The Memory of Money in the Modern Age



Deep down, I’m always surprised when I can give someone a dollar and I get something back. Money — paper or plastic — doesn’t really seem like it should be worth anything. We’re all in on this giant unspoken conspiracy to agree that money will continue working and that we can exchange it.

But while we all do a good job of playing along, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why the concept of money works. I read an interview with economist Neil Wallace that provides a little insight. I’m going to copy a chunk of the interview here (you can read the whole thing here. The TL;DR is that money is memory — a way to track and exchange favors more than anything else, but Neil Wallace says it better. ‘Region’, by the way, refers to The Region, a publication put out by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which published the interview.

Wallace: Now think about Robinson Crusoe, after he meets Friday. They don’t need money, but again, there might be plenty of absence of double coincidences. Now think further. Here we are in the middle of Pennsylvania. There are lots of Amish communities around here. When they’re isolated, the usual story about an Amish community—or an isolated Israeli kibbutz—is that they didn’t use money.

Region: Trust was their currency.

Wallace: Well, that’s a word that Douglas Gale used, but it’s probably not the best word. Think about this Amish community. The vision is, if my barn burns down, then everybody will come and help me rebuild it. In economics, we try to rationalize behavior without altruism, if we’re able to; so what makes that work without altruism? Everybody notices who shows up to help rebuild it.

Region: A sort of credit accounting.

Wallace: Yes. And the guy who doesn’t show up, if he does that repeatedly, will get kicked out eventually. This can work without money because people remember what people have done in the past.

Region: So, money is memory.

Wallace: Yes, “money is memory” is a casual way to state that. Now, that’s a hugely powerful idea that I and other people have been working with.

Cryptocurrencies Are Just Memory, Too

The concept of ‘money is memory’ works surprisingly well when we think about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Effectively, every Bitcoin has a record of who mined it and who has held it since — not by name, but by an identifier that lets users be sure that a Bitcoin is a genuine piece of spendable currency. The unbroken chain of provenance lets everyone (at least those who use Bitcoins) agree that a particular Bitcoin is real and not fradulent.

That sort of memory of exchange shows, over and over again, that currency really is a series of shifting of obligations on to the next person. With a cryptocurrency that is essentially unbacked, the only way to get value back out of the money that you have somehow earned is to keep it moving.

Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency with a sense of humor. Based on the ‘doge’ meme (where pictures of a Shiba puppy are surrounded by broken English discussing something amazing, usually in Comic Sans), Dogecoin is similar to Bitcoin but worth far less at this point. A small community of users has sprung up, many of whom have started using Dogecoin as a way to tip people who are doing cool things online. On the Dogecoin subreddit, for instance, there’s now a tool to allow you to reward other reddit commenters with Dogecoins when they share something clever or useful.

Perhaps even more so than other currencies, Dogecoin’s use as a way to tip or otherwise acknowledge small bits of awesomeness reflects the real value of money as a way to trade memories. It’s a way to share a memory that is not quite big enough to be worth paying for — building a barn is a big memory, while sharing a witty comment on a link isn’t nearly as momentous. But even those tiny transactions will build up over time: on a site like reddit, a respected contributor has access to an audience. The same holds true for most websites. When someone consistently shares interesting things online, they’re rewarded with attention, which can lead in turn to financial benefits. Dogecoin tips just allow us to track smaller increments of memories.

The Long Memory of the Internet

It’s funny, in a way, that we have this sense of the internet as the elephant that never forgets: sure, technology has an awkward way of ensuring that your high school shenanigans you shared to Facebook will come back and bite you. But we’re talking about tools that are only a few years old — perhaps as old as a few decades if we’re going to include email — and that are already dealing with an overwhelming amount of data.

Yes, our collective memories are all online, including the ones we regret, but we’re already approaching a point where sorting through all the details is getting tough. What happens when Facebook actually has twenty years of your photos, updates, and likes? What about fifty years? Sorting through all that data to pull out value is going to make current big data efforts look rudimentary at best.

But having that data available also going to make the real value of memory clearer — and make sense of ‘money as memory.’ As we do business on a global scale, we need to be able to comparatively value products and services. Most currencies are essentially contextual: we know the local currency’s value within our day to day activities, but we can’t really guess what another country’s currency is really worth (and the whole idea that people get rich off of trading currencies can be downright scary). But with a shared currency, we can make financial decisions we trust on a global scale. We can trade the memory of painting a house in the U.S. into the memory of a meal in Argentina into the memory of writing software in Thailand.

Cryptocurrencies Aren’t Ready Just Yet

While I am enthusiastic about the concept of digital currencies, I haven’t jumped in — I’m certainly not one of those devotees who have committed themselves to using nothing but Bitcoin! That’s because Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies to a lesser extent, aren’t yet stable enough to truly act as a useful global currency. Over the course of 2013, a Bitcoin’s value had two zeroes tacked on to the end, going from $13.50 to well over $1000.

That sort of extreme variation makes it impossible to use Bitcoin in day-to-day business. Even if there were business owners willing to rely on Bitcoin (rather than to accept it as something of a novelty act), the fluctuations have led many users of the cryptocurrency to hoard their money, with the expectation that the value can only continue to increase. We’re essentially in the middle of a Bitcoin bubble — sooner or later, the whole thing is going to fall apart.

And that’s okay. Consider this a first go at the cryptocurrency learning curve. The first recorded fiat currency (currency backed by a government but not pegged to gold or silver) was in 11th century China. The situation fell apart pretty quickly, with the government printing more money and causing inflation. It took a couple of tries for fiat currency to work out. It’s going to take a couple of attempts for cryptocurrencies to work out the kinks. But in the long-term, there’s an incredible potential for the effectiveness of the concept of a digital currency.

Image by Flickr user dilettantiquity

Your Starbucks Name Versus Your SEO Name

My name is great for SEO purposes: if you type my name into any of the major search engines, everything that comes up on the first page of results refers only to me. I thoroughly dominate the first several pages of results, too.

It’s unusual, though. I spend quite a bit of time searching for specific people (not in a creepy way, I promise) and there are fewer unique names than you’d expect. Even those people who have fairly unique names often get caught up in strange search results. There used to be a lot of results for my name that involved things like book clubs reading something by Bram Stoker next Thursday.

But while we’re all looking for unique names that can ensure that we’ll get found online, going with something too unique doesn’t work in many offline situations. I have plenty of friends who have what we call ‘Starbucks names’: rather than giving a name that the typical kid behind the Starbucks counter can’t handle, they give something very simple. ‘Vasily’ becomes ‘Bob,’ at least long enough to get his coffee. Starbucks names are usually consistent, since you need to remember what name you’re listening for to make sure you get your drink.

The Identity of the Moment

The concept that we each only have one identity is new. Of course, it’s not out of the question to have different nick names at home and at work. But it can go further. In many cultures, there are situations in which a person will take on a new name. Even if you’re based in a Western culture and managed to never encounter diversity, you’ve almost certainly seen a woman take a new last name when she married. In my family, marriage has even occasionally necessitated a change in first names: women who marry in and share a first name with another family member wind up with a nickname almost immediately.

But computers don’t particularly do well with the concept that someone who is named “Michael” today might be named “Mike” tomorrow — let alone that he might suddenly be named “Henry” next week. Computers like immutable, unique indentifiers. That’s one of the reasons that social media has forced many of us into using unique handles that may not make perfect sense. We often wind up defaulting to the same user name across multiple sites, making ourselves easier to use. A Starbucks name doesn’t work with computers.

It is no small matter to change over all your online accounts to a new name, but there are people who do exactly that. There are even those who do so on a fairly regular basis. If your goal is to be known online, however, the process of building a following is more difficult if you’re constantly changing your actual name or your business name. And if you finally get that break, you may very well wind up answering to a name that is far different than what is on your legal paperwork. Consider Penelope Trunk, who started out life as Adrienne Roston and has gone through several names in between.

I Don’t Know Real Names

If you’ve been active in social media or online businesses for a while, you may have noticed a certain phenomenon. When you’re talking shop, and someone mentions a name, you need a little more context: “Do you know John Doe? @doe?” You get a Twitter handle or a domain name. And that works: those online identifiers are a part of our larger identities.

I’ve actually ran into problems because I interact with some people much more online than off. I don’t always know everyone’s real name. I’ve been known to make introductions with folks’ Twitter handles, rather than their name. I don’t feel too bad about doing so, though, since I’ve had the same done to me.

The only reason I care about ‘real’ identities these days is when I’m doing business. I don’t necessarily need a person’s name, as long as I’ve got her LLC down on the paperwork. But I do need some real, legal identity to make a contract and take care of my business. Beyond that, I’ll call you whatever you ask me to.

The Right to Your Identity

The internet hasn’t quite caught up to the realities of identity. We need better tools for handling the question of identity, especially when there are reasons to keep parts of an identity away from each other.

Currently, there are plenty of people who maintain separate email accounts, separate Facebook accounts and other divisions in their identity, often for nothing more than to protect their privacy. Most of the terms of service for such sites require you to only have one account, by the way. If you have 5,000 ‘friends’ on social media, it’s not unreasonable to have a more private space to connect with the people who you really know. Taking it a step further, there are plenty of people online who I would rather not know certain details of my identity — like my home address.

And that’s assuming the best: there have been plenty of stories about online sites accidentally exposing information about women to their abusive exes, because a site wanted to make sure it was dealing with real people. A failure to protect an individual’s identity can have long-term ramifications.

But protection is not necessarily enough. We should have a right to be who we are: many websites have difficulties dealing with the most basic elements of names, like if there is a space or a hyphen in someone’s last name. It’s rude to ask millions of people to change how they represent themselves because a busy programmer hasn’t handled things correctly. In addition, those details create inconsistent identities across the web, making SEO that much harder.

Handling Identity in a Practical Manner

Many of us already hold unique identifiers on the web: they’re called domain names. I spend a huge chunk of my time convincing friends and family members that they need their own domains, even if those URLs just redirect to a social media account.

But domain names make identity easier: if you’re dealing with two Jane Smiths and each has her own domain name, the computer can use that as a unique identifier and let each person use whatever name she wants. If a person needs to use different names in different spots, but wants a place to tell everyone all those elements of her identity, a website on her own domain name makes that pretty easy. If, however, she wants to keep all those elements of her identity separate, setting up separate domain names isn’t an impossible task. It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky approach currently, but it’s a good idea to go ahead and nail down a domain name now.

Image by Flickr user Erik Charlton

The Blessings of the Coworking Space


I come from one of those families where missing a sibling’s high school graduation gets you tried for high treason. If we’re talking about missing graduations for graduate degrees, you may face summary execution without a trial. This, and other family obligations, results in a situation where I’m often traveling. Add in travel for business and I feel like I’m always on the road — especially when I need to get work done.

When I’m planning a trip, one of the first steps I take is to search for what coworking spaces are in the area. I’ve worked at a whole slew of coworking spaces now (and a few places that weren’t precisely coworking spaces but would rent me a desk for a few days). I’m a true convert to the church of coworking, particularly on the road.

Coworking’s Appeal on the Road

I used to try to work in hotel rooms when I traveled. I recommend strongly against doing so, even if you’re only planning to work for an hour or two. At the very least, I will always choose to go to a coffee shop to work.

The chairs in the typical hotel room are not comfortable for working at a computer for any length of time, even if you’re lucky enough to get a room with a desk and an office chair. None of it is particularly ergonomic and, if you spend as much time in front of a computer as I do, too much time in a bad chair has a noticeable impact on my mood and ability to work. Add that into the less-than-ideal internet access some hotels offer and it’s clear why I’m out the door as soon as possible.

Coworking spaces offer a lot more than the typical coffee shop and I never feel like I’m squatting. Many spaces have a day rate that’s about equal to the amount of coffee I’d have to buy to work all day at a coffee shop and I don’t wind up jittery as a result of too much caffeine. As an added benefit, I get to meet locals and hear about what they’re working on — an invaluable add-on for someone who’s always looking for story ideas!

The Mix of Ideas

Particularly for those of us who work in such a way that we don’t have to interact with people on a regular basis, coworking spaces are a blessing. They’re a low risk-opportunity to interact with people and ensure that our social skills don’t atrophy. Even for introverts, talking to people is a necessity: without that diversity of connection, it’s harder to form new ideas or pursue new projects.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting in a coworking space and struck up a conversation with someone nearby with an entirely unexpected result. I’ve connected with people who I’ve been able to interview later on, who have needed my skills right when I happened to be handy or who have just wanted to go grab coffee. In terms of the ability to connect with people, I compare working in a coworking space to the best parts of attending a conference: I’m able to meet a bunch of new people with somewhat similar interests in person.

The low-risk aspect of this mix is particularly important to me. If I’m just sitting around and talking shop, I don’t want to deal with anyone who is going to think I’m crazy for not having a day job in the first place. I get enough of those conversations as it is. Anyone working out of a coworking space has similar basic assumptions about work that I do, like not necessarily needing a traditional 9-to-5 to do well. Of course, just because someone is sitting in a coworking space, our opinions won’t be identical — and that’s the fun part. I’m just after avoiding conversations where the entire concept of what I do is foreign.

Why I Don’t Currently Belong to a Coworking Space

You’d think that with all my love for coworking spaces, I’d be a full-time member somewhere. I’m not, currently.

There are a lot of factors in play:

  • Logistics: With all the time I spend traveling or otherwise unable to go into a local coworking space, there is rarely a month where I could get my money’s worth out of membership. If I could pay for some sort of pass or membership card that gave me access to all the different coworking spaces I land at, I would go for it in a heartbeat. Bring me a pay-as-you-go coworking scheme and I’ll be happy.
  • Pickiness: I am exceptionally picky. None of the coworking spaces near me are exactly where I want them to be located, offer precisely the combination of amenities, or are otherwise perfect in every way. This sheer, unadulterated pickiness has lead me to almost start my own coworking space twice.
  • A Good Home Office: I already have a pretty decent set up in my home that I know I work well in. I head out of it on a regular basis and have no problem getting a day pass at a coworking space or working from a coffee shop as needed, but I don’t need a permanent home for my work elsewhere.

I get my coworking fix on a regular basis, even without having a standing membership. I’m willing to guess that sooner or later, I will join up with a coworking space on a more regular basis, but for now, I’m comfortable looking at the many options on the road.

Image by Flickr user Rick Turoczy

Complicated Books Require Complicated Reviews

Freelancers Bible cover

I generally prefer to only post reviews of books and other resources that I’m completely enthusiastic about. I don’t want to waste your time or mine on something that isn’t worth the effort; at the very least, I don’t want to have to read a crappy book all the way through, just for the sake of writing a review. But this post will cover a book I’m not one hundred percent sold on, because there are some important questions this book has forced me to ask. For the record, I did receive a free review copy of The Freelancer’s Bible, though I’m pretty sure this isn’t the review they were hoping for.

The Good, The Bad and the So-So

Clearly, I’m wishy-washy on The Freelancer’s Bible: on the one hand, it’s an exhaustive reference manual for freelancers, particularly those just starting out. If you’re in that category, you need a book that tells you what you don’t know you don’t know. The Freelancer’s Bible covers everything it can about freelancing, even to the point of growing a freelance business into an agency or a product company — information that’s probably a bit beyond the target audience.

But the authors, Sara Horowitz and Toni Sciarra Poynter, put freelancing into a very particular context. Horowitz is the founder of the Freelancers’ Union. The name and projects of that organization appear very frequently within The Freelancer’s Bible, to the point that I started getting very frustrated as I read. The book implies that every freelancer should be a member of the Freelancers’ Union, which I see as a gross oversimplification. While I joined the Freelancers’ Union several years ago and have used their tools (though not their insurance or classes), my experience is that the organization is focused very heavily on New York City. Anything done outside of that city is something of an afterthought. There are other organizations in other places that may prove much more valuable to new freelancers.

The book comes off as a big ad for the Freelancers’ Union in spots, which detracts from its overall usefulness. I can understand why Horowitz would want to offer up the Freelancers’ Union as a resource — it is a good one, and Horowitz is rightfully proud of all the work she’s done. But it’s a bit too much.

Your Bias is Showing

We all have opinions that color our approaches to new projects — writers, doubly so. But a good writer is aware of her bias and makes sure it doesn’t get in the way of her message. The Freelancer’s Bible comes straight out of Horowitz’s experiences, however, and her own approaches may get in the way of helping new freelancers.

It’s not just a fault that appears in The Freelancer’s Bible, though. If you read a lot of books on freelancing, as I do, you’ll notice that almost all of these guides focus on writers — because writers are the ones putting them together. Horowitz’s passion is advocacy and that shines through, just as a love of writing shows up in most freelancing books.

This discussion (and I hope you’ll take the time to chime in on the comments) isn’t exactly a stunning book review, but it is an opportunity to discuss what we each bring to the table when writing a book about our passions and what we need to leave out.

A Glossary of Titles of People Who Work without a Boss

There are a lot of descriptions of people who work for themselves. If you take on contracts for creative work, you can be a freelancer or an independent contractor. If you’re looking to build something bigger down the road, you might be an entrepreneur — or you might just be a small business owner. Nomenclature can be very important: because most of these titles have fairly common interpretations, people can tell a lot about you depending on which one you choose.

Freelancer: Freelancers are almost always individuals working on their own, usually in a creative field. A freelancer works on projects for clients, either for one client at a time or for multiple clients. In my experience, freelancing is one of the more common ways for people to strike out on their own. That’s at least partially due to the fact that many freelancers started out working on client projects while still also working for an employer.

Permalancer: Permalancers are a relatively new iteration of freelancers. Some companies (usually large — like MTV) rely on creative talent and hire freelancers, who are expected to put in forty hours of work a week indefinitely from the company’s office. On the surface, most of us would consider permalancers to be employees without benefits, but legally a permalancer is usually considered to be self-employed and can do things like write off business expenses as deductions, at least until the IRS decides to reclassify a company’s permalancers and demand payroll taxes.

Independent Contractor: The term ‘independent contractor’ is a broad one and can include freelancers, consultants and more. Usually an IC, as some companies abbreviate the term, is an individual providing a service, although I’ve seen companies refer to small businesses providing services as independent contractors as well. It’s a classification that’s often used to figure out who to send what forms to. If you are asked to submit a W-9 form from a business that has paid you money, you’re probably considered an independent contractor.

Consultant: The plural of ‘consultant’ seems to be ‘consulting firm’ these days. While a consultant may work on her own, she may also be part of a company (or the owner of that company). As far as job descriptions go, a consultant usually goes into someone else’s business and tells the owner how to do a specific thing. It’s less common for the consultant to actually do the work, though not unheard of — a consultant may have a team on tap to implement the course of action she suggests.

Virtual X: In certain fields, virtual workers are fairly common. Virtual assistants are particularly so. A VA may specialize in certain types of work (including creative work that freelancers also do) or handle general administrative tasks. There are also companies that organize groups of employees to act as virtual workers, mostly in countries like India or the Philippines. But there are also plenty of independent VAs. A VA’s client is usually a small business or an independent worker.

Independent Worker: You’ll commonly find ‘independent worker’ used as a catchall for any individual who doesn’t work for an employer and who also doesn’t have any employees of her own. It’s just that plain and simple.

Solopreneur: Just like the name says, a solopreneur works on her own. The big difference between a solopreneur and most of the titles above is that a solopreneur is often offering products rather than services. Because the title has especially caught on in certain online circles, those products are likely to be electronic, such as ebooks. But they can be anything that one person can bring to fruition without hiring employees.

Entrepreneur: Many of the definitions of entrepreneur revolve around a question of risk. An entrepreneur starts a new venture (or more than one), taking on the risk involved, with a goal of building something beyond just herself. She may start as a one-person operation, but most entrepreneurs have visions of bringing in employees and growing a big business.

Small Business Owner: Most small business owners go through a larval stage of entrepreneurship at some point. But this title conjures up an image of something stable. For most of us, it creates the idea of a small office or store with just a few people working. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, though, a small business is anything with less than 500 employees.

Startup Owner: Where a small business owner or an entrepreneur is usually in their business for the long haul, the most successful startups are built with an exit strategy in mind. Whether the startup owner (or owners) want to be bought, bring in a management team and have an IPO or something else entirely, I wouldn’t generally describe them as people who will still be doing the exact same work even five years from now.

The Evolution of Titles

Personally, my choices of how to describe what I do have been shifting. When I first started out on my own, I knew that I was a freelancer down to my bones. But I started freelancing about eight years ago. It’s natural that my own understanding of what I do has evolved. These days, I consider myself an entrepreneur more than anything else — though, within the right context, I will refer to myself as a consultant or a small business owner. That’s a bit of a personal problem: most people aren’t crazy enough to try to run what really amounts to three companies at once.

This sort of evolution is absolutely common. I’ve seen virtual assistants become consultants, freelancers become startup owners and so on. But I also know people who have stuck with one title for twenty years or more. Just like the fact that you have to decide for yourself which of these options works for you, you have to decide if your title is going to change down the road.

Image by Flickr user Vince Welter

The Future is in the Farms

I have a theory about where the future of creative work is headed, at least in the U.S. I think it’s headed to rural areas, including farming communities.

It used to be that if you wanted to make a living as any type of creative professional, you had to go where the work was. The big cities had magazine publishers, ad agencies, film studios, art galleries and so on. There wasn’t exactly a way to ship around a catalog of the three sculptures you’ve done recently or offer up a self-published copy of your latest novel to anyone but your nearest and dearest.

But technology has absolutely changed that. Provided that you have an internet connection, you can be a freelance writer from a farm in Nebraska. You can sell sculptures from a mountain in Colorado. You can animate your own video out in the panhandle of Oklahoma. You can earn a living from your creativity from anywhere you want.

It’s All About the Connection Speed, Baby

Alright, I can admit that there are still some places where that isn’t quite as true as we’d like it to be. Sending out videos over the type of satellite internet connection you can get in the Oklahoma panhandle is not really all that feasible. Right now, the trend that we’re really starting to see is creatives of various stripes working from small cities and large towns in the Midwest, where it’s far cheaper to live than either coast — but you can still get a high-speed internet connection.

There won’t be quite as many creatives out in truly rural areas — if you can see your neighbor’s house from your porch, you aren’t in that rural of an area — until there’s high-speed internet access available out there. If you’ve heard about rural broadband, that’s the sort of change needed.

The Creative Revolution

We’ve had an Industrial Revolution, when people flocked to the cities because it suddenly got cheaper to live in urban areas and more work was available. Well, the moment that high-speed internet access hits rural communities, you’re going to see the opposite.

That’s because it’s cheaper to live in rural areas than it is to live in big cities these days. The big problem rural communities face at this point is that there just isn’t enough of the right type of work available locally, still. There often is plenty of work to get done, especially when you remember how much goes into running a farm. But there aren’t certain benefits (or at least enough money to buy those benefits) available in many jobs that can be had in a rural community. Think about health insurance. The average farm family needs health insurance just as much as the white collar worker living in New York City. But it’s a lot harder to make sure that someone in the family is working a job that provides health insurance when you have to drive an hour just to get to a town of 10,000 people.

The combination of creative work and internet connections can do a lot for this sort of situation. High speed internet access means that it’s possible for someone living in a rural area to land a job that provides health insurance that also allows for telecommuting (a category that a lot of creative work falls into). It’s also possible to build a business that makes buying health insurance on your own a lot easier. If, for instance, a member of a farming family can bring in an extra $30,000 a year through freelancing, paying for a health insurance policy can be a lot easier.

The Future of Creative Work

The ability to work from anywhere we want, on the creative projects we love, will change the world. The impact that something as simple as rural broadband might have is incredible, and something that I hope to see for myself in the near future.

Personally, I have plenty of family and friends for whom such technology will make a huge difference, if it hasn’t already. I have plenty of family members who simply live somewhere that the only internet access option is satellite connections. I’d love to see their lives made easier. And I’ve got to say that, if my work was the only constraint on where my family lived, we would be out in the boonies as fast as we could pack.

Image by Flickr user Adam Arthur

3 Things a Nine-Hour Drive Taught Me About Writing

Over the weekend, I went to Fan Expo in Toronto, which required a nine-hour drive up from Maryland. The drive wasn’t bad and, over the course of the weekend, I made some observations about writing that are going to be worthwhile.

They Did It First, We Do It Better

We drove through Buffalo, New York, which meant that we simply had to stop for wings. On the way to Toronto, we stopped at Duff’s Famous Wings and noticed the wait staff wearing shirts that read “They did it first. We do it better.” It didn’t make sense until our drive home, when we stopped at the Anchor Bar on our way home.

The Anchor Bar proudly proclaims itself the home of the original Buffalo chicken wing. The two restaurants are considered the best in Buffalo for wings and have something of a rivalry going. And, as far as my opinion goes, Duff’s has it right. The Anchor Bar may have invented the Buffalo chicken wing, but Duff’s does it better.

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind in the hustle and bustle of writing online. There always seems to be some new strategy coming out for SEO or social media, which some enterprising individual is pioneering in order to make a name for herself. But just because someone else got to a strategy first, you shouldn’t write it off. Looking for the next newest thing can be a tough way to build a writing business. Rather, picking up the strategies that you can be the best at — whether or not you were first — makes sense.

Creativity is Easy, Money is Hard

At the FanExpo, I met some incredibly creative and passionate people, but several people told me that while they’re willing to shell out $500 bucks just for a booth at FanExpo, it’s not something that they expect to ever make money at. Being the consummate networker I am, I started asking about the promotion strategies they use (especially whether they use content to promote themselves).

For a surprising number, their promotional efforts amounted to building a website and showing up at FanExpo. They would love to take their projects full-time, but they’re focusing entirely on the creative aspects. That’s okay if it’s going to remain a hobby, but if you’re serious about something like that, you’ve got to give a fair amount of time to marketing. It’s hard (especially if you’re also working full-time), but if you want to make a living writing fantasy novels, putting together an online television show or pursuing some other creative venture, your only option is to push hard.

It’s been done before and it will be done again, but it will never be easy.

Warm Audiences Are Always Easier

There were big name draws at FanExpo — William Shatner and Stan Lee were both there. But there were also attendees who came specifically because their favorite vendor or their favorite web comic had announced they’d be attending. An email newsletter was enough to bring out fifty committed buyers for one vendor I talked with. He sees the same truly excited fans at every convention he goes to and those fans always buy something.

In comparison, he has to work hard to get cold audiences to come to him. He spends three days straight yelling, cajoling and tempting people who have never heard of him to come to his booth and look at what he’s selling, while taking the money of the fans already on his mailing list.

It’s a good comparison of what happens when a writer wants to sell a product or land a new client. The more we can do to warm up an audience ahead of time, the more likely we are to walk away with money at the end of the day. Maybe we run blogs that cater to our target clients so that they’re already warm to our names and ideas before we ever start talking about money. Maybe we warm up a cold audience at a convention by using social media to see who is going to be there ahead of time — then we can reach out and make sure that an introduction in person is simply a matter of continuing an online conversation.

FanExpo is one of the first events in a while that I didn’t have an idea (beyond the speakers) of who would be there and who I wanted to talk to. It wasn’t a conference I wanted to work, but honestly, since I knew so few people ahead of time, it was harder to get into the swing of things. I do wish I’d at least looked a little bit online before heading up there.

Image by Flickr user Benson Kua

The Copyright Series: Traditional Copyright

Yesterday, we covered Public Domain.

Despite the availability of other options, standard copyright remains the best choice for most freelance writers. It is the easiest to use, and offers the most protection for a creative work. Literally, it guarantees that the creator of a work is the only person with the right to copy that work, but protected actions also include creating derivative works, displaying the work publicly and sell or assign rights to the work. Currently, a copyright lasts seventy years.

In most cases, a writer does not need to do anything to copyright her work, at least in the U.S. Copyright is effectually automatic, as long as some element of originality is present. However, it can be easier to prove damages in an infringement case if either your work bears a copyright notice, or you have registered your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office. Furthermore, unlike some other options, copyright has been thoroughly tested in court. Its extent is clear and if you must deal with a case of infringement, there is a clear procedure for responding to and remedying the issue.

However, a new ruling could create a problem for freelance writers relying on that ‘automatic’ copyright. Judge John M. Walker ruled against a group of freelance writers who had filed a suit against publishers who had posted their work in electronic databases after purchasing only first rights, on the grounds that the freelancers had not registered their copyrights on the works in question. (Businessweek’s article) Copyright law is still evolving and, for their own good, freelance writers should keep tabs on the changing nature of their primary protection.

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The Copyright Series: Public Domain

Yesterday, we covered Founder’s Copyright.

If a work is in the public domain, effectively no one can enforce any complaints against copyright infringement. Typically, this occurs because either the copyright has expired or because the creator of the work in question has specifically released it into the public domain.

I can only think of a few reasons a professional freelance writer might want to release material into the public domain (or use licensing like Copyleft or Creative Commons which effectively allows for uses of the work similar to public domain), such as to create interest in another product. For instance, a writer who has began to offer consulting services on a specific topic might release a white paper into the public domain in order to generate interest in the benefits of hiring her as a consultant.

Just because you cannot stop anyone from using your work if it is in the public domain does not mean that your work is wholly unprotected. For instance, if an academic researcher sites material you wrote, she is still obligated to cite your name correctly, and acknowledge that you were the original writer. Otherwise, it becomes an issue of plagiarism.

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The Copyright Series: Copyleft

Yesterday, we discussed Creative Commons.

Copyleft is essentially an attempt to license copyrighted material with no restrictions: a copyleft license allows any person with a copy of a given work to reproduce, adapt or distribute that work. It has been mostly used for software, but has, in a few instances, been used for various written works. There are some variations of copyleft licenses, primarily concerned with whether or not derived works are also considered copyleft.

Copyleft is often associated with open source works: works that are made with the intention of offering them to the general public at no cost. While this practice can have a number of benefits for quickly distributing a work, it is a less than ideal situation for freelance writers, who rely on payment for the various works they create, and for whom copyright provides an essential shield for their work. Because copyleft (and, similarly, Creative Commons) is very clearly about distributing works for free, it is not an option for most freelance writers.

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