43 Folders

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Free as in "Me"

This unbelievably long article is related to (but not necessarily about) a discussion that I and several other people have been participating in online over the past few days. It's about (and not about) the increasingly popular practice of re-publishing someone's online work on another site without the attribution, formatting, and linking that many bloggers regard as standard, ethical, and fair.

It's admittedly a polemic (which is what people who think they're clever call, "a rambling rant"), but what may seem to many to be a childish and ungrateful pout about trivial status and self-esteem beefs turns out to be a kitchen table issue for me. Because, how people decide to reuse and attribute my work directly affects my career, my livelihood, and my ability to thrive based mostly on giving things away for free. I know. Paradoxical, right? Believe me, I know.

Anyhow. To get up to speed, please read these in order: Matt said something, Josh said something, I said something, Andy wrote this awesome post, Jason responded, then, Anil responded. For extra credit, and to get you in the mood, go back and re-listen to Gruber's and my talk from this year's SxSW.

I will wait here. Please read them all. This will take a while, and you should only continue if you're okay with that. As ever, it's kind of the whole point.

[Time passes, and then:]

Privileges, Fiat, and the Consequence of Guessing Wrong

Weird thing you eventually realize is the extent to which we all rely upon a certain amount of guessing about other people's motivations. Call it a heuristic or a shortcut or whatever, but in order to make scalable sense of a very strange world, we each have to apply existential algorithms and SWAGs to help us turn a lot of unrelated crap into a sensible story that we can live with.

But. It is important to remember that it is just a story. And the truth behind our assumptions is often not only different than we thought or hoped, but can even be really difficult to understand, summarize, or fit back into our original story.

Eventually, you also learn that it's sketchy to blame the truth instead of a broken story.

Which is why I said what I said about how All Things D's Voices section obtains and presents the work of writers who do not actually write for them. It's why I'm uncomfortable letting other people decide, by fiat, that their insight into my own motivations gives them permission to reuse my work however (and, importantly, wherever) they please while unilaterally setting the licensing and compensation to terms they've decided are appropriate.

In the case here, for Matt and Josh, that compensation was "a link" and -- what? -- I guess the opportunity to pretend that you write for a giant for-profit corporation. And because, as the story goes, every blogger writes primarily (or even exclusively) in order to generate page views that bolster his site's advertising revenue, they/we/I should all be grateful for the largesse of our True Fourth Estate. Even if a giant for-profit corporation's re-use of that work actually undermines the real motivations, it would be uncivil, ungrateful, and untoward for us to not thank them for helping us out with our little projects. Right?

Well. In my own case, anyone who guessed that motivation has guessed amazingly wrong. And, it's not the kind of wrong without consequences. So, before I take up the rest of your morning, I'll try to say this well and mostly once:

Nobody but me is allowed to decide why I make things. And -- if and when I choose to give away the things that I make -- nobody but me is allowed to define how or where I'll do it. I am independent.

But, let's start at the beginning. With a series of computer networks that were designed to help scientists keep talking after a nuclear holocaust. The network, of course, is the internet, and its oldest and best-known profession is advertising.1

Days We Were and Weren't Working for Mad Men

As giant, popular websites have begun to struggle with a years-old decision to hang every nickel of their fortunes on CPM ads (and, consequently, on constantly increasing the volume of page views that make those ads theoretically profitable), readers, fans, and independent makers of content have been forced to watch, fidget, and, wince at their increasingly awkward tarantellas.

Because, as my friend, John Gruber, and I have grown fond of saying, page views and CPM ads can become a corrupting influence on whatever thing you really want to do -- on the stories you hope to tell, and, cardinally, on the long-term success of reaching the niche audience who totally gets whatever unbelievably odd thing you're uniquely capable of producing. Yes. Even if that thing involves not "just being a blogger",2 maybe a few of us have the temerity to eventually crave something alongside or way beyond toiling in this noble, grinding, and often ghettoized occupation.

But. If your motivation is solely to be a blogger with a site that runs ads, it will necessarily mean thinking a lot about how you're going to generate page views. Because without ads, most blogs would be lucky to generate bus fare.

When your sole metric is the number of times that pages on your site are loaded (and, that those delicious and life-sustaining ads are served along with them), it becomes unbelievably tempting to start doing things that you know are total bullshit. God knows I've done it. Probably dozens of times. Few of us haven't followed that siren's song in one way or another, but hopefully you evolve. Sometimes, you don't.

The Lumpen Metrics of Page View Addiction

And, that is where things start turning to shit.

You "page" your articles to the point of hostile unreadability. You disguise or bury links to source articles in a way that makes your article seem a little more canonical than the real thing. You encourage unmoderated comment threads in which cheering an uncivil race to the bottom of the Port-O-Let means triple page views. You may even compel your indentured "writers" to hew to a stifling regimen of post volume, pointless stock art inclusion, and even compulsory word count -- simply because the cargo cult of statistics whispers which coconuts make the best headphones. You conspire to trick, deceive, annoy, and badger your audience up to precisely that moment when they say, "Screw it," and just never come back.

You ruin the fun for surprisingly little money and eventually discover, to your surprise, that whatever shred of credibility you originally brought to your enterprise has disintegrated into a light dusting on some backfill banners.

Also, "links." Wow. Links used to really mean something different. When I first started enjoying blogs (maybe 11 years ago), links represented a semantic, curated map of the places where one writer's attention tended to go.

Today, links have been converted into a wildly inflated currency -- farthings that get hoarded and begged, then pushed around, re-counted, and stacked in ways that make you seem a lot less Charles Dickens than Ebenezer Scrooge.

Then, Presently, the Dark Night of the Soul

When page views run your life, you eventually start fibbing about what you really care about. You start pandering to an audience whose depressing lust for new pellets keeps them pecking at a feeder bar for every waking hour. And, yeah, these pigeons eventually become the sole leverage behind your going concern; lose the pigeons and there's no point pushing pellets, right? Why else would you bother tending the coop?

And, finally, as this weird darkness metastasizes, you may unintentionally abandon those finicky but influential creators of culture and content upon whose work and authority your whole rag and bone racket ultimately depends. Because, let's be honest: people who make things tend to recognize bullshit the second it plops into the domain where they have expertise. So, a smart blogger knows horeseshit page games like a veteran carpenter can tell you which chair's made out of masking tape and balsa scraps. ("Dude! No! Don't sit there!")

Thing is: the silence or indifference of the readers and fans you lose will never register in SiteMeter, or Mint, or Google Analytics. There's no overt trace to warn you when things have gone awry. So, you may never know when someone awesome has decided you're a charlatan.

Because, friends, when page views run your life, you get dumb. Fast. And you start making terrible decisions.

The Ingratitude. The Temerity.

So, where does some small-potatoes nobody like me (or, in this instance, my pal, Matt Haughey and Delicious.com founder, Joshua Schachter) get off? Some giant for-profit publication (whose most evergreen topic, like my own, seems to be "How Everyone on the Internet Keeps Doing It Wrong") shows the largesse to republish some digital peasant's scribblings in their esteemed forum -- and they complain? The very idea. Guys, this is a GIANT compliment, right? Because it "drives traffic!"

Hey, traffic. Right. I guess I'll need that for all those page views, right? Well. Only kinda.

See, links and traffic are great. Seriously. Especially when you're getting started and when they come from a site run by people you respect and admire as much as I admire Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher (this beef aside, those two are the real deal). Links and traffic are, as I said, the coin of the realm in some sense. They build awareness about what a person does, and they expose a person's work to a large enough audience that one even hopes a few "ideal readers" might end up landing somewhere in the mix.

But, what if you're trying to do something really different? What if the page views only really matter to you when they're happening in front of a face you admire? What if your game is not primarily ads? What if -- as I said in that email to Andy -- what if you're selling yourself? Or, even better put, what if you're not really selling anything but the idea that you do interesting things? What if everyone's best guesses about your motivation are wrong, cynical, and lead to decisions that actually harm rather than compliment? What if.

So, Who Died and Made You So Fancy, Mr. Fancy?

Anyone with the patience to read or hear anything I've had to say over the last year knows that saying what I have to say in the way I want to say it is orders of magnitude more important to me than driving a lot of pointless page views from people I never cared about reaching anyway. No offense, internet, but right now, I need links like Chasen's needs chili.3

And, to clarify why I include myself in this particular discussion, even though ATD did not boost my own articles for their site, this kind of unilateral and dodgy "repurposing" of my work has happened to me many times. Even setting aside the truly black hat scraping that happens dozens of times a day, I've received this kind of left-handed compliment numerous times over the past 4 years.

The example that, for a variety of reasons, sticks out most prominently in my mind happened in May of 2007, when I awoke one morning to discover that the much-more-giant-and-financially-lucrative site, Lifehacker, had suddenly started republishing my entire feed on their ad-crazy home page without even bothering to inform me, let alone ask if I was cool with it. Hey. Wow. Just look at all that honor. Lucky me.

I immediately complained about the nonsense to now-emeritus Lifehacker editor (and long-standing Top 10 human) Gina Trapani, and she was kind enough to remove me from the mix with all haste (thanks, Gina).

But, should I have had to ask? As I said in an email to Gina at the time:

I wonder how [Lifehacker's hilariously Dickensian publisher, Nick Denton] would feel if a site like Engadget started automatically reposting every article from Gizmodo w/o permission or compensation -- but wrapped it in Engadget's ads. Maybe he'd love it. Who knows?

Personally, I think it's always nice to be asked about this kind of thing first.

Was it about "the money?" Was it because I think Nick consistently sets, funds, and promotes many of the most execrable examples in the history of publishing? "Not really," and "kinda," respectively.

This was about taking something I did and putting it someplace that wasn't mine, and then acting like we'd both agreed it was a good deal. Like snatching the card off the gift-wrapped toaster I brought, scribbling your name above mine on the card, then handing the whole thing to the bride with a kiss. "Yay! Presents! Thanks, Nick!"

Money is only an issue inasmuch as the prospect of making it without effort or agency governs someone's decision to stick their dick in my mashed potatoes and call it a birthday cake.

There's Also No "I" in "We." Not Until I Say So.

Here's something like my point: there's exactly one person on this marble who gets to choose what I give away, to whom I give it away, and under what conditions I give it away. It's not folks who have decided via tarot or Ouija why I do anything that I do. And it's damned sure not the esteemed employees of Rupert Murdoch or Nick Denton. It's me, gang. Merlin is Merlin's sole free-stuff decider. Full stop. Punto.

If it matters (and it certainly may not), my goal and motivation is to wake up early every day, drink coffee, play with my daughter, kiss my beautiful wife, and then spend double-digit hours trying to create things that will make people happy, productive, entertained, inspired, and even a little more awesome -- and, on those rarest and most joyful of days, maybe I'll even make something that combines all of those qualities.

But, all these ideas start and end with me. All the execution goes through me. If it sucks, it's because of me. But it always has my name and my dorky icon on it, so you know where to either find more or simply try to steer clear.

And, whether people love, despise, or feel indifferent about things I've made, it all comes down to me and my weird independent occupation. This is not simply a job; it's an anxious daily adventure in fucking reinventing myself. While, I'll note, paying my own way to keep every dinghy in this little flotilla afloat and barnacle-free. And while it's undeniably the richest of first-world problems, funding your own independence is the most insanely costly and addictive project you'll ever love.

Okay, Shakespeare: WHY Do I Care?

What makes all this melodrama so interesting today, is that we are all in the midst of an unprecedented and unavoidable global re-thinking of what a lot of things really "mean." Economy. Home. Family. Security. Entertainment. Identity. You name it. There are a shit-ton of grenades still rolling around on the floor right now, and I'm one of those crazy fringe types who publicly, ardently hopes that at least one of them blows out a few load-bearing walls inside industries that are in overdue need of a bottom-up redesign. No matter what.

And, even in the face of change that will be gut-wrenching for literally everyone, I pray that for each person whose occupation relied on a 100- to 900-year-old business model, maybe one or two might get to figure out something they can make and vend in a way that does not require the intermediation of the people who are currently steaming their unsinkable vessels into some surprisingly pointy and resolute chunks of ice.

Again: There are Many Like It, But This One is Mine

This is just my opinion and I speak for no one but myself. But, when somebody moves my work onto their shelf without asking me like an adult, one of the last things on my mind is stealing or piracy. Seriously. I know. Crazy.

Steal my stuff? Sure. Go nuts. Grab it. Read it. "Pirate it." Put it on a Kindle. Put it in a torrent. Make it into LaTeX (whatever that is). But, man. Don't sell it without asking me. Don't be a dick about pretending I made it for your project. And, don't try to shortchange me on copper pipe, then call it a special discount. None of that's your call, chief.

I can make words and videos and pretty much anything to replace or augment the ones people consume; but I absolutely can't do it if you rub my name and address off of the label. And, here's the funny part: when people like me quit making stuff, guess what? Your shovelblog fodder and pigeon pellets start drying up. You'd have nothing left to churn. So, it actually benefits all of us to take this stuff seriously.

The Niche Shall Set You "Free"

And, finally, as far as motivations go? If you're married to page views, never assume that I am. If you're angling for 1,000,000 Twitter followers whom you pretend to read, never assume that I am. And, if your project is based on generating compulsory year-over-year growth vis-a-vis market domination and fiduciary responsibility, never assume that I am.

The niche is the thing, friends. It's the future, and it's here. Things like this little rhubarb are just the earliest Braxton Hicks contractions of a change that will be getting way, way weirder than most people think.

But, if we each have the arrogance to demand the credit that we're due, an astonishing number of opportunities begin to unfold. We learn who really made what we love; not just who put it someplace where lots of people can see it. We discover whom we admire and we make decisions about who to collaborate with.

And, if we do the right thing, we can each merge into an insane new caravan of makers who look out for each other, focus on doing great work, and who try to promote things because it made a connection with us. Not because it benefits someone who pays us by the compliment.

But, the anecdote that's on my mind today comes straight out of the warm and countless Wednesday night potlucks my family attended in the Fellowship Hall at White Oak Christian Church on Blue Rock Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. Where, even if you arrived empty-handed and unable to contribute on a given night, you were welcomed and encouraged to eat all you liked. But, when you finished, you wiped your mouth, straightened your tie, and personally acknowledged every single cook who'd just fed you. Yes. Even all those amateurs who filled your belly for "free."

  1. I have and will continue to run ads on some of my sites, including 43 Folders. It will be left to the reader whether this is wise, well-done, or simply hypocritical, so I'll just simply stipulate that, in my opinion, ads alone are not the problem; they're an easy revenue stream that can be removed with trivial ease. But. Making a career out of executing work exclusively to generate page views that support those ads? That is where this gets thorny. I don't do that (at least now I don't), but judge away. ↩

  2. Not that there's anything wrong with that; some of my best friends are "just a blogger." ↩

  3. Yeah. Totally stole that from Robert Evans.  ↩

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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