Wednesday, August 09, 2006

When you're done giving me your recipe for lasagna, go out and buy a Coke.

The seigneuries of the contemporary Web are a sort of marketing genius in the spirit of the sale of the New Economy in the later half of the 1990s. The facilitators belie the laborious roles of their workers behind an air of community wherein forging relationships, writing, and foraging through mounds of information are not profitable endeavors but rather the construction of collectives.

Would-be laborers are drawn into the manor by following the scent trails left behind by scouts that have already made the trek, and once inside of its borders they are driven by egotism to seek out recognition. The recognition is obtained through the building of the community, and building the community is accomplished by finding information and returning it to the others, by creating information and presenting it to the others, or by creating links between members in the collective. The more building of the community is performed the stronger the trails to the community become, and the more serfs that find their way into toiling at the construction of the collective.

While the laborers superficially view these works collectively like an early kibbutz, the work is really in the maintenance of a manor for a lord who adorns its alleys with various advertisements, sells statistics gathered about the laborers, and waves the idea of possessing all of the humans and their works it has amassed before others in hopes of trading the imaginary tracts of land for real currency. While the laborers put in hours of work creating value in exchange for the idea of building a community, the lords busy themselves in capitalizing on all of the free labor. It is truly a clever means of exploiting the extraordinary value of branding.

The same greed that permitted the fiction of the New Economy to liberate capital from investors helps funnel it into the creators of sites like MySpace, Facebook, Digg, Flikr, del.icio.us, etc and previously sites such as Kuro5hin. The costs associated with creating original content or providing editorial discretion are eschewed, and the product and the bulk of the workers beyond those maintaining the backend hardware and software are largely the same unpaid group. Investors have been convinced that much value can be continuously extracted from these workers and their labors without any monetary compensation, which has fueled ever-larger sales and association arrangements between such sites.

The workers of these sites are as convinced of the communal value of these sites as investors are that they can obtain unpaid labor from them in exchange for being advertised to or used for market research. They hold defensively to the value of the sites they contribute to. For example considerable outrage is emanating from Digg serfs because Netscape opted to take the basic premise of Digg and use it to bolster the value of its own website. The Web 2.0 link magnet belongs to the Digg community in their minds, and Netscape is seen like an outside aggressor come to steal the lifeblood of the community. There is further consternation that Netscape would actually employ people that participated in the construction of these other communities to do the same for them, with the exchange of capital inspiring hostility and garnering the paid laborers the label of sell outs.

The hostility toward obtaining monetary compensation for the creation of value in such communities is not limited to paid employees of Netscape: referral links to products reviewed are chastised and in many instances the links are posted again by another without the referral codes, those that frequently link to personal sites are occasionally derided, and those with genuine enthusiasm about various products or services are regularly called out as astroturfers. There is hostility toward anyone benefiting personally from the collective except for the lord of the manor, who is merely seen as protecting the existence of the community.

The marketing to both investors and workers is quite effective. Unlike the tracts of land feudal lords would defend and serfs would work, these online sweatshops are transient. They are subject to the fickle ebb and flow of fashion, and which site happens to be fashionable at any point in time varies. It is undoubtedly the case that new sites will spring forth with the same basic premises, and people will follow the trails and build new imaginary communities and users will gradually move from one lord to another. The workers most entrenched in the unpaid construction of these communities due to the investment of considerable amounts of time, and the investors eager-enough to have handed over vast sums of money stand the most to lose, but thanks to the salesmanship that we all remember from the New Economy, they will never see it coming. No doubt they’ll eagerly follow the scent trail to their next investment.