As Om Malik reports, YouTube is splitting its much vaunted “community” into two tiers: a handful of stars who get paid for their work, and a great mass of unpaid volunteers. Malik quotes YouTube executive Jamie Byrne: “A select group of content creators will get promotion on the YouTube platform, and we will help them monetize their content … We want to ensure that these talented people can start making a living off their efforts.”
“A select group”? “These talented people”? So much for the myth of the social collective.
Last July, I entered into a wager with Yochai Benkler, the Yale law professor who wrote The Wealth of Networks. Benkler argues that the Internet is enabling a new “social production” system that does not “rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” The shift away from paid, professional labor, he says, will bring “a quite basic transformation in the world around us, and how we act, alone and in concert with others, to shape our own understanding of the world we occupy and that of others with whom we share it.”
I argued that “the reason ‘social media’ has existed outside the price system up until now is simply that a market hadn’t yet emerged for this new kind of labor. We weren’t yet able to assign a value – in monetary terms – to what these workers were doing; we weren’t even able to draw distinctions between what they were contributing. We couldn’t see the talent for the crowd. Now, though, the amateurs are being sorted according to their individual skills, calculations as to the monetary value of those skills are starting to be made, and a market appears to be taking shape. As buyers and sellers come into this market, we’ll see whether large-scale social media can in fact survive outside the price system, or whether it’s fated to be subsumed into professional media.”
In a comment, Benkler wrote:
I predict that the major systems [of Internet production] will be primarily peer-based … It is just too simplistic to think that if you add money, the really good participants will come and do the work as well as, or better than, the parallel social processes. The reason is that the power of the major sites comes from combining large-scale contributions from heterogeneous participants, with heterogeneous motivations. Pointing to the 80/20 rule on contributions misses the dynamic that comes from being part of a large community and a recognized leader or major contributors in it, for those at the top, and misses the importance of framing this as a non-priced social process. Adding money alters the overall relationship. It makes some people “professionals,” and renders other participants, “suckers.” It is not impossible to mix paid and unpaid participants, as we see in free and open source software and even to a very limited extent in Wikipedia. It is just hard, and requires a cultural form that is definitely not “now at long last we can tell who’s worth something and pay them, while everyone else is just worthless.”
With YouTube’s move, we have a good opportunity to see whether “the really good participants” are motivated by fellow-feeling and prefer to operate in a “non-priced social process” or whether, in fact, they’re more than happy to enter “the price system” and earn some scratch.
YouTube itself doesn’t seem to be under any illusion that its community operates outside the price system. In announcing that it would begin rewarding its “most popular and prolific original content creators” with a bit of the green stuff, it happily dangled the carrot of compensation in front of the rest of its contributors: “So now that you’ve read this, you’re probably wondering, ‘How can I get in on the action?’ This is only available to the initial participants. But if you create original content, have built and maintained an audience on YouTube, and think you might qualify for this program based on what’s above, you can express interest on our partnership lead form. We hope that this program inspires people to keep creating original videos, building audiences and engaging with the YouTube community.” Translation: money talks.
Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that “talented people” will demand compensation (particularly when they see that a site owner – Google, in YouTube’s case – is making good money off their work). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of people that contribute their work for free (or for a pittance) to gain attention or feel part of a community or whatever. It just means that the price system will in most cases win, and that the exceptions – Wikipedia, notably – will be exceptions. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases even the masses of unpaid volunteers will work within the price system. While the stars make good money, the masses will simply donate the economic value of their work to the site owner. The reason they’ll do that is because, in isolation, their contributions have little economic value. For the successful site owner, however, all those tiny contributions, once aggregated, can turn into a large pile of cash.