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
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?