Workers of the world, level up!


[Google Doodle from Nov. 30, 2011]

For my sins, I’ve been reading some marketing brochures – pdfs, actually – from an outfit called Lithium. Lithium is a consulting company that helps businesses design programs to take advantage of the social web, to channel the energies of online communities toward bottom lines. “We do great things and have a playful mindset while doing it,” Lithium says of itself, exhibiting a characteristically innovative approach to grammar. It likes the bright colors and rounded fonts that have long been the hallmarks of Web 2.0’s corporate identity program:


One of the main thrusts of Lithium’s business, as the above clipping suggests, is to reduce its clients’ customer service costs by tapping into the social web’s free labor pool. This, according to a recent report from the Economist’s Babbage blog, is called “unsourcing.” Instead of paying employees or contractors to answer customers’ questions or provide them with technical support, you offload the function to the customers themselves. They do the work for free, and you pocket the savings. As Babbage explains:

Some of the biggest brands in software, consumer electronics and telecoms have now found a workforce offering expert advice at a fraction of the price of even the cheapest developing nation, who also speak the same language as their customers, and not just in the purely linguistic sense. Because it is their customers themselves. “Unsourcing”, as the new trend has been dubbed, involves companies setting up online communities to enable peer-to-peer support among users. … This happens either on the company’s own website or on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the helpers are generally not paid anything for their efforts.

If Tom Sawyer were alive today and living in Silicon Valley, he might well be bigger than Zuck.


Unsourcing reveals that the digital-sharecropping model of low-cost online production has applications beyond media creation and curation. Businesses of all stripes have opportunities to replace paid labor with play labor. Call it functional sharecropping.

As Lithium makes clear, customer-service communities don’t just pop up out of nowhere. You have to cultivate them. You have to create the right platform to capture the products of the labor, and you have to offer a set of incentives that will inspire the community to do your bidding. You also have to realize that, as is typical of social networks, a tiny fraction of the members are probably going to do the bulk of the work. So the challenge is to identify your star sharecroppers (or “superfans,” as Lithium calls them), entice them to contribute a good amount of time to the effort, and keep them motivated with non-monetary rewards. That’s where gamification comes in. “Gamification” refers to the use of game techniques – competition, challenges, awards, point systems, “level up” advances, and the like – to get people to do what you want them to do. Lithium describes it like this:

Humans love games. There’s all kinds of math and science behind why, but the bottom line is – games are fun. Games provide an opportunity for us to enter a highly rewarding mental state where our challenges closely match our abilities. Renowned game designer, Jane McGonigal, writes that games offer us “blissful productivity” – the chance to improve, to advance, and to level up. If you’re trying to get your social customers to post product reviews, help other customers solve problems, come up with new solutions, provide sales advice, or help you innovate new products, introducing games – the chance for blissful productivity – into the experience can provide the right type of incentives that pave the way to higher, more sustained interactions.

Blissful productivity: that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, given the choice between bliss and a paycheck, I would go with bliss every time. Believe it or not, though, there are some critics who see gamification as manipulative and even grotesque, a debasement of the innocence of games. One of those party-poopers, Rob Horning, puts it this way:

Gamification is awful for many reasons, not least in the way it seeks to transform us into atomized laboratory rats, reduce us to the sum total of our incentivized behaviors. But it also increases the pressure to make all game playing occur within spaces subject to capture; it seeks to supply the incentives to make games not about relaxation and escape and social connection but about data generation.

Chill out already. I think people like Horning really need to have more bright colors and rounded fonts in their lives. “Games introduce addictive fun,” says Lithium. And what’s wrong with addictive fun when it brings both blissful productivity and demonstrable cost savings? One thing Lithium doesn’t point out is that online gamification is also a great way to recruit kids into performing some free labor for your business. After all, isn’t the ideal online technical support superfan a geeky, game-loving 13-year-old boy with a lot of time on his hands? And since you’re paying the tyke with badges rather than cash, you can totally avoid that weird grey area of child labor.


It seems pretty clear to me that gamification-fueled unsourcing is a great breakthrough for both business and the social web. It not only allows companies to trim their head counts and cut their labor costs; it also spreads the altruistic peer-production model to more sectors of the economy and puts a little more bliss into people’s lives. It’s a win-win all around. Except, of course, for the chump who – n00b! – loses his job.

9 thoughts on “Workers of the world, level up!

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    And “the chump who – n00b! – loses his job” will be told that there’s wonderful opportunities in Internet startups – just look at the fantastic profits made by this one!

  2. Chris Webb

    Microsoft is a master at offloading support for its products onto its users, and has been doing it very successfully for many, many years – see for example. As someone who has been answering questions on Microsoft forums, blogging, writing books, and speaking at and helping to organise conferences for Microsoft technologies for over ten years, and as a Microsoft star sharecropper (or MVP – I’d say you’re missing some important details in your analysis.

    Firstly, although I get some reward direct from Microsoft (the MVP program gives me access to a lot of free software and free/reduced entrance to conferences, for example) the real value of doing this work for Microsoft comes indirectly and is, financially, very significant. I work as a one-man-band consultant specialising in a particular Microsoft technology and I need to market my services somehow. The best way I’ve found of meeting prospective customers is to answer their questions on forums, write books and blog posts that help them, and speak at conferences – activities that also provide significant benefit to Microsoft at no cost. I couldn’t function as a business without doing these things and I’d argue that my relationship with Microsoft is therefore symbiotic; I certainly don’t feel like I’m being exploited. I’m more like a microbe living in the gut of the gigantic monster that is Microsoft, helping it digest its food.

    Secondly, I think you’re over-estimating the power of gamification as a motivating factor. In my experience people like participating in communities because they enjoy meeting and helping people who do the same job and have the same interests as them – it’s human interaction that’s the main reward. It’s not just socially-inadequate geeks with no real friends who have no other way of talking to people that do this either. As an academic I’m sure you enjoy going to conferences, meeting other academics and discussing your work in a way you wouldn’t be able to with your friends from outside your area of specialism; I’d argue that online communities are really an extension of this type of business-socialising.

    Thirdly, I don’t think that online communities replace paid, dedicated support workers, they act as an extra layer of support. Many small companies taking this approach will have no dedicated support workers; large companies will still have dedicated support workers to provide a more reliable service. Most of the questions or problems dealt with by online communities would never have been raised to ‘official’ support because they’re relatively minor.

    Obviously I only have my own experience to go on, and I don’t doubt that in many cases large companies are getting something for nothing. However the phenomenon of online support communities you describe is very real and I don’t think your explanation that all this unpaid work is being done because it’s presented as a game is particularly convincing. After all, if a 13-year-old boy wants to play a game wouldn’t he just turn on his XBox?

  3. Nick Carr


    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’d suggest that your work with/for Microsoft is different from the new “unsourcing” model. Yours is basically a barter relationship through which you earn monetary rewards for your labor (which doesn’t mean there aren’t social pleasures as well). So to put it into terms I’ve used before in defining “digital sharecropping,” you and Microsoft are operating in the same (cash) economy, and hence the incentives for both parties are transparent and fairly clearly understood. The essence of digital sharecropping is that the company harvesting the value of the labor operates in the cash economy while the laborers operate in the attention economy (and often don’t even realize that the cash value of their labor is being harvested). Two important points: (1) I don’t see this as necessarily an exploitative relationship, and (2) there is certainly nothing wrong with working for non-cash rewards – in fact, it can be the most pleasurable and fulfilling kind of work. What’s new is that the net allows the aggregation of such labor on a scale unimaginable before, a scale at which labor unmotivated (at the personal level) by cash incentives can have a huge cash value (for the platform/plantation owner). That can have important economic, social, and cultural effects – including employment effects – that I think are important to recognize and think about.

    Now the thing about unsourcing, and particularly the use of gamification as a motivational tool for unsourcing, is that you’re moving to a model that really does start to look like exploitation. You’re manipulating people, with techniques explicitly drawn from behavioral psychology, to optimize the cash value of their labor without (a) disclosing the manipulation or (b) paying them. If you read between the lines of Lithium’s happy talk marketing pitch (which includes quite a few case studies), this message is pretty clear. It starts to get pretty creepy, frankly.

    Now, you may well be right that the commercial promises being made about gamification are overblown (and it certainly does feel like a buzzword-du-jour for marketing consultants), but that remains to be seen. The degree of its ultimate success doesn’t change its nature.

    As for 13-year-old boys: surely you underestimate them.


  4. mediumkool

    How about unsourcing crime busting? Here in the UK we’ve got Internet Eyes where registered members at view live CCTV camera feeds from Business Customers, and notify them when a crime is observed.

    “A reward fund of a minumum of £1000 pounds per month will be shared between most vigilant members who have made the best contribution to the prevention or detection of a crime”, so they say.

  5. Nick Carr


    That’s ok so far as it goes. But to really gamify the process, I think you’d need to equip the cameras with guns – nothing lethal, just, say, guns that fire paralyzing darts – so you can use your computer not only to spot possible criminals but to shoot them and disable them. I don’t think players would need the lure of cash rewards at that point. The pure fun of it would be sufficient.


  6. Chris Webb


    As always, you make some good points here.

    If I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is that while digital sharecropping isn’t exploitative as such, with unsourcing and particularly when psychological techniques such as gamification are employed then we’re moving towards a situation where it is. But where do we draw the line? How can we distinguish between what is and isn’t exploitative? The techniques that Lithium are promoting are, to be honest, quite crude and nothing new. Are they inherently wicked, or wicked because they are consciously employed? I could argue that by publishing such interesting posts on your blog, by inviting comments from the likes of me and then responding to them, you are (consciously or unconsciously – does it matter?) using far more subtle and effective techniques to engage my attention, and to increase the amount and the value of the content here on this site. If I then take the cynical view that your blog only serves to amplify your ‘personal brand’ (yuk) and sell more books, does this mean you are exploiting me too? The end result for you and for Lithium’s customers is the same; I don’t think there’s any difference for me in terms of the non-cash rewards that I receive between posting here and posting on a commercial forum.


  7. Peter Whibley

    I think the use of gamification in an unsourcing context is less sinister than its use in an internal business context.

    When used internally to motivate employees i fear that gamification will be used to shame rather than game.

    Fundamentally games are supposed to be short term fun events. The danger of gamification in business is that it becomes “organised fun” (which we know is an oxymoron) and just another target for employees to overcome rather than what games in business should be which is a short term alternative approach to solving a business problem.

    You can read more of my thoughts on gaming within a business context here.

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