red flag. The editor's messages in arranging the interview were rushed, garbled and grammatically questionable; the last one encouragingly read, "Yeah, cya then". That this txt spk offender had come from the editor of a successful website in a professional email alarmed me somewhat, but I put it out of mind. If I have taken anything from this experience, it's that professed writers, and professionals in general, who send monosyllabic business emails in broken English should be regarded with deep levels of suspicion.
I was invited to come along on "Tuesday". I wasn't sure which Tuesday this referred to. Turns out it was the Tuesday two days from then, leaving me with very little time to prepare. Not that this turned out to be an issue.
My interviewers showed little to no interest in discussing my CV, viewing my portfolio of articles or asking me any questions of substance at all. Red flag number two. One question they did take pains to drop in was why I thought they spread their list-style articles out over several webpages. "To make the articles easier to digest", I answered. "The main reason we do this is because there are adverts on each page," the editor corrected me. Articles would be split up over a dozen pages with as little as a hundred words of content on each simply to artificially swell page views, as I later discovered. Needless to say, both readers and writers take an extremely dim view of this ad-serving approach.
At the interview's conclusion, I seemed to be well on the road to gainful employment; I was invited to submit "three or four" trial articles on their website and I received a congratulatory email stating that my application had been successful soon after. After this trial run, I was assured, they would be able to determine whether or not they would be willing to take me on. These articles would be paid based on their viewing figures and revenue-earning value. But at a rate of £0.80 per 1000 views, and with just a 50% share of the profits, this made for seriously small change.
I was dismayed, and confused. I was anticipating a probationary trial period, but I expected to be able to support myself through this (probationary work still guarantees minimum wage). They had, however, made it clear that they would only give a definitive response regarding more official employment after I had undergone this process; I was fully under the impression that this was the probationary period that would potentially lead to that job offer at the end of the rainbow. I debated whether or not I was willing to undertake what was sure to be a time-consuming and poorly paid task. I decided to press on regardless, reasoning that I had come this far, and could gain a fully paid opportunity in the end, which I was loathe to abandon the still sparkly prospect of.
I worked diligently on three feature articles for the site over the course of the next month. I probably took much more care than was necessary, given later developments. I endeavored to conceive original ideas for my articles, to research them meticulously and to write them in a style that fit well with the website. The articles ran for up to 2,000 words in length and two received in excess of 20,000 views each. After receiving positive feedback for the first article (I had been told constructive feedback would be provided for each article), WhatCulture fell mysteriously silent. Emails asking the editor and staff for support with articles were seemingly flung into the bottomless depths of cyberspace.
By this point, I was doubtful I would ever hear back from WhatCulture, or receive payment, at all. I wondered if the job had ever really existed, or if I had just spent the past month in pursuit of an illusion. I sent another email asking for candid details about payment procedures and when I could realistically hope to learn if I had been accepted to work for them in a more official capacity. Mysteriously, an earnings feature went up on my writer's dashboard the next day. And, like a lovingly grocery-bagged steaming turd on my doorstep, an email from the editor awaited me in my inbox:
[W]e just need to see one article concept that can eclipse 50k [views], really. For example... your three articles to date would not quite cover a full day's pay with us just yet. They were good ideas but not internally what we would call A grade ideas... those being the concepts that are profitable.
It appeared that WhatCulture would have happily allowed me to continue writing for peanuts indefinitely provided I wasn't churning out "A-grade material". I asked the editor to clarify the terms of their "probationary" period (which, remember, had been advertised as a 3-month-long term only, and which I had been told at interview would only comprise of writing "3 or 4 articles"). Once I started asking questions, things rapidly got ugly; the editor's emails became increasingly defensive, unapologetic and patronising (at one point he passive-aggressively asserted it would be "pointless to explain" their ingeniously progressive "recruitment" system further as I "obviously did not understand it" because I felt it was misleading).
Here was his post factum explanation of the recruitment process:
[T]he revenue share [scheme] is open to you for life. It's not a case that you do 3 weeks of work and then you either have a job offer or you don't. [...] Your trial period is basically for life... we give employment offers when we are comfortable knowing a contributor is capable of taking our graph higher without a financial loss.. so this could take six months, six years or it may never happen.
What what whatty what now? Refer back to the job ad, if you will, kind reader. When I pointed out how misleading this was, how probationary workers were due minimum wage and were only expected to work for a finite window of time, he backtracked, suggesting that the work term I had taken on was more of a pre-probationary form of probation - effectively a pre-pre-work selection process - whatever THAT is. That could last FOR LIFE. This had never been stated anywhere, ever.
It was at this point that I discovered that this was not the first time WhatCulture had apparently created a misleading job ad with unrealistic employment prospects for the purposes of luring in cheap labour. Just last year, freelance writer Paul Martinovic wrote about how he responded to a WhatCulture ad via IdeasTap which stated that the job met minimum wage requirements, when in fact it was unpaid. His experiences struck me as depressingly familiar.
I hadn't applied via an established job site for a salaried, full-time job and interviewed with the employers to be duped into being anybody's trick-performing monkey, with a £13,500 golden banana dangled strategically over my head.
Depressingly, my articles had barely scraped together £20. I had attempted to make my articles as well-written, accessible and interesting as possible, but apparently this was not enough. I decided to explore exactly what WhatCulture's definition of "A-grade" material entailed.
A more thorough examination of the top-scoring articles given the most prominence on the site made for mostly grim viewing. The site privileges unoriginal, homogenous content that conforms to an extremely narrow set of massively mainstream, exclusively visual media-related topics, spun with sensationalism, cheap hooks, low blows and an overload of arbitrary lists (for stretching content across as many pages as possible). In a word, clickbait. The same topics are shamelessly recycled day in, day out; GTA V. Call of Duty. Marvel and DC blockbusters. As unpleasant as it is predictable, the site also revels in crude, gleefully misogynistic soft-porn lures (5 Actresses You Won't Believe Used To Be Porn Stars and, mere days later, 6 Pornstars Trying Hard To Be Real Actresses). All of which is made worse by that fact that somewhere, behind it all, there will always be a few capable, worthy writers trying to make their mark on a website where quantity is king and quality is an unfortunately optional aside.
I became aware of the site's past affiliation with serious plagiarism issues (serial plagiarisers and former site editors Shaun Munro and TJ Barnard had swiped various article concepts from Cracked.com). I cited this as a concern. And, boy, did the mention of Cracked strike a nerve. Despite having issued an oh-so contrite public apology, the editor accused Cracked of plagiarising from THEM, due to a Cracked writer publishing details of a report that WC had published first, despite the sordid incident in question having gone viral. This was the equivalent of a snotty kid knowing he's in trouble after throwing a punch (or several), and dishonorably taking the opposition down with him, too. "Yeah, so? Look at what they did!" Close, but no Shaun Munro, guys.
It became apparent that their sole motivation is to earn money, and lots of it, ethical scruples, content quality and writers be damned. If I didn't fall in line with this ruthless views over values mentality, I was never going to succeed.
Another former WC writer and blogger, drayfish, had this to say on the matter:
[WhatCulture] seemed to happily wallow […] in a snide, click-baiting swamp of cheap titillation and contrarian bickering, repeatedly sacrificing editorial substance so as to chase minor controversy for page-hits by whatever means it could. [T]he site started running progressively more pieces such as ‘10 Awful Movies You Only Watched For the Nude Scenes’ [...] fan boy lures like ‘PS4: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over Xbox 720′ and ‘Xbox 720: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over PS4′ […] merely days apart, with only the names of the consoles swapped around. And who could forget the journalistic high water mark of ‘See The Newcastle City Wall Sex Picture Taken From WhatCulture’s Office’. An article that is exactly as pathetic and puerile as you might suspect it to be.
Ali Gray of The Shiznit, meanwhile, described their content as "churnalism" of the highest order, with "nerd-baiting list[s] of flaws designed to soak up every hate-click" and "shabby" editorial practices all around:
There are two ways to run a website; the right way, with hard work, quality control and reciprocal appreciation; and the fast way, by screwing writers and churning out low-quality articles conceived and designed to squeeze as many clicks as possible from the reader.
But why focus on all that heavy negativity, man? The editor chooses instead to defend their tactics by employing the "but-everybody-else-is-doing-it" rhetoric (their actions are no worse than those of "newspapers, magazines, film studios, book publishers [and] tv producers", apparently - not that there's a balance, or anything as sophisticated as that) and by cheerily bragging about how many writers he is inducting into their thinly-disguised content mill via their less than transparent adverts:
[I]t is far more fair than any other route as we can give far more applicants the opportunity to gain employment with us.
Truly, your magnanimity knows no bounds. Because misleading as many writers as possible into writing for you on the cheap (under the impression that they will earn a fair wage while doing so and possibly progress into full-time employment after a pre-defined period of time) is benefitting them, and not just you. This, again, from the individual who once admitted to an applicant that:
Because we run ads on our website and aren't a non-profit based organisation they [job advertising sites] won't let us seek volunteers so I have to lie [about the salary].
...and later, in an email to me, the deal-breaker:
Of course we value views over anything else.
This is the saddest part of the whole sorry story, and the main thing that gets my hackles up. In many cases there are writers who are willing to take a hit to get their work out there, and there are many companies and individuals willing to take advantage of their noble aspirations to turn a bloated, crusty profit.
Musicians, artists and writers are expected to be thankful for a "platform" upon which to exhibit their creative talents. In some cases, you might even be expected to fund a creative endeavour only for someone else to benefit from it. I might have appreciated these kinds of outlets when I was fourteen. But I no longer have the luxury, the wide-eyed naiveté or the sheer stamina to write for someone else without being recompensed appropriately. No other job category is as shoddily reimbursed or as widely and routinely exploitative as the arts.
Yesterday, I had all of my WC content pulled and forfeited any earnings. I had amassed a view count that approached 50,000 page hits and the princely sum of £20, but it simply wasn't worth it. I felt exhausted, yet relieved.
Sadly, I don't have to look far to find others who are being similarly appropriated. I have witnessed my own partner play hours of musical sets at a time for little to no money, when tickets have been sold to the public to see his band perform, and agents and sound technicians have been paid disproportionately more. For some backwards, skewed reason, the creative talent is all-too-often valued far less than the middle men who sell it, despite it being the lifeblood for many a business.
I know your game, scummy click-bait purveyors and talent piggybacking middle men. And I'm calling you out. The thing about messing with writers? We're writers.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to burn my clothes and take a long, hard shower.