This is the second provocation on the theme of digital labor from me and Ramesh Srinivasan. To warm up, check out Saskia Sassen at last year’s Internet as Playground and Factory as she warns us about how financial logicians uses networked technologies to manipulate human ingenuity:
Free Use as Free Labor on YouTube
YouTube, subsidiary of Google, serves as a notable example of how a company creates value through free, user-contributed labor. User-producers upload content to YouTube for free and are given the opportunity to freely use Google’s immense, proprietary data centers (commonly called the “cloud”). Adding content, commenting, tagging, and even browsing all add value to the corporate product, though the amount of user investment and creative immersion differs in each of these cases. In the process, content creators facilitate Google’s ability to place targeted advertisements. These advertising schemes are monetized via the billion+ views YouTube receives per week. Commenting, tagging, and browsing are more passive forms of labor, as each adds to YouTube’s ability to build a social space that users will continuously return to, and optimize algorithms that allow for more efficient retrieval and browsing.
While a number of select YouTube partners are being selected for revenue sharing agreements, the vast majority of contributors receive no revenue from the advertising profits generated around the content they produce. As several anthropologists have pointed out, YouTube is also a social space (Patricia Lange) and an educational tool (Michael Wesch, Alexandra Juashz) but it is first and foremost a business that until the YouTube partner program got going in earnest this year was loosing $100,000,000s. YouTube demonstrates the importance of free digital labor in creating profit-making value for a major corporation. But is the free labor users contribute to such sites exploitative? Let’s assess a second example, one in which users are given pennies for networked work.
YouTube’s ability to profit from free labor relies on its openness as a system – users can browse, upload, and comment easily. Amazon’s mechnical turk (mTurk), differs from YouTube in that it functions as a more targeted site, linking jobs/employers with potential laborers worldwide willing to work for the price specified. In contrast to free labor sites such as YouTube, mTurk is built around the relationship of an employer assigning a compensated task to an employee who bids on it. This and other digital labor sites (such as odesk.com) connect employers who post simple digital labor jobs (such as spellchecking, color correction, and basic software development) with any laborer worldwide who accedes to the employer’s compensation terms. These tasks are often ones which automated computational systems struggle with, such as image recognition. mTurk laborers can thus be seen as humans working to complement and augment algorithms and systems.
Interestingly, mTurk’s name is inspired by the Englightenment-era chess-playing automaton, “the turk,” which purportedly would play chess against intellectuals and aristocracy in the 18th century. The chess machine magically engaged the chess player or employer. Yet the turk was actually a clever ruse, a machine where a small Turkish man would stand under and move chess pieces that were magnetically linked to the bottom of the table, and often defeating the “machine’s” opponent.
Is mTurk an innovation that positively impacts access to employment for the traditionally excluded? Or can it also be seen as exploitative through the corporate use of this technology to access cheap labor?
Digital labor functions to generate corporate value, yet also can be seen as empowering individual agency by allowing for a variety of uses and interactions by the user/worker. Systems such as YouTube and Amazon’s mechanical Turk, both function in these ambivalent manners based on ethnographic data we have gathered. This blog post traces out some of the details around new media systems and their ambivalent, concurrent invocations of agency/access and exploitation/capitalization.