What do you like to do in your spare time?
Maybe that's the wrong question to start off with. First of all: Do you even have any spare time?
I know it's not fashionable to admit to it; we are always supposed to be working, because work is how we define ourselves. Unless you live in Los Angeles, have digested Tim Ferris' The 4-Hour Work Week, or happen to be employed at Google, you probably equate your idle hours with the opposite of work; we might enjoy our leisure time, but we aren't really supposed to like enjoying it.
Well, I like enjoying it. I particularly enjoy listening to the police scanner. I sit, and listen; it adds nothing to my life that I can quantify for you; I can't really tell you why I like to do it, and it has no meaningful impact on anyone else. Still, I spend hours each week listening to that scanner. It never occurred to me that I could make money off of it; I derived enough pleasure from it to be satisfied by the mere activity itself.
The Internet of Things, however, had something else in mind for my hobby. First, probably because I tend to like photographs of police cars and fire trucks on Instagram, the service pushed an advertisement to my feed for an app called Stringr. With Stringr, anyone who has a phone capable of shooting in HD can upload video that professional news organizations, or, really, anyone, might want to buy. CNN and other media companies have been purchasing crowd-sourced footage for years, but this app, so far as I can tell, is the first to try and create a circle around that activity, match buyers to sellers, and take a cut of the profits. I downloaded Stringr a few weeks ago. It sat, idle, until a recent weekend.
On that Sunday afternoon, the building across the street from mine caught fire. I didn't catch the dispatch; the scanner was in a different room, and I was unpacking some boxes. But I happened to check another app — PulsePoint, which connects directly to the 911 call centers for more than 60 cities, and lists the active incidents in real time — and noticed an entry for a residential structure fire at the top of the feed. It was at that point that I realized that the sirens I'd heard a few minutes ago were close by, and that a faint odor in the air might be smoke. There was an active fire across the street. I grabbed my phone, went outside, and started to shoot video. This was simply out of habit. The fire had darkened by the time I got there, but I could still see black smoke coughing out of a window. Aerial ladders brocaded the building and hand-lines stretched through lower-floor windows.
At that point, I remembered Stringr. In Los Angeles, a market with at least seven different local television news operations, original footage of a fire can be valuable. (Jake Gyllenhall's Nightcrawler, about the lengths to which professional video stringers in the city go to sell their footage, is only thinly exaggerated.) It had never occurred to me to shoot footage of a fire to sell it to a station; I'm just a buff; I'm into this sort of thing. But now, suddenly, I had the means to make some cheddar. It took about four minutes before my video was uploading to the site.
The next day, a Stringr curator based in Los Angeles emailed me directly. The footage I had sent was great, he wrote, but he advised me to shoot it horizontally, not vertically. Later that day, a notification from Stringr pinged on my phone: Someone in the area would pay $40 for exterior footage of Hulu's headquarters. If I had been close to Hulu — it's in Santa Monica, and I'm in Hollywood — I would have driven there, shot the video, and claimed the money.
Is there something sacrilegious about turning a hobby into a more economically productive endeavor? The gurus I read tend to be split on this issue. Some believe that "me" time should be distinct and separate; others tend to speak in terms of optimal functions, as if it is our duty to spend as much time contributing directly to the world as possible, even if we do it only because we want to make more money to have more things.
I have the feeling I am participating in something much larger than myself. I am not sure whether that is good for me or not.