Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy
Tiziana Terranova is an Italian theorist and activist who writes about the Internet and New Media. In her essay Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy, she writes about the free labor taking place that is critical to the continued functioning of the Internet.
Terranova states that free labor from Internet users is the source of economic value in the digital economy. Free labor is defined as labor that is provided voluntarily, with no remuneration by the beneficiaries. An example of this is the time and effort people put into producing content for YouTube or writing short (or long) messages for Facebook. Internet users seek out these websites specifically to consume the digital content produced by other Internet users. These companies are producing the digital content framework that feeds off of the content and do not produce the actual content themselves.
Free labor and collective knowledge are being voluntarily contributed to capitalist business practices. This essay highlights the essential nature of that free labor to the functioning of the Internet but also refers to it as a “modern sweatshop” or “social factory.”
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson is an author and entrepreneur. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine and is currently the CEO of a 3D robotics company. He wrote an article called The Long Tail that was later expanded into a book.
Before the Internet the common retail business model faced two constraints. First, physical stores need a certain number of sales of an item to justify carrying that item in their stores. All shelf space will be optimally assigned to the highest grossing items. Each retail location needs a critical number of customers for that item within a small geographical radius. Therefore, an item that has a large but thinly spread audience will not be carried by any retailers, just like items that have no potential audience.
The second constraint has to do with the physical world and the finite number of radio stations or TV stations that can make it through the airwaves.
The online retail market removes both of these constraints. There is no shelf space beyond the cheap and ever-expanding cloud infrastructure these businesses are built upon. There is a potential audience for all items, not just the items with the highest demand. That potential audience is not limited to a small geographical area.
Latent demand for obscure content is now being satisfied. Most obscure things find an audience eventually.
Interestingly, the total profits of all of the obscure items exceeds the total profits on the most popular items. This is the essence of the long tail. Businesses still need the popular items to attract people, but they need the obscure items to maximize their business potential.
Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination
Tim Wu, a Law professor now at Columbia, wrote a paper Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination discussing the importance of Network Neutrality and different legal strategies for achieving it.
Wu identifies the conflict between the private interests of broadband providers and the public’s interest in a competitive environment that supports innovation. This policy will ensure that the best products are always available to consumers and that poor products will fail and expire.
Three different means for achieving network neutrality are open access, non-discrimination, and no regulation. Wu argues that no regulation at all will not work as broadband providers will be overly focused on short-term interests. Open access networks will allow providers to bundle ISP services with cable services, potentially favoring some applications over others. Non-discrimination would protect the rights of users, but achieving non-discrimination is more difficult than it seems. Discrimination is built into the system, as the Internet Protocol is neutral among latency insensitive applications but not when latency sensitive audio/video applications are included.
Here Comes Everybody
Here Comes Everybody is a book written by Clay Shirky, a professor at ITP. The book discusses how people organize using the Internet, without the need for traditional management structures. The definition of what it means to be a professional with specialized skills is being blurred. Skilled amateurs, not associated with a professional organization, can have a larger impact than the professional organization. The value of professionals will erode when their specialized skills become ubiquitous. Many, many people are becoming publishers of content, but unlike traditional newspapers, where a few sources publish for millions of people, large numbers of people are producing content intended for a small group of people, such as friends or associates with common interests. People can have two-way interactions because of the smaller groups, unlike the previous dynamic where large numbers of people focused on a select few who could not possibly respond to the attentions of their followers.