December 29, 2008 |
Yesterday BusinessWeek discussed an interesting phenomenon we witness on a daily basis online but rarely pay much attention to – that of people contributing long hours of their work (often something that they do for a living) to certain websites for free in hopes of being rewarded with some sort of praise or of building their personal brands and becoming an authority in a certain line of business.
The example quoted is that of the shopping recommendations website ThisNext (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never even heard of it before) which relies on users contributing the results of their work to the site for everyone to use without any financial incentives. The site and its owners make money off the efforts of their users who don’t have any incentives other than being called “mavens” here and being proud of being able of selecting the best things for others to buy and sharing them with the rest of the site’s population.
But of course ThisNext is not the only site that does exactly this: exploits people’s efforts without giving anything material in return – in addition to an occasional sticker maybe. In fact, the majority of the websites relying on user-generated content (and they are numerous now that the participatory web is here as a trend) don’t actually share their profits with those helping them to generate these profits.
What’s more, over the recent years I’ve seen examples of certain sites coming up with an idea of sharing revenue in some manner with their users (depending on the volume of contributions or on the attention they receive) but I have not seen any project turning into a huge success because it was willing to incentivize users with money. To the contrary, the websites that don’t share anything are still the most popular for volunteer contributions – be it YouTube where one can spend endless hours browsing amateur videos or Flickr where one can easily find all sorts of photos, even professionally-looking ones, though Flickr does not have any functionality for stock photography trade.
Of course more often than not people contributing to various online resources for free still have at least some money-related motivations: like uploading a viral video to YouTube can be a great tool for self-promotion for musicians or dancers while uploading photos with yoga asanas to Flickr can help bring new people to one’s yoga class.
And of course contributing to sites like Twitter or FriendFeed can be a career booster if you want to join the army of people calling themselves “social media consultants” or “social media professionals” – after all, if you got yourself over 2k followers you will certainly be able to help your client do the same and reach new customers on these new tools they are still afraid of.
When I worked full-time as a freelance translator I myself contributed quite heavily to a website for professional translators ProZ where language professionals can help each other in their work by answering questions about difficult parts in translation – earning special points in the process. These points appear on a member’s professional profile and are supposed to help the translator get noticed by a potential customer as well as add certain credibility to the professional. So earning such points is an additional way to bring new customers and is a great motivation to make people actively contribute to the website with their answers and with their articles as well. And I have a feeling that this is a great move for the website owner as he has probably the best websites about professional translation and the best database of professionals working in the field.
But while many professionals will be perfectly willing to contribute to relevant communities to be able to attract new business – which can be considered as a financial motivation as well – there are still people who will be happy to contribute hours upon hours of their time to some websites out of pure enthusiasm without anything even remotely resembling money or business as their motivation.
Of course some of these people simply have time to waste and don’t have enough work to do (or maybe don’t need to make money all the time) and so they are willing to spend some time and efforts on sites that won’t pay in any way – if it is an enjoyable pastime for them. But there are also people who follow the road of volunteers that help animals or homeless people in their real lives – the volunteers simply have to do something worthwhile in addition to what they do for a living and while for some saving a cat is a good option, for others answering questions on services like Yahoo Answers is a good option as they also help people but do it in a virtual environment as well.
Unfortunately when we start thinking about such people and their motivations to contribute without anything material to gain, some will express feelings on the verge of contempt to people who are supposed to have nothing better to do than contribute to the services that exploit all their efforts and will easily replace them with new candidates if they decide at one moment that they do want to be rewarded in some manner.
But I think that we’d better think of such enthusiastic people as of true online volunteers who actually make the web what it is. The thing is that without multiple enthusiasts willing to contribute results of their work without asking for anything in return we would have had almost nothing to do online at all – and certainly we would have had much less entertaining staff here with everyone focusing on their business interests and never uploading a photo of a cat swimming in a bath-tub.
Can you imagine your online life without these constant videos that certainly add no value and don’t educate you or anything but are great when you are looking for some entertainment after a busy day? After all, the World Wide Web would have been totally boring if we did nothing here but ran around bragging about what great professionals we were and how valuable our precious services were. And while I myself spend most of my time actually working online, there’s nothing better than an occasional funny video when it feels like I can’t seem to be able to type any more – let alone write anything legible. So I would certainly like to thank all the enthusiasts and online volunteers for all the hard work they do to keep us informed and entertained – and wish them to enjoy whatever rewards they have for these contributions.