What do you call a multimillion-dollar, for-profit company that’s run in large part by unpaid or underpaid grunt laborers? A century ago, you might’ve dubbed it robber-barony or sharecropping — if not, you know, outright slavery.
In 2015, though, we call it the social Web: a glorious dystopia where everybody works for likes — as in, “for free” — while a handful of tech tycoons profit.
Never has this been clearer than in the past month, as Reddit — a private company that recently accepted $50 million in venture funding — quelled an uprising among the volunteers who actually run the site: its moderators.
But insomuch as Reddit relies on digital work to run its business, it is not alone. In fact, that’s basically the elevator pitch of every major Internet institution, from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to Wikipedia. Even when these sites don’t openly rely on “consumers” to create the content that keeps venture capital, ad revenue or donations pouring in, they’re mining them for other sorts of resources that can be monetized: personal data, structured and aggregate data, clicks.
“Digital labor is like a meeting with free pizza and soda,” quips the new media scholar Trebor Scholz, “but the Stasi is listening in.”
That may seem like a dramatic analogy — the Stasi were, after all, a Cold War-era secret police — but it goes pretty far toward explaining exactly how blurred the lines have become between things we used to consider distinct: things like pizza parties and espionage. Or playing and working.
Uploading a selfie to Facebook, for instance, seems like something we do for fun. But Facebook, the very company that convinced us that online “sharing” was a natural facet of the human condition, uses that selfie to target ads and boost its profits. The same goes for leaving comments on Web sites, where — through a complicated system of display ads and site metrics and tracking cookies — “user” opinions just lead to more money for corporations.
There’s an old Internet truism that warns, “If you’re not paying, you’re the product,” which is almost accurate; it should really warn that, if you’re not paying, you are the product or you’re making it.
Justin Anthony Knapp doesn’t necessarily mind that: With nearly 1.5 million contributions, the 33-year-old Wikipedian is more active on the site than literally anyone else — including members of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation’s paid staff.
Every day, Knapp drives his 15-year-old car from Indianapolis’ poorest neighborhood, where he lives, over to a restaurant on the city’s West Side; he delivers pizzas to pay his bills, in between piecemeal work at a grocery store and a crisis hotline.
Every night, Knapp logs onto Wikipedia, where he’s averaged 385 daily edits over the past decade. He thinks he spends a comfortable 20-plus hours a week working on the site now, but he’s had a fair share of 16- or 18-hour days. Arguably, his work plays a large role in the $51 million in donations that Wikipedia scored last year — and also in the staggering $16.5 billion in revenue that Google reported in 2014. (Through its Knowledge Graph, which displays basic factual data and short answers to questions in search, Google leans heavily on Wikipedia’s unpaid editors.)
And yet, though Knapp makes no salary, he claims he’s getting something a lot more valuable: entertainment. Knowledge. The chance to back his values and meet new people.
“I understand that some people want to be paid to do what they love,” he said on the phone from Indianapolis, driving home from his (paid) job. “But when you put a number on the thing you love, it can’t be priceless. If you don’t put a number on it, you assign the value and the meaning to it, yourself — you don’t negotiate that with the market.”
Sociologists call this kind of value “affective currency,” and it’s what keeps many of the social Web’s most prolific unpaid workers in the posting, moderating or editing game. Even when the time commitment becomes incredible — some would say insane — they argue they’re “compensated” accordingly, whether in pleasure or new knowledge or what Scholz calls their “15 megabytes of fame.”
“What’s in it for me?” asked a Reddit moderator who goes by the name Soupy Hands and spends as many as 40 hours a week moderating more than 400 communities. “For one, there’s the feeling of accomplishment that comes with having the power to make a community better.”
For another? “I also enjoy the camaraderie.” Soupy Hands belongs to a network of mods — they run all the wildly popular “SFW” porn Reddits, like r/spaceporn, for space images, and r/foodporn, for food photography — and they oversee their 10 million subscribers pretty collaboratively.
Can something truly be called exploitative, or even labor, if the exploited parties enjoy it? That’s a difficult question and one that theorists haven’t conclusively answered yet.
And still, there’s plenty to suggest that different sorts of labor arrangements would be really good for users and the sites they work on. When people aren’t paid for their work, for instance, the only people who can contribute are the ones who (a) have money from other sources or (b) are overwhelmingly compelled by motivations like power, popularity or revenge. (The writer and tech theorist David Banks has implied this is one of the reasons that Reddit skews so heavily young and male.)
It also sets up a sort of precarious structural imbalance between a site’s corporate management and its class of worker bees: In order to keep them, the site must keep paying out a stream of “affective currency.” But if users stop getting good vibes from the site, or feel as though they’ve been treated badly, there’s no reason for them to continue working. They can, as Redditors did over the July 4 weekend, declare themselves fed up and shut down the site entirely.
“The Reddit incident shows that volunteers who perform all the vital ‘playbor’ are less and less likely to take it much longer,” Scholz said. “They want a slice of the pie or they might form their own platform.”
No one knows what a slice of the pie would look like, or even if editors would take it — particularly on Reddit, where pay-for-play moderation schemes raise a host of suspicions. In a 2014 essay, the Wikipedian and archivist Dorothy Howard proffered one idea: a sort of “Partner Program,” similar to YouTube’s, that compensates super-editors and mods for the role they play in the site’s function. Scholz, the new media scholar, has also advocated a movement called “platform cooperativism,” wherein digital workers self-organize to demand compensation and worker-owned platforms, the same way the traditional labor movement did a century and a half ago.
Should these options fall through, of course, Internet history suggests a litigious alternative: In the late 1990s, AOL’s chatroom moderators sued the company for back wages, claiming the “fun” “opt-in” volunteer work they did constituted an actual job.
Ten years later, AOL paid up: $15 million.
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