Thoughts on Free Labour on the Web
It’s dawn at a Los Angeles apartment overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Laura Sweet, an advertising creative director in her early 40s, sits at a computer and begins to surf the Net. She searches intently, unearthing such bizarre treasures for sale as necklaces for trees and tattoo-covered pigs. As usual, she posts them on a shopping site called ThisNext.com. Asked why in the world she spends so many hours each week working for free, she answers: “It’s a labor of love.”
Traffic on ThisNext is soaring, with unique visits nearly tripling in a year, to 3.5 million monthly. What’s in it for the volunteer workers? “They can build their brands,” Gould says. “In their niches, they can become mini-Oprahs.”
Beyond brand-hungry strivers, masses of free laborers continue to toil without ever seeing a payday, or even angling for one. Many find compensation in currencies that predate the market economy. These include winning praise from peers, earning an exalted place within a community, scoring thrills from winning, and finding satisfaction in helping others.
Bo Peabody, founder of Tripod, one of the earliest networking sites, and now a venture capitalist at Village Ventures in New York, points to a constant tension between free-labor entrepreneurs and their volunteer workers. Initially, users are “driven by a desire to express themselves,” he says. “But there’s a limit to how much they’ll do for free.” At some point, businesses have to figure out how to share their winnings with the volunteers. One of his portfolio companies, a software startup called Kluster, assembles people to brainstorm on everything from new inventions to corporate logos. Those with winning ideas claim a share of earnings if the project ever makes money. Devising ways to reward free workers “is a very difficult jump,” Peabody says. “This is a theme running through our entire portfolio.”
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