I’m no Doctor: Why I Work for Free

In an old episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry’s changing in a country club locker room and asks a doctor there to check out some spot on his back. When you work in the web, this kind of thing happens all the time. Just about everybody you know will come to you at some point with questions on web projects, presences, and possibilities: What do you think of my (or my organization’s) website? Why is my designer telling me that I shouldn’t have Flash on my site? Should I be on Twitter?

The doctor sets Larry off by telling him to make an appointment instead of taking a quick look at the thing on his back. I understand professional boundaries, but I’m just not like that. In fact, I may be on the other end of the spectrum: I spend between two and ten hours a week, perhaps, either giving people advice on these matters or actually working on their websites—making emergency content changes, getting them set up (and comfortable) with WordPress, and so on.

Once in a while, when the questions are big, complex questions that most non-professionals don’t understand are so big and so complex, I’m tempted to act like that doctor and say, “Hey, if you want to talk, let’s set up a time, get on Skype, and I’ll see when I can do for you.” Mostly, though, I’m pretty good at remembering why I give away so much of my time to so many different people:

  1. I love these people. As often as not, they’re family or very close friends. For example, I recently set up my wife’s website, helping her figure out what content she wanted and how to present it, doing some light image searching and manipulation, and finally building the site out. When it’s your wife, it’s an easy decision, but I’ve done the same thing for maybe half a dozen people in the last year.
  2. I love these organizations. I’m consulting pro bono with the excellent D.C.-area nonprofit Arts on the Block as they get going on a redesign project. Why? Well, yes, my very cool aunt runs the place, so see #1, but also, I love what they do (in brief, introducing creative youth to the worlds of art and work). It’s a great cause, and I’m happy to help.
  3. I know what’s in it for me. When I do right by somebody, my name travels. Sure, it’s rare that I end up with paid work based on my unpaid work. But it has happened. Other intangible benefits include broadening my audience for this blog, for example, getting put into contact with interesting people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, and feeling a little better about asking for help from others who can give it to me. (If I weren’t doing so much work for free, that is, I don’t think I’d feel okay about putting somebody out like that. But if they needed me and I had the time, I would do the same for them, and knowing that makes me feel fine about asking.)
  4. I know what’s in it for them. Helping feels good—even when I’m helping somebody I don’t know all that well. I’m not likely to spend too much unpaid effort on a stranger’s project, should I get cold-called about one, because I like to be able to keep the people and organizations I do hold most dear at the top of my list. But I do find myself spending a lot of time in correspondence with friends of my friends, people who know what I do but don’t know me until our mutual friend says, “Hey, you know Devan? You should ask him about that.”

The world I live in demands from me a certain amount of money, so of course I have to spend most of my time working for pay. But I do try to make time to give the proverbial milk for free. I suspect I’m far from the only one, too, given the web’s crucial role in just about every industry.

That’s the most relevant difference between being pixelworkers and doctors: On any given day, few of us really need to talk to a doctor, whereas tending to our (or our companies’) little corners of the Internet seems to be something a lot of us think about an awful lot of the time.

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