Playing in the Game of Exploitation

Writing can be a dangerous business—especially when you’re inexperienced. Young writers are hungry for exposure and for opportunities to make themselves known, and I’ll openly admit that I’m no exception. Seeing my name in a byline is satisfying, no matter where the piece is published, and it’s a feeling I haven’t gotten tired of.


I’ve been exposed to it since I was seventeen and freelancing for a local newspaper. My name appeared in print and online—some pieces were even on the front page, and some I collaborated on with my managing editor. Since then, I’ve written for CCM’s digital magazine Weathervane, for the CCM News Hub, for this blog, and for GoStowe; however, one of my bigger opportunities (or so I thought) was my Editor-in-Chief (EIC) position with a millennial powerhouse that I won’t name here.


There are a few of them out there, including Her Campus and Odyssey Online. Never heard of them? There’s a popular piece on one called “Thousands of College Kids Are Powering a Clickbait Empire,” if you want a better understanding. These companies tend to be ever-shifting and fast-changing—it’s part of how they solidify their role in the game of exploitation.


I’d like to side-step for a minute and say that recognizing exploitation can be tricky, especially when you aren’t given the tools or the education that helps you notice when it’s happening to you. Kerry Hill, my career advisor at Champlain, brought up the idea of exploitation when discussing internships. At the lowest level, it can be recognized by certain buzzwords or phrases: “resume-building,” “career-building,” “gaining experience.” Businesses and opportunities involved in exploitation will either never offer any form of compensation (including college credit) or they will make it very hard to earn said compensation. They will ask and take, but never give.


It wasn’t until after I heard Kerry describe exploitation (and after a bout of denial lasting two months) that I realized I was playing the game—and the powerhouse was winning.


It didn’t feel like exploitation in the beginning. The company is careful, using words like “creator” instead of “author” and “posting” content instead of “publishing.” The fact of the matter is: they can change their vernacular all they want, but they’re still taking advantage of thousands of college kids across the nation just so they can grow to be bigger and better than anyone else.


I won’t deny that I learned helpful managerial and editing skills from that position, namely how to follow a style-guide set by a company. But those skills were quick and easy to learn, and soon the concept of the powerhouse’s “cranking machine” became more evident, especially when they asked me to take on more jobs like social media outreach, making and posting fliers around campus, visiting and presenting in classrooms. I’m (not) sorry, but I’m a student first and foremost. And without any type of payment for that amount of work, I’m not going to prioritize it.


I’ve seen and experienced how taxing writing for these types of companies can be, especially when they require one new article per week. That’s right, the EICs of the college communities aren’t the only ones being exploited. And no matter which position you’re in, it’s a lot to do without compensation—and frankly, it was an abuse of my abilities.


Not every higher-up at the company respects the author’s work, either. Some have even added typos to an author’s piece (not caring to make sure everything is edited) or the headline, and they don’t hesitate to change the author’s voice in order to package the content. I personally had this happen with a piece that I wrote for an experimental section of the millennial powerhouse that has since been shut down.


Now, I’ve been editing for a better part of my college career, so I’m familiar with what an editor-author relationship looks like. While a good chunk of developmental editing is moving things around, adding words, and cutting sentences, this company supposedly prided itself on doing very basic copyediting—no developmental editing whatsoever without the author’s knowledge or approval. So when one of my pieces that I was rather proud of got published with a new lede and with words like “epic” inserted into the body, I was a bit off-put. With those two things, among others, the voice and tone of the piece shifted into something that I didn’t feel was mine.


But why add in words like “epic?” Because all these powerhouses want is views and exposure—just like the authors the company pulls in. Buzzwords keep the readers interested.


In the end, that’s what finally clued me in to the fact that I was being used for my writing and editing skills. I was making the work look pretty so that they could attract notice for their company—so that they could be the first type of this business model to be successful. The only reason it works is because not everyone realizes that they’re being exploited, especially when all they’re doing is cranking out “TK Ways The Office Perfectly Describes College” and other clickbait-esque pieces.


Frankly, I could have (and should have) found the experience somewhere else, somewhere that would have valued my skills and abilities more than the powerhouse did. The satisfying feeling I used to have with my bylines turned slightly to shame with those pieces—not because of what I wrote, but because I let myself be used.


I’m not the only one in my position to feel exploited, but it doesn’t matter when all the company cares about is growing and expanding. As of late, that led to a lot of lay-offs within the company. They even sent out a mass-email saying they were growing too fast in such a short amount of time, resulting in a reworking of the editing process and making it more difficult for communication to happen between the communities and their managing editors.


I mentioned in my resignation letter (which I sent in alongside my two-week notice, because I have a hard time not being professional) that I was feeling exploited, that this powerhouse (and even all the others) should consider some kind of compensation for the students who are putting in all this time and effort to help build a company that isn’t even theirs. To no surprise, the exploitation wasn’t acknowledged. The feeling was pushed aside and ignored. And for someone who was told that they were one of the better EICs, the higher-ups were quick to let me walk away instead of offering up some kind of reimbursement.


My opinion? They didn’t want to be troubled to pay me what I was worth. They’d rather continue exploiting students, since it seems to be a main focus of their current business model—and who wants to rework the whole thing, anyway? My only hope is that other students and writers will slowly realize that we aren’t writing robots built to power an empire. We’re valuable humans with equally valuable skills who aren’t designed to burn through our creativity—and while I hope this piece doesn’t burn any bridges, if it does, at least I’ll have done it with reason.