Working Through is the fifth in a series of novels centering around a crowd of forty through seventy something artists from Utica, New York. In the latest story, struggling writer and first-time novelist Heather Toth and her fiance, musician Quin Sartini, land steady work in the arts, working for a woman who appears poised to launch as the next social media star. Working for Michelle Milford should be a dream, an opportunity for both artists to work in interdisciplinary arts, provide arts education, and earn steady income, all while becoming part of a little crowd that supports and encourages each other to do their best to serve others. But things do not often work out as they should…in the arts, at work…or in general.
Heather thought this type of thing would be in the past by the time she reached her fifties, and Quin neared seventy. She thought queen bees, the in-crowd vs. the outcasts, and most of all, bullying would be something they’d be helping grandchildren through, not dealing with themselves. But things are different when you’re an adult, and Heather does not need to take this type of treatment anymore. But what does that mean when you’re an adult?
Join Heather, Quin, Mindy, Brenda, Heidi, and the rest of the crowd from previous novels Lifting the Shadows, Chatting as Adalee, Mostly on the Internet, and Attracting Virtual Reality for a look at an issue often faced, but rarely talked about, among adults in the workplace.
Click here to order your copy from Amazon.
Jess Szabo is a writing teacher, novelist, and arts writer.. the owner and head writer here at Artist Cafe Utica. Her teaching work is done online, and includes students from across the country. Her arts writing and novel writing focus exclusively on the artist community in her adopted hometown of Utica, New York.
There seems to be a fresh crop of everything in the spring. It brings new flowers, vegetables, colors, academic semesters, plans….and scams.
While we are all alert and vigilant enough to see right through these, it is important to keep them in mind in order to help a family member or friend who may be vulnerable due to the impaired judgment or mental fog that can be a side effect of the increased isolation, job stress, financial stress, and other issues we have all been coping with over the past thirteen months.
Here are just a few of the most common fake claims circulating online this season.
Get additional funds added to your 2021 stimulus payment
According to a March 12, 2021 article by the Better Business Bureau, scammers are sending out email and text messages designed to look as though they are from the government. These messages state or imply that you may be able to get additonal direct deposits, checks, or pre-paid debit cards with additional stimulus funds, and invite you to click on a link and enter your information “to ensure that you are getting all the benefits you are entitled to receive.” Once you click on the link, the form that appears on your screen asks for the standard information you would enter on a government form.
Do not click this link or fill out any forms. The contact information, and the screen belong to the scammer, who can then use your personal information to commit identity theft. The scammer may also demand a “processing fee” for money they claim you can collect, or install spyware on your computer that grants them access to your banking information.
Use your stimulus money…or any money you have…to help a friend or family member
The stimulus checks are a means for many of us to help others who may have fallen on financially difficult times over the past year, and the scammers are all too aware of this. This scam appears to be particularly popular on “WhatsApp,” an instant messenger app intended to be used to keep in touch with friends and family. However, the scam can occur anywhere you send and receive messages from people.
Scammers create an account that appears to belong to someone already on your contact list, and message you. Posing as your friend or family member, the scammer claims to need money in an emergency situation.
Always reach out to your friend via a known social media account, email address, phone number, or in person to verify that it is indeed them contacting you before you send any money or contribute to any fundraisers at their urging.
Get a great deal on that item you need for your spring project
The plain old rip off is far from a new scam. People have been selling fake items and passing off substandard versions of the items in ads before everyone on earth today was even born. The internet just makes it especially easy to gather and post misleading images and videos. And the arrival of the latest stimulus checks, coupled with the feelings of hope and renewal everyone is clinging to this spring, makes it especially attractive to scammers right now. They know a lot of people are spending some of their stimulus money, and they know it’s a time for projects and plans.
Meet anyone you encounter in an online marketplace in a well-lit, public space before accepting any goods from them, or giving them any money, and never go to the meeting alone. Remember that you have the right to examine the item before accepting it, and are not obligated to take anything wrapped in packaging, or to make the exchange quickly. If the seller is in that big of a hurry, they can take the item back home with them and re-schedule the meeting for a more relaxed time.
When ordering online, resist pop up ads on social media. No matter where you see the ad, close the site down, open a new tab, and type in the webpage of a known, trusted retailer that sells the item.
Here’s an easy way to improve your finances after quarantine, or save up for that dream vacation this summer
It’s no secret that a lot of us are not doing our best financially right now. Performing artists haven’t been able to get many gigs, visual artists have faced galleries closed for months, and fewer people have the cash to buy albums, novels, and films. Many of us have lost day jobs and second careers as well. This can make the red flags of a job scam easy to overlook.
Today’s most popular version of the job scam is even easier to fall for, as scammers often join legitimate job sites such as LinkedIn or Indeed, posing as recruiters or hiring managers for legitimate, well-known companies. The hoax can be rather elaborate, including entire websites that appear to belong to corporations we have all heard of, such as General Electric, Microsoft, or Facebook.
Avoid these scams using the same tactic you use to avoid purchasing goods from a scam site. Click all the way out of the site. Open up a new tab, and go directly to the official site of the company in question. Search their page for their “careers” or “employment” link, and check there for the job listing. If you still are not sure, contact human resources at the company.
Welcome a new pet into your family
During the height of the quarantine, pet adoptions soared as people adopted pets to combat loneliness. Some of these adoptions resulted in the pet finding his or her forever home. Others ended with the pet being abandoned or returned. Current pet scammers are playing on the desire of true animal lovers to rescue these pets. Another common avenue is to join online groups for specific breed enthusiasts, claiming to have a dog who just had purebred or popular mixed breed puppies early this spring.
Overly staged or “perfect” photos, showing just the puppies or kittens on a pure white or pink background, or in a logo, are a strong giveaway, but don’t be swayed by more realistic looking photos, with someone’s carpet, TV, pillows, or even family members or other pets in the shot or in the background. The scammer could genuinely have the animal or litter, but just have no intention of parting with them after receiving your money, or they could be “selling” puppies from a litter that have already found homes. And it is much too easy to steal other peoples’ candid photos from various social media sites.
It is best to adopt a pet through a local humane society or established breed rescue organization, or through someone you already know well and trust offline, but if you feel strongly about a pet you see online, do your research before becoming attached, and never give anyone any money until you have the pet with you physically. The sadness of being drawn to a pet you have only seen online and finding out it was a scam is going to be a lot easier to cope with than that same feeling coupled with the loss of your money.
Scammers regularly create new scams, or reinvent or rejuvenate old ones when the time seems right for them to be particularly effective again. Keeping updated on what’s making the rounds is the first step in keeping you and your friends and family from becoming a scammer’s latest success story.
An “internet troll” can be defined as a person who posts intentionally upsetting content online with the goal of causing some type of trouble. In some cases, the troll simply enjoys manipulating people into getting upset or angry. Other trolls are seeking attention, and think diverting it from the person who would naturally be the center of attention on the page or the post is the way to get it. Still others hope to shock people, and may use crude, rude, or disgusting remarks or messages to do so. Some trolling is done by people who intend serious harm, such as ruining a friendship, relationship, or career.
Many use “trolling” to describe every type of online joking around, kidding, smarting off, or being silly. A YouTuber wears a wedding dress, or their robe, or silly makeup to the store just to see if they can make other customers and their viewers laugh, and people refer to it as “trolling” video. Or someone pretends to be in love with someone else with the target’s full knowledge and consent, or spends half the video pretending they’re on a beach vacation when they’re really laying out at their neighbor’s pool, and it’s called “trolling.” But this is more plain, old-fashioned joking, goofing off, and acting silly. True “trolling” is done with some type of selfish intent.
Nearly anyone with an online presence is going to have to deal with internet trolls at some point. Artists are especially vulnerable, as we workshop, present, share, and market so much of our work online.
Some may claim this article is unnecessary. “I just delete and block,” they will proudly proclaim. “End of story.” Of course, “delete and block” is going to be your first move when dealing with any type of internet troll. But too often, it is not the end of the story. The damaging content may be seen by fans, potential collaborators, personal friends, family, or the supervsior at your day job or very needed side gig before you even know it’s there. Content you delete and block may have already been copied and shared, or saved on somebody’s hard drive for sharing in the future. And even if the content is completely gone, trolls are perfectly capable of creating “sock puppets,” or new accounts made for the purpose of continuing their online harassment, mocking, and other crude behavior.
Here are just a few examples of “trolling” behavior, and what you can do in addition to “delete and block” to protect your online presence.
Bad reviews that don’t make sense
Everyone who does not like your work is not trolling. We are not entitled to have everyone like us, or to only hear praise.Some people are honestly not going to like your singing, playing, writing, teaching, or comedy, and they may give you an unflattering review. This is very different than bad reviews from trolls. Trolls tend to write bad reviews that attack the artist’s character or perceived character, appearance, or other detail unrelated to their work. When they do focus on the work, they usually go for sweeping generalizations such as “truly the worst guitar player of the century” when the guitar player has only released a single song so far, or insults that lack content such as“it’s not worth the money, and it’s free.”
While asking people to write good reviews for you is dishonest, there is nothing wrong with encouraging those who would already write you a good review to do so, in order to increase your webpage or product’s rating. Avoid responding directly to the troll, unless the person has posted factual errors that may impact your business. For example, if your art form is cake and pastry decorating, and you work at a restaurant, a troll might comment, “This place failed the health inspection last year” or “The meatloaf made me sick.” In those cases, responding with a simple photo of the certificate from the health inspector, or the menu showing that your restaurant does not even serve meatloaf, is all you need to do.
Personal attacks on your professional page or links from your professional page
This one can be particularly disappointing to see. You post a video of you playing your new song in a Facebook group, with a link to your Instagram, and someone comments on the Facebook group post only to inform you that they hate your Instagram page because they saw that picture of you playing at your church last year, and they hate that particular church. Or you open up comments on your band’s page, and instead of talking about your work, the latest comments are all weird remarks from someone claiming to have worked with someone in the band at Taco Bell ten years ago, and finding them egotistical.
Your first instinct is probably to defend yourself, or your bandmate, and perhaps gently remind everyone that this is your band’s page, not a religious discussion or workplace memories page. If you truly feel you must respond, do it only once. Correct the misinformation and/or the misuse of your page or link with a single comment. If the person stops they got the attention they wanted and things will settle down. If the person continues, or if others join in, this does not mean everyone is against you. A group of internet trolls just decided to use you for a little online attention for themselves. If you are online in a place that allows you to delete others’ comments, quietly delete all trolling ones. If you can’t delete others’ comments, delete your post, then re-post your content or link. This will put whatever got ruined back up, without the trolling comments. If they come back, repeat the process until they catch on that you’re not a good source of attention for them.
Free unsolicited advice that’s worth every penny you paid for it
You post in a musicians’ group asking if anyone knows of a good makeup brand that will withstand the stage lights for some upcoming performances, and someone responds not with answers like “Tarte Shape Tape” or “Jeffree Star Magic Star Powder,” but with an online lecture about how shallow you are for caring so much about your appearance.. When you point out that this isn’t what you asked about, the response is something huffy and self-righteous, along the lines of “constructive criticism not welcome, duly noted.”
In this case, a slightly snarky comeback is warranted. But don’t engage the person in an argument, or try to defend yourself. They’re seeking attention for making someone else look helpless, fragile, or stupid, and if you come across as distraught, you’re just “feeding the troll.”
“I’m really glad you were able to overcome this issue. That’s great for you. I’m really happy for you. But I need to do it this way,” turns any future comments into nothing more than evidence they don’t catch on when they’re being mocked. Once you’ve said that, carry on as though they aren’t even there.
Bizarre or disgusting posts, comments, or other online behavior
Barging into Zoom groups and shouting racial slurs or bullying the legitimate attendants of the meeting, posting nonsensical rants on Facebook groups, posting swear words or references to sexual activity in space set aside to be safe for work, or posting content intended to turn readers’ or listeners’ stomachs is an especially jarring form of trolling.
When faced with this type of behavior online, once the content is deleted and the trolls blocked, there are only two other things you can do. The behavior of complete strangers is not your fault, but fans will probably appreciate a quick “sorry you had to see/hear that” type apology anyway. The only other action you can take is to restrict page access. Set your Zoom meeting so that everyone must be vetted and given a link before logging in. Make comments require approval before being posted to your standalone page. Delete posts and re-post another copy of the ruined content to your facebook pages.
Whatever type of troll you get, never take what they say seriously. You’re dealing with someone who has the entire internet at their disposal, with its endless possibilities for learning, socializing, or even just relaxing and watching or listening to something soothing or funny. Yet all they can think of to do is hassle strangers.
Artists who perform or present their work, or provide lessons or tutoring in private homes expect to be thoroughly screened. We know the client is going to carefully examine our portfolio and social media activity, make sure they know our government name and not just our band or stage name, and even reach out to past clients and other professional contacts for references if we are a stranger to them. Even if the event is held in public, or in today’s environment, online, we would not be insulted if a potential client spent some time reading our social media posts and asking around to make sure we’re not likely to take payment for the music lesson and then never log into the Zoom call, or agree to headline their company’ first post-pandemic party later this year, and then not show up.
But in our excitement to find a paying gig, we often forget that we need to screen clients too.
Take some time to make sure the potential client understands your work and what you offer.
Misunderstandings do happen. Someone might play a single video clip of you doing a ballad and not realize that most of your music is metal. Or they might see “writer” on your LinkedIn page and contact you before reading on and realizing that you do not offer homework help or resume writing services. You don’t need to send everyone a quiz, but don’t be afraid to ask them if they’ve read your website or seen several clips of your band playing.
Keep a paragraph, FAQ list, or even a page on your artist’s website that makes it clear you’re an independent artist and not looking to be someone’s employee. Check and make sure everyone who hires you has read it.
In simplest terms, employees fill out a W-4 tax form and get a W-2 at the end of the year. Independent artists get form 1099. If you get “W” forms, taxes get taken out of your paycheck. If you get a 1099, you are responsible for deducting taxes from anything you make above a certain amount, currently $400. Beyond taxes, clarity on this can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. If you’re an independent artist, you’re there to provide the service you agreed to provide. If you’re an employee, the person who hired you can change your work and ask you to do additional tasks.
Avoid people who seem to think the current public health crisis is a joke or a hoax and refuse to follow precautions.
Crowds should not be forming in person at this time. Audience members should ideally be at the event via Zoom, or if that’s not possible, kept at least six feet apart. Masks should be required. Items should not be passed around among strangers. We all want to pack in to a cozy local cafe or bar, hear our favorite local bands, and cheer and laugh and talk as much as we want, with nothing across our face. But doing that right now is dangerous. It’s better to move the concert or the exhibit or reading to Zoom for now so we can all do what we want later, when the virus is under control, than to go ahead and do what we want right now and create a super spreader event. Anyone who cannot see that does not deserve your work.
Be cautious with potential clients who resist putting things in writing.
Clients who insist they “call you so we can talk about it,” or want you to “come in and discuss this in person” are probably not trying to be your friend, or behave warmly toward you. They’re trying to avoid getting anything written down, so you can’t hold them to what they say. If they insist on talking on the phone, via video call, or in person instead of using the written word, insist they confirm things in writing anyway.
Even the most technically inept person can open an email or DM from you that says, “My band is to join your Zoom meeting at 7 p.m. on Friday night and perfrom three songs of our choosing for your virtual open house event,” or “You have asked me to write a 900 word article about internet safety for your company blog, using your safety director as an expert source,” hit reply, and type “Yes.” If the person refuses to do this, or ignores written confirmation of a project they described over the phone or in person, do not begin the project.
Collect professional opinions on the potential client.
Everyone has people who think they’re the greatest and people who do not care for them, for reasons that have nothing to do with the way they would behave as a client. Contacting the person they play golf with every weekend, or invite over for dinner once a month is of course going to result in a glowing testimonial. And if they just broke up with someone following a series of public fights over social media, that person is going to describe all their flaws for you. But if you keep hearing the same thing from people who have worked with them in the past, you can expect that same thing to happen to you. If their cousin just loves them, but every band who ever played in this person’s bar before the pandemic never got paid, you probably won’t get paid for participating in the online event they organized either. You don’t need to conduct a full background check. Just reach out to a few people who have worked with this person in the past.
Remember that online business reviews are not always genuine.
One way to collect opinions on a potential client is to read reviews of their business. This can be helpful, especially if you are seriously pressed for time, and need to go down this list in half an hour, not two or three days. They certainly can be a good place to start, and provide a glimpse into the business, but online reviews are not always real reviews.
Before I narrowed my independent/freelance writing focus to writing for and about Utica artists, I attempted to build a career as a general freelance writer. I was a freelance news reporter/feature writer, and I was a freelance busines writer, working with a content mill based in Texas to write marketing materials for businesses across the state. Most of the work was what you would expect to be offered; email marketing campaigns designed for people who had visited a company’s website, evergreen content on the dangers posed by electrical problems for an electrician. But one assignment stood out. I was given a first name, the number of stars they wanted, and the key words they wanted in a glowing review for their webage. So “Lauren” and “Annie” from Dallas and Houston, who loved the business and couldn’t believe how “efficient” and “friendly” the service was did not exist. Those words were written by “Jess” from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, living three hours from Reno, Nevada, at the time, and earning $30.00 for her efforts. This was many years ago. I would turn down dishonest work like this today. But it is still out there.
Trust your own judgment and instincts.
Every safety article seems to end with this guideline, but most talk about a “gut feeling” or “inner voice” that should never be ignored. If you have deep feelings of forboding about a client, of course you shouldn’t ignore that, but trusting your judgment and instincts means more than just heeding your bad feelings. Think the situation through. Is the person asking you to go someplace it might be dangerous for you to go? Are they asking you to meet strangers alone? Was there something about the project or gig, or about the way they behaved on the phone or during the Facetime chat that bothered you? Sit back and ask yourself what it was and what that might mean. If you’re afraid you might be overreacting or misreading the situation, talk it out with someone whose judgment you trust.
Coping with the fight against Covid-19 wears us all down. In addition to the public health crisis, those in the arts must deal with cancelled and postponed performances, moving from in-person staging to online video feeds, and reduced sales of books, albums, and videos as those who ordinarily would buy from us struggle to even pay their bills. And then we have our own struggles with finances to contend with.
All of this added stress leaves even the most worldly, wise, and aware among us more susceptible to scams. We are particularly vulnerable to scams that prey on our desire to get rid of Covid-19 and return to our normal lives, and those that take advantage of the loneliness we feel. Scammers are well aware of this, and plan their scams accordingly. Keep your guard up against these latest Covid-19 related hoaxes.
Get the Covid-19 vaccine early scam
We all understand the importance of vaccinating the most vulnerable members of our population first. Those in the healthcare field should be vaccinated first, as they are the most likely to be exposed to Covid-19. Since the most severe, and often the deadliest, clusters have been in nursing homes and other assisted living environments, residents and staff should of course be vaccinated before less vulnerable populations. But we all wish the whole process could speed up a bit, and everyone could get vaccinated right away.
Scammers play on this wish by offering you the opportunity to get the vaccine early, for a fee. You may see an ad on social media claiming a private company or group has the vaccine for sale. Or you may get a text, call, email, or other message offering you the opportunity to receive the vaccine ahead of schedule, or to be put on a list to receive it ahead of schedule, for a small fee.
Never respond to any of these offers. There is no way to get the vaccine early, no matter how much money you pay or who you pay it to. True, accurate and free information about the Covid-19 vaccine in our community and who will be vaccinated next can be found through state and local departments of public health.
The “grandparents” scam
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has been warning of this scam for several years, but it is increasingly popular among scammers today, as Covid-19 prevention efforts lead to longer and longer periods of solitude for people who normally see adult children and grandchildren regularly. The scam can be run on anyone who shares information about their family and friends on social media, but it is called the “grandparents” scam because the most common targets are grandparents, with the scammer posing as one of their grandchildren.
To run this hoax, the scammer first scours Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts looking for phone numbers and the names of grandchildren. Next, the scammer phones the target pretending to be the grandchild. They may use software that makes it look like the call is coming from the grandchild’s phone, or pretend to be borrowing someone else’s phone because theirs is lost or damaged. The scammer, posing as the grandchild, claims to be in some kind of trouble. They may say they are in jail, lost, or in need of money to pay a bill or a fine. If the grandparent notices that the person on the phone’s voice does not sound like the grandchild they claim to be, a bad connection, illness, stress, or background noise is blamed. The scammer may also call claiming to be the grandchild’s lawyer or other authority figure, making the request on their behalf.
Once the grandparent agrees to send the money to help, they are instructed to purchase a gift card and call back with the code, wire money, send money via an online app, share account information, or send cash in the mail. This money goes to the scammer, with the real grandchild completely unaware the call was ever made, and the grandparent tricked out of their money.
Anyone who receives a call from a grandchild or other loved one asking for money should immediately hang up and contact the person through a known and trusted method. Should the phone call turn out to be genuine, the real loved one will understand.
Help getting your second stimulus payment scam
Many of us could really use that $600 currently scheduled to arrive in our checking or savings accounts, but not everyone has gotten their payment yet. Those who have fallen behind on bills are especially anxious, but even those of us who have been able to manage financially are feeling the strain of increasing grocery bills as children and spouses who used to be out of the house all day are now eating all their lunches and snacks at home, higher electric bills as everyone is working from home all day, and other unanticipated expenses related to preventing the spread of Covid-19.
This anxiety leaves us open to scammers posing as government agents offering to help get our stimulus payment to us right away, for a small processing fee. The scammer calls, emails, texts, or messages the target on social media, posing as someone from the government and making the offer. Once the person is convinced they are speaking to someone from the government, the scammer then asks for the potential victim’s banking information in order to process the payment.
In reality, tax information already on file with the IRS is used to process and deposit the stimulus payments, and there is never a fee. Hang up on, or delete and block, anyone who claims you need to pay to process your stimulus payment.
Most of us see ourselves as too smart, sophisticated, or careful to fall for scams like these. But anyone can have a moment of weakness brought on by stress, fatigue, or illness. Most scammers practice their scams the way we practice writing or singing or playing the guitar, and are experts at playing on our vulnerabilities and emotions. And even if you are one who can see through any scammer that comes your way, keep these scams in mind to help protect loved ones who may be more vulnerable.
Quarantine restrictions may be slowly lifting over the coming year, but Covid-19 is still a serious danger, and we will not be back to normal for several months. While nearly all aspects of our lives will continue to be impacted in some way, this offers a special challenge to anyone who planned on taking classes or lessons during this time. Parents of school aged children and on-campus college students know this all too well, as routines they’ve relied on for generations must suddenly be altered due to the pandemic.
Adults taking classes as “off-campus” students, online students, and those needing to take a course or two for work may not experience the upheaval that more traditional, full-time students go through, but studying is going to be a challenge for everyone for a while. Here are just a few ways to make the best of the situation.
These tecniques can also be used to teach yourself a new skill at home.
Take health precautions seriously.
Being sick of the words “social distancing” is completely understandable. But the idea behind it is important. Avoid crowding together with classmates who do not currently live in your household if you are taking an in-person class or attending a required offline meeting for an online class. Keep the seats spread out to avoid sharing germs. Wear a mask when you must be near classmates. Wash your hands a few extra times. If you are teaching yourself something, and you need to run to the bookstore to purchase something, wait for other people to finish looking at the books or other materials before moving into the space.
Refusing to allow space between people, pulling off your mask as soon as you get past the front door, and mocking the santizing stations or signs reminding you to wash your hands is not a political statement any more than pulling off your shirt and shoes inside a store, choosing your food at a buffet with bare hands, or refusing to comb or brush your hair, take showers, and brush or soak your teeth is a political statement. It’s just a way to spread around potentially deadly germs.
Set up a study space for online courses or self-directed learning.
Ideally, you have a space you can set aside as your school area. If you do have a den, office, or even an especially spacious dining room or living room, set up a space that is just for school. Arrange a desk or table, computer, chair, and basic office supplies to duplicate an office or classroom space. Those who live in smaller homes, or whose study space is taken up by kids, roommates, or spouses who have already moved their work or school online, can choose a space used for other purposes, and set it up as a temporary school space with markers. You might select your chair at the kitchen table, but have a cup full of pens or a special notebook or coffee mug that comes out only when that space is your at- home school. Make it a rule, both for yourself and anyone else in the home that this item or set of items means school, workshop, or study time. When your thumb drive is in the laptop, your school mug, or your school notebook is on the table, or your backpack is at your feet, you are in school, or having study time.
Make a schedule.
The popular image of studying (or working) from home is of a person in lounge wear stretched across the couch with their computer in their lap. The implication is that you can just pull out your electronics and “do school” at any moment. Perhaps some people can. Most people would find it difficult to focus.
Most online or self-directed learners find it easier to concentrate, get tasks done, and keep track of deadlines if they make themselves a schedule similar to the one they would have if they were going to class offline. The flexibility lies not in the freedom from a schedule, but in the freedom to create your own schedule.
Don’t forget breaks. If you were in a classroom or at work in a conference room for a workshop, you would have a lunch break. Make sure you have one at home too. Taking shorter breaks throughout the day can also help with focus and motivation.
Plan your tasks by starting with the final project and the due date, breaking down the tasks, and assigning a certain number of tasks each day.
Suppose you are taking an online class in setting up your arts career as a small business. For the first week, you will need to create and write a business plan. The weeks run from Monday to Monday, and the assignment is going to take you eight steps to complete. You will want to complete the two simplest steps in one day, and schedule each of the others one per day, with the final step done right before you hand the work in.
Duplicate this same process for self-directed learning. If you are teaching yourself a language, set a weekly goal, and then break that goal down by the day. Learning 100 new vocabulary words in a week may be impossible if you try to learn them all on Saturday evening. But if you break that down to 15 words per day, you will increase your vocabulary by 105 words in that same amount of time, and it is much less daunting.
Schedule a day for revisions, rewrites, and other issues.
When breaking an assignment down into steps, make sure the final step is going over your work and doing any revisions you need to do before you hand the work in. While you do want to give yourself the full amount of allotted time to complete online learning projects, you don’t want to find yourself scrambling to complete work because you scheduled too much at the last minute.
If the learning is self-directed, schedule some time for things to go wrong, or to be harder than you expected. Plan for time for that step you just couldn’t get down, or that material you just haven’t yet learned. It will happen, and it’s much more productive to plan for it than to beat yourself up and declare your studies a failure.
Keep your documents organized.
On your computer desktop, make a folder for your course or workshop. Inside that folder, make one subfolder for assignments or projects you are working on, one for submitted work that has not been graded or evaluated, and a third for graded or past work. Create another folder for notes and saved resources. If your course requires more documents or projects, make folders for those too. Folders on your desktop do not waste paper, cost money, or do anything else except help keep you organized. It’s better to have too many than too few, and find yourself frantically hunting around for that paper that needs to be submitted tonight.
Remember that academic and professional integrity rules still apply to online courses.
Even those who would never think of actually cheating may be tempted to bend the other rules of academic integrity in order to get by in an online course. After all, the instructor will never know that you’re not really that sick when you send them an excuse and ask for an extension. They won’t know that your personal issue isn’t truly preventing you from completing the work of the course if you “open up” to them with the secret hope they go easy on you when they hear your story. Except that they will. Online instructors are well aware of the internet age versions of “the dog ate my homework,” and of the pity play. It likely won’t work, and even if you should happen across an instructor who is guilible, distracted, or just plain worn out enough to take it, trying to manipulate your way into better grades is still wrong.
Get dressed for school or work.
Some people can concentrate well in their pajamas. Most need to at least get dressed in order to concentrate. There’s no need to dress in professional business attire, unless you’re going straight from your class or training to a Zoom meeting that would require such clothing if it were offline. But you may want to wear your normal business casual to casual workplace clothing. At least put on the clothes you would wear if it were a weekend day and you were going to meet friends for coffee. It may seem like an added hassle, but for most people, it aids in concentration and focus….and leaves you prepared for that unexpected moment when what you thought was a text chat with the boss or instructor turns out to be a video call.
Take advantage of some of the perks of studying from home.
Having a place, the materials you need to learn, and the people around you respecting the fact that you are “in school” or “in training,” just as if you were in a classroom or conference area is important. But you don’t have to duplicate every detail. You would probably not get up for extra snacks or drinks three times in a training session at work, but if you’re doing the training by yourself at home, with nobody else waiting for you in a video or text chat meeting, don’t worry about it. Go ahead and play loud music, or watch tv while doing tedious tasks if it helps you focus.
Make sure the day has a beginning and an end.
One of the biggest issues with training or studying from home is the feeling that because “home” and “school” are the same physical space, you are always obligated to be present in both at once. You decide to just go ahead and do that last lesson over dinner, or start your lesson while you have your coffee, before breakfast. This can be helpful during a rushed day, or if something unexpected happens, but making it a habit will only make it seem like you never came home from training or school. Make sure your training or class time has a definite end each day.
While the news about Covid-19 vaccines offers hope, and we know we will someday be back to only taking classes, seminars, and other training from home if we want to, self-directed, remote learning is going to be necessary for several more months, as the vaccine will need time to be distributed and work through the population. But remote, self-directed, online learning can be done, and done well once productive patterns become habits.
As artists, we probably know what it’s like to struggle financially. This can be especially true around the holidays, leading many of us to want to give to others who may also be struggling this year. Generosity is always something to cultivate in yourself. Never become so cynical or hardened that you simply refuse to give. Just take a moment to make sure you’re giving to someone or something that is truly going to help others.
Holiday season scams are nothing new. The ones you remember from past years are sure to be back. But here are the ones that seem especially active as the Christmas season officially begins.
Secret Santa/Secret Sisters
Secret Sisters, sometimes billed as “Secret Santa Sisters” or a similar name, is a new twist on the same old gift exchange pyramid scheme. The message or post invites you to combat the loneliness brought on by the fight against Covid-19 by adding your name to a gift exchange list. You buy a small, thoughtful gift for the person whose name you get, and everyone who gets your name will send you something in turn. But only the people who started it actually receive the gifts. These items can then be sold by the people running the pyramid scheme for a profit.
Those who truly want to bless a stranger this holiday season should instead contact local non-profit organizations, or speak to someone at their place of worship about participating in an “angel tree” or similar program. These types of programs allow those in need to sign up to receive gifts for themselves, their elderly relatives, or their children this Christmas. Those who would like to give gifts can receive information such as gender, age, clothing sizes, wish lists, and favorite colors, and purchase an appropriate gift for the recipient.
Help Me Help Others
The scam starts out as a social media challenge. The scammer claims they are raising funds to bless others. One post seen around social media asked people to send money to a personal Cashapp account so that the account owner could give servers and bartenders hundreds of dollars in tips. Another asked friends and family to send them money to buy products from a multilevel marketing company they sold for, with the promise that they would use the cash to order children’s products from their company and distribute them at a hospital. Of course, there is no guarantee the recipient of your funds will use them in the way they claim, and if they’re soliciting cash donations from strangers, it is likely they will not. The honest way to do this would be to get an online group together, set a goal, and challenge everyone to give enough directly to the people they are blessing to meet that goal. There is absolutely no reason why you should have to filter your cash donation through an individual.
Anyone who wants to give servers especially large tips can give the extra cash directly to the server or delivery person of their choice. People who feel called to make a cash donation to help kids in a hospital can just as easily contact an area hospital and arrange to make a donation as give it to a random person and hope that person isn’t planning to pocket the money.
Social Media Coupons and Deals
Getting your holiday shopping going while browsing your social media may be tempting. It is especially enticing when the ad that just popped up offers you such an amazing deal on a product at a famous retailer. Never click on these, no matter how much a loved one would like the item pictured, how good the deal, or how busy you are right now. These ads are almost always scams, with links that take you to sites designed to be mistaken for the web page of a well-known, legitimate retail establishment. Amazon and Target are just two pages scammers have basically cloned.
Online holiday shopping should always begin and end directly on the known, trusted site of your favorite store. Any coupons or deals they offer will be on their site. If you see a deal on another site, contact the store’s customer service department from the known and trusted site and ask them if the offer is genuine.
Pet adoption scams surged during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as scammers realized an increase in isolation and loneliness would lead to an increase in the demand for pets. As we face a holiday season destined to feature a lot more time alone or with a very small group than we had anticipated or hoped for, pet adoption scammers are back at it, targeting lonely people, animal lovers, and parents and grandparents hoping to brighten Christmas for the chidlren in their family. Adorable puppies or kittens are for sale from what looks like the Facebook or Instagram page of a reputable breeder. Or someone’s pet has unexpectedly given birth, and the babies are available for a “rehoming fee.” Sometimes, the pet is presented as a rescue in need of a home.
The safest way to adopt a pet is through your local animal rescue organization. If you feel called to adopt a pet from an individual, never part with any cash until your new pet is with you, offline and in person. Stealing other peoples’ pet photos, including photos of new litters, is as easy as stealing any other type of photo online. And never settle for a meeting via Zoom or other in person but online environment. The person could still claim your pet ran away or passed away between the day you sent them your money and the day you were scheduled to receive the pet.
MLM Sales Pitches Disguised as Need
This one pops up in groups intended to get and receive help. Someone will create a post inviting members to announce something they need, in the hope that another member will be able to help them out. Most of the responses will address legitimate needs. Of course, some people may talk about things many of us would consider a “want,” but everyone is doing what they are invited to do, mention something they would purchase if they only had the funds. Some post about needing a job.
Then there are posts with pleas such as “To do well with my business so I can have a better life.” Responses to questions about the business always consist of “PM’d you” or “sent you a message” instead of an answer in public online space. Responding to these messages will get you nothing more than a sales pitch from someone who has signed up to sell for an MLM, or multilevel marketing company. The person may even try to convince you to pay to sign up to sell the products under them.
Always pay close attention to who you are communicating with online, and never agree to or sign anything simply because someone seems desperate for you to do so. It is up to each of us who we wish to help out, but make sure you are helping someone you genuinely wish to help, and are not being manipulated or pressured into something you do not support.
Never let the presence of these scams discourage you from blessing others. Just take an extra minute to step back and make sure things are as they seem.
Feelings of isolation are increasing these days. Limiting the number of people we’re in close contact with, and sticking to the same tight circle feels a bit better than isolating ourselves completely, but we still miss those friends who make the circle too big, our regular offline meetings and gatherings, favorite public events, and our old offline hangouts. Performing and literary artists in particular are feeling the strain of cancelled plays, concerts, readings and open mics. Even if you’re busy writing new songs or poems, and happy just to spend time with your spouse or partner, or love being home with your kids all day, you probably wish you could spend more of that time together at your favorite hangout.
Joining groups online, or joining small offline groups that take all necessary precautions is one way to alleviate some of that feeling of being shut away. Some groups even promise to alleviate some of the financial worries of the time, offering jobs or business opportunities. But not all groups are safe to join. Cults and cult-like groups make the news when things take a horrific turn, but financial, psychological, and relationship damage can occur in any group that employs cult-like tactics.
Devotion to a Person
Whether you joined an online musicians’ networking group or an offline support group for single parents, signed up for a business opportunity, or took a job with a small business, be wary of any group that demands allegiance and devotion to an individual, family, or small group. It is not “team building” when a boss expects you to shun everyone who crosses them, take up their personal causes that have nothing to do with the work, or jump and do things for them beyond what you would do for anyone else. Pastors should never give the impression that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, or impressions that have nothing to do with the Bible are the word of God. Leaders of networking and support groups should never demand excessive online chatting, correspondence, or personal details.
This is commonly known as an “us versus them” atmosphere, and can be one of the most alluring features of a cult-like group. Being part of the group, seeing yourself as accepted, and feeling like you belong someplace is great. There are some elements of “us” and “them” in any group you join for any reason. Your pastor at your perfectly safe church probably talks about what you as a congregation can do. When you work for a company, you hope they’re chosen by advertisers, clients, and customers over others in the field. But when people in groups you do not belong to become enemies without doing anything to someone else, or by doing something that merely displeases one person, that is a red flag.
Attempting to Control Your Information
Before the days of twenty-four hour news cycles, and the ability to look things up, order books, or instantly stream films came along, cult-like groups directly controlled what their members learned or heard. Today, they are well aware that keeping people away from information is nearly impossible, so they try to discredit any information that paints them in a bad light or provides an alternate point of view, and encourage members to reject that information. Multi-level marketing groups, most of which use cult-like tactics to lure people in and keep them, are famous for this feature. Any video, article, or other report from someone who tried to make money selling for them and earned nothing but a host of problems is brushed aside as the whining of someone who just didn’t work hard enough.
Off-kilter Reward and Punishment System
The presence of rewards and punishments alone does not indicate a cult. Every time you get a paying gig or assignment, or it’s payday at your second career or day job, you get a reward for your behavior. You play the music, write the article, work your shift, or get your tasks done, and you get money. If you don’t do the work, you get punished, in the form of being fired, lacking funds, and getting a bad reputation. Reward and punishment becomes a red flag for a cult-like group if the rewards and punishments are based on loyalty to the leader or the group, rather than for what you actually contribute. Not being asked to be a mentor or moderator in your online support group because you rarely contribute anything when someone else has a problem is understandable. Not being asked because you don’t navigate over to the leader’s private page for personal chats is suspicious.
Interference in Healthy Relationships
This is another cult-like trait common in multi-level marketing companies. Anyone who tells you that your new “business” is not a franchise of a cosmetics company, just you hiring yourself out as a commission only sales person to a major corporation, is to be mocked. People who tell you that you will likely lose, not earn, money with this type of work are to be pushed aside. You will be told they do not have your best interests at heart, do not support you, and do not truly love or like you. It does not matter if the person is the love of your life, an adopted sibling to you, or the supervisor you’ve enjoyed working under for several years. If they don’t tell you what the multi-level marketing company wants to hear, the multi-level marketing company wants them gone, or at least pushed aside. All dangerous groups are not as blatant as this, but any business, group, or organization that encourages you to treat those who love you poorly in any way is not a place you want to stay.
These are not the only five features of a cult or cult-like group, just the ones you are most likely to notice first. Look for a pattern of these traits in any group you join for any reason, and leave as soon as you see it emerge. It is better to suffer a few moments of embarrassment, or even give up a side income or activity, than to immerse yourself in psychological or financial danger.
Tune in to 95.5 The Heat Phoenix Radio from 8 pm to 10 pm tonight and every Wednesday evening from 8 until 10 for “Blues Power” hosted by Lou Santacroce. Find “Blues Power” on your radio at 95.5 fm locally, or streaming live at www.955theheat.com. It’s your time to enjoy two hours of the best in Blues!
One of the first questions people ask when they see Artist Cafe Utica is, “Do you make money doing this?”
Tiny niche sites do not have the ability to pull in the often astonishing amount of advertising revenue brought it by the internet’s most famous bloggers and vloggers. Sites with large potential audiences can earn ad revenue directly from their site or channel. Small niche sites typically do not draw in enough traffic.
A site or channel’s potential audience is measured by taking ten per cent of the target population. That’s the number of people you can reasonably expect to follow you. You then take ten per cent of that to get the number you can reasonably expect to actually interact with you, that is, read your articles, watch your videos, and make purchases from your site. Using statistics on the percentage of artists in the United States and the population of Utica, I estimate that my potential audience is around 1,500 people. This means 150 people following me and 15 people reading each article would be a great success. While I am fine with those numbers, advertisers are not. Programs like Google Adsense and sites like YouTube monetize people producing content aimed at an entire generation of Americans, or other groups with numbers in the millions like “Stay at home parents,” or “everyone in the United States who likes to save money.”
Sites with much smaller target populations may not draw the direct advertising dollars, but there are ways to monetize tiny channels and pages.
Online portfolio/product or service sales space
The writing, music, or other artwork on a small channel or site serves as a portfolio for potential customers or clients. Pieces or services are also typically for sale.
The articles under “Articles for Artists” serve a dual purpose. They are free articles for my readers, but they also serve as samples of the kind of writing I can do for potential clients. . A reader decides they want an article for their newspaper, blog, or other website, or that they want something they can submit to newspapers or blogs as a press release. I write the article to their specifications, under the terms detailed on the site. Once the project is finished, the client pays my fee.
Site visitors can also purchase one of my novels through Artist Cafe Utica.
A small page or channel’s content is sponsored in the exact same way a big channel or site’s content is sponsored. Someone pays to have the site owner insert some type of product or business promotion into the post.
The main difference between sponsorships on tiny niche sites and those for ones with much larger audiences is the income potential. YouTube stars like Ryland Adams and David Dobrik design content for entire generations of Americans. Their subscriber counts are in the millions, and their work often becomes “trending,” which means their viewer counts far surpass the expected one per cent of that for each video. But even if they only get ten per cent of their four to eighteen million subscribers watching a video, the content is seen by an enormous audience. This means it is worth the investment for a major corporation to pay them tens of thousands of dollars simply to mention their company in a single video.
A site the size of Artist Cafe Utica can do the same thing, on a much smaller scale. My fee to mention your business, service, product, or organization of your choice in a single article is $20.
Niche YouTube channels and websites also have the option to seek sponsorship for the project as a whole. Sites like Patreon and GoFundMe allow an artist’s supporters to pay them a certain amount of money either one time or on a monthly basis, as a way to pay the artist for any free content they might offer, show support for their career, and basically “tip” them for producing their art.
Artist Cafe Utica has space reserved on Patreon so that nobody else can raise money under the site’s name, but there are currently no ways to become a patron of, or sponsor the site as a whole. Should you create your own niche site and decide to add a site sponsorship or patronage income stream, both Patreon and GoFundMe are free and easy to set up to receive payments.
Income generating research/experiments
Most of the more common social experiments cost money. If you want to write a review of Burger King’s new menu item, you’re going to have to go to Burger King and buy it. If you want to do a haul video featuring items from a local store, you have to spend some money there first.
Other experiments, or research for articles or videos, can actually make money. YouTuber Ryan Trahan has successfully increased his cash in “Turn $.01 into $1,000” experiments. Trahan generously donated the profits from his latest version of this experiment to a fan. Others have conducted similar experiments, and both used the process as content for their channel and kept any cash they generated.
Last year, I took jobs at a national chain restaurant and a chain retail store in the area as research for a special, multi-article project in the “What really happens when…” series on Artist Cafe Utica. The focus was of course going to be on what really happens when you…work at this place and that place as an artist in 2019. That project was never completed, because I failed in my experiment. But I got to keep the paychecks I earned.
Tiny niche sites and channels may not generate millions, but they can grow into great resources for your career, your finances, and the people your content aims to serve.