Saturday, July 05, 2008

The New Exploitation: Nonexploitation

N'Gai Croai, "The Internet is the New Sweatshop":

When an executive wants to sound humane during a public address to the staff, he or she will trot out the well-worn phrase, "Our most valuable assets leave the building at the end of the day." Clichés are generally true, but this one may not be, thanks to the growth of user-generated content on the Internet. Whether they're creating content for sites like YouTube and Wikipedia, viewer-submitted news services like CNN's iReport or videogames like Spore and LittleBigPlanet, today's most valuable employees will most likely never set foot inside the building—or collect a paycheck. They may be teenagers posting videos of themselves dancing like Soulja Boy, programmers messing around with Twitter's tools to create cool new applications or aspiring game developers who want to create the next big thing. But what they all have in common is a somewhat surprising willingness to work for little more than peer recognition and a long shot at 15 seconds of fame. [Emphasis mine]

This last statement is highly doubtful. I mean, there are web enterprises that are totally geared to exploit the exchange value of all of your user data in exchange for a tiny, tiny amount of entertainment (coughFacebookAppscough). But Wikipedia and YouTube are actually good stand-ins that show what other users get out of their labor.

Wikipedia is the central node for the digital humanists, the people who diligently work to gather up information, digital and non-digital, and preserve it for public access. Digital humanists work for free, but generally only for projects that don't commercialize or monetize their information, or put it behind a firewall. This is the ethos of the open-source community, the music and movie bootleggers, and the helpful wing of the IT forum crowd (i.e. those guys who help you diagnose your HijackThis logfiles).

YouTube and to a greater extent Flickr overlaps with the digital humanists (especially those people who upload movie and TV clips, or who videotape themselves disassembling their laptops) but also includes the Web 2.0 crowd, usually casual users who really want to share their media with friends, family, or another smaller community. If your Soulja Boy video goes viral, great; but you made it to get your cousin and your suitemates to crack up. Call this the Livejournal ethos. These people are willing to accept that someone else profits from their data, but they really see it as a data service. More to the point, these sites actually work as a data service: they let their users do something that they wouldn't be able to on their own, i.e., they give their users real value.

The last crowd consists of the entrepreneurs, the people who post ads on Craigslist and Etsy and Ebay, who blog or make movies for profit or the hope of profit, the bands who dutifully upload MP3s and show listings to their MySpace pages, etc. Very, very few of these people think of themselves as being exploited; even more so than the Web 2.0 users, they see it as a fee for service (or in Craigslist's case, no fee at all).

So there are a lot of reasons why people "work" on these sites: to make money, to network, to share a social bond, to add to their knowledge, or to show off. But the active users, for the most part, don't get exploited because they get out as much or more value than they add. The money isn't in the active data anyways. It's in the passive data: your demographic information, your geographic location, your likes and dislikes, what sites you visit, and above all what you buy. "The internet" gives production tools away because they help to create and identify consumers. It makes no sense to wring our hands about what motivates the people to make their YouTube videos or Facebook profiles unless you're willing to examine the motivations of those who watch them, consume them -- or process them to facilitate future consumption.

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