On the misty promise of “exposure”

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Wil Wheaton recently published an article outlining his experience with the mult-media conglomerate Huffington Post. HuffPo wanted to republish one of Wheaton’s most successful pieces — without paying a dime for it. They believed Wil might fall for the age-old scam to which so many vulnerable new writers succumb: the misty promise of “exposure.”

Those who have been in the business for a while, Wil Wheaton, for example, understand that this misty promise is a road to nowhere. Writers and other artists have been victims of this obnoxious shell game for, well, forever. And they’ll continue being victimized until the proportion of us in the know reaches critical mass. Hopefully, that day will be sooner rather than later.

Still, it never ceases to amaze me, the gall with which some of these entities will pitch this same worn out line. Unfortunately, someone always bites. If they fish long enough, some poor sap inevitably takes the bait. The “exposure” bait is exactly that, though. Bait.

And the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

Huge outlets and tiny startups are making money by selling high quality products (in this case, written material) others provide to them for free. And by “selling,” I mean driving visitors to their website. If they can get product (i.e., articles that lead to click-throughs) for free, why wouldn’t they?

The currency of the internet is clicks and views, and they’re all flowing to the site on which your piece is housed. If you’re banking on a potential client clicking on a writer’s tiny bio or byline and then wandering over to your site to hire you, you’re going to be waiting a very long time.

Do you see camera shops going to Canon for free product, touting the “exposure” that it will provide? Do new cupcake eateries get free ingredients by promising a sweet deal to the local grocery store of a link and bio on a sticker in the pastry case?

Of course not. And why not? Because it doesn’t work that way in the real world. And here’s a newsflash: it shouldn’t work that way in the digital world, either.

New writers simply do not get it. They don’t get that the “opportunity” to work to build someone else’s business isn’t an opportunity. It’s an invitation to burn your time and talents so someone else can make money.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But they are rare. Exceptionally rare. Once in a blue moon, an opportunity to write for free might be prudent — there may be value in having your name/brand attached to a piece on someone else’s platform. Think long and hard before you do it, though. Long. And. Hard.

And there are also times when you may offer your skills to a charitable organization you support primarily as a gift. I’ve done this quite regularly. Supporting cause or a nonprofit you believe in is great. Most businesses don’t fall into this category, however.

Generally speaking, if you’re going to write for free, the best advice is to write for yourself. Build your own platform. At least get something of actual (potential) value out of the endeavor. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels, devaluing yourself, and perpetuating a system where new writers believe it is “normal” to work without compensation.