Crowdsourcing — the neue sweatshop labor

CrowdsourcedI wanted to quell this puppy before it gets any more play. It’s not just another innocuous Web 2.0 buzzword. Instead, ‘crowdsourcing’ as a business concept is a dangerous and caustic idea that attempts to rechristen the most seemingly “lucrative” aspects of the open source gift economy and architecture of collaboration as something that can be evaluated as an economic equation and leveraged against the hapless “public”.

Wired got it wrong when it established the term, putting business interests ahead of the community’s… suggesting it’d discovered a gold mine of cheap labor that could become the next wave after international outsourcing. What Wired should have said of course, casting it in such a light, was that it’d discovered the next source of legalized sweatshop labor where you never even need to meet face-to-face, let alone account for, the people doing the work.

is not a “new and nascent business tool for innovation“. Not unless you think that the machines in the Matrix were brilliant industrustrialists for tapping into the raw energy of human fetuses. And not unless your list of crowdsourcing guidelines flow in this order:

  1. Be focused
  2. Get Your Filters Right
  3. Tap The Right Crowds
  4. Build Community Into Social Networks

I mean, it’s like we should continue with the war metaphors or something. Here I’d thought we’d actually been advancing our civilization for the last 20 years (and no, feeding the employees of one of the world’s richest companies 1,000 pizzas is not progress).

So look, why are my panties all up in a twist over this? I mean, in proper contexts, when used by humans to describe themselves or their work (not the humans that law created), it’s not that big of a deal. But the problem is what happens when business discovers that term and instantly sees a way to cut costs, cut jobs and tap into the brainstem of its “target audience” whose “sticky eyeballs” they’ve already gouged out with a stick.

So okay, if I’m such a smart guy (did someone say smarmy?), what would I call it? Hmm, well, sorry to be a traditionalist, but I’d call it community collaboration or — in a phrase — learning to share your toys in a bigger sandbox.

Guidelines? Ok, well, from within a company, maybe a few:

  1. it’s all about respect. people deserve it. you have to earn it.
  2. it’s not about you.
  3. it’s not about you. (did I repeat myself?)
  4. it is about the people in the community that you want to serve
  5. don’t expect people to do what you want them to do
  6. redux: people won’t do what you want them to do
  7. repeat after me: I’m not in control, the community is
  8. …continue: I was never in control, the community just let me get away with thinking that I was
  9. there’s no free lunch so don’t expect no free labor (and no, your money’s no good here — to the contrary, cash is not “key to getting people to participate”)
  10. false humility will result in true resentment… save your patronization for the theatre
  11. don’t be a mosquito — mooching off the intellectual capital of your customers may seem like a great way to improve margins, but doing so is also a great way to cut your customer base.

So, some good examples of “corporate” community collaboration? How about the recent Yahoo Hack Day?

Folks who talk endlessly about the attitude to have about this stuff? Kathy Sierra. And of course.

So lessons learned? ‘Crowdsourcing’ is off limits for you corporate types. Call it ‘internet sweatshop labor’ if you need a new phrase. But keep your capitalist dog-eat-dog ethos out of open source. We’ve been there, we know what it looks like and it makes monsters out of people. Corporations are meant to serve individuals, not the other way around.

I’ve got one for you, which actually could make for a pretty good business model… instead of strapping more of your work on to the backs of your customers, why don’t we engage in some “corporatesourcing” for awhile? You do our bidding and act like you like it, m’kay? Pretend like it’s good for you — like a corporate retreat with Mistress Chi Chi or something. We’ll start with with you showing a little respect for the environment, with you taking a course in ethics and how to act like an adult, in how to bear humility, in how to “communicate honestly“, in not treating your customers like enemies who you have to defraud out of their hard-earned money, in owning up to your special interests and in engendering an economy that rewards fairness, open opportunity, diversity and in respecting the fundamental worth that every individual is imbued with. Sound good for a start?

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

14 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing — the neue sweatshop labor”

  1. Hey Chris,

    I completely agree. One thing that recently occured at my company is even worse than this.

    Recently a very popular developer site and a CMS company worked together to produce a developer survey. When the survey was promoted, all survey takers were told that the data would be freely available afterwards. The survey was lengthy and took about 30-45 minutes to complete and over 5,000 developers participated. Unfortunately after the data was collected the companies involved decided to charge $800 per copy for the results.

    This in my opinion is the worst form of crowdsourcing. The participants thought that they were contributing to a free tool to help the community and it was turned into and over-priced money making tool.

    Sorry for posting this anonymously, but I’d prefer not to lose my job and I felt that it was a good case in support of your point.

  2. Interesting that you were praising the use of “crowdsourcing” to train facial recognition algorithms just four posts earlier:

    “I am more optimistic about their approach of using a simple browser plugin to enable folks to casually point out faces in the images that they come across, effectively decentralizing the task and providing a much needed instant-incentive for folks who are specifically interested in this kind of information.”

    Folks like, say, the Department of Homeland Security? I share your concerns about the exploitation of volunteer labor, and I think the dangers are especially great in the domain of video and image indexing.

    Some links you may be interested in:

    Recognition Markets and Visual Privacy
    Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy

  3. Ryan — you make a good observation and for a moment I was like, “jeez, what a hypocrite I am!”

    But then I thought a bit and realized that you’ve brought up a very important distinction that needs to be made clear.

    ‘Crowdsourcing’ is kind of like sexism in how it objectifies those who would perform work as part of a given effort without respecting them as collaborants for their contributions. In that way, it’s like, as I suggested, sweatshop labor, where the goal is a certain amount of production at ever-lowering wages. From the standpoint of the corporate enterprise, it doesn’t matter what the effects of such wage- and cost-lowering are, so long as product can continue to be shipped and margins increased.

    For a positive example of this kind of work — that might be seen by others unfamiliar or unconcerned with the ethos of open source production as ‘crowdsourcing’ — look at the Spread Firefox campaign. It was, in fact, initially believed to be a lark, something that might help spread the Fox, but ultimately wouldn’t necessarily have that big of an impact (especially when compared with a big media thrust). Instead, Firefox set the model of community evangelism in software — but rather than being staggered at what a good community can do for itself and for products it believes in, many in the business community gawked at how cheaply Firefox was able to market itself.

    So in any case, there is a huge amount of potential when tools are developed in the interest of and for communities. That’s community co-production — where everyone wins, and it’s not just about the corporate interests.

  4. For someone telling corporations they should learn “…how to act like an adult,” you ironically write with a noticibly whiny tone.

    Can you post some examples of corporate crowdsourcing in which the crowd members were forced into their “sweatshop” labor? Considering UnknowingContributer’s anecdote, I assume there are probably more examples of such behavior.

    How is it that Yahoo gets exoneration, nay, a downright endorsement as a “good example of corporate community collaboration” while all other “corporate types” are denied even an opportunity at it?

    What is the difference between:

    1. a corporation allowing (and rewarding) customers to help the corporation’s other customers by creating more and better value

    2. a community allowing (and rewarding) members to help the community’s other members by creating more and better value

    What’s so awful about “corporations” and “customers” engaging in the same type of process?

    What you might see as corporations being exploitative, others might see as corporations’ attitudes shifting. Maybe we should give companies the benefit of the doubt, considering “crowdsourcing” is barely 4 months old. (though isn’t good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth advertising a form of crowdsourcing?)

    If you were going thru a process of proselytizing hard-headed, slow-learning bureaucratic organizations like corporations, is it really a good tactic to beat them over the head with accusations of insincerity if they prefer to take baby steps instead of great leaps?

  5. Luke — I take your point, and I’m not 100% anti-corporation. In fact, on the contrary, I’m 100% community, so corporations tend to fare variably depending on how much they respect and appreciate their communities.

    I gave the example of Yahoo! because I believe that they really do value their community.

    I’m railing against ‘crowdsourcing’ because it’s a word that, depending on the degree of ignorance, can lead to a lot of false assumptions and putting business interests before community.

    I worry because of the business I’m in and because of the conversations I have, in the wild. Because people talk to us about “viral marketing” and about other things that sound good but really aren’t, for anyone.

    Baby steps are fine — and those baby steps could be using appropriate language that doesn’t diminish or take for granted community production.

    But that’s just me. Knowwhatayemean?

  6. If the best example you can come up with of corporate exploitation of individuals is the Yahoo Hackday event, I would have to question the relevancy of your argument in the real world.

    An event that brings together developers in order to see who can come up with the most creative new ideas is hardly analogous to paying an eight year old 50 cents a day to stitch Levis.

    The whole crowdsourcing concept *could* turn into something that abuses its participants, but I really don’t think it has yet.

    Perhaps a better example would have been Amazon’s mechanical Turk. But even that is driven more by standard rules of economics (if the price per unit is too low, nobody will do it) than by some sort of malicious corporate greed.

    In fact, crowd sourcing could do real harm to the whole quasi slave labor practice (which indeed *is* evil) by allowing those in poorer regions to opt for higher paying jobs online than they would get down at the local sweat shop. Of course this presumes access to technology, yes. But technology is spreading into all areas of the world at a fairly rapid pace thanks to efforts such as the $100 laptop.

  7. @Harry: I take your point and do think that the Yahoo example is fairly antiquated by today’s standards, but in 2006, it wasn’t bad.

    Your others points stand. Thanks!

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