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SANDY WALKER WRITES
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a phantom as “something apparent to sense but with no substantial existence.” That fairly accurately defines my recent freelance experience as a copywriter and content marketer. Since virtually everything is done online, it feels like I regularly work with--and for--phantoms. I’m confident that these people exist; I have some sensory connection with them. I see their texts and emails. I hear their phone messages. I receive the electronic payments they send. Practically, though, modern freelancing often feels like working with phantoms using smart devices. These are people with no substantial existence to me; nor do I exist substantially to them.
Hasn't freelancing always been a bit ethereal?
No, it hasn’t. The original freelancers were soldiers, and they were definitely not phantomlike. Author Thomas N. Brown introduced the term in his The Life and Times of Hugh Miller in the early 19th century. But it was Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that made the term and the concept better known. Sir Walter used the term “free lances,” when referring to armed mercenary soldiers who fought without having particular allegiance to the cause. There wasn’t anything ethereal about either Brown’s or Scott’s free lances. They referred to actual people holding real weapons of war.
What caused the change of freelancing from armed mercenaries to phantoms using smartphones?
That’s a great question. A man named Jack Nilles is a big part of the answer. Technology is another. The COVID19 pandemic is a 3rd. Here are the highlights of a process that took over 200 years.
Nearly 50 years ago, Jack Nilles thought remote working would help business and the environment.
American physicist and engineer Jack Nilles believed that having employees working remotely was a great idea--for business and for the environment. Nilles--who is now known as the father of telecommuting and teleworking-- suggested that people living in rural areas should be able to work from home or at satellite offices which could be established close to their homes. Nilles argued that this approach would reduce traffic congestion into crowded cities and lower the amount of automobile exhaust expelled into the air. This, he pointed out, would benefit the environment while strengthening businesses. Nilles was a visionary. His ideas weren’t accepted immediately. Some scoffed at them. How could having employees working out of sight be a good idea? Others thought his ideas were excellent concepts, but just not feasible.
Technology made remote working possible, and paved the way for phantom freelancers.
Technology has advanced at light speed from the 1970s until now. Several of those advancements have changed virtually every aspect of our society, including the field of freelancing.
The personal computer
The Internet revolutionized remote communication. Email allowed freelancers and clients to stay in touch and gave them quick, easy access to each other if a problem or question arose.
The world-wide-web also made it much easier to research a topic. Trips to local or business libraries usually weren’t necessary. Freelancers or employees working remotely could find lots of answers with the tap of a few computer keys. The tricky part became sifting through a pile of information to find the most accurate and applicable nugget of truth.
Smart Devices and Apps
The development of smartphones and tablets made it even easier for freelancers to connect with clients. They also made freelance work even more portable.
Once companies began developing “an app for that,” the stage was set for freelancing scenarios in which businesses hired a self-employed freelancer for a specific job, often without meeting him or her before, during or after the project.
Freelancers borrowed a word from entertainers, and began calling these contracts “gigs.” Thus, the gig economy, which Merriam-Webster (again) defines as “economic activity that involves the use of temporary or freelance workers to perform jobs typically in the service sector,” was born. Companies needing someone to help file online tax returns, write their blog posts or develop a business plan, could hire an independent contractor to do a specific job for a certain amount of time. The tricky part was finding a person who could do the job well.
Apps provided a way to help companies find freelancers and freelancers locate each other. When I started freelance writing 18 months ago, I used a handful of websites (and their associated apps) to help me find writing gigs. After testing the waters a bit. I gradually narrowed to Upwork, which works best for me. However, depending upon your location, your field and your background, you may find a better fit with People Per Hour, Freelancer, Guru, Toptal, Fiver or another platform.
Now a freelancer armed with a smartphone and Wi-Fi access can use an app to send and receive messages, submit or accept a work proposal, do online research for a blog post, or write copy for a website--all while sitting in the passenger seat of a car that’s traveling 70 mph down the freeway.
A global pandemic forced us to change instantly.
If you really want an explosion of remote and freelance workers, insert a global pandemic into the equation. When offices everywhere shut down and people were asked (begged, coerced, required) to stay home, working from home became the norm for thousands of people who had ALWAYS gone (out) to work. After nearly 50 years, Jack Nilles’ idea of remote workers had come full circle.
What did we learn from the transition?
The year 2020 showed us that remote workers could dress in work attire--at least from the waist up--and then sit down in front of a computer or iPad and Zoom into a brainstorming session or GoToMeeting with their colleagues online. They faced hurdles, surely, but many were able to function well from home.
When Buffer asked people working from home to identify problems they faced, 2 answers received equal numbers of responses--communication-and-coordination issues, and loneliness. Some of the other factors workers mentioned included 1) being unable to unplug from their work, 2) dealing with distractions, 3) staying motivated, and 4) finding Wi-Fi that worked reliably.
We also learned that contract freelancers who normally work phantom-like from home were increasingly attractive to businesses. According to Upwork, the proportion of workers who freelance rose from 28% in 2019 to 36% in 2020. That upward trend is likely to continue. In June of last year Forbes predicted a coming boom for freelancers, noting that hiring freelancers gives a company flexibility. For many companies, the benefits of locating and hiring someone within a few days, and being able to direct the project by means of email, text or phone call outweigh the risks of trusting someone you often haven’t met and may recognize only from an online photo. This attitude extends to my field of content marketing and copywriting, as well as to many other disciplines.
Compared to Sir Walter Scott’s “free lances,” today’s freelancers seem to be grossly ill-equipped for the battles they face daily. Appearances are deceptive, in this case. Armed primarily with a PC and mobile devices, this phantom army of gig workers is playing an increasing role in shaping the American workforce. Although the transition of freelancing from armed mercenaries to phantoms using smart devices took a couple of centuries, the updated version seems likely to remain indefinitely.
I'm Sandy . . .
I write crisp, accurate, engaging copy and content marketing for my B2B and B2C clients. My favorite topics are vacation rentals, urban homesteading, sustainability, and inspirational posts.