Friday, March 22, 2013


My stream has been slowly burbling with people talking about the morality of requesting free work. Lots of people and teams request free work - not just newspapers, but also Amanda Palmer.

I thought I would take a moment and talk about free work, about why people have such weird opinions about it.

A lot of people seem to be annoyed by Amanda Palmer. She's pretty well off, and she's married to a wealthy superstar. Despite that, she still asks for a lot of free stuff. She asks for free crash space, free musicians, free word of mouth, whatever she can get away with. A lot of people consider this to be disrespectful. If she's rich, she should be paying for stuff, right?

I don't really think so. It's not as cut and dried as "I support Amanda Palmer" - she has a lot of really awkward habits and economic advice that only pan out if you're already successful and/or married to a superstar. But I don't think, fundamentally, there's anything wrong with asking for free stuff. It's not a matter of how rich you are, it's a matter of the level in which you are attempting to engage.

That is, asking for free stuff is a good way to engage with your community. It's rarely a good way to try and make a living.

Amanda Palmer asks her fanbase if any of them want to play trumpet for her. Fine. Newspaper asks famous blogger to write a free article "for exposure"? Not immoral, but pretty insulting and unlikely to succeed.

Amanda Palmer does have an audience of fans, and she's reasonably good at engaging them. But her machinations are child's play compared to specialists.

Oprah was a community management specialist, but she's from the old era before the internet really caught on. Her techniques were limited by her limited ability to actually interact with people. In order to interact with people, Oprah had to be with them or talking on the phone with them. Also, due to the restrictions of television, she couldn't easily provide links or interactive commentary. So her interactions were therefore somewhat restricted... but within that framework, she was very, very good. Her show wasn't popular because it had any particular merit: she basically showed her audience bullshit and asked them to buy it. It was popular because she talked to and for her audience. She would act as a window for her audience, showing them things in ways they could easily grasp... and she was equally adept at talking to her audience, treating them as people worth knowing (even if she could never know them because there were so many).

Now, if you want a modern example of Oprah, try Game Grumps. While they aren't as universally recognized, they have a hell of an audience and they built it without much advertising or corporate support. They succeed because they, like Oprah, are a talk show that speaks to and for their audience.

Unlike Oprah, they don't have to rely on leverage. They don't need corporate sponsors. They don't need an endless parade of guests. They don't need to facet their show such that they appeal to a different subaudience every week to keep all the subaudiences interested. Instead, all they need is to manage their community.

Before I continue, let me be clear. While they don't have a Wikipedia page, the Game Grumps have hundreds of animations about them, dozens of music videos and songs, and hundreds of donated games. I would say that their fan base is far healthier than either Palmer's or Oprah's, at least measured in terms of minutes of animation. It's extremely impressive just how much of this stuff is floating around the internet: they have an extremely active community.

If you listen to the Game Grumps, many of their episodes are around half community management. Even on the episodes which feature almost no community management, the community management is typically the "loudest" part, either because their editor spams text effects to give it punch, or because when they do something funny they immediately link it back to their audience. Also, outside of their episodes, they continue to manage their community.

I don't think that Arin, Jon, and Barry actually think of it like this. I think they actually are the sort of people who just naturally think of their audience. They obviously have some particular community management standards (always mention who sent the game, etc), but they also do a lot of off-the-cuff community management such as talking about an awesome video their community created, or saying how they wish someone would remix this segment, or discussing whether there's a less assumptive word than "fan". They act to keep their community moving and chatting, rather than just keeping them fat and happy.

This is the kind of interactivity Oprah wished she could do.

Game Grumps aren't likely to ever be as famous as Oprah. Hell, they don't even have a Wikipedia page for some reason. But they really show that there is a new way to manage your community. The stumbling methods used by Amanda Palmer are child's play. They're only effective because she built up an audience well ahead of time using classic means. This isn't an insult to her abilities as an artist: it's a statement about the way she engages with her audience. She's struggling to do small versions of the things that Game Grumps does effortlessly.

I guess what I mean is that Amanda Palmer has an audience, but Game Grumps has a community. And the newspaper that asks for a free article has neither.

Now, there are a lot of complex details hidden behind this kind of general chatter. The Game Grumps have a fair number of detractors, probably more than Palmer does. This may be because of their show... or maybe it's because of their community management. It's hard to say. But their detractors don't get angry because the Game Grumps ask for free stuff - they get angry because they don't like the quality of the show/hosts. Palmer's detractors are often the other way around.

Also, the music scene has a lot of complex culture built up around the nature of money and success, while the gaming culture doesn't. So Game Grumps asking for free stuff is less offensive because gamer culture isn't built around how hard it is to get paid.

And Palmer asks for specific resources at specific times, while Game Grumps makes pressure-free general appeals.

And and and and...

But, even with all those factors floating around, I think it all boils down to the nature of your community management.

What do you think?

(See what I did there? AMAZING community engagement, yeah? Sigh.)


Ellipsis said...

Certainly, and I think there's also a gradual cultural shift happening overall taking us away from "everything has a market value" toward community-focused activity, not just from professionals engaging their audience, but from anyone looking for more personal interaction.

This is, for example, a lot of the appeal behind couch surfing - it's not just about getting a free bed (there are youth hostels that are dirt cheap), but about going somewhere and instantly being part of the local community, rather than being a visitor separated from locals by the walls of your hotel.

Also, game developers are really spoiled when it comes to free work. I think the moral side of the equation isn't refusing free stuff, but treating those who offer it with a certain degree of respect. So I have more of a problem with game companies taking free community productivity and then reserving the unilateral right to delete or resell content, or sue users who make mods they don't like.

Craig Perko said...

While I agree, rather than thinking about it from a "deserve" or "respect" angle, I think of it from a community engagement level.

If you claim you own everything, then your community won't produce as much. If you don't give them proper props, your community won't be as cohesive.