In June I suddenly started hearing about a product called the ‘Paradise Pack’, a package of e-courses and e-books that promised ‘Everything you need to learn how to make money travel blogging online!’ It was on sale for seven days (and seven days only!!). When you clicked to the home page, it asked:
Would You Like To…
Live rent free (yes free!) in villas and penthouses around the globe?
Fly anywhere in the world for less money than you spend on a tank of gas?
Ditch your job and create a business you can run from anywhere in the world?
The package cost $197, though the materials, it claimed, were worth more than $2000; these covered ‘travel hacking’ (credit cards and air miles), ‘freelance blogging’ and affiliate marketing, ‘location independence business mastery’, videography, housesitting, and ‘how to crowdfund your dream on Kickstarter’. There was a language course that didn’t seem to actually teach a language, but helped you pick a language to learn and gave tips on getting started, and the contributors called themselves by titles like ‘Suitcase Entrepreneur’, ‘Location Rebel’, and ‘Freedom Engineer’.
The first interesting thing about the Paradise Pack is that none of the material it contains is about becoming a better writer or photographer – it’s entirely about commodification. In fact, one of the contributors (a ‘Freelance Professor’, apparently) reassures potential buyers that doing quality work is neither important nor necessary:
Do You Need to Be a Good Writer to Be a Freelance Blogger?
Freelance writing has traditionally been a career reserved for those who have spent a lifetime steeped in the vagaries of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
However, the world of freelance blogging offers a level playing field. No longer are writers expected to create perfect pieces every time.
OK so I totally admit that I have no idea what ‘travel blogging’ is other than ‘travel writing, but like on the internet’ (Pam at Nerd’s Eye View has a good post/discussion here). What’s odd is that in the Paradise Pack marketing, travel blogging isn’t framed as really anything worthwhile on its own. It’s explicitly, and exclusively, a way for the package buyer to travel for less money, and feel like they’ve got something for free. (Who doesn’t like free things, right? Especially travel, which is super expensive! And if travel blogger = free travel then wheee let’s go be a travel blogger!)
The second interesting thing is that the Paradise Pack pitches it as travelling ‘for free’, even though it actually requires hundreds of hours of labour performed with no guarantee of return. A ‘freelance blogger’ starting out in 2015 isn’t going to be making much from ad clicks or even content farm work, and as I understand it ‘free travel’ in the form of comped trips is becoming much harder to come by for smaller and newer bloggers (ie, people buying the Paradise Pack), both because lots of people have started blogs explicitly to angle for free trips (ie, as suggested in the Paradise Pack), so competition is high, and governments performing austerity have often cut back on tourism budgets, so availability is low. People buying the pack are being encouraged to set up a blog and write, photograph, film and work on social media in the hope that, at some point, they’ll start making some money (but probably not very much) and receive some comped travel (but probably not very much); but there’s no guarantee that this massive amount of labour will ever receive compensation, it’s being performed completely on spec.
As I said, the pack went on sale in June and I didn’t pay it much attention then, except to think ‘well that’s a bit silly, oh well, get-rich-quick schemes on the internet are nothing new’, but it came back to mind last week when Abigail Nussbaum (read her on everything, by the way, she’s excellent) linked to a post by Jonathan McCalmont, What Price Your Critical Agency? He asks:
“Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?”
He’s talking about book and film reviewers, but replace ‘entertainment’ with ‘travel’ and it pinged exactly what was so off about the Paradise Pack to me. The pack (and I’m sure many other ‘how to be an [X] blogger’ programs –it’s not the only one, just the one I noticed most recently) doesn’t encourage people to develop and improve their work, to think or learn about themselves or the world. It encourages them to spend their free time and labour trying to sell things on the internet, for no certain compensation and, as more people try it, decreasingly likely success.
I do think blogging is a good thing for writing and for thought; the fact that it’s really easy to set up your own space on the internet and start publishing your writing, without having to go through a gatekeeper, means more voices can not only be heard but can speak to each other directly, which is great. In questioning the use of travel blogging as a kind of WordPress-based frequent-flyer credit program, I definitely don’t mean that barely disguised classist thing of, ‘well, there are travel writers, who read Freya Stark and Paul Theroux and have opinions about Elizabeth Gilbert and go to Book Passage*, and there are travel bloggers, who go on comped group tours and take selfies at Angkor Wat and can’t even write properly, the uneducated poors‘. Instead what’s frustrating to me is the total lack of being bothered at all about the writing and photography part: how the pitch is ‘travel blogging: travel the world for cheap and score free stuff!’ and not ‘travel blogging: finding your voice’ or ‘travel blogging: avoiding ethnic stereotypes’ or ‘travel blogging: what is the rule of thirds anyway?’
Where it gets really interesting for me is looking at established bloggers’ income reports [not just travel], because the biggest chunk of money consistently seems to come from (surprise!) selling ‘how to make money blogging’ e-books and courses. The how-to-make-money-blogging pack even includes a ‘how to write a “how to make money blogging”‘ e-book, because of course it does.
This kind of work seems separate from (possibly parallel to) travel writing as a literary genre, although there’s probably a good Master’s thesis in examining what kinds of things people write in ‘travel blogs’ that are intended primarily as ways of funding travel, not as creative works. And I don’t think this is unusual to travel writing/blogging, it seems pretty common across the internet. I’m just really interested and a bit impressed by how capitalism has managed to take what I think is a clearly good thing – more people travelling, writing about it and talking to each other about their experiences and the world – and turn it into a pyramid scheme of people throwing their labour against the wall and hoping it sticks enough for them to get a free night in a hotel in Florida.
*for the record, I have read Freya Stark and have opinions about Elizabeth Gilbert (her writing is smart, funny and warm; she looks a lot like a neighbour I used to hate) and have gone to Book Passage. I have not read Paul Theroux because I have received the impression he’s a bit dude-ponderous. I also have not read Jack Kerouac because oh god life’s too short.