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Writers, Web3, and Earning a Living

Let's name the elephant in this room.

Fellow web3 writers: I think it's time to say the quiet parts out loud more often.

As most of us know (especially if we've been working in the media industry awhile), the vast majority of professional writers and media producers even many of those at the top of their fields do not earn a sustainable living from their creative work.

For writers who don't aspire to earn a living* through creative work, this may not be a personal issue. Nonetheless, it should be of collective concern to all who enjoy reading and respect the writer's craft.

I don't know about you, but I don't want the next Hemingway to be flipping burgers at their "day job" when they could be writing instead. Far too many gifted writers end up spending their peak writing years as marks for content sites, while time/attention for their emergent and intrinsically motivated work gets crowded out. That's a huge collective loss.

For most writers, sponsorships and/or paid subscriptions amount to supplemental income at best, and can bring all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to compromise a creative vision. In this sense, web3 is not (yet?) much different from web2.

Disillusioned writers often leave web2 platforms like Patreon and Substack when it sinks in that for most of us, the labor of chasing paid subscriptions in a world of abundant content, limited attention, and subscription fatigue is unsustainable. But even in web3, building a long-term sustainable publishing business that allows sufficient time for the writing itself typically requires other funding sources (often advertising and/or philanthropy) to close the gap.

If web3 fails to address these underlying issues wisely, we risk falling prey to the same enshittification cycles that play out for creative labor markets on web2 platforms.

While I'm hardly the first to identify this pattern, it bears restating, because it's not clear that it's well-understood.

Scores of writers who publish sought-after professional-level work can't make ends meet unless they sell their best work hours elsewhere (i.e., do work for hire — often gigs or day jobs as "content creators"). Even then, many writers still lack sufficient financial/material/relational support to enable them to do the kind of work they do best.

What does it cost us, collectively, when the vast majority of gifted writers must spend their best work hours churning out work-for-hire content, chasing sponsorships, and courting paid subscribers while their emergent creative vision gets neglected or pushed to the periphery of their lives?

Can web3 do better than this?

Questions like this can easily get overshadowed by the tendency to focus on "the creator economy" and "monetizing content creation."

But I wonder: what might be possible if web3 helped more writers level up their earnings in ways that recognize the value of their intrinsically motivated work?**

What if writers didn't have to pay such a steep personal price to do creative work that clearly serves a collective benefit?

What if web3 enabled writers to handle their subsistence needs without compromising or sidelining their unique creative vision?

What if more web3 projects that target creators placed as much emphasis on innovative writer-friendly business models as they do on technical innovation?

What if there were web3 media publications with compensation mechanisms inspired by those of the Ethereum Protocol Guild?

What if writers took inspiration from Zora's artist-centered minting culture and protocol rewards mechanism to collectively build a literary onchain minting culture?***

What might that world be like?

I'd like to find out.

Author's note: As always, thanks to the Farcaster scenius and Zora for continued inspiration. Special thanks to res ipsa for brilliant thoughts on minting.


* The whole concept of "earning a living" calls for a detailed critique of its own, but I'll set that aside in the interest of space.

** Of course there are also perils to consider when introducing monetary compensation for intrinsically motivated work. The point is to call attention to a hidden value flow dynamic that constrains creative work but has not been widely acknowledged (let alone well-addressed) in web3.

*** Interestingly, as of this writing, my net rewards are higher from Zora's first minter rewards (which I earned by fronting the gas costs to bring others' creative work onchain) than they are from collectors minting my own onchain writings.

Image source: UNC Commons

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