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'Unpaid labour' Recognising the work of online volunteers

The volunteers who run our favourite groups on Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor or Discord can make all the difference between our being part of a treasured community online or a gathering that descends into name-calling chaos.

Unpaid labour Recognising the work of online volunteers

NEW YORK: New research that tried to put a dollar figure on this work made me want to explore two questions: Why should those internet community leaders work without pay? And does it still make sense for all of us to essentially donate our tweets, Yelp reviews and Facebook posts to rich internet companies? On the first question, I’ve been persuaded that the best way to support online community leaders isn’t as simple as what I first thought — that internet companies should pay them directly. But it’s worth having a conversation about fair compensation in some form.

And while we benefit from having places online to express our thoughts, connect with others and share feedback, I want us to consider whether this is still a fair deal. Our posts are the product for internet companies, and you probably wouldn’t assemble cars for Ford as an unpaid volunteer.

Let’s delve a little into the research that I mentioned. Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities used novel methods to track some of the activities of the self-appointed moderators who lead subreddits, the Reddit forums organised around topics such as breastfeeding, financial planning or koi ponds. The academics estimated that group overseers were collectively doing at least $3.4 million worth of unpaid work each year. The researchers said that was roughly 3 percent of one estimate of Reddit’s revenue from advertising in 2019.

That wouldn’t be much money if it were split among the thousands of subreddits. But the researchers emphasised that their estimate was wildly conservative. If you multiply the money across all the websites where people devote their off-hours to hosting online communities, there’s a lot of free and often unnoticed labor that is nevertheless essential to our experience online.

“We want to make people understand that the discussions on Reddit don’t just emerge. It’s because these moderators are working to actively shape the communities,” said Hanlin Li, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University who led the research. “This is substantial labor that is subsidising Reddit.”

Li and her collaborators also used their research as a jumping-off point to reconsider all of the ways in which we increasingly work without a paycheck for tech companies. Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes would be husks of themselves without our posts or reviews, which are fuel for the companies to make money through advertising. Our posts and other digital flotsam are also fodder for training valuable computer systems, including the GPT-3 technology that “learns” to write like humans by ingesting billions of our words online. We’ve grown accustomed to the increasing ways in which we work online without pay, but maybe we shouldn’t.

“If we volunteered at a food bank and the food bank were monetising our volunteer hours, I don’t think people would come back,” Li said.

Ovide is a tech writer with NYT©2022

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