Volunteering for Praise: The Free Labor Economy on the Web


This example of work available on the net has caused Americans to work hard, but without hesitation, in order to attract the attention of Internet users on websites that are for profit but which do not remunerate them.

It’s dawn and here we are in an apartment in Los Angeles overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Laura Sweet, an advertising art director in her early forties, sits at a computer and begins surfing the net. She searches intensely, unearthing very bizarre treasures for sale, such as tree necklaces and pigs covered in tattoos. As usual, she posts these items on a shopping site called ThisNext.com. When asked why the hell she spends so many hours every week working for free, she replies, “It’s a job that takes love.”

Later that morning, about a half-hour drive west, serial entrepreneur Gordon Gould strolls through the offices of the ThisNext site in Santa Monica. Gould managed to inspire an army of volunteers, Sweet being one of them, to reveal their passion and intelligence on his site while working for him for free. The influx of Internet users on ThisNext is skyrocketing, visits to the site alone having almost tripled in one year, reaching 3.5 million per day. But what are the benefits for volunteers? “They can get their brands known,” says Gould. In their little worlds, they can become miniature versions of Opah Winfrey, the famous American television host. »

That’s how it works. Entrepreneurs like Gould create sites that many Internet users will visit, giving them the opportunity to express themselves, to mingle with friends or strangers, and to promote their personal “brands”. The result, when this process works, is an outpouring of creativity. It was Gould who not only started ThisNext, but also YouTube and even the American Idol program.


One would think that given the collapse of the current economy, this example of volunteerism could also sink. Will people continue, in difficult times, to invest in volunteer brands? Gould bets it will be. Between two visits to investors during a stay in New York at the end of November, he sips soy milk and speculates. According to him, while the economy is in decline, layoffs of employees by companies undermine the loyalty of their customers and encourage people to work independently. Gould, in a scathing formula, points out: “The only person on whom I can count to thwart my plans is myself…and fortunately! “.

Apart from the people who strive to make their brands a success, many volunteers continue to work hard without enjoying a pay day, and they do not even seek to benefit from it. Many of them find compensation in means of gratification prior to the economic market. Among these are the praise expressed by colleagues, the opportunity to find a good place in a community, the abundance of celebration when they achieve something, as well as the satisfaction they find in helping others.

But how do you legally convert all that energy? From universities to the computer labs of Internet giants, researchers seek to understand the motivations of volunteers, and to perfect the art of recruiting volunteers. Prahbakar Raghavan, director of Yahoo Research (YHOO), estimates that 4-6% of Yahoo users are drawn to the idea of ​​providing their energies for free, whether writing movie reviews or dealing with questions about the Yahoo Answers website. If his team could imagine 5% more advantages granted to volunteers so that they prove their knowledge and their creativity, that could give a primordial boost to his websites. These benefits could range from contests for bulletin boards to words of thanks. “Different types of personalities are going to react to the different types of point systems offered. “, he notes. Raghavan hired microeconomists and sociologists from Harvard and Columbia University to match the different personalities to the different rewards offered to them.


According to him, to date most of the research on volunteer recruitment and benefits has come from much simpler areas such as enrollment campaigns for frequent flyer programs or mobile telephony, areas where the goals of volunteers and the benefits offered to them align. But the volunteer economy has many more variables. What are the signs that a participant will show enthusiasm and solid knowledge? How are leadership qualities manifested? Do recruits bring potentially effective networks of friends? Researchers comb through data informing about different behaviors to find characteristic patterns.

Communispace, a market research firm based near Boston, conducts similar studies by recruiting volunteer marketing advisors.

This company invites pre-screened people to join hundreds of social networks organized around certain products and services, from airlines to weight loss drugs. These groups are virtual hearth groups. The volunteers give their advice on how to organize an advertising campaign as well as suggestions on new products. Manila Austin, a psychologist who heads Communispace’s research unit, says 86% of participants join the discussions and nearly one in three add something new each week.

When Austin and his team tried to attract them by offering them a salary, they realized that the volunteers appreciated their gesture, but refused to be paid. Participation increased when volunteers received a symbolic $10 certificate as a thank you. But increasing the value of the certificates did not change anything. “What people want is to make sure people are listening to them,” says Austin.


Remuneration can actually create tensions. For centuries, humans have learned to differentiate between two types of economy: the social economy and the market economy. Dinner guests, for example, fulfill their social obligations by offering their hosts a bottle of wine. By contrast, according to Dan Ariely, professor of economic behavior at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions ), it would be an offensive intrusion of the market economy if guests offered their hosts a check instead of a bottle. “The border between the two economies is very tight, continues Ariely, and the modern world of work lies exactly between them. »

Bo Peabody, founder of Tripod, an early networking site that is now a corporate venture whose parent company is New York-based Village Ventures, points to a constant tension between free-work entrepreneurs and their volunteer employees. . Initially, what drives users to volunteer is “the desire to express themselves,” he tells us. But there is a limit to how much work they will provide for free”. At some point, companies have to decide how they are going to share their earnings with volunteers. One of its portfolio companies, a software startup called Kluster, brings people together to brainstorm on everything from new inventions to company logos. Those whose ideas are the most successful claim a share of the profits if ever the project studied brings in money. According to Peabody, “it is very difficult to imagine new ways of rewarding volunteers. This is a very common theme throughout our portfolio company. »

During the summer of 2006, Gordon Gould didn’t have to worry much about how he was going to share his winnings with the volunteers. The need to attract thousands of volunteers for its new website was far more urgent. At this point, like most unpaid labor entrepreneurs, he found himself faced with a chicken or the egg dilemma: how to attract people likely to work for an audience that does not yet exist? His answer was to create that audience. He and his team went out to interview a few hundred people (fashion designers, athletes and activists) and then founded ThisNext based on their views and recommendations. “When the first Internet users visited the site, they had to be satisfied,” says Gould. The website, he continues, had to be of good quality. If people visit it and find that its content is low-flying and mediocre, it won’t scale. »


Laura Sweet was an ideal candidate for the site. Before discovering the latter two years ago, she had always worked without being paid. Friends would come to see her at home, pointing at things, and asking her, “Where did you find this object?” Sweet (who did a dual major in fine arts and art history at the University of California, Berkeley) ended up creating and loaning out binders detailing her finds. Later, when she began to spot strange and very beautiful things on the internet, she presented them by making long lists of website links which she then sent out in numerous emails. She loved sharing her discoveries, and she didn’t care how much work it would take. The motto of his blog,

Sweet’s first success on ThisNext was finding a $400 fishbowl on display at the Red Dot Design Museum. After featuring it on the site, it quickly became one of the most popular items. She then began to look for other elements to exhibit.

When other visitors to the site found her gems, they gave her high marks, earning Sweet a move up the site’s volunteer rankings. She was becoming a star…Gould even calls her a genius. Recently, one afternoon, she went to check her place in the rankings on the site: ‘I am #1 in San Francisco as well as in Washington and #2 in Denver! she announces proudly.

The secret compensation of Sweet by Gould is, in the eyes of most specialists in the economics of unpaid work, a tin contract. Gould provides Sweet with a stage on which she can strut her stuff, and a podium that allows her to reach millions of shopaholics around the world. This is how Gould’s work works. It consists of attracting advertisers to websites visited by many shopping enthusiasts; ThisNext yields earnings with every click. Gould is happy to promote Sweet’s work by connecting her with the media (including the BusinessWeek newspaper). In addition, his team sends free objects such as skin cream, as well as HaberVision brand sunglasses, to the geniuses who work for the site, which, according to Sweet, are worth $200. By offering all of these things, Gould and other entrepreneurs are cashing in on this free labor…while very quickly bringing up the issue of financial compensation.


It’s up to Sweet whether or not she wants to make the money, given her job as a full-time designer. She thinks she could take advantage of her celebrity status elsewhere – for example, by writing blogs or books, appearing on television, or even by retraining for another profession. (His blog, http://ifitshipitshere.blogspot.com, gets tens of thousands of hits a day, but it still has to make money for him).

In Gould’s eyes, Sweet is a freak, judging by the stats…and she’s precisely the kind of freak Gould was counting on. The latter, who studies the theory of networks, believes that most companies that recruit volunteers would collapse and be reduced to ashes if they relied on people of poor quality to take care of the work required. Instead, Gould instead turns to people that author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swans, namely statistical anomalies. According to him, a mere handful of people get to the top thanks to a team of smart people who work hard for them, while being in good timing.

This elite is then projected to the rank of super celebrity thanks to connections and recommendations from a vast entourage. The privileged skyrocket in the classifications, which encourages them to produce even more work for free. Consequently, less than 1000 of ThisNext’s millions of visitors get the lion’s share. (In graphical representations of this phenomenon, called the Law of Power, very few of them are in the lead. All the others have taken their place in what statisticians call “the long tail”.) The superstars are the geniuses of the site, and Gould owes his success to them.


Like most companies recruiting volunteers, This Next pays staff who make sure to satisfy these geniuses. The job of these employees is to encourage, cajole, and direct the people who make up the website’s elite. The staff is also responsible for maintaining order among the members of the site. But in the most successful companies that use volunteers, paid staff go further. They also recruit volunteers who are related to sheriff’s deputies to take over the position of their relatives. The message here is that volunteers are not just workers. They can also hold leadership positions.

These days, Sweet has started to wonder about her payout, the true kind of payout. Gould called her and commandeered her brain, in Sweet’s words, asking her questions that she often takes “a day” to answer. “I guess,” she says, “he owes me at least one of those four sandwiches.” »

Yet Gould, who tends to view free labor statistically, has his own theory. According to him, the superstars stand out from the pack, then – over time – fall back. Maybe they get bored or tired, or others get tired of them. Either way, geniuses tend to fall back into the middle. Which means that one day, Sweet will plummet down the charts established in San Francisco, Washington and Denver. His reign cannot last forever. The trick in the free labor economy is less about keeping a superstar from stepping down than making sure a host of eager volunteers are ready to take their place.

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