The Work of Online Volunteers

The volunteers who run our favorite groups on Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor or Discord can make all the difference between being a part of a treasured community online or gathering that descends into name-calling chaos.

New research that tried to put a dollar figure on this work made me want to explore two questions: Why should those internet community leaders work without pay? And does it still make sense for us to essentially donate our tweets, Yelp reviews and Facebook posts to rich internet companies?

On the first question, I’ve been persuaded that the best way to support online community leaders is not as simple as what I first thought – that Internet companies should pay them directly. But it’s worth having a conversation about fair compensation in some form.

And while we benefit from having places online to express our thoughts, connect with others and share feedback, I want us to consider this is still a fair deal. Our posts are The product is for internet companies, and you probably aren’t as assemble for Ford as an unpaid volunteer.

Let’s delve into the research that I mentioned.

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities used novel methods to track some of the activities of self-directed moderators who lead subreddits, organized Reddit forums around topics such as breastfeeding, financial planning or koi ponds. The academics estimated that group overseas were collectively doing at least $ 3.4 million worth of unpaid work each year. The researchers said that was roughly a 3 percent estimate of Reddit’s revenue from advertising in 2019.

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

That wouldn’t be much money if it were split among the thousands of subreddits. But the researchers emphasized that their estimate was wildly conservative. If you multiply the money across all the websites where people devote to their off-hours hosting online communities, there is a lot of free and often unnoticed labor that is nevertheless essential to our experience online.

“We want people to understand that the discussions on Reddit don’t just emerge. It’s because these moderators are working to actively shape the communities, “said Hanlin Li, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University who led the research. “This is substantial labor that is subsidizing Reddit.”

Li and others I spoke to also said there was no simple answer to all this volunteer work that fuels the internet. If people who oversaw your favorite gardening group on Reddit or Facebook received a paycheck from those companies or a weed-killer manufacturer, it might make the group feel less like a self-directed community and more like a commercial enterprise.

Paying the volunteers could also undermine our trust in online communities. That’s a strongly held view among some veteran online group leaders, including Kate Bilowitz, one of the founders of a Facebook group called Vaccine Talk, which I posted about last year.

But Bilowitz, Li and other experts emphasized that there could be alternative ways to compensate online group leaders. For example, Bilowitz told me recently that she wished that administrators of Vaccine Talk could have a direct communication channel with employees at the Meta to make tricky decision calls between the conversation about sensitive topics like vaccinations and what Facebook’s guidelines consider health misinformation.

“That would honestly be worth almost as much money, considering how stressful it is dealing with the ever-changing guidelines,” Bilowitz said.

Li and another collaborator, Stevie Chancellor, said one goal of the research was to give people the bargaining power of online groups that demand internet companies like Reddit to hear more about their needs and devote more technology work and policies to what group leaders want. General Chat Chat Lounge

Reddit said it did tailor its products to the needs of its subreddit leaders. But a moderator of a Reddit group told me last year that some of the company’s software was so inadequate that its group’s leaders were paying for customized technology to help keep track of problematic online posts.

Finding ways to reward volunteer online community managers would make our online communities better and benefit the internet companies, too.

Li and his collaborators also used their research as a jumping-off point to reconsider all of the ways in which we work constantly without a paycheck for tech companies.

Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes would have husbands without our posts or reviews, which are fueling companies to make money through advertising. Our posts and other digital flotsam are also fodder for training valuable computer systems, including GPT-3 technology that “learns” to write like humans ingesting billions of our words online.

We’ve grown accustomed to the growing ways we work online without pay, but maybe we shouldn’t.

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


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