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Table Of Contents  The Online Freelancing Guide
 >  Introduction - Online Freelancing Overview, Options, Opportunities and Challenges
      >  Introduction and Overview of Online Freelancing

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Introduction and Overview of Online Freelancing
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What Do Online Freelancers Do?
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What is Online Freelancing?

I guess we should start at the beginning: what is online freelancing anyway? Well, in the very simplest sense, we could say that it refers to freelancing that’s done online, but that doesn’t really illuminate the subject very well, does it. :) We can get a better understanding of the topic by breaking the phrase up and considering the words “online” and “freelancing” separately.

Merriam-Webster has three definitions for the word “freelance”:

  • (usually free lance): A mercenary soldier especially of the Middle Ages.

  • A person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization.

  • A person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

The second and third definitions are the ones you probably expected to see, and of course, are the ones that are relevant for our purposes. But the first definition is the most inter­esting, because it conveys the actual origins of the word.

The term “free lance” was first used in the 1819 novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. A lance is of course a weapon, and the word also refers to a mounted knight who wields one—much the same way we today use the phrase “hired gun” to refer to a soldier who carries a gun. So, a “free lance” was a warrior who was not obligated or sworn to the service of any master or noble: he was “free” to work for whoever he wanted.

The word “free lance” became “freelance”, and was adapted into the more figurative defini­tions that we use today: conducting business or performing tasks independently, without being tied to a specific company, group or organization. Again, the word “free” is used in the sense of “freedom”: it doesn’t connote someone who works for free, no matter what certain cheapskate clients seem to think. :)

English being English, at some point “freelance” stopped being used as a noun to refer to an independent professional, and transformed into a verb that describes the activity. Thus, we now say that an individual freelances, or is engaged in freelancing. The people who do this are now called not freelances but freelancers.

The description of freelancers as those who work independently without long-term commit­ments is accurate, but it isn’t really sufficiently precise: it’s clear that not everyone who works in this way is generally called a freelancer. For one obvious example, would you refer to your doctor as a “freelancer”? Probably not. The same goes for your lawyer, plumber or auto mechanic: even though they technically meet the definitions of freelancers that we commonly use, nobody really thinks of them that way.

The missing piece in the definition is that those we call freelancers are generally people who work for themselves in professions that traditionally are not pursued independently. Many doctors and lawyers work for themselves, so we don’t think of them as “freelancers”. The same goes for many other professions that are routinely conducted by independent professionals. In contrast, consider work functions such as writing, graphical design, business services, computer programming, advertising, marketing and sales. These activ­ities are most often undertaken by employees of corporations or other organizations, so when someone does these tasks independently, we call them freelancers.

Now that we have a handle on the word “freelancing”, we can consider the adjective “online”. Merriam-Webster can help out here, defining the adjective as follows:

  • Connected to, served by, or available through a system and especially a computer or telecommunications system (as the Internet).

  • Done while connected to such a system.

Again, a pretty good definition. But what does that really mean in the context of freelancing?

These days, we are all online: everyone uses the Internet to communicate and do work, regardless of their chosen professions. We email each other, participate in social networks, use search engines to find information, and much more. We’re all online, so to some extent anyone who freelances is an “online freelancer”.

But viewed holistically, online freelancing is much more than just this. It refers not to conventional freelancing that is complemented by the use of online technologies. Rather, it expresses the idea of using the Internet itself as a primary means for conducting business. Online freelancers employ the Internet for all, or nearly all, of the phases of their work: marketing themselves, obtaining work, communicating with clients, and delivering end products. They make use of online freelancing marketplaces to find new clients and projects, and to establish themselves, build a track record of success, and accumulate a base of repeat clients.

So, to summarize in a single sentence: Online freelancing is the process by which independent workers conduct business using the Internet as the primary means for obtaining clients and completing work for them. Note that online freelancing is also sometimes called Internet freelancing or net freelancing. The term online outsourcing is also used to refer to the entire process from the client’s point of view.

In the next few topics I’ll expand upon this overview, to help you get a better sense of how online freelancing works. I’ll take a look at the activities that online freelancers engage in, and provide an overview of the steps involved in using online freelance marketplaces. I’ll also contrast online freelancing to both traditional freelancing and full-time employment.


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