Discouraging free labor

by Rob Horning

8 May 2007


At his blog (which is always useful when you need a blast of skepticism about the joyous culture of universal sharing the Internet is alleged to bring) Nicolas Carr, whom I referenced in a previous post for his concerns about “web sharecropping”,  discusses YouTube’s recent decision to set aside a group of contributors who will be paid for what they post with money from banner ads. He links to Om Malik, who calls this good news and sees this as an attempt by YouTube to become more like a TV network (with all the associated production tasks—mainly choosing the most commercial content and promoting it) and less like a generic portal. This will presumably strengthen the brand and inoculate it against threats from other video hosting services by assuring a certain quality level that can attracts repeat visitors who are not looking for something in particular. (I personally can’t imagine doing this—I usually think of something specific and look to see if someone else had the perspicacity to upload it. But presumably there are bored people who go to the site—rather than find links elsewhere—and see what’s popular.)

But this also seems like a rear-guard action against the idea that people might work for free, might suspend financial self-interest in favor of some collective goal. What is so striking is that users didn’t demand pay—it’s not they spontaneous formed a union; instead YouTube has preemptively offered to pay peopl who were content to work for nothing. This strikes me as suspicious. Carr’s belief is the Internet has not revolutionized cultural production; that instead we are merely waiting for a pricing system to catch up to the labor people perform when uploading clips or blogging or tagging posts and so on. He seems to reject out of hand that participants in this nascent labor market could be content to be paid in recognition or attention or vanity or the self-satisfied feeling of altruism or what have you. Here are the key graphs from his post:

YouTube itself doesn’t seem to be under any illusion that its community operates outside the price system. In announcing that it would begin rewarding its “most popular and prolific original content creators” with a bit of the green stuff, it happily dangled the carrot of compensation in front of the rest of its contributors: “So now that you’ve read this, you’re probably wondering, ‘How can I get in on the action?’ This is only available to the initial participants. But if you create original content, have built and maintained an audience on YouTube, and think you might qualify for this program based on what’s above, you can express interest on our partnership lead form. We hope that this program inspires people to keep creating original videos, building audiences and engaging with the YouTube community.” Translation: money talks.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that “talented people” will demand compensation (particularly when they see that a site owner - Google, in YouTube’s case - is making good money off their work). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of people that contribute their work for free (or for a pittance) to gain attention or feel part of a community or whatever. It just means that the price system will in most cases win, and that the exceptions - Wikipedia, notably - will be exceptions. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases even the masses of unpaid volunteers will work within the price system. While the stars make good money, the masses will simply donate the economic value of their work to the site owner. The reason they’ll do that is because, in isolation, their contributions have little economic value. For the successful site owner, however, all those tiny contributions, once aggregated, can turn into a large pile of cash.

Carr sees this as plainly beneficial to small-time proprietors of web content, giving them a chance to make some money from what they do. It also rationalizes the whole system of cultural production for money, as though making culture couldn’t possibly be motivated by any other concern and society owes money to artists in order to entice them to do such work. But the motive of money is also corrosive, it taints the intentions one has when one sets about making and sharing something and alters the process and the product that results. It may discourage some from participation altogether when the rewards they are used to are crowded out or invalidated by the presumption of cash payment, when how much you make doing something comes to popularly signify how important what you are doing is. (We all know, after all, that Spider-Man 3, having earned more money than any other movie, is the most important piece of American culture ever made.) In a more money-saturated climate, you may decide that you must be professional (in other words, become a hack) in order to be regarded seriously, and then you may not bother. Monetizing amateur content has a tendency to make selling out a prerequisite to legitimacy. This in turn rewards ambition as if it were synonymous with talent, and the merely talented vanish altogether, silenced by a culture that ridicules rather than supports their volunteer contributions.

Of course, when corporations inject real money into a certain corner of the online labor pool, people will professionalize in a hurry, and those professionalized will suddenly have an interest in discouraging those who do what they do for free. This discouraging also benefits the larger organizations, who want to control production and extract from it a regular profit. So they give some small fry a stake and get them to fight the corporation’s battles—a divide-and-conquer strategy. What this does also is sustain the hegemonic notion that work is something you must be bribed to do and that we shouldn’t expect it to be fulfilling as an activity. People doing what they enjoy for its own sake sets a bad precedent; it suggests people might want to spend less time working for wages and have more time off working at things they enjoy.

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