Do We Have to Monetize Everything?




It is the nicest apology I have ever received.

“Babe,” my husband says, “I am so sorry. I watched you paint and said, ‘You could sell these!’ But last night I heard somebody on the radio saying that nobody can just have a relaxing hobby anymore because if you’re any good, people start telling you to ‘monetize’ it.”

How do I tell him I paid no attention to the selling part because I know he is sweetly biased? I only savored the compliment—and now he is withdrawing it. But, yeah, for good reason.

“Monetize.” Just repeating the verb makes me shudder. For years, I worked at a magazine where we were forced to anguish daily about how to Monetize the Internet. “Publish a really good magazine?” I asked faintly.

Then came the endless push to self-brand. “How do you monetize yourself?” people are still asking Google. The answers involve gimmickry, presentation, and promotion, never an old-fashioned “Work hard and save money.” Is this a casualty of the shift to abstract knowledge work, which is so intangible that nobody knows who is any good? Without concrete proof of skill, we are all the Talented Mr. Ripley. Employed by businesses vulnerable to a zillion butterfly-effect variables, all we can do to prove our “worth” is promote our self.

As I accept my husband’s unnecessary apology, my own remarks fly back to sting me. My friend bakes such fluffy, crusty bread that, when she brought over a loaf, the first thing I said was, “You could sell this!” Same with a friend who bakes the best desserts on the planet, I keep urging her to go into business. Watching another friend advocate for her sister’s medical care, I tell her she is so skilled at this, she should make a career of it.

Saleability is, in this culture, the ultimate compliment.

It should not be. First, people buy a lot of crap. For the middle and lower classes, crap, made overseas under questionable conditions, is mainly what is available. And we find it online, where we cannot touch it or smell it or try it on. Giving us only pixels to evaluate and fake reviews to consider, this new form of retail has dulled our taste and weakened our powers of perception and discrimination. Ordering is a roll of the dice, not an act of refined, savvy judgment.

Second, being able to sell something has a lot more to do with marketing and promotion than with quality. And a crowded global marketplace is only worsening that sad reality.

Third, the notion that what is sold is of higher value than what is done purely for joy, or as a gift to someone you love, is dubious. Deep down, we know this is not true. I recently read an author bio that cited as evidence of the author’s immense humanity the fact that he had undertaken some challenging, time-consuming creative project purely for his young son’s enjoyment. Yet when have you heard someone compliment a work of art by saying, “This could be a gift!”? Works of love often take us by surprise with their genius—at which point, we insist on proving how great they are by estimating their worth in dollars.

We do the same to one another. “How much is he worth?” people ask. I have heard men indicate a woman’s attractiveness by disclosing how much they would pay to sleep with her.

To monetize something is to squeeze revenue from it. But by the word’s second definition, to monetize is literally to convert into currency. I squirm, wondering how often my reaction to something could be expressed in one of those cartoon frames where people see only dollar signs. When I compliment by saying someone “could sell” something, I am expressing what they have wrought in the form of money and intending this to be the ultimate praise. How reductive. And how lazy, to ignore all the particular excellences and resort instead to a quick, crass tag.

All sorts of gigs and side hustles and extra cash are possible these days, with free online marketplaces waiting to help people sell their work or services. But the minute you convert something you worked at for sheer fun into something you do for money, you risk killing, or at best compromising, the joy it used to bring you. So why do we urge one another in that direction, when we ought to be saying, “For God’s sake, don’t ever do this for money, or you’ll ruin the fun.”

The mindset extends far beyond hobbies. Taking the marketplace as our model, we cheerfully objectify ourselves and one another in all sorts of contexts. In Aeon, philosopher Daniel Tutt analyzes our contemporary, transactional expectations of relationships. A combination pal, lover, parent, therapist, and English butler, our partner is to fill all our emotional needs and maximize our pleasure. “The reality,” Tutt writes, “is that the ludic demands of the sexual revolution have been realised, but on terms dictated by the market.” What was meant to be “free love” is now bespoke, tailored for our every idiosyncratic need. A relationship must “secure each subject’s self-worth.” And so the partner is selected as carefully as a puffer coat—by fit, attractiveness, warmth, quality, and price—and is often returned just as readily.

Tutt moves from love to knowledge, with schools turning education into retail. Parents are the buyers, ready to litigate if the final product disappoints, and the student is not buffed up to shine in the workplace. Instead of the solidarity I used to dream of, with students staying up late into the night plotting world peace—or seeking wise mentors who set them tests of character—this emphasis on earning power breeds nothing but a succession of individual grievances, all of them geared toward self-protection. “Students have been reduced,” says Tutt, “to precarious subjects of ‘human capital.’”

Not even Marx saw this version coming, this polishing of the self as a commodity. He focused on oppression and alienation, not entitlement and self-objectification. But every time I see what people do for fun and insist on appraising the results in economic terms—or evaluate other people by which of my needs they can satisfy—or package myself to match whatever is currently in demand—I am caving to capitalism in its most insidious form. I am owned.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.