Keeping Your Word Is Hard

In the frantic mix of our virtual meetings and Tweeting and emailing, “Slack-ing,” and “Wrike-ing” and “Toggl-ing,” there’s always a moment when we commit to something.

And, so the question is, do you keep your word?

As a freelance writer, I’ve had situations come up when, after a client has committed to a project, they suddenly didn’t live up to their commitment. Recently, a client offered me a research project that was supposed to be five to ten hours of work per week. But then, without warning, she disappeared for three weeks. And, as it turned out, she ended up doing most of the research herself.

Social platforms, texting, emailing and project management apps have made it easy to forget that freelancers are real people living on a precarious edge of financial uncertainty.  (Photo by John Flood, Albert Bridge, Belfast, Northern Ireland)

Social platforms, texting, emailing and project management apps have made it easy to forget that freelancers are real people living on a precarious edge of financial uncertainty. (Photo by John Flood, Albert Bridge, Belfast, Northern Ireland)

Early this year, another client committed to an ongoing writing and social media project that represented up to 10 hours per week. Her commitment had all the markings of a handshake agreement, and I took her at her word.

Instead, I woke up one Sunday morning to find an email that included the following, “My new Linkedin consultant and I, we find we’re really in synch . . . I’ve realized it would be easier (to work with her) . . All the best, and in thanks for your friendship.”

In both these cases, they’ve lost nothing. But in my case, I had declined other gigs in the process - all because I took them at their word.

The Gig Economy Is One Big Tinder

In the gig economy, hiring a freelancer on a job site like Upwork has begun to feel a lot like looking for hook ups on Tinder. After all, both platforms arbitrage human capital. One for love, the other for money. Both run on the unquenchable need for acceptance, which is one of our most basic human needs.

And, while in trafficking in hope, Tinder and Upwork are prone to preying on some of our most vulnerable qualities - like believing someone when you really do need the gig.

Look at it like this. Freelancers go to Upwork hoping you’ll hook up - translate - hire them. People go to Tinder hoping for love and relationships. In the end, people are seeking people for all sorts of reasons, whether its to pay the rent, feed the kids, or for a night out with a handsome stranger.

In the professional realm, these job sites provide clients an endless selection of freelancers in an endless supermarket of talent for hire. But, for the freelancer, the gig life can present an endless flow of indistinct, indefinite, vague commitments. In this hazy mist of situational convenience no one freelancer holds a job for long.

“I’m a disposable resource,” a friend of mine recently lamented. He’s a contract project manager at a startup that just went through a merger. He’s concluded that his skills are now redundant. He also feels ignored and excluded from the new team. Last week, he resigned in disgust.

“Working on the internet, I face this subtle slap in the face every day. I chose to work this way, and that means I have to accept the current state of affairs.”
— Contractor writer, single mother, currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

The Fastest Way To Ghost

So, when it comes to keeping your word in the gig economy, why talk when you can “swipe right” and “delete?” It’s an incredibly useful way out these days.

But, one thing seems to emerge. In the workaday world, where 35 percent of the American workforce are hustling two or three side gigs, (do workers really desire this over a steady paycheck?) the pervasive influence of social media platforms, texting, virtual meetings, and project management apps have eroded the very notion of the face-to-face, real gritty world, where honest-to-God people struggle with deeply felt emotions and messy complex lives.

Our digital life threatens to sanitize us to point of ethical vacuousness.

The realm of apps has facilitated a tendency toward moral shallowness. What was once considered bloodlessly cold and clinically disconnected is increasingly becoming the new normal.

For instance, a friend of mine, who is a gig writer at a start-up, recently mentioned that her predictable ten-hour per week workload has suddenly dried up. Curiously, there was no warning or heads-up from the CEO. Over the years, my friend has been loyal to the firm in spite of multiple unexpected pivots and management upheaval. Her current situation is especially acute as she is undergoing chemo treatments while trying to finesse her loss of income. Meanwhile, the CEO has shown remarkably little interest in her situation, and he fully knows she is a single mom juggling many demands.

What was once an unthinkable betrayal of loyalty in business, today allows us to ghost anyone as the situation dictates. Looking someone in the eye, especially when we have to break our word, takes more courage and integrity than blithely issuing an email or Slack message.

Has social media and texting made us more inclined to break our word?

In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, “The Shallows,” David Carr asserts that human culture stands at a crossroads of cognitive “shallowing” brought on by the pernicious effects of technology, social media and always-on entertainment. The threat pertains to a potential decline in everyday reflective thought. Not since Gutenberg’s printing press, he writes, has the human race faced such a profound cultural and neurological consequence. We have no idea how we are being remade.

This isn’t about love, it’s about paying the rent. So keeping your word in this moment-to-moment, on-demand workplace, where a gig-hustling single mom is a paycheck away from homelessness, is arguably more important than ever.