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December 18, 2014 / Mervyn Dinnen

The Uberfication of Knowledge

Johnny refilled the kettle for his second instant coffee of the morning. Still in his pyjamas, he took a glance at his proper coffee machine. It had been about 6 weeks since he and Susan had drawn up their emergency household budget plan, with overpriced coffee pods being one of the first victims of the new regime.

He’d had a bad night’s sleep…in fact he barely slept at all. Weeks ago Johnny had agreed with Susan that he would no longer look at emails after 9pm, that whatever came through could wait until the morning, that his creative flow needed rest. But last night he couldn’t help it.

It was from the Scrybz platform and Johnny had assumed that it was a good news message, telling him that his rating was back to 4.6, or even 4.7. As he tapped to open it he was planning a (now rationed) beer to celebrate. But it wasn’t. The message was to let him know that his rating had slipped to 4.4. He knew what that meant – he had about 4 days to get it back to 4.6 or else he’d be de-activated. He and Susan had discussed his options when he first got notified of the drop to 4.5, and agreed that should the worst happen he would sign up to Bloggz. The pay was even worse through that platform, but he would be one of only a few trained writers there so assumed he would get more gigs and better ratings. They hadn’t considered it too deeply though as Johnny was convinced he would get his rating back to 4.6 with Scrybz and then to 4.8 so he could again be a Scrybz Gold writer – better pay and better quality gigs.

He wasn’t sure which gig had dragged him down – he’d only had two all week as most content procurers wouldn’t risk briefing a writer below 4.6. He guessed it must have been the 1,200 words on the impact of Putin’s latest personal scandal on the Russian economy for a clickbait centric general business news site – so outside his comfort zone, a weak spot in his knowledge level with precious little time available for any research, but with the volume of briefs triggering surge pricing for an hour he couldn’t turn down a piece that length. At the rate per word he now got for his new rating he had to gamble on the longer pieces and hope for the best – with only 10 seconds to accept, or reject and slip back in the queue, he had to rely on gut instincts.

He walked through to the tiny room he called his creative space. – he loathed the thought of referring to it as an office – and looked around. Something inside drove him to start each day like this, a reminder of how things had been before. The memories gave him comfort, somehow encouraging him, making him believe he was still in control.

The certificate for his 1st class English degree sat framed beside the one for his young business journalist of the year award. There was a picture of him on the BBC Breakfast sofa being interviewed about his move from a top selling daily broadsheet to the digital news site Shruggington Mail – one of the first of the ‘new breed’ of digital savvy, serious journalists to do this. Another photo, this time of him reviewing the papers one evening on Sky News a few weeks after his move. He couldn’t help but smile at this – he was never invited back after losing his temper with a seasoned radio phone-in jock who baited him about his youth, salary and ‘hipster’ views on business. On the side were various pictures and remnants of his career and speaking engagements, privilege passes to numerous red carpet events, and a few favourite pictures of him at the House of Commons.

The one thing that wasn’t there was the framed copy of his first article for Shruggington. He joined the week Scrybz launched in the UK and Johnny had championed it. He had heralded this ‘Uber for content and opinion‘ as a major turning point in the evolution of news. His piece got a huge reaction becoming the most clicked, commented and shared piece of content Shruggington had ever published. Ted, his editor, had turned it into a traditional newspaper article and had it framed. But Johnny kept it in a cupboard.

He had thought that Scrybz was necessary to disrupt his industry. The news sites were becoming full of freelance bloggers, history students turned political commentators, comedians, businessmen, think tanks and ex-MPs. Many items were being produced by interns and moonlighting college kids. He knew from his friends in the US that Scrybz had helped transform the main digital news sites, with the freelancers producing much sharper content for fear of falling foul of the rating system.

Ah, the rating system. It now controlled his life. They kept changing the format but as far as he could ascertain the client had a series of fields to score – usual stuff like quality, adherence to brief, originality, evidence of research, relevance, political slant – but then there was the big unquantifiable…the engagement algorithm. Scrybz clients installed a special analytics tool (it was a condition of signing up) and this fed back to the app a score based on a complex measure of engagement during the first 24 hours after posting. No-one ever really knew what the score was nor how it was calculated.

********************

At first he had welcomed the rumours that one of the VC groups behind Scrybz was looking to buy Shruggington Mail. The print media was threadbare after a bitter circulation war drove most of them to effectively become clickbait digital sites with varying levels of subscription, whilst sites like Shruggington had built a legacy of producing quality digital only news, comment and insight. The takeover happened quickly, but it was what followed that remains a blur to Johnny. He heard whispers around the coffee station that all journalists, researchers and support staff would be taken out. That Scrybz would be the way all content would be sourced. That editors would now be content procurement officers and any caught showing allegiance to ex-colleagues and giving them work would be gone.

He had laughed it off but within days he found himself crammed into the staff canteen with all his colleagues, for a Town Hall meeting at which all those rumours, and more, became fact.

He was shocked. Many colleagues started messaging contacts at other news sites looking for work immediately, but the feedback was clear – no other organisation was hiring, they were all going to wait to see how the changes at Shrugginton worked out and then may investigate similar structures of their own.

The Bonfire of the Hacks they called it. The lead story everywhere – broadcast news, independent sites, social media. Twitter was in meltdown as everyone with any interest in digital media and news speculated and guessed. Guesses were taken as fact, and speculating tweets as statements of intent.

Johnny meanwhile tried to work his way through his Scrybz joining instructions and complete an incredibly long sign up and validation process. He was angry. They were missing the point. Taxis, rental rooms, recruiting were one thing, but this was different. It wasn’t a bonfire, and it wasn’t disruption, it was degradation of skill and knowledge. His skill and knowledge.

********************

He snapped out of his daydream and sat down at his workspace. It was only 18 months ago but seems more distant after the roller coaster ride he’d been on since. Susan’s freelance research work was quite erratic and Johnny’s biggest saviour had been Ted – now the Chief Content Procurement Officer, Politics & Business Section at Shruggington. Even though he wasn’t really allowed to, Ted still tried to help out when he could, sometimes messaging Johnny when there was a strong brief about to go live on Scrybz, encouraging him to log in at the right time, and sometimes it worked, but in reality it was a difficult system to game for any length of time.

He opened up his computer and got ready to log in to Scrybz for the day. It was 1st December – maybe he could get his rating back and earn some better money in the run up to Christmas.

********************

He came back early from pre Christmas drinks with ex-colleagues from Shrugginton. The evening was pleasant enough but as no-one signed up to Scrybz or Bloggz could really say much to each other about work or current news, things were fairly subdued.

Anyway it was 23rd December and he was feeling more relaxed. His rating was back to 4.7, largely thanks to two opinion pieces on morality in the digital business start up space following a couple of funding scandals. Both meant he got out to Shoreditch to do interviews and get quotes too. One of his strongest areas was the digital economy and even now his name on an article could generate traffic, plus the nature of the scandal had triggered surge pricing which made them a bit more profitable. Susan had been paid a good retainer on a new project and they had been able to plan for a happy, though still budget, Christmas. Although they did agree that the proper coffee machine would be back in use for Christmas week.

********************

Johnny’s parents had never really understood his new working arrangement so he tried not to talk about it. They liked it when they could buy papers and see his name in print but after his move to Shruggington they stopped buying them, preferring to call every few days and ask what he was writing about.

You’re not going to answer that, are you? What’s so important that it needs to interrupt Christmas lunch?” His mother hated it if either Johnny or Susan’s mobiles rang when they were all together, particularly for a family occasion. But the ring tone meant it was Ted, who wouldn’t be calling halfway through the turkey unless he had a reason, and Johnny knew that the reason might be some interesting work.

Making excuses he went in to his creative space to return the call. Ted sounded excited

Something big has come up. I can’t say what it is as it’s got a top security embargo until the 27th but I need 2,000 words on how the economy has changed over the last five years. It’s a personal piece, I need it from your perspective. I know you’ll want it and I’ve got clearance to go outside of Scrybz and brief directly. We can only pay the Scrybz rate for this afternoon, but I thought it was right up your street. I have had to brief a longer critical analysis through Scrybz Gold, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

Johnny did understand but wished his could have come through Scrybz too. Direct was good but carried no rating and he knew this would be a successful piece. He asked Ted to give him a moment to log in to Scrybz and then to brief the piece there, but Ted tried to talk him out of it, there was a strong risk he might lose it. He asked Ted to give him a minute to think.

He wanted the ratings – it could put him on to Gold rating – but could he risk losing the chance to write it?

He went to the cupboard and got his framed article, the first time he’d looked at it, or even touched it, for the best part of a year. He blew some dust off and stood it up on his workspace, walked a few paces back and stared at it. The headline still gave him a shiver, and then he smirked. What hubris…

“THE NEW WORLD OF WORK MAY BE UNCERTAIN AND FULL OF TOUGH CHOICES, BUT THE BEST HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR”

He closed his eyes for a few moments then picked up his phone and called Ted.

Don’t brief Scrybz, I’ll do it direct. I’ll finish the Christmas pud first though

Ted laughed. “It’s OK, you can wait ’til after the presents

Presents? This is the new world of work Ted. Presents can wait

********************

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