From Surf to Serf

Digital sharecroppers, unite!

3 min read
illustration of 1s and 0s.
Illustration: Greg Mably

It seems like only yesterday that we were extolling the virtues of such socially produced wonders as Linux and Wikipedia. These communal endeavors heralded a utopian age of unparalleled access to systems and information at little or no cost, and converted Web 2.0 from a mere collection of technologies to a system of liberation and empowerment.

But the road to Utopia all too often ends up detouring through the business district, and Web 2.0 has been no exception. By offering the means of production free to their users, other leviathan sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have generated enormous amounts of content at almost no expense. Even better, this content is a gold mine for targeted advertising.

Over in Utopia, the “workers" who generated all those articles, photos, tweets, and videos would get a cut of the profits they helped to generate. In the business district, however, users retain their amateur status, while the companies they labor for rake in billions. Worse, contributors don't even own the content they create. The smallest of the small print in the terms of use, which you must agree to in order to get an account, states that the company can use your content as it sees fit.

By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.

To Nicholas Carr, this smacks of exploitation rather than emancipation, and he coined a term for it: digital sharecropping. Just like the farm laborers of old who worked the land but didn't own it, digital sharecroppers grow the product that earns Web 2.0 companies their profits, but they relinquish ownership. Heck, even the most put-upon sharecropper earned a share of the crop he worked so hard to cultivate; today's digital serfs work on their profiles, timelines, and feeds for free, with targeted ads their only “compensation."

To be sure, no one on these sites sees their uploading of posts, photos, and videos as “work." But this ad hoc content creation isn't enough for many companies, so now they're outright asking nonemployees to contribute. This was preceded by crowdsourcing, which involves obtaining labor, products, or content from people outside the company, particularly from a large group of customers or amateurs who work for little pay. A good example is the phenomenon of microwork, a short, simple task that a company crowdsources for a small fee, particularly to workers in the underdeveloped world.

But even microworkers get paid, even if it's just a few pennies. The latest trend is unsourcing, where companies transfer internal functions from paid employees to unpaid volunteers, particularly customers on social networks. If the task is related to product support, as it often is, it's called social support.

Why would people do a company's work for free? Part of the answer lies in a kind of prestige that comes from answering a large number of customer questions or solving a large number of problems. Companies coax helpers to participate by offering points for useful answers, connecting total points to specific achievement levels, and encouraging users to level up, for even greater prestige. (The phrase comes from the game industry, and the way concepts and ideas move from the game culture to the broader one is called gamification.)

Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, calls this digital feudalism and laments that we “are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others." What's the solution? For many it's simply keeping your content to yourself by running your own blog, website, and even Web server. But it's really more about being aware. As the writer Tim Carmody has said, “Nobody is under any obligation to allow other people to make money off of them or their data. To pretend otherwise is just silly." Unfortunately, he said that on Twitter, so I suppose they own those words now.

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