Dispatches From the Content Factory: On the Rise and Fall of the New Creative Class

Seattle’s $15/hour minimum wage law went into effect this year, albeit at an incremental pace; this is good news for the city’s wait staff and other hourly workers. It leaves out, however, an entire class of ostensibly white-collar workers whose base pay adds up to less than the mandated minimum. At the time the law passed, I worked as a copywriter for an online retail company there (no, not THAT Seattle-based online retailer). My salary, which came out to $17.74 an hour, was among the highest in my department, where most of my colleagues made less than $15 an hour. “I should just go work at Starbucks,” my fellow copywriters grumbled. “Grocery stores are better,” someone said. Hank, a lanky creative writing major with a taste for comic books, nodded thoughtfully. He worked extra shifts at Trader Joe’s on nights and weekends. Many of my coworkers had second jobs. “The guys who stay at TJs, they make good money after a while,” he said. We sat in rows on the ground floor of a building still undergoing renovations. Just outside our windows, freight trains rumbled by, obscuring a partial view of the waterfront. Lined up end-to-end beneath the occasional cheery poster were the region’s English majors, writing, collectively, thousands of product descriptions each day. More seemed to join us each week: all aspiring journalists, authors, academics, critics, playwrights, and poets, all hopeful of joining a vaguely-imagined Creative Class. “We have to stop hiring people with master's degrees,” my new manager complained to me during a meeting. “They just don’t stay.” “I have a master’s degree,” I told her. To her credit, she blushed. Indeed, I have an MFA in Creative Writing, a degree of dubious commercial value. In the age of “content creation,” however, it showcases an essential commodity: the ability to write fluently in conversational English with a minimum of errors. Our work at the online retailer would surely have been outsourced, were it not for the difficulty of finding this particular skillset. When I was in high school, I thought I would be a journalist or an editor. This was the '90s. I had grown up watching romantic comedies about magazine editors and had the idea that I would live in New York and make a living with words. I loved my Sassy magazine subscription. Even in the mid-2000s, when I was in graduate school, I thought I might be able to “make it” as an instructor of writing until I got a book deal. Either that, or I’d work in publishing. I’d get grants. I’d be an arts writer of some kind -- didn’t museums need newsletters? No matter what, I’d pursue my passion for writing through meaningful work. I had no idea that this dream was fast becoming obsolete. I know these dreams are not unique to me, and I don’t believe I’m uniquely entitled to rewarding work. I understand that the baristas and bus drivers and nannies of the world -- many of whom are my friends and relatives -- cannot afford to think this way. Then again, I can’t really afford to think this way, either. With two graduate degrees between us, a prestigious undergraduate education and solid work experience, my partner and I still live mostly paycheck-to-paycheck. Hence, my foray into the world of corporate “content.” Content: that ubiquitous term. What is it? Photos, videos, headlines, “click bait,” long-form articles, anything to keep a website looking fresh, anything that might go viral, anything that might cause someone to open an email or follow a link. At my old job, content was mostly descriptive writing: what is this product, and why do you want it? A separate team wrote catchy emails. The company needed a small army of people who could write complete sentences in English, as well as use diction and syntax that conveyed a certain warmth and authority. They did not, however, want to put much effort into training or paying anyone to do this. A coworker and I found ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with two men from the finance department one day, as we shared the elevator up to our new floor. “What do you guys do?” They asked us. “We’re in the copy department,” we answered. They glanced at each other. “The coffee department?” My coworker and I laughed. It was a joke, wasn’t it? A corny, New Yorker cartoon-style joke. But no. They smiled gently. “That’s so cool that we have an actual coffee team.” “COPY,” my coworker nearly shouted. “We write the words on the site? All the words.” The finance gurus shrugged. They hadn’t even stopped to wonder where those words came from: those millions of nouns, verbs, and adjectives (but not too many adverbs!) that had been strung together and pumped onto the site each morning. The job entailed no interaction with clients or with vendors. We were given product information from the buying teams, often badly formatted and difficult to decipher. We mined this for essential selling specifications, typed these up cleanly, and whipped out a two-sentence description of the item. Nothing more, nothing less. The job did require critical thinking, however, as we attempted to decipher the information given to us: was this table really 10 inches high by 10 inches wide? Was the dress made of 90 percent cotton and 10 percent “twig?” Initially known for selling children’s products, the company had expanded to offer women’s clothing, home goods, and pretty much anything else it thought might appeal to “mom” (their self-declared target demographic), as it pursued the holy grail of growth. My division wrote copy for all non-clothing items, from bedding to party favors, furniture to sporting goods. I wrote copy about electric lawnmowers, artisan spoons, oil paintings, flower bulbs, dog collars, math books, and pogo sticks. Most hated was anything “décor,” which generally meant oddly shaped candleholders, sets of wire baskets or tables too small to be useful. Anything stained, rusty, or splintered was called “distressed” or “vintage.” Once in a while, I got to write about well-known children’s books. Then, I wanted to take my time, to describe beloved characters or zany illustrations, but that would have been an indulgence. One-size-fits-most descriptions had to do. The workload crept up steadily. When I started, we often wrote between 60 to 85 descriptions a day, but this had risen to an average of 120 when I left. Though it was a salaried position, one had to finish one’s queue each day, so writers regularly stayed late. Sure, we had health insurance, which was often trotted out as a perk we shouldn’t take for granted. Also, they gave out one beer per person, one Thursday each month. Beyond that, there was little recognition for the breakneck pace and little opportunity to grow. And yet the job was desirable. I sat in on many interviews, given the retention rate, and watched eager young graduate after eager young graduate attempt to describe their career goals. They were English majors who had written theses about postcolonial poetry and they were communications majors who had written for their campus newspapers, and now they were so desperate for a job you could smell it on them. One interview was with the heavyset, visibly sweaty editor-in-chief of his college weekly. His resume revealed that since graduation he had held a series of unpaid internships. My supervisor asked him if he’d take the Tuesday-Saturday, 1-9:30 p.m. schedule (the least desirable by far). He accepted immediately. He accepted the lowest pay grade, as well. Beyond his facility with language, his desperation was his most desirable quality. I don’t intend to bemoan the value of a degree in the humanities. If anything, I wish there were more quantifiable value attached to it, as I fear such educational choices are becoming the sole province of the elite. Concerned about the cost of high turnover, or perhaps just to keep a closer eye on the unruly creatives, the leadership brought in former Starbucks store managers. Ours knew nothing about writing, and loudly announced that fact on the regular, as if it were hilarious. As a result, she leaned heavily on the three leads who had done the job and could speak to its complexities when higher-level management swung by or pulled us into meetings. She made much more money than us, of course. There were a few lead copywriter positions, which paid in the mid-to-upper-30s, and were tasked with training and quality control. I was shortly promoted to one, given my relative wisdom (at 32, I was nearly a decade older than many of my colleagues) and my background as an adjunct instructor, a profession from which I’d fled in search of greater stability and profit. As a lead, I was in the dismal situation of trying to maintain morale while also policing quality. I quickly discovered that even the ability to write error-free was not a given. Comma splices, dangling modifiers, and capitalization errors abounded. There is an art in achieving a highly readable piece of copy that maximizes character count. I counseled my writers in this every time I gave a quality review. I also tried to emphasize the importance of accuracy. Hank rushed through reams of products featuring sports team logos and regularly mis-typed essential information: “men’s” instead of “women’s,” for instance. He’d nod when I pointed this out and promise to pay more attention, but we both knew that it didn’t really matter. During my quality reviews, more often than not, we complained together about the tension between quality and quantity. Where was his incentive for doing his best work? And where was my incentive for reviewing said work? I loved my team. My writers were quirky and prickly, yet quick to laugh. They held bourgeois passions for great food, travel, and literature, though they could little afford to indulge any of these interests. To keep ourselves entertained, we circulated daily emails with questions about favorite books and bands or embarrassing childhood stories. A millennial sense of humor pervaded, from irreverent gifs to an easy melding of online lingo with academic and pop culture references. On my first day, my neighbor, who sported a sassy pixie cut and a wry smile, muttered to me, “I just can’t stand ellipses. They’re so slutty.” She wrote pithy reviews of television shows on the side, and made irreverent jokes at meetings. The new management disliked her; she didn’t display “company values.” Fortunately, she found a new job as an executive assistant before they could rout her out. That writer led the creation of a weekly worst-of-the-worst contest that featured photos of the most bizarre products the team had written about: terrifying cornhusk dolls, t-shirts that read “Trophy Wife,” a decorative pillow featuring an image of Lady Godiva and the word YOLO stitched beneath. We were filtering through the detritus of the retail world, forced to examine every image in an attempt to describe it for a smartphone-wielding shopper. All the while, the company grew at an exponential rate. It went public while I was in its employ. We hunched-over copywriters were marched down to the second floor, given a small cupcake, and made to watch the events at the stock exchange unfold on screen. For most of us, the value of the stock meant very little, unless we were one of the few employees to have started in the first year or so. Meanwhile, the CEO brought home a salary in the tens of millions of dollars. Most of my writers made around $28,000 a year, which is laughably low in a city with extremely high rents. Most justified this by assuming they’d acquire a useful line on their resume. Most became deeply resentful within a few months. A plethora of indignities piled up. We moved to a building under construction; for a while our floor had no water cooler or coffee machine, which had been major perks in the old space. Loud buzzing, sawing, and clanging sounds echoed through the space. Dust and detritus fell from the ceiling. Once, a pipe above us burst. The new location entailed very expensive parking or long walks from the train station; neither aspect was subsidized by corporate. In fact, changes to the benefits plan meant that employees had to choose between setting aside pre-tax funds for transportation or for health care, not both. One copywriter wrote to the VP of human resources asking about help for transportation and was told that they were sorry, but they understood if some employees simply couldn’t afford to work downtown. We were all replaceable and we knew it. Behind us stood an army of graduates with too much student debt and parents asking about the utility of their degree in the humanities. Not surprisingly, everyone was applying for other jobs. I served as a reference several times. Some writers stayed only a few months before leaving for greener pastures. The lucky ones scored better-paying work in the field, while others left for contract positions, increasingly ubiquitous in the tech world. I was torn: was my position, with its low pay, better than a shorter-term contract in which I’d make more money? At least I had the stability, I told myself. Then I got pregnant. It was intentional, but I didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would make my prospects for staying on the job. Because of the high cost of childcare, I asked for a raise. My salary would have only allowed me to break even. I figured that with $5,000 more a year, I could make it work. I was told this was impossible. I asked if it would be possible to come back part time for six months or so, and was denied. I asked if I could do some work from home, as the writing can be done from anywhere, and was told “no.” In the end, I went back to being an adjunct English professor at a local community college. Despite the well-documented injustices that adjuncts face, the position was preferable, as it gave me more time at home. It’s likely I will again venture into the world of corporate writing when my son is older, given the dismal job outlook in higher education. I’ve heard of much better situations than the one I have described here, and I’m grateful that the network of connections gained at my former job might help towards landing me in one. That network remains the best thing about the entire experience. I can appreciate the myriad ways the Internet has revolutionized our lives. Seattle’s growth is testament to the Web 2.0 economy, certainly. But who benefits from that economy? What options lie between the newly better-paying service jobs and the CEOs? If we are not baristas, then we are huddled on the ground floor writing about polyester dresses made in China. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.