Saturday, July 5, 2008

Missing the point

Newsweek tries to be cutting-edge by suggesting the Internet is the new sweatshop.

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.
Because, of course, money is the only possible motivation to do anything. If you're not doing it for money, you're being a rube. The enjoyment of doing it? Of making a contribution? Oh pish tush.
Whether these 21st-century worker bees can be said to be having fun (is it really entertaining to update a Wikipedia entry?), there's no question that their moonlighting has value even if they're not being compensated.
I don't know if "entertaining" is the right word. "Sorry, gang, I won't be tagging along to the party, I'm going to stay home and update Wikipedia" sounds a little unlikely. But it can be rewarding. Making a contribution, even if "just" for peer recognition (and why is that a bad thing?), has its rewards.

It's also possible N'Gai Croal, the author of the piece, is, like most journalists, innumerate. (I don't know, one way or the other.) Consider that the entire Internet-connected population is currently about one billion. What happens if everyone connected to the internet contributes a half-hour per month of their time doing something (making vids, music mixes, game programming, artwork, Wikipedia edits, whatever) of something that ends up on the internet?

That's five hundred million hours--roughly five Wikipedias--every month.

Someone please send Newsweek a copy of Clay Shirky's article on social surplus, and why we're on the verge of another boom.
But as long as so many of you are willing to work for free, the proprietors of these virtual sweatshops will happily accept.
But again, this isn't the point. A half-hour a month, volunteered, is hardly a "sweatshop," no matter how (melo)dramatic an article headline that makes. Yes, there are some who obsessively devote every hour to contribute, just as in the pre-internet age some people obsessed over their bottle-cap collections.

Peer recognition, satisfaction from making a positive contribution, and the pleasures of creating are sufficient motivation. Scaled up, across the internet, enough small contributions add up. And again, Croal fundamentally misunderstands.

Yes, the vast majority of uploaded videos are well below professional quality. Most blogs are barely worth reading. (No comment on whether this one falls within that category.) Sturgeon's Law applies on the internet as well as it does everywhere else. But again, the simple scale of the phenomenon means that the top few percent will be very good.

Newsweek answered its own question as true. In fact, the way they phrased the question shows they don't understand the subject in the first place.

[h/t: Andrew Sullivan]

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