The Work of Online Volunteers

The Work of Online Volunteers


The volunteers who run our favorite groups on Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor or Discord can make all the difference between our being part of a treasured community online or a 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 all of 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 isn’t 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 whether this is still a fair deal. Our posts are the product for internet companies, and you probably wouldn’t assemble cars for Ford as an unpaid volunteer.

Let’s delve a little 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 the self-appointed moderators who lead subreddits, the Reddit forums organized around topics such as breastfeeding, financial planning or koi ponds. The academics estimated that group overseers were collectively doing at least $3.4 million worth of unpaid work each year. The researchers said that was roughly 3 percent of one estimate of Reddit’s revenue from advertising in 2019.

(You can read the research papers still in early 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 their off-hours to hosting online communities, there’s a lot of free and often unnoticed labor that is nevertheless essential to our experience online.

“We want to make people 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 whom I spoke to also said there was no simple answer to all this volunteer work that’s fueling the internet. If people who oversaw your favorite gardening group on Reddit or Facebook received a paycheck from those companies or from 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 wrote 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 personnel at Meta to hash out the tricky judgment calls between legitimate conversation about sensitive topics like vaccinations and what Facebook’s guidelines consider health misinformation.

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

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

Reddit said that it did tailor its products to the needs of subreddit leaders. But a moderator of a Reddit group told me last year that some of the company’s software was so inadequate that the group’s leaders had considered 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 her collaborators also used their research as a jumping-off point to reconsider all of the ways in which we increasingly work without a paycheck for tech companies.

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

We’ve grown accustomed to the increasing ways in which 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.

  • In China, the authorities say they’re using a vast surveillance dragnet to predict crime. My colleagues reported on how the systems target people based on behavior or qualities that an algorithm deems suspicious, like mental illness.

  • Overconfidence is a drug: Elon Musk and other technology executives are treated as geniuses, and that sometimes makes them overestimate their own abilities and knowledge, Elizabeth Spiers wrote for the New York Times Opinion section.

    From On Tech in 2021: Tech executives aren’t fortune tellers.

  • He is the face of arm wrestling on YouTube: Input magazine traced how a retired member of Canada’s armed forces named Devon Larratt used his YouTube channel to help encourage more people to get into his beloved sport. Sometimes, that involves instigating drama and trash-talking opponents.

If your kitten sneaks up on you from behind an array of kitchen knives … should you be afraid?


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