Some say social network users are like pigs on their way to the abattoir, but is this assessment fair?
There's a saying on the internet, "If you're not paying, you're the product." The sentiment behind the quote is that the free social networks are getting everything from you, and you're getting nothing in return. You the user create posts, upload pictures, and basically make their content for free while whichever social network you use throws ads at you and monetizes everything about you.
The quote is satisfying in a defiant, la resistance, anarcho-syndicalist sort of way, but the reality is more complicated than that. Services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so forth are providing something: the very platforms on which all this content is shared. The quote above takes for granted the cost, labor, and technical skill that goes into creating an infrastructure that can handle hundreds of millions of users and not crash on a regular basis. All of it costs money, and it seems unfair to begrudge a business its need to make a profit.
Caitlin Dewey addresses some of these issues in her recent Washington Post article, somewhat alarmingly titled, "You don't know it, but you're working for Facebook. For free." Her take on the major social platforms falls into the same "If you're not paying, you're the product" sentiment, but she also unpacks something much more interesting: the status of moderators.
If you didn't know, moderators are the heavy users that oversee and run things like forums, discussion boards, and other places based on specific interests where people congregate on the internet (that aren't social networks). Mods enforce the rules of forums, delete offensive posts, answer questions, organize events, update information, and much, much more.
For example, only a small number of editors do a huge amount of the updates and maintenance on Wikipedia. And the 'front page of the internet,' Reddit, is only able to function due to the vast army of mods keeping up their thousands and thousands of subreddits, and can, as the Reddit drama from earlier this month demonstrated, put a stop to the website if they become disgruntled.
It is important to clearly delineate the difference between the, I believe, fair trade that social networks and their users make (social networks provide an efficient platform people can use for free, and those networks show ads and collect info to make money) and the rather less-than-fair one moderators make with the websites they administer. Where the average user of a social network will put up some photos online, make some comments, and share some articles, moderators are putting in vast amounts of labor, and almost all of them aren't being compensated for it.
In her article, Dewey quotes several moderators who work like madmen, and do so out of a love for it and the satisfaction of accomplishment. (The article is fascinating and well worth the relatively quick read.) Reading their stories, I wondered why they wouldn't put their work ethic, which is obviously astounding for a lot of them, into something that would provide a more tangible reward.
I'm getting paid to write this article, but there are people out there who would be willing to create the same sort of write up for nothing more than the attention and respect of their fellow internet users, and the satisfaction of doing it. And this is where they lose me. Samuel Johnson said "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," and it, quite frankly, seems a little blockheaded that there is an uncountable force of volunteer moderators out there keeping a lot of our favorite places on the internet from falling apart.
This isn't to disparage anyone's passions, just to assert that their passions and efforts should be rewarded in ways more substantive than simple 'satisfaction.' Dewey writes how some scholars of new media believe moderators should be monetarily compensated in some way, and she also notes that there is legal precedent for it, when mods successfully sued AOL for moderating early chatrooms in the 90's.
Don't get me wrong, it's great that so many mods and contributors love doing what they do. It just smacks of some kind of injustice that they aren't duly compensated for their work.