Labor 2.0 – Digital Sweatshops, pt. 2

If Mechanical Turkers are paid at rates that must be the envy of exploitative bosses and sweatshop owners the world over, at least the turkers are paid something (most of the time). A huge amount of similar work is done for free, by people many of whom probably don’t even think of what they do as free labor for other people’s businesses.

Just thinking about sites already mentioned, the comments and reviews posted on Amazon.com and IMDb.com can all be considered content, created for free by users of those sites. But the success of those sites does not depend exclusively on those reviews and comments, and most people who use Amazon and IMDb.com would no doubt continue to do so even if those features were removed. (I seldom look at the comments and reviews on IMDb.com and Amazon, though I use both sites frequently.)

Other sites, however, are almost entirely dependent on content generated by free. Yelp is a business review site where users can search for and read about local businesses – and, crucially, post reviews of those businesses. In contrast to Amazon and IMDb, Yelp does depend entirely on freely-contributed content for its success and functioning. Yelp is in the news right now (cf., here) because of persistent rumors that Yelp fiddles with the lists of reviews – moving or removing negative ones for businesses that pay for advertising (at $300 to $1000 a month) on its site. But however the current controversy over dishonest review lists and strongarm ad sales tactics is resolved, the fact remains that Yelp’s business model is predicated on that free content – those reviews – provided by users. Yelp, of course, would claim that in exchange for this free labor, its users get to access to a valuable resource, its business listings. But the controversy of their listings has raised questions about the reliability of this resource, and it isn’t clear that users are getting a fair rate of return for their labor.

YouTube and FaceBook are two of the biggest sites on the net, and also two of the biggest examples of sites/businesses that are built on the unpaid labor of their users. YouTube has branched out, and now gets a lot of material from commercial producers – movie trailers, music videos, etc. – and it that sense has become more like a cable TV broadcaster, but user-created videos are still the bulk of its content. The bulk of the content on FaceBook – and the source of its appeal – is the content contributed by its users – their profiles, shared links, uploaded photos and comments. FaceBook provides the interface – and ads. The games and other aps created by third party developers ad a bit of content, but very few people would leave FaceBook if they disappeared.

The worth of the free content contributed by user’s can gauged by looking at NetFlix – the dominant force in DVD rentals, and now moving strongly into streaming video and movies on demand over the internet. According to an article in BusinessWeek, “Netflix makes extensive use of customers’ posted opinions. Steve Swasey, a company spokesman, says it has amassed a database of 3 billion movie ratings that enable it to accurately predict what films you might want to watch.” Netflix has also offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can come up with a better system for recommending titles to its customers than the one they use now – based on those user-contributed ratings.”

A fast growing segment of the net is “aggregator” sites of one kind or another – that draw together specific types of content posted elsewhere, often as part of blogs, and present it through a new interface, with more or less additional content or features. For example, Blip.fm and Beemp3.com both rely on music files posted around the net. Beemp3.com provides a quick, basic interface to these music files, allowing you to search, listen and download. Blip.fm has some value-added features, allowing you to “blip” – comment on – songs, and assemble things like radio stations. But note that their appeal and usefulness depends entirely on free content posted elsewhere on the net. All Blip.fm does is provide a interface to mostly copyright-violating files uploaded elsewhere, that you listen to and comment on through its site. It even asks you to provide it with the URLs for additional music files; Beemp3 at least does the work of searching out the music files.

All of these sites make money – to the extent that they make money – through advertising. In that sense, they are much like traditional radio and television broadcasters. (This applies to the the US; the situation in the UK, with licensing fees for the BBC and so on, may be somewhat different, at least in part.) But the revenue model of these broadcasters consisted of providing content that would draw in an audience – and then selling this audience to their advertisers. The product they sold was you – the viewer or listener. What you got in return was the bait in the trap.

These websites – FaceBook, YouTube, Beemp3, Yelp, etc. – don’t even provide they bait. All the do is build the trap. They create a platform, market the hell out of it, and then when users start uploading content and drawing in other users, they sell them all to their advertisers.

There are indications that some internet users are getting burned out on creating content for websites, as more and more sites on which you are invited – or cajoled – to contribute spring up. Internet companies are looking for new ways to “incentivize” contributions. Points and score boards – such as the ones on Yahoo! Answers – are getting old. Fun and games is looking like the new way to keep people involved, and working for free, and companies are looking at ways to make the process of free content creation on their sites more like a game. But how long will it be before people tire of this as well?

What’s the alternative?

[We now take you to the rant portion of today’s blog.]

Remember that IMDb.com and CDDB/Gracenotes started out as community projects. There is fundamentally no reason that many of these sites that subsist on free labor by their users could not be supplanted by community-based, open source, ad free alternatives. A large percentage of the internet is already open source in that it utilizes some combination of LAMP – Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, Python or PERL. The rapid growth of Creative Commons has shown that there is a real hunger for alternative ways of sharing and protecting creative work without relying on traditional copyright. Bandwidth, servers and storage have all dropped dramatically in price in recent years, and the only requirements beyond these are ideas and some design and development work. It shouldn’t be that hard to find ways of paying for the necessary resources and reimbursing the labor, while still keeping the projects non-commercial and ad-free.

Of course, I don’t expect to see a community-based alternative supplant FaceBook anytime soon. Too many people are already far too invested in, even addicted to, their FaceBook (aka CrackBook) presences to shift. And the physical resources required to maintain these sites at their current levels of popularity are daunting – FaceBook recently passed Google as the most heavily trafficked site in the US, and FaceBook and YouTube are reported to have more than 400 million users each.

But there is still room for hacktivists to develop alternates. In an earlier post, I noted parenthetically the fascist background of one of the key figures at the world’s most popular BitTorrent site, The Pirate Bay (cf., here). There are already alternatives to The Pirate Bay available in the radical and progressive community: Progressive Torrents Community and One Big Torrent.org. And of course there are many smaller social networking sites used by progressives and radicals, just as there are alternative media outlets like IndyMedia.

We need more such alternatives to business as usual on the net – alternative social network sites, alternative music and media sites, etc. In particular, I would love to see an alternative to FaceBook, a social media site that was oriented to the progressive community, but broadly so,  aiming at bringing in a large number of people from a diverse range of backgrounds. There might even be a way to link back to FaceBook, so as to provide a path to wean people off their addiction. And I would also like to see the progressive/radical community creating alternatives that were not just aimed at that community, but rather tried to reach out to everyone.

I’d also like to see a open source, creative commons alternative to business sites such as Yelp. Taking by the social sites is one thing, but taking over sites tied to business and the economy has even more progressive potential. Craigslist has already show us how easy it can be to devastate an old business model with a quick, easy to use, free, community-based alternative. Creating space on a Yelp alternative to highlight non-profit alternatives, green issues, labor concerns, etc., would be a huge benefit as well. GoodGuide has already shown how much interest there is in business information of this kind.

And how about an alternative, open source dating site? eHarmony was originally set up as an alternative online dating service for Christians, a site that would emphasis values, Christian values. Why not a dating/relationships site that is values driven, but driven by our values? Check out It’s Just Coffee (“Date Nerds”) to see an excellent example of an already running, alternative, free online dating site. For that matter, why create a new alternative dating site?  If enough progressives, radicals, anarchists, hacktivists, freegans, alter-globalistas and black bloc-ers signed up at It’s Just Coffee, wouldn’t that turn it into that alternative site?  Unfortunately, It’s Just Coffee is so cool, and now its an LLC, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go commercial. It may already have ads – I use Firefox with Adblock so I miss out on a lot of that…

Such efforts could be seen as part of the broader effort of building the society of the future within the present – creating and nurturing the institutions of our new world here and now in the old. Workers collectives, non-profit, community-based childcare centers, collective bakeries and bike shops. The gradual shifting of more and more of our social and economic lives from the world of corporate capitalism to a world of collectives, cooperation, and mutuality.

The creation of sites on the net meant to serve the same role as the large commercial sites would also serve as a kind of propaganda by the deed – showing what motivations and desires other than profit and power can achieve.

At the very least, we should stop giving away our creative labor for free to often extraordinarily wealthy companies that then turn around and sell us as audiences (often to cheesy dating sites).

Some additional reading …

One response to “Labor 2.0 – Digital Sweatshops, pt. 2

  1. Pingback: Hacktivism as Direct Action – Nazi Punks F**k Off [cont'd] « the bad days will end

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