Feb 4, 2009

Shill or Scribbler: Where Are My Ethics?

It's late on Tuesday and I have just made myself a huge pot of tea. PG Tips, to be precise - a blend of Indian leaves that is popular in the UK but outrageously expensive in the US. I guess that's just the price I have to pay for being an ex-pat who wants to use imports.

The pot is actually a Starbucks mug that I picked up in the city of Taichung in Taiwan. I like it because it can hold a significant amount of liquid and it seems exotic.

And I typically use the big mug when I want to write anything at length because tea seems to help me focus on the job in hand. Whether it does so on a biochemical level I can't be sure, but psychologically at least, it's a mild stimulant.

But I digress. The pot is just a distraction from the real topic, which is whether I see myself as a scribbler or a shill.

I like the word scribbler. My good friend and companion, the Oxford English Dictionary, tells me that a scribbler is "one who scribbles or writes hastily or carelessly; hence a petty author; a writer without worth." Terrible as that may sound, the word is also used as an informal synonym for a journalist. It also suggests a "jobbing writer," the type of penman who writes day in and day out just to make a living.

That's my aim in Second Life. That and achieving Slebrity status along with pots of money. I currently make a second living by writing for hire. This is closer in definition to the word scrivener, succinctly defined as "a professional penman; a scribe, copyist; a clerk, secretary, amanuensis."

As a professional, being paid for your work is perfectly legitimate. And by work, I mean articles. But how do I justify being paid for review pieces? At what point do I become a shill, "an accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice others"

I'm half way through my tea so I'm ready to list what I will and won't do.

1. As a freelancer, I can write about anything that takes my fancy. I can take as long as I like, use as many words as I like, and praise or offend anyone I want. Once the article is done, I can sell to the highest bidder. This is simple capitalism: I have a product - the article - and there is a buyer who wants is - an editor.

2. As a staffer, I may get assigned a topic for which I then get paid. If my article is too effusive or shows bias, it is the job of the editor to determine whether it is fit to be published or not.

3. As a copy writer, an individual can ask me to write advertising copy for a product. My role is as a marketer, whose task is to promote items for a fee.

What I have to avoid are situations where I get paid for copy but then try to pass it off as objective journalism. The key to making sure this happens is to use transparency.

Let's look at two examples. The first is my recent article on Alphamale for FreeLife Magazine. I wrote the text after spending lots of money on clothes there because I liked them. I wanted to showcase Alphamale products not because Yelmer Pfeffer was paying me to do it but because I genuinely appreciate the couture. I then send off the finished article plus pictures to the editors at FreeLife, who then pay me in Lindens.

In this situation, I don't feel like a shill being paid for the article. The designer wasn't paying me but a third-party organization that produces a lifestyle magazine.

The second is an overview of a Second Life singer that appeared in the SL Enquirer and Metaverse Tribune. I was asked to write this as advertising copy by Tammy Toll, the owner of Toll Entertainment, and she then used it to give to the SL press. I was paid by Tammy openly so had no qualms.

Where I do feel a little uncomfortable is that some folks may read that article and not know it is essentially advertising. It's awkward in that my writing is a product that someone can buy, but it then becomes there product and can do with it as they wish.

It's gray for me at this point. And it's hard to cast more light because I wrote the review honestly and only said what was true for me: I do like the singer and I do think it is worth folks buying her CD. But how I feel is probably not relevent in relation to the the process of writing ad copy for hire.

I try to be truthful, independent, and invite people to check my sources. I am not above advocacy journalism - the Op-Ed or Editorial - and try to acknowledge my biases, knowing full well that I, and everyone else, have them. I try not to write for free because that leads to a devaluing of the art of writing, and leads to the tragedy of folks "playing" at being writers and the publication of terrible articles. In the longer term, this also leads to a shabby, unprofessional, Second Life press that becomes little more than an excuse to sell advertising copy.

I'm constantly looking for balance. So far, I earn enough to pay for my Second Life and even "export" cash into my first. I write pretty much what I want so this makes my virtual experiences pleasant. I also get to talk to lots of interesting residents who all have stories to tell, and my job is simply to help them tell them.

Scribbler or shill? I hope the former, but maybe someone out there disagrees.

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