Why Do So Many People Expect Freelancers to Work for Free?

I like Matt Taibbi. He’s an excellent journalist for Rolling Stone, and he’s written several interesting books.

Today, on Twitter, he announced a little “contest,” asking people to create a logo for him so he could use it as a Twitter avatar, and on t-shirts, to promote his next book.

Taibi1

The “prize?” A copy of the book, and a couple of t-shirts.

I replied, pointing out that he was asking someone to do design work for free.

Taibi2

Mr. Taibbi pointed out that he had paid a designer to design the book; that this wasn’t, apparently, as important, at least not important enough to merit compensation.

Taibi3

As a freelancer, I find it insulting when people expect anyone to work for free. Especially because it is increasingly common, and the reason cited is often that you’ll get “exposure.”

I wasn’t the only person to respond in this way to Mr. Taibbi’s offer, but I seem to have been the first. He clearly thought about this, then, few minutes later, he offered to “throw in a $500 prize,” which, to me, is a perfectly valid way to resolve the issue. But Mr. Taibbi became irked. A few minutes later, he gave up.

Taibi4

Rather than say, “Oops, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have expected people to work for free,” he just saw it as people being “upset.” He didn’t apologize; that would be an admission that he had done something untoward…

It’s a shame when an author of his calibre – notably one who wrote a book entitled Griftopia – thinks that he can just trawl Twitter to get himself a logo. I think given the amount of money he earns as a journalist, he could afford to pay a designer. Sure, he’s just looking for a “scribble,” he says, but the idea behind that scribble has value.

It’s a shame that an author like this thinks that he can grift his Twitter followers and Rolling Stone readers into doing a job for him. It’s a shame that anyone thinks they can do this. Freelancers have a hard enough time earning a living without this sort of grift.

22 thoughts on “Why Do So Many People Expect Freelancers to Work for Free?

  1. I notice that even if he paid $500 to the winner, in running a “contest” of this sort, he is asking everyone who participates to work for free, except that single eventual winner. While I don’t think every contest is invalid, I have a big problem with asking dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people to work for you, and then paying only one of them, the contest winner. This can be very large scale exploitation, and contests usually mean that many freelancers are working many combined hours for no pay.

  2. I notice that even if he paid $500 to the winner, in running a “contest” of this sort, he is asking everyone who participates to work for free, except that single eventual winner. While I don’t think every contest is invalid, I have a big problem with asking dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people to work for you, and then paying only one of them, the contest winner. This can be very large scale exploitation, and contests usually mean that many freelancers are working many combined hours for no pay.

  3. Fair comments all. In the digital age, it seems we have conditioned all buyers (and consumers) to expect to pay little or nothing for creative content, be it artwork, music, films, etc.

  4. Fair comments all. In the digital age, it seems we have conditioned all buyers (and consumers) to expect to pay little or nothing for creative content, be it artwork, music, films, etc.

  5. Good job Kirk … hope Taibbi isn’t someone who had a problem with Trump not paying contractors for what Trump thought wasn’t good results; that might be a little hypocritical

  6. Good job Kirk … hope Taibbi isn’t someone who had a problem with Trump not paying contractors for what Trump thought wasn’t good results; that might be a little hypocritical

  7. Before everyone gets a little too high on their own righteous indignation, let me offer a slightly more charitable interpretation of Taibbi’s actions:

    First, some context—on his twitter feed, Taibbi frequently asks for creative help from his followers; often holding contests for things like Presidential debate drinking game rules, or funniest Thomas Freidman graph ideas. He has never received pushback when it comes to soliciting these kinds of participation from his followers. Just the opposite—his community of fans joyfully rush to help, usually excited just to get a shout-out in a column or some fun swag like books or posters. I think Taibbi made a very reasonable assumption (for a layman); which is that a logo idea or a sketch is not much different than some smart, creative writing, or ideas for funny infographics doodled on a napkin. I am 100% certain that Taibbi had no idea of the raw nerve that requests for free work touch off in the visual design community. He doesn’t read design blogs. He doesn’t follow designers. He’s a muckraker and an investigative journalist for crying out loud! I doubt there is much, if any, crossover between that career and amateur design enthusiast.

    Well he sure as hell knows now. Thanks to yet another instant twitter shitstorm of shaming and fury. What a lovely culture we’ve become! Taibbi has spent most of his career creatively documenting unfairness, injustice, incompetence, and hypocrisy while advocating for logic, reason, and humanism. He would never in a million years seek to exploit anyone intentionally, especially not other creative professionals. Of course he got defensive and cancelled the contest! He was reacting as any sane and sensitive human would to being rage-shamed like that. The reason he felt attacked, aggrieved, and misunderstood was because he was attacked, aggrieved, and misunderstood.

    Look, I’m a freelance designer. I totally understand why folks get heated up over requests for free work. They piss me off too, and I turn them down whenever they are solicited. But this is just not the same thing. The attacks against him are completely out of proportion to his intentions or prior knowledge, and devoid of any empathetic context.

    • The point is that these “contests” exploit people unintentionally, and people who run them need to be aware that they are being exploitive.

  8. Before everyone gets a little too high on their own righteous indignation, let me offer a slightly more charitable interpretation of Taibbi’s actions:

    First, some context—on his twitter feed, Taibbi frequently asks for creative help from his followers; often holding contests for things like Presidential debate drinking game rules, or funniest Thomas Freidman graph ideas. He has never received pushback when it comes to soliciting these kinds of participation from his followers. Just the opposite—his community of fans joyfully rush to help, usually excited just to get a shout-out in a column or some fun swag like books or posters. I think Taibbi made a very reasonable assumption (for a layman); which is that a logo idea or a sketch is not much different than some smart, creative writing, or ideas for funny infographics doodled on a napkin. I am 100% certain that Taibbi had no idea of the raw nerve that requests for free work touch off in the visual design community. He doesn’t read design blogs. He doesn’t follow designers. He’s a muckraker and an investigative journalist for crying out loud! I doubt there is much, if any, crossover between that career and amateur design enthusiast.

    Well he sure as hell knows now. Thanks to yet another instant twitter shitstorm of shaming and fury. What a lovely culture we’ve become! Taibbi has spent most of his career creatively documenting unfairness, injustice, incompetence, and hypocrisy while advocating for logic, reason, and humanism. He would never in a million years seek to exploit anyone intentionally, especially not other creative professionals. Of course he got defensive and cancelled the contest! He was reacting as any sane and sensitive human would to being rage-shamed like that. The reason he felt attacked, aggrieved, and misunderstood was because he was attacked, aggrieved, and misunderstood.

    Look, I’m a freelance designer. I totally understand why folks get heated up over requests for free work. They piss me off too, and I turn them down whenever they are solicited. But this is just not the same thing. The attacks against him are completely out of proportion to his intentions or prior knowledge, and devoid of any empathetic context.

    • The point is that these “contests” exploit people unintentionally, and people who run them need to be aware that they are being exploitive.

  9. I have no idea who the writer is, but it does appear he was, consciously or not, taking advantage of his readership. Does he have a history of this or is it a first time?

    Kirk, I don’t whether, consciously or not, you deliberately spelt Mr Taibbi’s name with one b, but it might help all round to do more spell checking.
    I hope your comment field will show spelling mistakes in the new site, currently it does not. If I have any, you’ll have to forgive me.

  10. I have no idea who the writer is, but it does appear he was, consciously or not, taking advantage of his readership. Does he have a history of this or is it a first time?

    Kirk, I don’t whether, consciously or not, you deliberately spelt Mr Taibbi’s name with one b, but it might help all round to do more spell checking.
    I hope your comment field will show spelling mistakes in the new site, currently it does not. If I have any, you’ll have to forgive me.

  11. I think you’re probably being a bit harsh on Mr. Taibbi.

    Of course, given his own writing and his own lack of ability to ‘see the other side’ and his own harshness, he probably deserves it.

    That being said, I think we’re ALL better than that.

    Have you considered the possibility that maybe he just didn’t know?

    My own experience with this issue is that I did a 99designs contest for an app icon about 5 years ago.

    At the end of it, I thought to myself, ‘this is too good to be true’. So, I searched the web and learned about the evils of ‘spec work’. I ended up never using that awesome icon.

    The point is that I just didn’t know.

    I suspect that Taibbi didn’t either. Perhaps a better approach would have been to gently educate him about the issue and coopt him into spreading the message, rather than to publically shame him.

    His responses to that shaming seem inline with what most other humans would do.

    Peace.

  12. I think you’re probably being a bit harsh on Mr. Taibbi.

    Of course, given his own writing and his own lack of ability to ‘see the other side’ and his own harshness, he probably deserves it.

    That being said, I think we’re ALL better than that.

    Have you considered the possibility that maybe he just didn’t know?

    My own experience with this issue is that I did a 99designs contest for an app icon about 5 years ago.

    At the end of it, I thought to myself, ‘this is too good to be true’. So, I searched the web and learned about the evils of ‘spec work’. I ended up never using that awesome icon.

    The point is that I just didn’t know.

    I suspect that Taibbi didn’t either. Perhaps a better approach would have been to gently educate him about the issue and coopt him into spreading the message, rather than to publically shame him.

    His responses to that shaming seem inline with what most other humans would do.

    Peace.

  13. LOL … a never ending battle in the world of graphic design. It’s okay . . . Rollingstone writers often think they are a lot more important than they really are.

  14. LOL … a never ending battle in the world of graphic design. It’s okay . . . Rollingstone writers often think they are a lot more important than they really are.

  15. I feel like a contest like this is very fair as long as the terms are obviously stated. His contest is of course meant for his followers and not the design community at large. The contestants, being fans of his work, would probably be fairly content with a copy of his book and that shirt. For that monetary value, I would also budget a maximum of 1-2 hours, which just about equals the cost of those items. But ultimately, it is also up to the designers to choose to do or NOT do this work.

    I don’t think Mr. Tabbi did anything wrong as he is not actively deceiving anyone. No one is being forced to do work for free. This contest was never meant for every designer at large.

  16. I feel like a contest like this is very fair as long as the terms are obviously stated. His contest is of course meant for his followers and not the design community at large. The contestants, being fans of his work, would probably be fairly content with a copy of his book and that shirt. For that monetary value, I would also budget a maximum of 1-2 hours, which just about equals the cost of those items. But ultimately, it is also up to the designers to choose to do or NOT do this work.

    I don’t think Mr. Tabbi did anything wrong as he is not actively deceiving anyone. No one is being forced to do work for free. This contest was never meant for every designer at large.

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