The work of online volunteers

Volunteers who run our favorite Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor, or Discord groups can do whatever it takes to make us part of a treasured online community or gathering that descends into callous chaos.

A new study that attempts to value this work in dollars has me thinking about two questions: why should these online community leaders work for free? And does it still make sense for all of us to donate our tweets, Yelp reviews, and Facebook posts to rich internet companies?

As for the first question, I’ve been led to believe 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 fair compensation in one form or another.

And while it’s beneficial for us to have online forums to express our thoughts, connect with others, and share feedback, I want us to consider whether this is still a fair deal. Our posts are a product for internet companies, and you probably won’t build cars for Ford as a free volunteer.

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

Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities have used new methods to track some of the activities of self-appointed moderators who lead subreddits. Forums organized around topics such as breastfeeding, financial planning, or carp ponds. Scholars have calculated that group overseers collectively performed at least $3.4 million worth of unpaid work each year. The researchers said this represents roughly 3 percent of Reddit’s single ad revenue estimate in 2019.

(You can read research papers still in early form here as well as here. Northwestern also summarize main conclusions.)

It wouldn’t be a lot of money if it was divided among thousands of subreddits. But the researchers stressed that their estimate was extremely conservative. If you multiply the money for all the websites where people dedicate their off-hours to hosting online communities, you end up with a lot of free and often unnoticed labor that is nonetheless essential to our web experience.

“We want people to understand that discussions on Reddit don’t just happen. This is because these moderators are actively working to build communities,” said Hanlin Li, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who led the study. “This is a significant amount of work that Reddit is subsidizing.”

Lee and others I spoke to also said that there is no simple answer to all this volunteer work that fuels the Internet. If the people who curated your favorite gardening group on Reddit or Facebook were paid by those companies or by a weed killer, it could make the group feel less like a community in its own right and more like a commercial enterprise.

Paying volunteers can also undermine our trust in online communities. That sentiment is echoed by some veteran online group leaders, including Kate Bilowitz, co-founder of a Facebook group called Vaccine Talk. wrote about last year.

But Bilowitz, Lee and other experts have highlighted that there may be alternative ways to reward online group leaders. For example, Bilowitz recently told me that she would like Vaccine Talk admins to be able to have a direct line of communication with Meta staff to make tricky judgments between legitimate conversations about sensitive topics like vaccinations and what Facebook management considers to be health misinformation. .

“Honestly, it would cost almost as much as money, given how stressful it is to work with ever-changing rules,” Bilovitz said.

Lee and another employee, Stevie Chancellor, said one of the goals of the study was to give people who run online groups the ability to negotiate to demand that internet companies like Reddit listen more to their needs. and dedicate more technological work and politics to what the group leaders want. .

Reddit stated that it has adapted its products to the needs of the leaders of the subreddits. 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 specialized technology to help track problematic online messages.

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

Li and her collaborators also used their research as a starting point for revisiting all the ways in which we are increasingly working without a paycheck for tech companies.

Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes would be husks on their own without our posts or reviews fueling ad-money companies. Our posts and other digital scraps also serve as fodder for teaching valuable computer systems, including GPT-3 technology who “learn” to write like humans by swallowing our billions of words online.

We’ve grown accustomed to more and more ways we work online without paying, but maybe we shouldn’t.

“If we volunteered at a food bank and the food bank monetized our volunteer hours, I don’t think people would come back,” Lee said.


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