Monday, 25 July 2011

Don't work for free, work for charity!

The word "crowdsourcing" is less common now than it was five years ago, but the concept has never been stronger.  It's time tae think again about who profits from this.
A computer program is not just code, it's a combination of code and content.  When we buy a computer game, we're not just paying for the technical side of things, we're paying for the graphics, the sounds, the level design and everything else that goes with it.  The code is worthless to the average gamer without the content, and the content is worthless without the code - the two gain value from each other.
This holds for many things in the digital realm, and yet the concept of "crowdsourcing" has tried to deny this simple truth, because the crowd is told that their contribution is of no monetary value, while a single commercial interest coins in the profits on the crowd's work.

Google, now effectively the world's biggest advertising broker, does a lot of stuff with our data.  A lot of it's really good stuff -- photos of the world organised on maps and the like -- but they're getting paid for it, and we're not.  That would be fine if the data was free for everyone's use, but it's not -- we've not given that data to the world, we've given it to Google.

This model extends to many sites even with paid subscriptions: you pay to sign up, you give your content for free, and someone else pays to use it.  If you're lucky, you get given some "points" to use on the same site... but don't expect to get paid.

One site, a language learning site, asks you to mark content from paying subscribers with the vague offer that in future people with the best tutor rating might (not "will") pick up some work later as paid tutors.

Why doesn't these people pay contributors?

In the question of people like Google and Microsoft, the answer to this question is simple: the data gains its value from volume, and the contribution of any one individual is far too small to have any commercial value in this context.

On sites where each individual submission is an individual work, and not merely a single point in a massive dataset, it would be entirely possible to pay contributors.  But it would make the product more expensive.  These sites are arguably operating illegally, as they are using unpaid labour to gain a commercial advantage on their competitors.  They have both a lower price and (often, not always) a higher volume of material.  It's sharp practice, and it can only lead to more job losses.

An alternative to working for free....

Let's set aside the sites who use crowdsourcing purely out of commercial greed, and focus on those activities that genuinely need high volumes of low-value data.

I want to ask you to cast your minds back to the last century, before we had widespread doorstep collection of recyclables.  How did most recycling get carried out?  Aside from the bottle-bank at your supermarket, most of it was through fundraisers for the Girl Guides or the like.  The monetary value of recyclables was too low to incentivise individuals to recycle, but when amassed by a charitable organisation it made a difference.  Even now no-one recycles house-keys, but at least once Blue Peter ran an appeal collecting these for their scrap metal value.

What is nothing to the individual becomes something on a grand scale.

So even if our labour is worthless to us, someone's going to profit on it.  Why should that be a commercial entity and not a charity?

Think about it.  Imagine if a crowdsourced project had to split its profits 50/50 between the technology and data.  We, the contributors of the data, would sign over our share to a single charitable fund.  Each project could have a list of several charities, and we'd chose a charity.

It would be vital that there's a choice, as charity must always be a matter of conscience -- choosing a single charity would potentially alienate many contributors.

Right now, technology companies are blatantly ignoring labour laws.  There needs to be some kind of regulatory control telling them that they either pay for something or it's not theirs, because "free" is an unfair competitive advantage if it's not free to the whole market.

But regulatory control on the internet will be a long time coming.  In the meantime, I urge anyone who'll listen to show the way by starting this off.  Split your profits between technology and content.  Get your members to pick their charities and start paying out on the content.  Don't just skid along under someone else's power.

Don't Be Evil.

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