How Getting Paid In "Exposure" Exploits Black Writers Like Me
Photo by Caroline Brinegar | Words by Dominique Matti
The second article I published went viral. I wrote it after some micro-aggression sent me over the edge. It was a running list of all the many ways I’d been mistreated as a Black woman, a protection of my right to be angry. I left out hundreds of examples. I didn’t expect anyone to see it, I had self-published it on Medium with only 5 followers. I had just quit my job as a room service attendant at a luxury hotel, because my hours could no longer accommodate childcare (and I couldn’t afford daycare, anyway). I had hoped (and promised my husband) that in between the last and the next underpaid and soul draining position I took, I could make money writing freelance. I knew that I was good enough-- I just needed someone to see me. And then my article went viral without any marketing. Overnight, I watched it jump from 30 views, to 3k, to 300k. I was elated. The official email I had made for writing gigs (the one that would have had cobwebs were it a physical space) was filling up with comments and inquiries. Someone wanted to incorporate my piece into a short film. Someone wanted to use it in a seminar they were teaching on race. Someone wanted to interview me on their podcast.
And then the publications started contacting me. First, Huffington Post came. I immediately said yes. I called my family to brag, making sure to include the fact that they asked me. I left out the fact that they told me that they had “no budget for republishing.” Later, when they gave me access to publish through their backstage channels as a “HuffPost Blogger,” I bragged about that too—I put it in all my bios. I thought it made me seem official, despite the fact that they had no budget for publishing my original work, either. Despite the reported $10.33 they charge advertisers for 1,000 page views, and despite the fact that one of my articles brought in hundreds of thousands of page views—they offered me not a dime. Instead, they offered me exposure.
Exposure was just what I thought I needed. I believed ability plus audience equaled success. But what it equaled for me was a week straight of anxiety attacks—and rent I still struggled to pay. When Huffington Post published my article, the content of my email inbox changed. It wasn’t letters of appreciation and acceptance anymore. It was 1,200 word inquiries about my mental state, personal attacks on my motherhood, racist rants, and threats. Hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of emails like this. I was scared and I was overwhelmed. My phone was buzzing nonstop, and I checked it like a tick, my disposition darkening each time I read a comment or message. The articles I proudly shared directly from Huffington Post’s page on Facebook became humiliating , family and friends called to tell me “not to read the comments” and to check on me. “I’m fine,” I told them, but my stomach did backflips for days.
I began to doubt my capability for success, I thought this was everyone’s experience, something I had to gain the stomach for. Do I really want to be a writer? Can I handle this? I watched my childhood dreams grow fangs. The thing I thought would fulfill me was eroding my ability to feel good about virtually anything. But I took it. I let Huffington Post continue to publish my articles. I let Bust, and PopSugar. I let The Independent, and Fatherly, and anyone else who asked. I let the people who didn’t ask. Because I thought exposure would get me where I needed to go—or at least that was the narrative I’d been pitched about writing. I ate my anxiety attacks, I swallowed my wilting self-worth, I drank the venom directed at me on all social media channels and my inbox. I was willing to sacrifice for what I knew would come from the platforms the publications could provide.
Except, nothing beneficial to my career came from those platforms. Not a dime. No job offer, no recognition, no reputation. Eventually I realized that the only thing having some of those names in my bio did, was inform predatory publications that I was willing to work for free, that I was ripe for exploitation.
A few months later, I had at least six viral articles and not a cent in payment. Bills were going unpaid or late. I was continually asked to call into podcasts at times when my cell phone was cut off. I couldn’t fulfill my promise to my husband. I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong. I was disappointed in myself, and my inner voice began to echo the narratives flooding my e-mail—What is this horse shit? I can’t believe anyone published this whiney bitch. She needs to stop blaming the world and accept that she’s a failure.
But it was fellow Black writers and readers who kept me going. They assured me of the importance of my writing. They assured me that they got the same awful responses—that it wasn’t my capabilities, that it was my Blackness that trolls had a problem with. They told me that what I was doing mattered, and that I deserved to be able to do it, and to demand the compensation I needed in order to keep doing it. So I did. And right now, my audience sustains me. On the unpaid articles I publish, I post my PayPal and Patreon, and people send what they can to support me. Sometimes it’s $1, and sometimes it’s $50. It all helps. It all tells me that what I’m doing is worth something. It’s astounding to me that my audience values my work more than many of the people profiting from it do, but I’m so grateful for all those who care. I am not for the kinds of publications that can afford to and still don’t compensate, and I am not for people who can be kind and choose malice. As a Black woman writer on the internet, I’ve had to curate a warm corner for myself. It’s ironic that so many publications made money I’ll never see, on an article about the many ways people have stepped on my head to elevate themselves. It’s a shame. But I know better, now-- and I hope this helps those who don’t, yet.
Dominique Matti is a 24 year old writer, poet, and mother based in Philly. Her central focus is social justice. Her favorite pastime is drinking copious amounts of coffee.