The volunteers who run our favorite groups on Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor, or Discord can make all the difference between being part of a valuable community online or a gathering descending into insulting chaos.
New research attempting to put a dollar figure on this work made me want to explore two questions: Why would those Internet community leaders work unpaid? And does it still make sense that we all donate our tweets, Yelp reviews, and Facebook posts to wealthy internet companies?
As for the first question, I am convinced that the best way to support online community leaders is not as simple as I first thought – that internet companies should pay them directly. But it’s worth having a conversation about fair compensation in one form or another.
And while we do 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 as an unpaid volunteer, you probably wouldn’t assemble cars for Ford.
Let’s dig a little bit into the research I mentioned.
Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities used new methods to track some of the activities of the self-proclaimed moderators who run subreddits, the Reddit forums organized around topics like breastfeeding, financial planning, or koi ponds. The academics estimate that group overseers collectively performed at least $3.4 million in unpaid work each year. The researchers said this was about 3 percent of an estimate of Reddit’s ad revenue in 2019.
(You can read the research papers still in the early form here and here. Northwestern also summarized the key findings.)
That wouldn’t be a lot of money if it were spread across thousands of subreddits. But the researchers stressed that their estimate was wildly conservative. Suppose you multiply the money over all the websites where people spend their free time hosting online communities. In that case, a lot of free and often unnoticed labor is essential to our online experience.
“We want to make it clear to people that the discussions on Reddit don’t just happen. It’s because these moderators actively shape the communities,” said Hanlin Li, a Northwestern University doctoral student who led the study. “This is substantial work that Reddit is subsidizing.”
Li and others I spoke to also said there was no easy answer to all this volunteer work fueling the internet. Suppose people who oversaw your favorite gardening group on Reddit or Facebook received a salary from those companies or a weed-killer manufacturer. In that case, the group might feel less like a self-governing community and more like a commercial enterprise.
Paying volunteers could also undermine our trust in online communities. That’s a strong position among some experienced online group leaders, including Kate Bilowitz, one of the founders of a Facebook group called Vaccine Talk, which I wrote about last year.
But Bilowitz, Li, and other experts emphasized that alternative ways could exist to compensate online group leaders. For example, Bilowitz recently told me she wished the Vaccine Talk administrators would have a direct communication channel with Meta’s staff to help move away from the tricky decisions between legitimate conversations on sensitive topics like vaccinations and what Facebook’s guidelines consider health disinformation. To work.
“That would honestly be worth almost as much as money, given the stressful handling of the ever-changing guidelines,” Bilowitz said.
Li and another collaborator, Stevie Chancellor, said one of the study’s goals was to give the people who lead online groups the bargaining power to demand that Internet companies like Reddit listen more to their needs and devote more technology work and policy to what group leaders want.
Reddit said it had adapted its products to meet the needs of subreddit leaders. But a Reddit group moderator told me last year that some of the company’s software was so inadequate that the group’s leaders had considered paying for custom technology to track problematic online posts.
Finding ways to reward volunteer online community managers would improve our online communities and benefit internet businesses.
Li and her collaborators also used their research as a starting point to rethink how we increasingly work for tech companies without pay.
Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and Rotten Tomatoes would be their own without our posts or reviews, which fuel the companies to monetize advertising. Our headquarters and other digital wreckage 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 become accustomed to the increasing ways we work online without paying, but maybe we shouldn’t.
“If we volunteered at a food bank and the food bank made money from our volunteer hours, I don’t think people would come back,” Li said.
Before we go…
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Overconfidence is a medicine: Elon Musk and other technology executives are treated like geniuses, and as a result, sometimes overestimate their abilities and knowledge, wrote Elizabeth Spiers for the New York Times Opinion section.
From On Tech in 2021: Tech executives are not fortune tellers.
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