Slave Labor

Anyway…

A recent Red Herring article pointed me to a new search service on the Web called NewHoo. Rather than dwell on the fact that the service has abducted Yahoo!’s classic interface right down to how the categories are displayed and organized (which begs the question of parody versus theft since NewHoo is taking Yahoo!’s “comfort level” and relying on its familiarity to attract users and whether or not that action amounts to trademark or copyright infringement and don’t ask me because I don’t know) I want to type about how they’re going to be building their database, and how it might involve you.

If you read the Red Herring article, you’ll note that NewHoo’s founders have a definite profit goal in mind and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yahoo!’s stock is currently selling at around $200.00 per share and it is likely forcing those lucky employees who’re vested to call their brokers and tax attorneys on an hourly basis. But Yahoo!’s database is built and maintained by a veritable army of self-proclaimed Yahoos who are compensated for their long hours of work. It’s a labor-intensive process to add, update and delete literally millions of links. I know, because I only have three pages of links to other sites and I’ve pretty much stopped adding any more because I don’t have time to even update and maintain those!

What NewHoo plans on doing is asking you, average Web surfer, to be their editors. They want you to add links, and subtract links, and recommend links, and interface with their database and create their content. In exchange, you get to add links, and subtract links, and recommend links, and interface with their database. They get to market their content, since they own it, and sell ads and attract investors and attempt to become another money(losing)making portal site like Yahoo! and Excite and Lycos and Infoseek who have all, recently, been infused by cash. This is by and large because, for whatever reason, the larger media concerns like Disney and NBC have become convinced that the way to attract Web visitors to a site and thereby funnel them to their other, more profitable media ventures on TV and in movie theatres (increasing the precious “audience awareness” factor) is to shove all the content you can stand down your throat. Why surf, the reasoning goes, when you can get one-stop shopping here?

This is what “Portalnomics” is about. You’re supposed to select one of the “big five” (which includes all the above in addition to the recently retooled AOL.com) or one of the dozens of lessor, more focussed Portals like discovery.com or businessweek.com and make that your Starting Point. What this gives you is access to yet another free email account, news, weather, stock market feeds, horoscopes, TV listings and pretty much anything else your little heart requires when you open your browser and plug in. Most of the sites allow you to personalize your page with colors you prefer or reorganize the info so the news that interests you most comes first and so forth.

My tone might sound a bit snippy but that’s simply due to overload. The word itself, ‘portal,’ is banded about like some magical phrase that will turn even the most useless of sites into a money-maker overnight. It seems like everyone is offering free email to me. Or free Web space. Not every provider expects something in return, but most do.

A Tale Of GeoCities

Take, for example, the Number Three most visited site on the Web (according to the WMI at OnlinePress), GeoCities. They’re about to offer an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of stock and, they hope, get a sudden influx of cashola from the wacky Wall Streeters who see platinum in every Web venture that passes by. What is their product? Why, it’s the content of the more than two million members who get 11 megs of server space and a free email address in exchange for providing the service with those tons of content. It seems to be a fair trade, right? I mean, you get something for nothing! As a GeoCities member, you can put whatever you want on your pages (within limits, after all, this is a family-oriented service) as long as you agree to allow GeoCities to advertise on them. Seems fair, right? They should make a profit for giving you the freedom to express yourself.

But what I would be thinking is, I’m providing GeoCities with its product. I am, in effect, an employee of GeoCities. Now, my product might not be as good as someone else’s , but the bottom line is that the company needs traffic to be viewed as successful. Traffic is driven by content. I am providing free content for which GeoCities is receiving compensation via ad revenue and, shortly, stock purchase. So that even if you elect to forego the free page and pay them $4.95 a month to eliminate that banner/pop-up ad, you’re still supporting their larger goal i.e. more eyes on their URL.

Hmm.

This, as I call it, Zero Labor Cost Initiative is gaining ground as a viable method of accumulating saleable product for more and more sites. What it is, if you think about it, is a twist on the traditional Web personal space ideology. It seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? I mean, {the fray} (to use a popular model) survives by accepting free content from submissions and then more free content from the people who post to the end of stories. In return, the authors are allowed to publish their own URLs so that the traffic that goes through {the fray} might find its way back to your and my pages. The biggest difference is, of course, that {the fray} accepts no advertising that pops up over your content and {the fray} is not a publicly traded company.

Again, all I’m asking is that you think about this issue. Because it’s very likely that you’re involved in it.

Tales You Lose

How often have you read the membership agreement before clicking ‘Yes!’? Do you know who owns the material you publish to someone else’s site? Do you know how copyright law works? Do you care? What compensation do you get, if any, should the publisher decide to use your work in another medium for which they receive compensation? Are you giving away your stories?

To put a more realistic light on the subject, given the environment of the Web as it stands with the realization that even sites that pay for content aren’t making much (if any) profit, it doesn’t really “pay” to be a writer on the Web. What irks me, though, is that I believe these sites are taking advantage of one spirit of participation—that of the non-commercial collaborative sites that were popping up like mushrooms only a few months ago but now seem to be culling themselves from the crop faster than they were developed—and channelling it to their own needs. There is obviously a huge demand for free Web hosting. Maybe those who choose not to pay to have a Web page or site only get what they agreed to, anyway. Perhaps they are just happy to have a site on the Web and the other points don’t matter to them.

Last month, some GeoCitizens members attempted to exert some control over their product by removing its value as protest against the newly introduced watermark that appears on each page to visitors using a Netscape release 4.0 or Internet Explorer release 4.0 or above browser. Seems they objected to what they saw as an unwarranted infringement on their “rights” (even though they agreed when they signed up that GeoCities could change the membership rights at any time at their sole discretion) so they turned their pages black. A sort of worker’s revolt against the oppressors, Web style.

I have to admit that I’ve never had a free home page because I knew I always wanted to control my environment and my content. I did not want to be restricted by language or topical constraints. I did not want elements on my pages I could not control. It’s the same reason I never used LinkExchange. This is a personal choice and it has probably more to do with aesthetics than ethics.

The Point

At least GeoCities and other sites using this business model are exchanging services (free Web space and email) for products (site content). As a volunteer under this scheme, you can be happy or unhappy with the arrangement and if you’re unhappy you can get out of it at any time, as can the “employer” by firing your ass (deleting your content and refusing you service) if you happen to provide product not in agreement with stated policy. They never judge the value of your product, but they do reward those who produce the best product by linking to them from a main “Best Of” page, thereby granting the volunteer employee some recompense of the same value (eyes) that they are seeking. They don’t dilute their own product because the view still counts as a GeoCities view, and they don’t (further) dilute the volunteer’s product because it was going to have ads on it no matter if anyone saw it or not.

Which brings us back to NewHoo. Where they differ from other sites recruiting volunteers to provide labor is that they make it seem so beneficial to all of humankind. If you read their About page, they are trying to position the service as a Savior for the Web. Each contributor seems to have a duty to participate in giving the service its life’s blood in return for, um, absolutely nothing. Maybe the satisfaction of donating your time and effort to their bottom line. Something like that. They certainly make no promises or guarantees.

I dunno. I could be making a lot of noise for no reason, wouldn’t be the first time. And this isn’t sweatshop employment, no one providing material to any site is doing so because they have no choice. They ain’t making Nikes, here.

The Web has so far been a breeding ground for these types of arrangements. It is certainly not a crime to want to leverage providing a service with getting some monetary gain in return. As far as I know, the GeoCities IPO is the first one that will test in a public forum whether this business model is valuable to an open market rather than just advertisers. Can the Zero Labor Cost Initiative sell on Wall Street?

My guess is, fuck yeah.

July 17, 1998

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