Newsweek Insists People Don't Do Stuff For Free… And Then Shows Why People Do Stuff For Free

from the you're-very,-very-confused dept

There’s a somewhat strange article over at Newsweek that tries to make the claim all the various “utopian visions” about user-generated content were wrong, but the reasoning in the article doesn’t make much sense. It starts out by noting that Wikipedia has “stalled out” in terms of user activity, and then claims — with absolutely nothing to back this up — that the reason is that “people don’t want to work for free.”

But such explanations overlook a far deeper and enduring truth about human nature: most people simply don’t want to work for free. They like the idea of the Web as a place where no one goes unheard and the contributions of millions of amateurs can change the world. But when they come home from a hard day at work and turn on their computer, it turns out many of them would rather watch funny videos of kittens or shop for cheap airfares than contribute to the greater good. Even the Internet is no match for sloth.

Is this based on a study? There are no citations. And, in fact, most studies show that people do stuff for non-monetary reasons all the time. Also, if this were true, then, um, wouldn’t Wikipedia have stalled out way back at the beginning? How else to explain the nearly decade-long support for the site? There’s also an indication of the confusion by the authors in that paragraph where it notes that “many would rather” do something else. Well, of course.

One of the strawmen criticisms of user-generated content is that if everyone doesn’t participate, it’s a failure. But that’s simply never been the case. Anyone who’s built any of these sorts of services has pretty much known from the beginning that you have a huge skew, where perhaps 1% of your users are active, and another 99% are lurkers or casual users. That doesn’t mean the services are a failure. Just that they’re useful for some people in different ways. But the Newsweek writers don’t seem to recognize this and issue a series of statements that highlight this confusion:

About 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned. A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009. A shift to Twitter–or microblogging, as it’s called–partly accounts for these numbers. But while Twitter carries more than 50 million tweets per day, its army of keystrokers may not be as large as it seems. As many as 90 percent of tweets come from 10 percent of users, according to a 2009 Harvard study. The others are primarily “lurkers”–people who don’t contribute but track the postings of others. Between 60 and 70 percent of people who sign up for the 140-character platform quit within a month, according to a recent Nielsen report.

Citizen journalism also has stabilized. Fewer than one in 10 Web users say they have created their own original news or opinion piece, according to Pew, and comment sections on blogs or mainstream media sites, which were supposed to turn the old one-way media model into a two-way street, are often too profane, hateful, or off-point to attract people. Only one in four Web users has left a comment–probably no more than wrote letters to the editor in decades past, says Brian Thornton, a University of North Florida professor who has studied the history of the letters page.

None of this actually proves what the authors think it proves. It just shows that not everyone uses these services. Well, duh. If the mark of success for online services was that everyone who signs up for them uses them forever, or that all users are the top users, nothing would be a success.

But, the article moves from these sorts of weird misguided attempts to slam user-generated content into pure farce towards the end of the article. After spending most of the article insisting (without any proof) that people don’t do stuff for free… it then explains a bunch of ways that sites are… um… getting users to do stuff for free and pretends this is somehow different:

While Digg won readers, it struggled to sign up voters, according to a 2008 speech by its founder Kevin Rose. Now the site is changing format, relaunching (later this year) with a personalized home page that lets users connect with friends rather than just vote on the news. Consumer-review sites like Yelp, Amazon, and Epinions, which use an army of amateur critics to cover products and services, offer elaborate appreciation programs that reward their unpaid people and keep users engaged. Yelp has more than 40 “community managers” scattered around the world, who throw parties for prolific reviewers. (At one recent event for the “Elite Squad,” for instance, the snacks included squid-ink risotto.) And comment-driven news and aggregation sites like Gawker and The Huffington Post, where part of the fun is reading what the peanut gallery has to say, have decided to show the peanut gallery more love: mostly in the form of badges, stars, and special privileges. Even YouTube has added inducements, giving users the chance to play at Carnegie Hall–with a music contest–and partnering with the Guggenheim Museum to help them show off their art.

So far it seems to be working. After Gawker introduced its Star system, which gave preference to the work of “Starred” commentators, participation on the comment boards rose to a new high. The Huffington Post, which offers its best users digital merit badges and special rights (like the ability to delete other people’s posts), boasts the most active commenters of any news site. And Yelp says it has maintained a pace of a million new reviews every three months.

Yes, apparently, the authors think this is somehow different because the users “get something” out of participating. But that ignores the simple fact that users always got something out of participating: depending on the user and the site it could have been anything from personal satisfaction, reputation boosting, free promotion, free hosting, free tools, etc.

The real problem here is that the authors seem to not understand either the concept of “free” or personal motivation. At the beginning of the article they assume (again, without evidence or citation) that people who do stuff for non-monetary compensation or reasons don’t like to “work for free.” But, at the end of the article, they suddenly pretend that people who do stuff for other non-monetary compensation prove that people need to be compensated. In the first part, they basically just ignore that there is compensation — it’s just compensation that these authors either are ignorant of or willfully ignore.

Of course, these reporters work for Newsweek, which was just “sold” for $1, so at least the magazine they work for doesn’t give itself away for “free,” right?

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Comments on “Newsweek Insists People Don't Do Stuff For Free… And Then Shows Why People Do Stuff For Free”

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weneedhelp (profile) says:

Skewed definition of work

I have spent sometimes 10+ hours editing video. Was it work?

When you love to do something, money, or lack thereof, usually does not stop that person from doing that activity, they continue to do so.

I enjoyed it. I did it for free. Hours were involved, but it was not work. What others consider work, some find fun, and if you can find a way to get paid while doing something fun, then its a win win.

kyle clements (profile) says:

I haven’t read ‘cognitive surplus’ yet, but I think the general idea behind the book applies to this article.

If people only commit 5 minutes during their entire lives to producing something, with nearly 7 billion people on earth, that’s roughly 560 000 000 man-hours of free labour.

Even with participation as low as one percent, thats still A LOT of free man hours, and a lot of potential ability to get stuff done.

even if the vast majority don’t want to work for free, some people do, and its enough to make a big difference.

If anything, I would see the abandoned twitter and blog accounts as a good thing. the casual users are dropping, but the dedicated people hold out and keep on producing. Shouldn’t that result in a better signal to noise ratio in the content that is out there?

As for Wikipedia stalling, with 3,374,590 million English articles, the problem could just as easily be a lack of material that meets their notability guidelines.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If people only commit 5 minutes during their entire lives to producing something, with nearly 7 billion people on earth, that’s roughly 560 000 000 man-hours of free labour.”

Personally I have spent about 10-15 hours editting various articles about science on wikipedia. I didn’t do it for fame or fortune, not to feel useful, not to do a job well, not to be part of a community, I did it out of sheer and unadulterated annoyance at how off or incomplete the articles sometimes are.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Where's our money!

Hey Mike!

We commenters have been sweating like dogs providing complementary content to your articles for years and our pay packets are still empty. We’re going to give up commenting soon unless we get some significant dosh coming our way – pronto!

We’re not going to comment for free like those poor Wikipedia saps that left empty handed.

So, $10 per comment? That’s reasonable eh?

And what about our copyright?! We have a legal right to compensation!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: WikiPedia ...

I was thinking exactly the same thing. At first there is a TON of stuff to add as one needs to add all currently known past and present knowledge. Eventually, as Wikipedia contains most known past knowledge, we only have to add present knowledge as the future becomes the present and our knowledge expands and so the knowledge submission rate will naturally decline being that past knowledge no longer needs to be imputed since it’s already been imputed.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: WikiPedia ...

WikiPedia actually reminds me of “Green Inc” in Vernor Vinges “peace war” books.

“we only have to add present knowledge as the future becomes the present and our knowledge expands and so the knowledge submission rate will naturally decline being that past knowledge no longer needs to be imputed since it’s already been imputed.”

Much like Moore’s law our knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. So the number of people needed will increase over time.

Arfnotz says:

Free labor

I’ve written well over 1000 reviews of film, theatre, books, concerts and CD’s for over the last decade. The pay is zero, but I’m constantly out doing cool things, hearing the latest music, seeing old bands I never saw when I was younger, on and on. We have several hundred people who are theoretically on staff, but only about 20 of us write regularily. That’s completely typical of any volunteer organization.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

We don't do things for free, eh?

I suspect that at some point all of us do things for “free” IRL (as in off internet) for free without even thinking about it.

We cut a neighbour’s lawn while they’re on vacation or then their mower is broken, we help was a car, we help throw a garage sale and the list is endless. Not big things. Little things.

Fewer 18 to 24 year olds self identifying as bloggers? So? The things they may have done on blogs in the past they do on Facebook.

Only one in four readers leave comments on news or blog sites? I’ll disagree with the observation that this is similar to newspapers or magazines where one in four is considered an avalanche. So participation seems to be up there.

Giving commenter stars and dancing icons? (HuffPo needs to add some quality to how they do it, btw, rather than sheer volume.) These guys don’t seem to go back to the days of forums where the same thing used to and still does happen with the few (specialized) ones left.

Less than 5% of blogs started continue? Even 5% of a million is a large number and there are more than a million internet users globally.

Wikipedia stalling? I’ll agree with Hephaestus on that one that it’s reaching a critical mass and agree that his motivation of correcting outlandish errors is probably what motivates most contributors there. Either way it may not need the mass of contributors it once did due to “completeness”.

I could go on. It doesn’t matter what the motivation is in one respect it’s human nature to do things for “free”. If we get a dancing icon that’s cool but most of us would continue to regardless.

For some of us it’s about doing something we are good at and love that is different than the day job. Say the lawn cutter down the street who has a fascinating view of theology, the assembly line worker who has an insight into economics, the cubical prisoner in a corporate office who does art for fun and posts it. The economist who has become something of an expert on gardening. (Could be Mike, you know.)

Not everything we do is for money. And what the authors of this article miss is that a lot of things on the web are as ephemeral as their article is, some less so because they make far more sense in the long term, so it comes and it goes. The same as it ever was in human affairs, economics and society.

One in 10 sounds tiny. 600 million, the one in ten of 6 billion humans, is far more impressive and something these guys won’t touch cause it disproves their point.

Barry Solow (profile) says:

With A Little More Thought And More In-Depth Research

…the authors of this article might have come up with an interesting piece about the large numbers of attempts to discover, develop and tweak incentive systems on the Web. It is a work in progress, or at least flux. This is befitting the accelerated pace of technological change we are undergoing.

Why is anyone surprised that, after more than a century of selling a populace on “the new”, we now find we have to constantly make the experience and the rewards seem new. Of course, I have no more basis for what I say than do the authors of the Newsweek post…but at least I’m restricting my comments to a Comment Section.

Sinan Unur (profile) says:

People do do things without monetary compensation

People need to be compensated for things they don’t like or things that do not provide an intangible benefit to them.

Sometimes, people end up being paid to do what we like. Or, end up being paid to do things we like for people we like.

It takes a higher monetary compensation to convince people to do things they do not like, things they diminish their reputation or to do things for bosses whom they do not like.

These are simple facts.

— Sinan

SummerAlyssa says:

Yeah right.

Tell the thousands of nonprofits in America who heavily rely on volunteers that people don’t like to work for free. We’ll laugh and point to data that says people do it all the time:

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 63.4 million Americans, or 26.8 percent of the adult population, gave 8.1 billion hours of volunteer service worth $169 billion in 2009. For the latest information, please see

Volunteerism has gone down, but it’s (at least in part) because some people (given stressful times) need to work more and thus have less time to volunteer. But it won’t last forever.

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