Online volunteer work

Volunteers who run our favorite groups on Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor or Discord can differentiate between a part of our precious community online or a gathering that goes into chaos.

A new study that sought to determine the dollar value of this work has raised two questions: Why should Internet community leaders work without pay? And does it make sense for all of us to substantially donate our tweets, Yelp reviews, and Facebook posts to wealthy Internet companies?

On the first question, I was 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 is worth talking about some form of fair compensation.

And while we take advantage of the fact that we have online sites to express our thoughts, connect with others, and share feedback, I want to consider whether this is a fair deal. Our posts they are A product for internet companies and you probably do not arrange cars for Ford as an unpaid volunteer.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the research I mentioned.

Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have used new methods to track the activities of self-appointed moderators who lead subreddits, Reddit forums organized around topics such as breastfeeding, financial planning or coy pools. The scientists estimated that the group’s supervisors performed at least $ 3.4 million worth of unpaid work each year. The researchers said that this was about 3 percent of the revenue from Reddit advertising in 2019.

(You can read research papers still in early form here and here. Northwestern also summarized the key findings.)

It will not be a lot of money if it is split among thousands of subdivisions. But the researchers stressed that their assessment was extremely conservative. If you make money on all the websites where people spend their working hours hosting online communities, there is a lot of free and often overlooked labor that is still essential to our online experience.

“We want to make it clear to people that discussions are not just happening on Reddit. This is because these moderators are working on active community building, ”said Hanlin Lee, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who led the study. “This is an important job that subsidizes Reddit.”

Lim and others I spoke to also said that there was no easy answer to all of this volunteer work that empowers the Internet. If the people who supervised your favorite horticultural group on Reddit or Facebook receive a salary from these companies or a weed killer manufacturer, this might make the group feel less like a self-governing community and more like a commercial enterprise.

Paying for volunteers can also undermine our trust in online communities. This is a strong view among some of the online group’s veteran leaders, including Kate Bilowitz, one of the founders of the Facebook group Vaccine Talk, which I wrote about last year.

But Bilowicz, Lim, and other experts have stressed that there may be alternative ways to compensate online group leaders. For example, Bilovic recently told me that he wanted Vaccine Talk administrators to have a channel of direct communication with Meta staff to redirect dangerous judgments between legitimate conversations on sensitive topics such as vaccinations and what Facebook calls health guidelines.

“It honestly cost almost as much as money, considering how stressful it is to deal with ever-changing textbooks,” Bilovic said.

Lee and another co-worker, Stevie Chancellor, said one of the goals of the study was to ask people who run online groups to ask Internet companies like Reddit to listen more to their needs and devote more technology work and policies to What the group leaders want. .

Reddit said it has tailored its products to 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 group leaders considered paying for customized technology to help track troubled online posts.

Finding ways to reward online community volunteer managers will make our online communities better and benefit Internet companies as well.

Lim and his collaborators also used their research as a leap point to look at all the ways in which we are increasingly working for tech companies without pay.

Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes will be their own remnants without our posts or reviews, fueling companies to make money through advertising. Our posts and other digital floats are also food for valuable computer systems training, including GPT-3 technology that “learns” to write like humans by billions of our words being transmitted over the Internet.

We are accustomed to the growing ways in which we work without pay online, but that may not be the case.

“If we volunteered at the Food Bank and the Food Bank monetized our volunteer hours, I don’t think people would come back,” Lim said.

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