Building up a business as a freelance writer and making an actual living was really difficult. Anyone who’s ever tried understands how hard it is to get published anywhere. After being denied for months by everyone who actually pays for content, that first paying gig is such a sweet justification of all your hard work.
For many of us, Lifehack.org is one of the first places that offers to pay, even though they barely pay anything. At $15-$30 (though expect $15) per article, it’s not much, but it’s better than the $0 paid by outlets like Huffington Post.
Having written for both of these outlets for over a year while starting out, I’m familiar with the process and the difference between the two. Although I started out wanting to be a journalist, I ended up following the money in my business and do more content marketing work than anything else. I do, however, still have the spirit of a whistleblower. Since there’s not much information regarding Lifehack online, I figured I’d add a little so you understand how they work.
Lifehack Isn’t Lifehacker
Lifehack and Lifehacker seem similar to people who don’t understand the Internet. They both provide advice on how to handle life, but there’s a key difference between the two.
Lifehacker is owned by Gawker Media, which (aside from obviously Gawker) also runs Jezebel, Kotaku, Gizmodo, and Deadspin. For the most part, these sites are recognized as being relatively trustworthy sites. Lifehacker is focused on productivity and answers relevant question with relevant advice, which is produced under a Creative Commons license. It’s repeatedly recognized as one of the coolest sites online because of the useful technical tips provided.
Lifehack, on the other hand, is a bullshit content mill owned by Stepcase that focuses entirely on rewriting content in order to game the SEO system. The vast majority of Lifehack articles are akin to generic self-help, and rather than focus on researching and writing legitimate content, their business model is to research high-traffic search terms and present writers with the subheaders from the top search results in order to rewrite the article.
It’s the difference in these goals that truly shines a light on the major differences between Lifehack and Lifehacker. One is focused on providing valuable content to readers while the other is simply harvesting and rewriting content for profit.
At the time I worked for Lifehack, I neither knew nor cared about the difference. I was simply happy to be paid for my work instead of slaving away on a free platform like HuffPost. Now that I’ve been in the game for over 5 years, this difference does matter. It’s the difference of content marketing and actual journalism, the lines of which are quickly blurring.
Content Marketing vs Journalism
Although this article is mostly focused on the difference between Lifehack and Lifehacker, you’ll notice I bring up Huffington Post a lot. This is because HuffPost is responsible for me getting my first gig as a content marketer.
Content marketing is an industry I wasn’t familiar with when I first got into freelancing. Now the large majority of my clients are in digital content marketing, which is a subsection of SEO, as it provides backlinks that legitimize an ecommerce site in the eyes of Google’s algorithms.
HuffPost claims that they don’t pay contributors because it leads to authentic journalism, but, as a veteran journalist turned content marketer, I can assure you this isn’t true. Not only did I take payments from outside sources to publish articles on HuffPost, but I’ve also ghostwritten articles for HuffPost for content marketers through content marketing and SEO clients.
By not paying contributors, Huffington Post has become one of the largest blogs online, and this instantly attracts content marketers who are seeking to make a name for themselves and their brand. It’s completely diluted the journalistic integrity of the publication.
Journalism is supposed to be unbiased, unless you’re a gonzo journalist like myself, and even then, what I did for HuffPost under my name (and continue to do as a paid ghostwriter) is not real journalism. It’s marketing in the guise of editorials, and HuffPost is far from the only guilty company. Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and tons of other blogs publish free editorials that are nothing more than content marketing.
It’s important to understand that content marketing is not journalism. They’re two separate fields that can be difficult to tell apart because, like me, many content marketers started out as journalists. Unfortunately real journalism doesn’t provide a steady enough paycheck to make a decent living unless you’re in the top rung.
The last paying gig I had as a real journalist was for High Times, where I submitted a gonzo-style, first-person story of my time in Joe Arpaio’s Tent City over my whistleblowing efforts. While this project paid well, it took nearly a year to be published, and the $800 payout didn’t lead to a sustainable role as a journalist. I still needed to work with content marketing clients to pay my bills and keep the van I live in running.
Why You Should Avoid Lifehack, But You Won’t
I understand that it may be confusing to read about how I switch back and forth between the two, but I’m far from the only one doing it. I’m not justifying my decisions – even I don’t agree with some of the actions I’ve taken to stay alive, but we all do what we have to when faced with our own demise.
The reason content mills like Lifehack still exist and websites like Huffington Post degrade themselves to compete is because it works. People fall for this bullshit. As a whole, the numbers show that content marketing works.
So even though Lifehack isn’t providing any real information, people still flock to the site, and there are hundreds of sites waiting in the wings to try and take over its spot in the search engine rankings.
I’m constantly approached by people asking me how they can make easy money online by automating a content mill like Lifehack. Most of these people aren’t even willing to go through the extra step of rewriting the content – they’re simply aggregating content from other sites. This is easier and they hope to draw traffic and gain ad revenue without lifting a finger by building a site they themselves wouldn’t even visit.
It’s because of these idiots that sites like Lifehack are able to circumvent the system and gain traffic. At least they’re putting in the minimal amount of effort. While others think everyone is a complete idiot, Lifehack at least minimally respects its reader.
Lifehack does recruit real writers who are genuinely interested in providing value to their readers. Unfortunately it doesn’t hold on to them for very long. After a few months working with Lifehack, everyone eventually figures out they’re being ripped off. It’s like working at McDonalds knowing you could make more at In and Out or even by becoming a server at a real restaurant.
When I left Lifehack, I completely burned the bridge to the point that they even removed my name from the blogs I rewrote for them. All the exposure I did it for was effectively destroyed, despite me writing one of their most heavily trafficked articles of all time, which was a movie list I featured in The Art of Trolling.
Although I left Lifehack in 2013, I waited a few years before writing this blog. I wanted to make sure that when I did write it, it was without the emotion I felt at the time. I wanted to make sure I could look back on it with the experience I have now to say without any doubt in my mind that Lifehack is a bullshit content mill, and you’re an idiot if you read it.
You’re an idiot because you’re supporting a company that doesn’t support you nor the talent it exploits to gain your attention. Lifehack is rewriting articles that others wrote and stealing their traffic by exploiting Google’s algorithms. If you support them in any way, you’re part of a huge problem destroying quality journalism.
I started writing because I wanted to expose the truth. As a journalist and whistleblower, I was ignored. Lawyers are raking in millions in class-action lawsuits against the banks over force-placed insurance while I was left to rot and die alone. Telling the truth and exposing the powers that be didn’t pay, and I ended up following the default path into marketing.
I know I’m not the only one – I see it happen all the time from where I’m at. I work with thousands of others and have ghostwritten for some of the most influential people and companies in the business.
You’re being lied to, and you don’t even know enough to understand how or why it’s happening. The truth is it’s your own fault for accepting it. I long ago gave up trying to change your mind. Now I’m just focused on getting paid and surviving another day.
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work appears in High Times, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Hardcore Droid, and The Street.