Freelancing has been around since Sir Walter Scott coined the term in Ivanhoe—but the lances of medieval mercenaries have long since given way to pens, paintbrushes, and whatever creative tools of the trade we can wield.
As much as freelancing has changed over the centuries, the changes have been many and major over just the past ten years. Here are ten ways the industry has shifted since Y2K came and went, but all of them are at least indirectly caused by one major development—Internet supremacy.
1. The Slow, Sure Demise of Print Journalism
Newspapers publish daily (sometimes even more frequently), which made them an ideal client for anyone in the business of selling their creative services. There is just so much work to be done for any newspaper—or at least there was.
The rise of the Internet over the last ten plus years has all but killed the newspaper industry, especially when it comes to their freelance budgets. Some papers have successfully navigated the switch to an online business model, but frequently that switch comes at the expense of the sheer quantity of content typically printed in a daily rag.
There are still freelance journalists and illustrators to be sure, but the market is severely restricted when compared to just ten years ago. Most sponsors view newspaper advertising as a lost cause, so unless you’re willing to work for free, you have probably moved on to other clients.
2. The Birth and Boon of Blogging
Even if you knew what a blog was in the year 2000, you still would have drawn strange looks if you used the word in public. That all changed in the blink of an eye, though, as the medium exploded to take the creative community by storm.
Within the span of one year (between October 1998 and September 1999), the blogging services Open Diary, LiveJournal, Pitas and Blogger all launched onto the face of the World Wide Web (a term that, like newspapers, didn’t survive the decade). Now it’s almost impossible to freelance without being affected (or paid) by blogging.
Whether you use blogging to promote your own services, generate revenue, or as a service to clients, blogging is now an essential part of the freelance market.
3. Digital Design
If you’ve been in the graphic design business for over a decade, you probably remember when “Camera Ready Art” was a standard term and final designs were preserved not on servers, but on film. There’s no question that design began to enter the digital realm in the last millennium, but the point when it stepped all the way across the threshold is still fresher in history than you might think.
The tools and equipment afforded to any graphic designer today are light years ahead of what was considered state-of-the-art in 1999. Just ask yourself this question: when is the last time you used a light table? If you work full-time in a design studio, you might use one regularly. But as a freelancer? Almost all the graphic design tools you need are computerized.
4. Web Design
The end of the 1990s is traditionally known as the tail end of the dot-com bubble—but after the initial tidal wave of Internet-only startups crashed and burned, the trend carried over to traditionally brick-and-mortar companies in the ’00s. And the freelance Web design industry took off.
Throughout the 2000s, the philosophy that every company in existence must have a Web site became gospel truth practically the world over (developing countries entered the Internet age en masse after 2000). This created a tremendous supply of work for freelance copywriters, Web designers, and programmers—Web consultants are still making a fortune off of companies who still don’t really get how the Interwebs work.
5. The 2.0 Way of Life (beta)
We’ll touch on social media specifically later, but the onset of Web 2.0 in the middle of the last decade has been an answer to the prayers of freelance programmers (and to some extent other creatives and consultants as well).
When various sites around the net became fully interactive—where visitors became content generators as well as users—the online experience took on a much more fluid and organic presence. It became the norm for user platforms and social networks to adopt the “beta” tag on a permanent basis because the need to satisfy the digital whims of customers emerged as the number one priority.
As a result, the job of a developer is never done. The needs and desires of users are constantly changing and developing as new fads and technological breakthroughs evolve—for the 2.0 freelancer, life in the 00s was pretty darn good.
6. Social Media
For the freelancer, your network is your livelihood. If you can’t maintain connections with a diverse set of contacts, you’re better off finding a full-time gig. Social media is now an indispensable part of a freelancer’s repertoire, and many of us don’t know how we ever survived without it.
LinkedIn allows creative professionals to promote their image through a network of trust and credibility like never before. Facebook helps us find business from every phase of our past lives. And Twitter, among other things, notifies freelancers in real time of new jobs as they open in all fields of the freelancing world.
Beyond the connectivity of it all, social media generates plenty of freelance work in its own right. Any time a new medium gains traction in the marketplace, many companies are slow to commit full-time resources to it. In the 2000s, employers were much more willing to contract out social-media ventures, which lined the pockets of many a freelancer.
7. Broadband Killed the Fax Machine
When Internet was in its dial-up infancy in the ’90s, it was a helpful tool for freelancers, and in many ways essential. Most self-employed professionals needed a home office with a fully stocked arsenal of machines: a fax, a printer, preferably a copier as well, and at least three different phone lines to make it all work.
When broadband connections hit the mainstream, though, that shrunk the office hardware of the average freelancer. All in all, it’s cheaper and simpler to run your own office. Final jobs are emailed or uploaded. Burning discs is a thing of the past, and faxes are all but fossilized. The buzzing and whirring sounds of a dial-up data connection will not be missed.
8. The Mother of All Recessions
When the economy tanked, many freelance experts posited that the contractor business would thrive. Companies would cut full-time positions and search instead for freelance help. And if you’ve found that to be true, fantastic.
The preference for freelance work often works the other way. In a down economy in which many formerly full-time creative types are forced into looking for short-term work, the going rate for freelancers is shrinking in many areas. Freelancers are just willing to work for less—sometimes drastically less, to the tune of 10-25% of what you may have charged for comparable work (even if it is of far inferior quality).
The bottom line: when businesses are strapped for cash and they shrink their budgets, that’s not good news for anybody.
9. PPC and SEO
Two new markets born into the freelance world in the ’00s were pay-per-click advertising and search-engine optimization. Run those abbreviations by anyone in the ’90s, and no one would have had a clue. Now, it’s almost pointless to even spell them out.
Led by Yahoo!’s Overture and Google’s AdWords, the business of selling ad space based on the number of clicks or active interest shown in the product or service advertised (and forced to the top of search results) seemed like an obvious killer advantage for sponsors. Again, this new outlet became a freelancer-enriched environment. It still didn’t replace the need to draw people to your site the old-fashioned way: the main search results.
Marketers and copywriters who could turn copy into clicks by shooting sites into the number one position on Google is a service every client wants (but very few understand). Both endeavors generated plenty of income to freelancers as well.
The genre changes just as quickly as it became popular. The preferences of the average searcher and the results seen by clients make a freelancer’s ability to adapt to the shifting market an absolute necessity as we head into the ’10s.
10. You Tell Us.
The experience of every freelancer is different. Many of us specialize in one specific service or industry while other freelancers feed their families by being jacks (or Jills) of all trades. What’s true for the masses might not be true for you.
So, tell us how you’ve seen freelancing change in the last ten years, and feel free to make your predictions for where it’s going. What are you doing to adapt? Are you new to freelancing or are you ready to give up? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for helping this community survive and thrive in 2010 and beyond!
Image by craiglea