The commoditization of free time

Once upon a time, people would fill their spare time with hobbies, things they do because they enjoy doing it. They could be passive, like watching TV, or they could be active, like knitting or playing piano, or they could even be a side gig for extra income, like woodworking or painting.

When the Internet came about that made for many more varieties of things that people could do for their spare-time hobbies. They could make weird little videos for YouTube or they could record music and produce albums that other people could listen to (and maybe even buy), or they could stream their video game playing to hang out with others or to compete online.

Somewhere along the line, as a society we seem to have decided that all of those activities must be done as a source of income. You can’t just “make videos on YouTube” or “stream on Twitch,” you are expected to become “a YouTuber” or “a Twitch streamer.” If you make things as a hobby it’s expected that you set up an Etsy store to sell them online; if you collect books or figurines or old video games it’s for making a collection you can sell on eBay. If you record music and put it online you have to put it on all the streaming services and market yourself to make it worth your while, because otherwise how will anyone discover it? Oh, you want your friends to listen to it? Well they’re all using Spotify now, and they’re only going to listen if The Algorithm tells them to.

If you’re not spending all your time doing marketing or sales or producing Content for the Content Gods you are Doing It Wrong.

Every time you post a video to YouTube it goads you about how far you are from monetization. Every time you do a Twitch stream it follows up with an email about how far you are from making Affiliate. I don’t know what Affiliates get after their streams – probably something about their monetization stats or how far they are from Partner or something. I don’t know. I don’t think I care. But whenever I attend the local Twitch streamers meetup, invariably all of the discussion revolves around how recently everyone got Affiliate, or how far away everyone is, and how sad it is that I’ve been streaming on and off for years and don’t have it yet and I have got to Find My Audience. It feels like a cult.

Back in 2003, Spud hosted Song Fight! Live in Seattle. He wanted the show to be amazing and special and he talked to various members of the press to let the public know about this really fun thing that a bunch of enthusiastic hobbyists do. He was being interviewed by a reporter.

“So, is there a prize?” asked the reporter.

No, Spud explained, it’s something we do for fun.

But then what’s the incentive for making music?

Spud explained, quite well (and in words I can’t recall exactly and I hope I do his argument justice), that people spend their time at work to make money. And what do they make that money for? Beyond basic sustenance and living, you want the ability to do things that you find are fun. You might spend your time and money on watching TV or attending sports games or traveling or going to fancy restaurants. And we choose to spend our time making music.

Several times people have tried to monetize Song Fight!, because they didn’t understand why anyone would want to make music for anything other than fun. People also often try to cheat at the vote, because if you’re not winning it’s not worth doing, right?

Some people have made a career out of music thanks to Song Fight!, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it isn’t what motivates most participants, and I don’t think it should be.

Whenever I work on any of my artistic experiments, I almost always get someone asking me when it’ll get a gallery show to make me rich and famous. And the local gallery scene is all based around that, getting rich and famous, not around making interesting, compelling art that makes people think or feel or learn. And it’s so frustrating. If you don’t give 110% to a thing (and specifically monetizing it) you’re not seen as someone who is worth doing any of it at all.

And this happens with my music and my comics and my software; the constant expectation is that I’m doing this for money, and not simply because I can’t not create and I hope that the things I do make the world a better place for someone (and that someone might even just be myself).

I’ve gotten caught up in this cycle many times. Wanting to make a career out of my games, or my music. Wanting to polish a YouTube channel or a Twitch stream to get more viewers, a bigger audience, make it “sustainable.” Doing printed editions of my comics. My home studio is a shrine to this, with gear and unsold books and promotional fliers for my games, and piles of unsold CDs. And then there’s my abandoned Patreon, which Patreon won’t even let me shut down properly after all, and they keep sending me tips for increasing my audience and growing my earnings.

I’m sick of it.

When I make a thing I’m making it because I want to make it and because I hope that others will like it. I do need an audience, but it doesn’t need to be a paid audience; I’m happy just getting attention, feedback, the feeling I’ve made a difference in someone else’s life, the feeling I’ve made someone think or be inspired or anything. I try to find the cheapest ways of making this happen, because I’m not prepared to make any of these things a full-timejob, and there are so many things I want to do with my time, and any one of them would require more energy than I can put into it, so how am I supposed to give 110% into at least three different hobbies when I can’t even give 50% to a single thing?

So, where do I go from here? I’m going to keep on creating, but I don’t want to get bogged down in the thought that the commerce takes priority. I have something like 80 copies of each of my Unity books taking up space on my shelves. If people have ideas of what to do with them (ideally things that don’t involve destruction or spending even more money on them, or immense amounts of time trying to chase down retail relationships or whatever), I’m all ears. (I did apply to be a vendor at GeekGirlCon again and hopefully I’ll get in and if I do hopefully I’ll sell a bunch of my books, but I’m not really that optimistic about any link in that chain.)

Addendum

Something I originally meant to mention above but couldn’t figure out how to work into it: yes, I realize that YouTube, Twitch, etc. all do this because they want to make money off of advertising, and I mean, I don’t blame them, running a video streaming service is expensive. I am totally fine with them using ad-based monetization as a strategy, and for folks who make a profit to get a share of that profit. And I also have no problem with people who have opted to focus on that as their primary source of income.

The issue I have is with the platform pivoting from something where that is possible to where it is expected or even mandatory. Like, this is what ruined social media as well; once upon a time, blogging sites were just vaguely ad-supported things where people could post their musings to their friends or a larger audience, but then somewhere along the line, becoming a Professional Blogger became a thing, and this led to an entire economy around profitable blogging which then led directly to the walled-garden social networks I hate so much.

Platforms cost money, and obviously someone has to pay for it at some point. I just wish that didn’t lead to the never-ending treadmill effect of profitability over all else.

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