No, You Cannot Have “A Few Minutes” Of My Time

At least not for free

Last week, I received an email through my website’s contact form. This is what it said:

Subject: Medium, Authors and Publishers study

Message: I saw your posts for Medium!

I’m [Name Redacted], I’m a Project Development Specialist at [An Agency Who I’ll Spare].

I’m doing a research study to on how users and publishers use Medium, and I was wondering if I could ask for a few minutes of your time this week to ask a few questions on how you use the service — particularly the publishing tools and analytics system?

I saw a few of your posts there on everything from Service Work Is Skilled Work. Get Over It to Saving America’s Pastime by Screwing American Workers.

I’m available to chat pretty much anytime on any medium (haha!) Skype, google hangouts, phone call, etc.

Thanks for your consideration in advance! Much appreciated :^)

This isn’t necessarily an unusual request—Name Redacted found me online, figured I’d have something salient to add to his research study (which I imagine he’s hoping to release to drum up PR for his agency), and asked me for it.

It’s also not unusual to be asked of my time and insight on a subject without even the vaguest hint that it could be worth an actual dollar amount.

I’ve been publishing stuff to Medium since November of 2014. I’m by no means an expert, but I am an active user and I feel like I have a pretty good handle on its uses and functionalities, largely through trial and error. (This platform completely vexed me when people first started telling me about it.) Since then, I’ve helped people and publishers figure it out more than once. As a writer and consultant, sharing what I’ve learned is kind of a large part of my job. It’s how I make money. Which is what I told Name Redacted in my response to him.

Hi [Name Redacted],

Thanks so much for reaching out! I’d be happy to do some consulting on the uses of Medium; I find it to be a really, really powerful platform and it’s done a ton of good work for me. My rate is $150/hr.

Please let me know when you’d like to schedule a time and I can look at my calendar.

— hbo

As I sent the email, I knew there were two likely outcomes and one unlikely outcome:

  1. Name Redacted would respond and say he didn’t have the budget and/or still try to get some information for free. (Likely)
  2. Name Redacted would not respond as soon as I mentioned money. (Likely)
  3. Name Redacted would actually agree to pay me for my time and I’d take him on as a client. (Unlikely)

In his response, Name Redacted surprised me: he went with Option 1, but instead of balking at the price, he hoped to pass right over it.

Hi Hanna,

Thank you for your reply, I just a few questions if you don’t mind.

Here are the questions, and thanks again for your help!

1.) What made you decide to use Medium?

2.) Do you currently use any competitors to Medium? If so, which and why?

3.) Have you used the Medium analytics system?

4.) If yes, what your your favorite analytics and why?

5.) If yes, what analytics do you think are missing that could be useful/helpful?

6.) If yes, have you had a desire to integrate any 3rd-party analytics systems, e.g. Google Analytics, into Medium, and if yes, why?

7.) Looking at the entire Medium experience, what do you feel could be improved?

8.) Have you posted as a publisher before (groups of authors)?

9.) If yes, what would you see as valuable improvements to publisher analytics?

Thank you

[Name Redacted]

You know, Name Redacted, I do mind. Because these questions will take a some time to answer—and the fact that I even can answer them indicated that I have spent a lot of time learning the answers myself.

I gave him one more chance with my last response.

Hello! These are great questions and the exact kind that I would love to answer as a consultant. For that service, I charge $150 per hour.

Thanks!

That was several days ago. I haven’t heard back, and I suspect I won’t. I don’t know where Name Redacted will go for his information, but I imagine he’ll keep contacting people until someone, eventually, gives him a free few minutes because a lot of us are honestly not conditioned to think of our time as being worth money.

Herein lies the real issues of requests like this: They are treated like favors, rather than transactions. “A few minutes” of my time is seen as an amount that I can dispense at no cost to me, at great benefit to someone else, because it’s “just a few minutes.”

This assumes that my time does not have value to me, because I won’t be compensated for it, but it does have value to someone else, because they took the time to ask me for it and will ostensibly be using the information they collected during that time to make something that could help turn a profit.

Which isn’t really how it works in a capitalist society where time is, as they say, money.

Regardless of your profession,—whether you’re a lawyer, a roofer, a medical professional (especially if you’re a medical professional), a coder, a designer, or a writer—you’ve probably been asked, at some point, for free advice based on your expertise. Maybe it’s expertise you collected by going to school ($$$), maybe you acquired it through years of working in the field (time → $$$). However you got it, someone has likely asked you to give it to them for the low, low cost of free. Or a cup of coffee which you somehow always inexplicably end up paying for.

And I can hear the criticism already. You should be flattered, you catty thing! one of you is already fuming. He just wanted some advice on something you know a little bit about! I give people free advice all the time even though it’s annoying!

Which would be fair—if I knew the man, if he was working on a project I cared about or thought was a positive impact on the world or was even personally invested in in any way. But none of these conditions—my usual conditions for working for free—were met.

I didn’t know this person, and beyond that, I had no incentive to help him. In short, he was asking for something for nothing. What, exactly, is flattering about that?

Additionally, a lot of professions aren’t in danger of being completely devalued; no one is suggesting that all doctors suddenly begin offering procedures for free because “it’s just a hobby.” Writing and other creative work, meanwhile, is largely viewed as something that anyone can do, and thus, should feel honored to be consulted about.

The occasional request to “pick your brain” (ugh) is a common one. It’s also part of a larger, more insidious trend of expecting to have access to the insight, expertise, and talent of people who work in creative fields, particularly women, members of the LGBTQ community, People of Color, and other marginalized individuals, for no compensation.

In her recent indictment of BuzzFeed, YouTuber and writer Kat Blaque described an experience of being asked to “consult” for a multi-billion-dollar company under the assumption that the exposure alone would be sufficient compensation. Ask Akilah Hughes wrote last week, “No one should have to work for exposure. People die of exposure.”

My example is an extremely small one, regarding an extremely small request from an extremely small shop. I Googled Name Redacted’s agency after this exchange and found that they have fewer than 50 followers on Twitter, so it’s not as though they had “exposure” to offer me.

But it’s an illustration of a pattern, a pattern wherein we’ve collectively decided that some things have value and some do not, and the experience and insight garnered from People on the Internet should be available for free. Our lived experience is Fair Use. The information we’ve collected should be readily dispersed just because someone wants it.

When you ask someone for “a few minutes” of their time without the promise of any kind of compensation, you’re asking for much more. You’re asking them to work for free, for your benefit. You’re also asking them to take time away from the paying work they’re probably also doing to, you know, pay the bills. Seriously, at least buy me dinner.

No one owes you “a few minutes” of their time. At least not without the promise of a few dollars.

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