It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, man.
I took an ethics module in my last year of college.
During one class, we were put into groups of 4 or 5 and asked to discuss which outcome we thought was better:
- Flying a plane full of people into a building (yes really- fuck) and potentially saving some of the people on board (but possibly killing those in the building) or
- Intentionally shooting the plane down with a missile (which would certainly kill those onboard, but would certainly spare those in the building).
That’s some hard nosed utilitarian shit right there.
That’s the kind of ethical question one might wanna chew over a few times before spitting out an answer.
Now, I consider myself to be pretty principled (champagne is a morning drink if it’s mixed with orange juice, leggings can be worn as pants as long as they’re not see-through… that kind of thing).
But none of those hard earned truths could have ever prepared me for the absolute mess of unethical nonsense I was about to get slapped with when I became a freelance writer.
Here’s where it all went wrong
As anyone who has ever tried to become a freelance writer knows, the hardest part is getting your foot in the door.
It’s an exponential curve of awfulness:
I have no experience, so nobody wants to hire me. But no one will hire me, so how can I get experience?!
Online talent platforms are the teeth in this vicious cycle.
You can spend hours, days, fuck- even weeks filling out your profile and writing the most eloquent goddamn proposals anyone has ever seen, and still end up with nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Why is that?
Because you have no feedback, newbie- that’s why.
Fake it ‘til you make it
Like many other wanna-be freelance writers, I got my “big break” when I was hired to write fake reviews for an online company.
It’s a weird contradiction:
Businesses supposedly “live or die” off their TripAdvisor ratings and social media reviews, but the reality of it is that we (the customers) have no idea whether or not the things we read on those platforms are genuine or not.
“But you can always sort of tell” the nayers will say, “you’ll know if it’s a fake review”.
As someone who read, researched, and wrote at least a kazillion of these- you can’t always tell.
Fake reviews are like fake tits: the more you see ‘em, the less you notice ‘em
Just a couple of weeks ago there was a Vice journalist who went viral for creating an elaborate fake TripAdvisor account for a non-existent restaurant in London.
He then got his friends to write a shitload of fake reviews, pulled some clever marketing stunts, and made it to the number one spot in the London restaurant listings.
And- plot twist- when he eventually decided to follow through with the ridiculous story, he actually opened this fictitious restaurant (in his own backyard, mind you) where he served up plates of £1 frozen lasagnas to a bunch of celebs, bloggers, and critics who had been trying for months to bag a table- and guess what:
They loved it.
And paid top dollar for it too, thank you very much.
As the journalist himself put it: we are now at the stage where people trust what they read online more than they trust their own senses.
What kind of a world is that?
I wonder what the tipping point is going to be.
The point where people stop trusting fake reviews, and businesses stop paying writers to create absurdly detailed lies in the hopes of tricking would-be clients into siding with them.
Well, that day certainly isn’t today.
Nor was it the day I was offered $0.07/word to write a truckload of fake reviews for an online tourism booking platform.
For a month and a half, I was Jeremy, the overweight accountant from Tuscon who loved the package holiday, but felt the beds were a bit too small. That being said, he’s normally a pescatarian but he just “couldn’t resist the ostrich meat they served at the hotel buffet- it was to die for.”
(No wonder the bed collapsed.)
I was Solange from Nantes, who just the week before had been left at the altar during her “wedding from hell”, but decided to go on the honeymoon solo. And thank sweet baby Jesus she did because otherwise she never would have experienced the “unparalleled luxury” of her 5 star cruise.
(FYI: the bed sheets were 700 count Egyptian cotton)
I was Ines from Sweden, who- despite the fact that her lesbian lover Helga shamelessly spent the entirety of the holiday checking out other women (shame on you, Helga)- still had the most wonderful time on tour with this company, thanks to the knowledgeable guides and extensive cocktail menu.
(sure Ines, I bet those strong drinks helped).
Eventually, enough was enough
Although I was beginning to get some bizarre enjoyment out of the intellectual acting that was going into every review, my ethical alter ego was beginning to get her knickers in a twist.
However, there was one single saving grace.
By this point I had managed to snag my first client on Upwork. The ball was finally starting to roll.
So when my other client came back with the next load of fake review tasks, I was in a slightly stronger position than I had been before.
I decided to bite the bullet.
Like any good millenial, I first read up as much as I could from other writers who had found themselves in similar situations. The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of material to work through.
I wanted some true grit.
I wanted stories of the little guy standing up to the big guy and telling him to suck a bag of dicks, that fake reviews are for losers and we ain’t no losers.
Disappointingly, that’s not exactly what I got.
…which leads me to believe that the hundreds of thousands of people paid to write fake reviews are either a) pretty stoked with their easy money and not too concerned about their karma or b) not at all interested in writing about their personal ethical shitfests, either because they’re afraid of speaking out or because typing 4,000 fake reviews in 3 days has worn their fingers down to tiny little useless stumps.
What I did find was a pile of articles introducing me to all of the “grey hat” techniques that businesses use to try to get ahead in the online world (fake reviews are pretty much at the ‘black’ side of that spectrum).
Reading all this didn’t give me much inspiration as to how I should word my “fuck you, I’m not doing this anymore” letter to my client.
But it did reassure me that I was on the right track.
So, I told my client I wasn’t playing his dodgy game anymore
I said it in such a way that he knew I wanted to be “as helpful as I possibly could be” but that continuing to write fake reviews “could be really damaging to my reputation as a writer, and might even prevent me from finding work in the future”.
I’m not sure how cool another client would have been about this.
I feel like someone with enough power and too little time probably would have told me to go find another job right there and then.
Lucky for me, that’s not what happened.
He pretty much just said “okay” and moved on to the next task (although I’m pretty sure he had no real understanding of why I was saying what I was saying).
I was on a high. I had stuck my middle finger up to the man, and the man backed down (and I still had a job).
…little did I know it would only be a couple of weeks until he’d have my conscience in a headlock once again
Black is black and white is white… right?
Remember the “grey hat” techniques I was talking about before?
These are basically ways of throwing your business through giant loopholes to get ahead online, usually by bumping up your Google rankings by doing some dodgy SEO stuff.
It’s stuff that any reasonable person would definitely not be cool with, but because the Google algorithm hasn’t worked out a way to catch it yet, dodgy online managers are firing them out faster than a fat kid on a waterslide.
Don’t fuck with karma
My client, who at this point seemed so completely unconcerned with his own cosmic credit rating, had finally given up on the fake review saga.
Now, he was all about ‘Web 2.0’. (I had no idea what this was, by the by.)
All I was told was that he needed “any kind of content at all, and it only needs to be 70% original, and include a backlink to our site”. Oh, and he wanted 5,000 words a day in addition to what I was already doing.
In other words, he literally didn’t care what I wrote at all- as long as there was a backlink.
He and his web team were creating a series of “ghost sites” which he wanted to fill with rubbish content purely for the sake of racking up some backlinks for his actual business site, in the hopes of improving its SEO value.
I felt icky about it, but I didn’t really understand why.
With the fake reviews, it was simple to understand why it was wrong.
I was literally writing lies for the sole purpose of tricking people into trusting a company that I didn’t even trust myself.
Web 2.0 was a shade greyer.
I guess what really bothered me was the fact that- even though I was getting paid well- I knew that nobody gave a shit about what I was writing.
In all likelihood, nobody was ever even going to read it. It was going straight from my word doc into the abyss of the search engine, never to be seen again.
The feeling of being undervalued sucks in any job. It especially sucks in creative jobs.
Whether it’s painting, poetry, videography, or in my case- writing, creative work differs to ‘conventional’ mechanical work.
What you create is a reflection of yourself. You put a little of your soul into everything you make.
Even though there didn’t seem to be anything technically unethical about the Web 2.0 content, my own sense of achievement was taking a big knock… and I didn’t like it.
Thankfully, my client- that soulless parody of a human being- stopped asking me to write those articles when he discovered he could get them written a lot cheaper if he outsourced the work to a non-native speaker.
But that wasn’t the last time a client would make me feel worthless
Upwork is rife with clients looking to pay writers half nothing to create ‘filler content’, blog articles, and low quality guest posts with backlinks to their site.
I worked with a handful of these shady types during my first months on Upwork, and it was never a pleasant experience.
My big beef with Upwork is because it forces freelancers into a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to their prices, just so that they can snag those coveted first feedback comments from clients.
I wrote more content than I care to think about, about things that I don’t ever want to think about.
Gun enthusiast columns. Far right rubbish. Absurd advice for post apocalypse survivors.
Eventually I had enough work experience that I was able to bin those clients and pursue the ones that I actually enjoyed writing for (or at least, the ones that didn’t make me want to lock myself into the stock room of the nearest off-license).
There’s something I wish someone had told me before I started out as a freelance writer
If you want to make a career out of writing commercially, at some point you’re probably going to have to write about shit you don’t believe in.
Even now, when I’ve whittled my client base down to just the good’uns (that’s code for “no survivalists or pro-life freaks”), I still regularly find myself having to find ways to write around the truth.
Because the truth isn’t what the client wants to read.
They want to read that the city zoo is “improving its facilities at a staggering rate”, not that they have a polar bear in a tiny cage in 30 degree weather.
They want to read that the Standard Twin Room is “intimate in size” and “has a rustic feel”, not that it’s a tiny shithole.
They want to read that the once beautiful island is now “greatly improved to support tourists’ needs”, not that they’ve poured concrete all over a national park.
So what’s the bottom line?
If you’re just starting off as a freelance writer and you’re now looking out over your professional horizons, chances are there’s a big pile of shit waiting for you just beyond your line of vision.
At least one. Maybe two or three.
But faeces aside, there is one truth that I’ve learned through this whole experience:
Being a writer is also amazing, and being able to write for a living is an incredible gift.
But you gotta have your vices if you wanna stay sane. For Haruki Murakami, it’s running. For Hunter S. Thompson, it’s shitloads of cocaine.
I’ve never been into running, nor do I have the money to maintain a coke habit. So for now, I find my sanity here: the place where I can finally say what I mean, and mean what I say.
Cover Picture: Nicolas Cool
Sarah Maurer · May 9, 2019 at 1:33 AM
Man, this is so funny and awesome and honest! I think every freelancer goes through this shit at some point. You might be too young to remember Demand Studios content farm debacle, but I did some very shameful work for them back in the day. I sincerely hope the article I wrote about how to bleach your jeans never blinded or killed anyone =)