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The Rise of the Voluntariat
May 16, 2014 1:09 PM   Subscribe

The voluntariat performs skilled work that might still command a wage without compensation, allegedly for the sake of the public good, regardless of the fact that it also contributes directly and unambiguously to the profitability of a corporation. Like the proletariat, then, the voluntariat permits the extraction of surplus value through its labor.
How companies like Coursera use volunteer labor to expand their profit margins.
posted by Charity Garfein (85 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
In other words, the Wall Street Journal explains, “[s]tudents will watch lectures on their own and then the library will provide classrooms for people who want to discuss the lectures in a group. The library will also hire a ‘facilitator,’ to help teach the class.”

/rolls around on the floor laughing

/remembers that in the "sharing economy," those making the profits will not be sharing them

/stops laughing
posted by rtha at 1:23 PM on May 16 [47 favorites]


It's the usual: Don't do spec work, and Fuck You, Pay Me. Only with new spin and different corporate backers.
posted by k5.user at 1:23 PM on May 16 [16 favorites]


I have taken some courses on Coursera. Another thing they have on there is "Peer assessments" where students are required to grade each others' work, passing this traditional teaching work on to the students. The spiel that accompanies this is that evaluating others' work is a valuable part of the learning process. There's something a little iffy going on over there though I did enjoy aspects of my experience at Coursera.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:28 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


And in other news, the rich get richer by charging a fee for their work...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:30 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


It takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance for the same corporate overlords who insist we need to dismantle the "welfare state" so people don't sit on their couches doing nothing all day, to then turn around and find still more ways to get people to work for them for free.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:31 PM on May 16 [26 favorites]


I was expecting to read about something more like Gracenote's use/expropriation of volunteer data entry, which is at least just chumps like us clicking away at home. But no, Coursera's proposing in-person instruction with no particular notion where instructors will come from and no funding to make it happen. That is some chutzpah.
posted by asperity at 1:32 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


So that's why volunteer work is such an important resume item these days.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:33 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Yes, the "peer evaluation" element is really rich. When they encounter a task that can't be effectively accomplished through AI, they make the work mandatory for students- many of whom are paying for the privilege in the form of "Signature Track" fees- rather than hiring qualified individuals who are actually trained in evaluating student work.

This was an excellent piece which articulated some very good reasons for maintaining my skepticism of Coursera.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:34 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I didn't realize Coursera had a profit margin. What do they make money from? It's hard for me to believe that the Signature Track fees add up to a ton.
posted by dfan at 1:35 PM on May 16


See also: Interns
posted by blue_beetle at 1:38 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


And the obstacle run / mud run circuit.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:39 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Also worth reading in this subject is Ashe Dryden's post The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:42 PM on May 16 [12 favorites]


Kind of a long time ago, but this reminds me of the LiveJournal support system back in the day, which was largely volunteer run. It was clever. Anyone could answer questions, but volunteers at the lower tiers needed to have their answers approved, and they wouldn't be unless you took the time to train yourself. Motivation to do this work was mostly points - if your question was approved, you got some number of points related to its difficulty. There were some token reimbursements (like free paid account time) but nothing that would match the time you put in. I think there may have been one or two paid employees overseeing a much bigger volunteer staff that overall provided a good service.

I did it for a while. It made sense to me when the site was smaller and more communal, but then it was sold and started to seem like a much more profit-driven service much less connected to its users. I was probably still being taken advantage of, but it didn't feel so crass when they were still promising no-ads and the employees/owners seemed just like other users of the site. The last time I checked (years ago), support was functioning the same way - through the use of volunteers, despite the massive cultural change.

People will do the most tedious stuff for free if you frame it right. Which is why we need laws and enforcement of them to protect people from their own bad decisions. I did free support because I got some satisfaction out of being good at it and because I had some free time - you didn't even need to dress it up as "important experience" or "giving back to the community." I didn't feel like I had to do it in order to break into my field, either (which is where a lot of internships are).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:49 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Space Coyote: That's one of the big elephants in the room regarding Heartbleed - seems that nobody wanted to pay to maintain OpenSSL, so maintenance was...sporadic.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:52 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I think we should be talking less about how transparently exploitative and self-serving the ideology behind this rank bullshit is. We all see that, those of us who aren't directly profiting from it. Sure, it still needs to be said, but saying it is the first step, not the last.

We should be talking more about concrete steps we can take to counter the pernicious trends of privatization, institutionalized wage theft, and job-killing, industry-wide deskilling. Here's one good place to start getting involved in fighting back against the amoral plutocrat billionaires who are literally taking money out of our wallets, food out of our mouths, and the promise out of our and our families' futures.
posted by clockzero at 1:55 PM on May 16 [13 favorites]


It seems like this is just corollary of the 'information just wants to be free' idea. While you have understand the potential impact on academic professions, which when extrapolated, would be significant - you have to believe that the democratization of education would act against the idea of for profit education - so in theory maybe a positive trend.

To interpret this as 'big education sucking more and more profits out of poor students' seems incredibly cynical. Maybe I've just had a good day, its the weekend, and am feeling less snarky than normal.
posted by sfts2 at 1:55 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Think about Reddit for a second, as an example of how the internet works at large:

Millions of user looking at tens of millions of images, posts, questions, comments, etc. And across thousands of sub-sites, which are also popping up in realtime. What should have happened is hiring an army of moderators, a relatively new job title, to handle this new massive flow of data. Yeah, image recognition, filters and user-flagging can do a lot, but it was the perfect time for a new kind of work for the information age.

But what did happen? Reddit relies on volunteer moderators and/or looks the other way. This regularly blows up in their face. Dozens of really terrible sub-sites linking to millions of questionable images that Reddit sheepishly not-bans. Little dictators destroying sub-sites to the point that Reddit finally intervenes by switching around the default sub-Reddits. And this, owned by Conde Nast. That's how free scales.

It's not just Reddit, obviously. You ever try to get Google on the phone? The greatest success about WhatsApp, from this prospective, is that they were able to manage 450M users with a team of 50.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:56 PM on May 16 [25 favorites]


This is actually useful--there was this conceit that the most important part of a college course was hearing the professor's voice. So watching videos of a professor from Harvard (because all the best teachers are at Harvard, or Stanford, because being a good researcher is the same thing as being a good teacher) could replace an education at a local campus.

But those of who teach in higher ed knew that this was stupid: The most important parts of a college course are interaction with a professor in class and through writing, and interaction with other people in real-time in a classroom.

So here is an implicit acknowledgment that a college education is more than hearing the professor talk to you.

It probably won't affect the drive of those who want to move college education online. Because disruption.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:59 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]


Once you've decided that certain jobs don't deserve pay (musicians, for example), its very easy to start rationalizing why other jobs don't deserve pay either. As long as somebody is willing to do it for free, somebody will be willing to not pay for it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:01 PM on May 16 [28 favorites]


And here we are, finding interesting things, sharing thoughts -- creating content -- and paying to do it.
posted by ambient2 at 2:03 PM on May 16 [19 favorites]


I had classes with world class professors at Stanford...with 10 or fewer students in the class. It was amazing. I did graduate work (TA=Teaching Assistant) at a large UC campus. Most classes had two one hour "lectures" with a professor and 300, 400, or 500 students in the class. Then the TAs would take over and do the actual "teaching" in smaller classes (usually about 30-40 students per class).

We were responsible for the teaching, tests, class interactions, grading, etc.

I guess we were "paid" with reduced "tuition" fees though.

I am currently a "Camp Host" at a State Park. There is no pay; zero. But have a spot I can park my van at no charge! I also get a vest with a big "Volunteer" sewn on it.

So the voluntariat thing is everywhere.

Hey kids, here's a post script: Do not major in a social science and expect a living wage....
posted by CrowGoat at 2:11 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"...the deployment of the rhetoric of philanthropy in pursuit of profit — a strategy at which Coursera has shown exceptional skill."

Corporations have been deploying the rhetoric of social rights via astroturfing and other methods for quite some time. Always makes me check twice before signing on to a "cause."

Is nothing sacred???
posted by Halogenhat at 2:13 PM on May 16


I commented on this very phenomenon a while back during a discussion of Khan Academy and the MOOC "revolution". While it is true in the abstract that such forms of organization hold promise to be highly economical and to democratize education, it is absolutely vital that they only be implemented in egalitarian contexts, specifically one that is either explicitly non-profit or cooperatively owned. If not, within the current exploitative economic system, they will merely be used to smash academic labor. I'm highly confident the same holds true for other forms of labor. Capital, unchecked, will find a way to drive labor costs to zero... or even better yet, make them negative.
posted by mondo dentro at 2:16 PM on May 16 [23 favorites]


Once you've decided that certain jobs don't deserve pay (musicians, for example), its very easy to start rationalizing why other jobs don't deserve pay either. As long as somebody is willing to do it for free, somebody will be willing to not pay for it.

Perhaps, but I don't think there's necessarily any empirical or factual connection between the regular citizens who don't necessarily feel they should pay for music and the shitbag venture capitalists who are ruining education in America.
posted by clockzero at 2:19 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I would be interested to hear people's opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly). Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?

The idea would be to break down a large problem into several subcases, each to be tested and worked on by the crowd. Some will be harder than others and make for interesting discussion topics to share back.

This is not a rhetorical question: I am currently preparing a research proposal along those lines.
posted by b9492e7f929dab23426aa2b344d3d5bef083f7e1 at 2:23 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I think it's a mistake to view volunteers as working for "free" in the sense of for nothing.

Nobody does work for nothing. They're just doing it for a compensation package the cash portion of which is zero.

Sometimes that perceived compensation might be illusory or exploitative (resume padding so you can maybe, someday, possibly get hired in this field), but in some cases it might be purely self-actualizing (retired person works as fishing guide during retirement for the heck of it). In the latter case, is it really immoral to not charge for something that you'd want to do anyway? I have a hard time saying that.

So I don't think it makes sense to condemn volunteerism without considering on a case-by-case basis whether it's actually being done by rational economic actors for their own benefits or whether it's part of more coercive economic predation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:25 PM on May 16 [8 favorites]


Kadin: Yes, it would be immoral, because if your volunteering undermines the wages of people actively working you're basically a scab of a different color. (This was the issue at the heart of l'affaire Palmer, by the way.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:32 PM on May 16 [21 favorites]


In the latter case, is it really immoral to not charge for something that you'd want to do anyway? I have a hard time saying that.

I don't have a problem calling it unethical, not when it affects people who are not you and your employer. If nothing else, it impacts price signaling for labor in a market segment and relies on the existence of people who can afford the opportunity cost of doing professional quality work for someone else to profit from for free.

But then, I don't really believe "rational economic actors" exist in the robust sense meant by free market ideology. I would also argue that actors who do professional tasks in such settings are misjudging all sorts of things, either due to imperfect information or, more likely, a distorted view of that information due to the knock-on effects of things like social privilege and income inequality.
posted by kewb at 2:32 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


So I don't think it makes sense to condemn volunteerism without considering on a case-by-case basis whether it's actually being done by rational economic actors for their own benefits or whether it's part of more coercive economic predation.

When the scions of the wealthy are able to take "internships" that serve to winnow down a very large pool of college graduates to a much smaller pool of "experienced former interns," and this is done over the course of years and affects virtually everyone in the labor market, then yes, "volunteerism" should be condemned.
posted by Etrigan at 2:37 PM on May 16 [23 favorites]


whether it's actually being done by rational economic actors for their own benefits or whether it's part of more coercive economic predation.

That's not always an either-or question. It's entirely possible for both to be true.

When we're willing to do work without pay, that decision may not be coerced, but it removes the incentive to actually pay for that same work. If it's for a good (non-profit) cause, then that's not necessarily a bad thing as it frees up resources to further that cause, but if it's just to fatten somebody else's wallet, then the hell with that.
posted by asperity at 2:38 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


(That said, people working for non-profit or public organizations deserve not to have their pay undermined by people working for free in the same positions. A good cause alone isn't enough to justify volunteer work.)
posted by asperity at 2:40 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Conventional Online Higher Education Will Absorb MOOCs, 2 Reports Say

Khan Academy is overrated

Coursera and the other privately capitalized MOOCsare fighting for their lives right now. The bloom is off the rose. Udacity just pivoted to corporate training. Coursera's numbers are not that impressive. They are privately capitalized and are burning through cash. They have to do something "different". the translation network is one of those things. Honestly, Coursera and the rest of the MOOCs are not doing THAT much different from what many post-secondary online programs have been doing for years. The primary difference is that they got some branded post-secondary institutions to go along for the ride.

Another problem with the MOOCS - including Khan Academy - is that they all have a "not invested here" philosophy...i.e. they do not take ideas or advice from outside their immediate network very well. They are all little islands of inbred ideas that keep feeding off each other in a way that leads to many bad ideas sticking around too long. I know this from experience from encountering several MOOCs. It's a pity.

Eventually, we will see more and more online education, but the current crop of MOOCs - especially the privately funded ones - are going to go away. They really aren't doing anything that unique. MIT's Opencourseware project - semi-morphed into edX has somewhat of a chance, but it's really little more than an elite college group's own online education project.

As far as this translation idea goes, it really irks me to see a private, VC-funded institution using public resources in this way, especially given that those resources are already struggling due to shortfalls of public funding. This is Silicon Valley hubris at its best; it's a sociopathological hubris that believes its own BS to the exclusion of anything else. It's toxic in the extreme and is anything but the phoney promise of "progress" that is sold by the VC shills in the Valley (or, most of them, anyway).

Instead, mostly, it's a bunch of very well connected people with wealth taking bets on who or what will bring the highest returns - and doing this with other people's money.. VCs are not leaders; they are low risk gamblers who mostly use other people's money (there are exceptions) to take a chance on a big payday. In the offing, the people with ideas are put under a micro-managed, time-sensitive (2-4 or 5 year) microscope high pressure goal to succeed via "exit" (sale, public stock offering, etc.) that brings the VC (and their connected banking underwriting friends) a windfall.

What the cheapskate VCs are into these days is putting everyone into a room with no dividers, all sharing tables and desks - not because it's efficient - but because it will save money (even though it has been shown that these "collaborative, open office" arrangements are not efficient for doing good work. Watching people work in those spaces is like watching an open-air zoo cage. It's insulting to human intelligence. But VCs have got everyone thinking that "collaborative is good" in a way that serves the VCs, and not the human beings that are making their millions for them - and this goes for the management of many of these startups as well. In the end it's ONLY about the money.

btw, from experience, Khan Academy is in the same boat as the MOOCs..the bloom is off the rose, except for the fact that KA's $$$ come from mostly private foundations. KA could be doing SO much more, but they don't, because they fail to listen to outside ideas; they live with the same "not invented here" philosophy.

Last, there should be public outcry about the co-opting of the NY Public Library's space. Where the hell are Kliener-Perkins, or NEA (the VCs that funded Cousera) is putting up some cash for this project - i.e. helping the library? It's offensive to see these people use public resources and well-meaning volunteers in such a cynical way. Shame on them!
posted by Vibrissae at 2:45 PM on May 16 [25 favorites]


If there are many people willing to do the work that I do for free, or at a much lower rate of pay, then perhaps I'm overvaluing the work that I do. But, companies offshore work to less expensive global markets all the time, which I consider unethical on their part. So I guess I also have to hold people who undercut wages or fees accountable to a certain extent. If someone is doing something for free, just because they want to help, though, that's just the golden rule and they should be applauded.
posted by Roger Dodger at 2:45 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


If someone is doing something for free, just because they want to help, though, that's just the golden rule and they should be applauded.

If you made me a piece of pottery because you are my friend, and then I turned around and sold it on eBay for $5,000 and gave you none of it, that wouldn't be very nice.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:48 PM on May 16 [24 favorites]


If someone is doing something for free, just because they want to help, though, that's just the golden rule and they should be applauded.

I think the problem here is that they aren't really doing something for free. Someone else is getting paid for their work.

If I volunteer at a local food bank, my expectation is that my donated labor is going to both help those who need the food, as well as the food bank itself since it doesn't have to hire people to do it. All three parties win.

In the case of a vole* donating their labor to one of these organizations, it's as if the food bank is charging the needy for the food or letting advertisers buy access to the indigent, or some other unsavory practice.

* voluntariat : proletariat :: vole : prole
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:54 PM on May 16 [21 favorites]


If there are many people willing to do the work that I do for free, or at a much lower rate of pay, then perhaps I'm overvaluing the work that I do.

Whatever it is you do, I'll find someone in the Sudan willing to do it for a pittance. Point being: without social context, such statements are gibberish.
posted by mondo dentro at 2:54 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]


A friend of mine used to work at a novelty company where the family also owned a large stake in a jet leasing firm. Every year, the family would throw a soirée in the hamptons for their jet set clients and would honor their novelty company employees by asking them to the party.

Not to enjoy themselves, but to work. For free. No other compensation than having the honor of checking George Clooneys jacket.

It's no wonder she fled that place as fast as possible.
posted by dr_dank at 2:56 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


If "volunteering" predictably gets you a clear tangible advantage in getting paid work in a field of your choice, it ain't volunteering, it's graduate school with free tuition, and you aren't scabbing other people who want that paid work, any more than someone going to Harvard is scabbing someone going to Boston College because the former has a better chance of getting a good job, despite paying (because of endowment differences) lower out of pocket tuition.
posted by MattD at 3:09 PM on May 16


I would be interested to hear people's opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly). Would this be exploitative?

It is neither inherently exploitative nor fair. It depends on information external to the question. Just like the answer to the question "Is sex exploitative?" depends on context.

In your case, assuming you're not making any money on it, you're following typical IRB procedures for human subjects research regarding transparency and privacy, and the results are returned to the commons, I don't see why it would be exploitative at all. In fact, it seems like a potentially cool idea, similar to fold.it.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:13 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Wait a second... we're paying mathowie for the privilege of creating his website's content for him? Or are we really interns?
posted by crapmatic at 3:21 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Wait a second... we're paying mathowie for the privilege of creating his website's content for him? Or are we really interns?

I assume this is meant to be a joke, but just in case, in an attempt to preempt knee-jerk "You are the product"-ing:

Metafilter is a service- a site that provides interesting links and conversation and answers to questions. The content is created collaboratively by people talking about what they're interested in or know about. People participate when they care to, because they enjoy it and want to be part of the community. We also retain the copyright to whatever original content we post.

If I was assigned to create posts on certain topics, or answer a quota of questions at a certain time in a way that was pleasing to someone else, and if the site owners demanded the copyright of my work for re-use for their own profit elsewhere then, yes, I would consider it work and want to be paid.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:27 PM on May 16 [10 favorites]


Andrew Ng jumps ship:

Baidu has opened a new artificial-intelligence research lab in Silicon Valley that will be overseen by Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor who played a key role at Google in a field called deep learning. He was also a cofounder of the online education company Coursera.
posted by elmono at 3:35 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"As long as somebody is willing to do it for free, somebody will be willing to not pay for it."
Huffington Post.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:37 PM on May 16


Hey look, it's the Gracenote profit model again.
posted by JHarris at 3:45 PM on May 16


I really do not get some of these comments: I see absolutely no reason a business, corporation (profit/non profit), person, association etc should not recruit volunteers in pursuit of expanding its mission, services or profit. And I see no reason anyone should volunteer if they do not see, and experience, some reciprocal benefit. I think I understand the concern and resentment re: unpaid internships etc--this is not volunteering. It is working for free. Which is not intrinsically unethical if there is no experienced benefit. As to whether this undermines the labor market--it may or may not This is the story of guilds, professional associations, licensing bodies, unions, trade associations etc through out time. I do not know where one would draw the line on volunteering: disaster relief, helping a neighbor with home health needs, maintaining attractive roadways, volunteer fire department. It seems to me that if the 'volunteering/interning" is an essential step and required step to a profession or career it is not volunteering/interning. It is work and it
should be directly compensated by a mutually agreed present/future benefit. If the volunteering/interning is truly optional and based on personal or anticipated benefit then it is in fact optional and voluntary.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:55 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


I've poked at Khan Academy a few times and while it was fun to do algebra again, all it seemed to be was a series of quizzes. I'm unclear on where the learning happens.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:56 PM on May 16


If I was assigned to create posts on certain topics, or answer a quota of questions at a certain time in a way that was pleasing to someone else, and if the site owners demanded the copyright of my work for re-use for their own profit elsewhere then, yes, I would consider it work and want to be paid.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:27 PM on May 16


But you are also — right now — reducing the demand for quality written content. And so am I. If I didn't have metafilter to read, I'd find something else to read. Maybe if I didn't have any volunteer-written stuff to read at all, I'd read more articles by paid writers. If things were sufficiently 1991 on the volunteer-generated media front, I'd maybe even do something dire like buy a magazine filled with articles by paid writers, or subscribe to a newspaper that kept writers on staff, or, god forbid, read a book. So even though you wouldn't do Metafiltering as a job, we're both nevertheless in a tiny fractional way taking away jobs by participating in it.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s we all became quite comfortable with the deal where we allow a commercial enterprise to receive monetary profit derivable from our activities in exchange for the social/nonmonetary profit we gain from participating in those activities. Which is fine as it goes, until so much of the world is moved into this model that there's no space for paid work anymore.

I just had a little pleasant dream play out in my head of an alternate world where we weren't comfortable with that deal, a world where, instead of being fine with Facebook profiting off of ads sold around our content, we demanded a cut of the profits. This is a total fantasy, I know, it would never happen, and there's a thousand reasons why it's too impractical to be real, but: what if social media were run on a cooperative basis? What if I received a few cents (or fractions of a cent) every day from the ads sold on the social media sites I participate in?

tl;dr: what if mefi was a co-op?

really though none of this is any replacement for the establishment of a reasonably high guaranteed minimum income, which would really be the only thing that would make me feel comfortable about the "sharing economy" obliterating jobs. but I climb on that hobby-horse a bit too often...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:03 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]


I've poked at Khan Academy a few times and while it was fun to do algebra again, all it seemed to be was a series of quizzes. I'm unclear on where the learning happens.
In all the videos, presumably.
posted by dfan at 4:03 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


If "volunteering" predictably gets you a clear tangible advantage in getting paid work in a field of your choice, it ain't volunteering, it's graduate school with free tuition...

If anything, that's a pretty good argument against the viability of volunteering to further one's career. And, at the very least, a graduate student's diploma isn't withheld until they find paid work. The tangible benefits of volunteering, on the other hand, only exist after the fact.
posted by griphus at 4:11 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I am currently a "Camp Host" at a State Park. There is no pay; zero. But have a spot I can park my van at no charge! I also get a vest with a big "Volunteer" sewn on it.

You haven't had to do the whole summer campsite bum rush for a while have you? Because a guaranteed campsite is worth its weight in gold. Last time we had eight family members running twelve computers between us to score six sites.
posted by Talez at 4:48 PM on May 16


I looked into volunteering once, I feel my life is pretty cushy and I'd like to help others out. Turns out students here are required to volunteer in order to graduate, so there's actually a waiting list to help out at the food bank.

The only position I found on a website for volunteering in my area was asking for people to act as valet parking for their film festival. VALET PARKING!! For free! Ironically I don't make enough to afford a car. I wanted to help people who needed it more than I did, and all I could find was helping out people better off than me.
posted by Dynex at 5:03 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]


This is interesting, and i can't say i didn't see it coming.

Usually an internship works like

Education -> Internship = experience -> Work

This works like, i guess Internship = experience -> no education -> No work

Which is to say, you're "interning" for free in a field, mainly academics/education that you could not turn your internship into a paid job in because you don't have the requisite education.

This isn't "apprenticeship", or an "internship", this is exploitation of the people doing the work and the people getting educated since they're not even being monitored/educated/having their work checked by anyone with training.

This is like a car repair shop where everyone who brings their car in works on another customers car, and some even pay for the privilege.

How is this not pants on head moronic? Am i missing something, because i've read everything linked here and more and it sure as hell doesn't seem like it.

If laws are made about this sort of thing, they should really focus on:

1. Can the work lead to paid work at this company or another company in this field?
2. Would this job normally be handled by someone trained to do this job who would be paid?*
3. Are there other paying customers who paid under the assumption that a trained, paid employee would be fulfilling whatever they paid for?

I'm sortaaa sure that #2 is already handled by the unenforced laws on unpaid interns, but 1 and 3 are pretty damn huge issues as well in my opinion.


Oh, and while i'm at it, this sort of thing has a lot of overlap with the plague like spread of unpaid internships in a ton of other fields. Me and my friend(who has a lot of experience working in high end boutiques, high end commissioned retail where a single item could be $10,000+, etc) were laughing our fucking asses off at a local boutique that was offering an unpaid "supply chain internship" for people who wanted experience with back office work at a shop like that. It appeared that all you did was fill out paperwork and unpack boxes in a hot store room... for nothing. It's debatable whether that's even skilled labor, but it's blatantly exploitative. That world is full of shit in much of the same ways this one is.

Still, everyone kinda recognizes that retail type stuff can be super exploitative(and that vanity/trophy/status shop owners are often phallusnoggins), but how quick the race to the bottom of these silicon valley companies has been with their treatment of their actual in-office employees, and how they treat their customers/essentially remote employees is even more kind of amazing.

They've basically proven that if you put someone in front of a computer, you can compensate them worse than a 5 year old sewing nikes for higher end work and they'll just lap it up like hungry puppies.
posted by emptythought at 5:35 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]


If someone is doing something for free, just because they want to help, though, that's just the golden rule and they should be applauded.

You assess the outcome by the result, not the intentions. If your intention is to feed the hungry, but you flood the market with free corn from Iowa and put all the farmers out of business and then there's a famine, I'm not going to say "But your intentions were so good, so no biggie."

If volunteering hurts people along with whatever good that is done, then that's part of how we need to assess the legal and moral framework. And even more, if the "volunteering" is really exploitation (as is the case with some internships), then that's not cool, no matter how exciting the output (or how high the profits) might be.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


This is like a car repair shop where everyone who brings their car in works on another customers car, and some even pay for the privilege.

Key to understanding the "sharing economy" is that, like all capitalist economies, the entire point of it is for the wealthy to skim profit off the labor of the workers. It's just the latest incarnation of that concept, in which the newest segment of the wealthy capitalist class (i.e. those who made their money on software) stakes their claim on the value created by people who actually work.

Or as Gin and Tacos put it,
The worst thing about Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism – even worse than the willful ignorance of the essential role played by public investment, infrastructure, and research in the development of the industries booming there today – is the insistence that the Valley uses technology to solve society's problems. This is true only inasmuch as Silicon Valley solves the problems of its own society: the problems of being a young, rich white guy who wants to be waited on by servants like the rich of the Gilded Age but doesn't want to hire (or pay) servants.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:58 PM on May 16 [27 favorites]


fwiw jaron lanier wrote a book about this: _Who Owns the Future?_

What would be good reward systems?

"As a solution to this problem, Lanier puts forth an alternative structure to the web based on Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu. He proposes a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, creating an economy of micropayments that compensates people for original material they post to the web."

also btw...
-The sharing economy is about worker desperation
The sharing economy isn’t about trust, it’s about desperation. New York magazine’s Kevin Roose writes the rise of the so-called sharing economy and the startups that serve it—think car services Uber and Lyft and the room-sharing Airbnb—is a sign of tough economic times, not a rosy new era of trust. Mobile technology and better payment and ratings systems powering the apps are certainly part of the story, but the Ubers of the world would not be seeing the success they are seeing without the people willing to drive their own cars on a part-time basis. Since the 2008 recession real wages have declined while part-time employment (vs. full-time jobs) have shot up. With “a depressed labor market,” Mr. Roose writes “lots of people are trying to fill holes in their income by monetizing their stuff and their labor in creative ways.”
-Amazon's non-employee human delivery drones
-3: "The reason the whole economy is fucked is that it rewards people the most for fucking over as many people as possible."
posted by kliuless at 7:21 PM on May 16 [15 favorites]


Here in Ontario, Canada, the provincial government recently ordained the end of unpaid internships in the journalism field. (Ignore for a moment why they focused on that particular sector)

After almost uniformly declaring they would end their internship programs rather than pay, several publications have actually, somewhat discreetly, re-introduced these internships, now with pay.

Moral of the story: companies will pay as little as they can for labour. Not that this should be a galloping shock. Screw them.
posted by dry white toast at 9:47 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Coursera, man, these dudes have read their Benkler. They've figured out how to harness the commons based peer production.
posted by Joe Chip at 10:51 PM on May 16


"As a solution to this problem, Lanier puts forth an alternative structure to the web based on Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu. He proposes a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, creating an economy of micropayments that compensates people for original material they post to the web."

I can scarcely imagine a future more depressing than one in which every social interaction, every conversation, has been commodified and its value assessed down to the cent.
posted by Pyry at 10:57 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


YOU'RE DOING IT NOW
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:48 PM on May 16 [8 favorites]


it'd actually be no less than the replacement of a monetary system based on artificial scarcity with a public ledger (establishing public facts);* think dogecoin cents! BUT for :P
8/Therefore Efficient Market Hypothesis is correct if for "all information" you substitute "all information, theories, noise, and bullsh*t".
---
*Ben Horowitz: "I would like to use that Drake quote, 'I always tell the truth so I'm good in every hood spot.' "
posted by kliuless at 6:48 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


oh and also btw re: theories - "In Lars's world people don't have the true model, but they know that they don't have the true model and they react by being very conservative."
posted by kliuless at 6:54 AM on May 17


So, lately, this is something my friend and I were talking about. He's a designer. I notice the "No Spec" quote above comes from the designer world. It's one thing I notice a lot.

Artists/designers always charge. Period. And that's fair. And I get that it's "I can make more money elsewhere, so I'm not going to discount to you to do you a favor, because then I'm missing out". But coming from the programming world, there are a billion and one coders doing all sorts of open source stuff and sharing and contributing. And it's great for people who want to learn. But when it comes time to do quality art or design, developers are SOL unless they pony up. Contrast that with a designer who can do all sorts of cool shit, then, if they need to, get a developer to do something for free, cuz, "Open Source".

One thing my friend said is that GitHub acts as a sort of shitty version of a portfolio. Designers have portfolios, but in interviews you're asked stupid tests to solve arbitrary puzzles which don't necessarily relate how well you understand the big picture of coding and architecture. That post linked above to Ashe basically deals with this idea/issue... And I hadn't even thought about it in terms of privilege but it makes sense.

I've been working on a game, a small retro-style game. I'd like to make money, maybe on Android or something. Not expecting much if anything.

But then I had a bigger vision for a different project, shared it, and got lots of feedback. Positive feedback. The most positive feedback on any sort of creative project I've ever made, and this was just in one subreddit that works with this topic.

One person said "If it's not open source I won't pay for it, but if it is, maybe I'd drop some money"... Due to what I want in the architecture of the thing, I think open source fits with my views and dreams, and it certainly allows me to tap into a larger developer base who can help me with this.

One of my game dev friends told me that this project is something he wouldn't ever think of trying to program (he's worked on programming and managing for many of the bigger studios)... So that's intimidating. He asked where I'd make money from. I told him that on the one hand I see it as a hobby effort, that if good enough, could become a form of money, but I'm not expecting to see money, due to what i perceive as being a somewhat smaller market. He's urging me to stick with my video game. He also thinks that doing open source on the larger project is foolish and dangerous. He's trying to get me to think about it from a money perspective.

And I mentioned the ability to get developers who are interested to help, and he discussed the need to get them to jump on board, and the difficulties with that, and managing a large team of people.

Anyways, these issues are clearly popping up in two previous discussions with friends of mine and now here, so it's obviously something I have to start thinking about.
posted by symbioid at 7:47 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


But you are also — right now — reducing the demand for quality written content.

This is a little like claiming people who go to a bar and hook up with somebody are reducing the demand for quality prostitution. A community website serves a more nuanced purpose than a just providing content.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:11 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Well, yes, absolutely, a community website serves a more nuanced purpose than just providing content. But nevertheless, a community website also as a side effect functions to reduces the demand for quality content. One problem with the go-to prostitution/hookup comparison is that professional content creation is a much larger part of the economy than professional sex work is. Another problem is that we as a people on the whole value professional creative production more than we value professional sex work.

Honestly, my preferred pie-in-the-sky solution is the guaranteed minimum income. Disentangle capitalism from creative production as much as possible, make it possible for a person who does nothing but produce volunteer content for free to not starve or go homeless.

But failing that, why not try to recapture some of the economic value we produce as a side-effect of our social activity?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:42 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Because it's a fragile balance, and bringing money into the equation at a non-trivial amount would probably mess things up and encourage all kinds of bad faith behavior.

The closest example I'm thinking of is asking for a percentage of the profits from a bar you hang out at, because your friends come there to see you. I much prefer the simpler model of paying money from which the bar-owner make a reasonable profit (e.g. makes it simpler for me to patronize different places) than having to take part in running a co-op bar just to have a drink occasionally.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:02 AM on May 17


Which is great, until
  1. the people at the bar starts providing functions that are currently provided by paid creative labor,
  2. Participating wittily in socialization at the bar becomes a more-or-less mandatory part of the creative jobs that are left.
I mean, I've read Lessig, I know about the special fragility of hybrid economies, I've seen your analogies before. They're seductive, they're absolutely what I believed in the 90s when the Internet was still a small weird place rather than an overlay on life, but the applicability of the bar metaphor totally breaks down when the metaphorical bar becomes a significant fraction of the economy.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:17 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


O hey if Metafilter ever becomes a significant fraction of the economy I expect my cut to arrive monthly, preferably as a fat wad of small bills in a greasy envelope. I was talking about community-type websites where the service on offer is facilitating the community itself, not places that provide some other service directly competing with paid labor. Fuck You Pay Me clearly applies in that case - but I don't think that is what Metafilter or even Reddit is doing.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:35 AM on May 17


I know there's plenty of blame to go around, and the vast majority of it goes to the billionaires and administrators making these decisions, but to turn my gun inward for a second: anyone who is doing work for free is taking paid work away from someone else. The corollary to that in academia is the adjunct. Adjuncts are scabs who take labor away from someone. Any PhD student who graduates and can't find a suitable VAP, postdoc or tenure track gig, and settles on an adjunct position, would do herself and everyone else a favor by categorically refusing adjunct positions.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:52 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


'Peer Review' happens as part Of regular, community college courses as well. I HATE it.
1. I went back to college in my mid-50's. I really did not consider some 17 year old who came in on an advanced placement program anything like a peer. The professor, yes, that's a peer whatever his or her age, they've gone through the training and have the debt.
Also group projects, that is a concept which largely needs to go away.

'Peer Review' by other students gets misused to settle scores. It can be used to wreck your grade, or inflate it.

Don't think students are so ethical that it won't happen, because it does.

Also the no pay for what really is work by companies like Coursera, sorry, that is unethical.

I would not participate. I always thought it was iffy anyway.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:22 AM on May 17


The corollary to that in academia is the adjunct. Adjuncts are scabs who take labor away from someone. Any PhD student who graduates and can't find a suitable VAP, postdoc or tenure track gig, and settles on an adjunct position, would do herself and everyone else a favor by categorically refusing adjunct positions.

What kind of scab unionizes? Adjuncts are not scabs, dude. Let's set this straight: most universities, historically, haven't had adjunct unions, but we're living in a really remarkable moment for contingent academic labor in which that's now changing in a big way. Adjuncts are fighting back against the blatant exploitation that the neoliberal university profits so handsomely from. The union drives prove that adjuncts aren't scabs, and that the adjunctification of higher ed is not working out the way the unaccountable millionaire administrators hoped it would.

Let us not fight amongst ourselves. We academics are all on the same side here, because we all want positions whose pay reflects our extensive and specialized education. Divide-and-conquer is still a very real phenomenon, so I think we shouldn't lose focus of who's responsible for this bullshit system of exploitation and who's just trying to survive and support their brothers and sisters. Because if adjuncts get shut out in their unionization efforts, then management might bring in the real scabs.
posted by clockzero at 10:28 AM on May 17 [11 favorites]


we're paying mathowie for the privilege of creating his website's content for him?

I did it for the complimentary dick pic.
posted by srboisvert at 10:35 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Every time I see that complimentary dick pic, I hear the voice of Headless Body of Agnew. MetaFilter really does provide my best entertainment value.
posted by bakerina at 10:40 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


MisantropicPainforest: Any PhD student who graduates and can't find a suitable VAP, postdoc or tenure track gig, and settles on an adjunct position, would do herself and everyone else a favor by categorically refusing adjunct positions.

And they're supposed to do... what else, until a job appears? A PhD and absolutely no experience at anything non-academic doesn't exactly lend itself to getting 'normal person' jobs.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:56 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Okay, we have a generation of kids putting themselves into a life time of debt for worthless degrees and finding themselves unable to find work, but the people trying to give everyone an education for a fraction of the cost are the villains? I don't get it.

A lot of this just sounds like sour grapes from traditional educational institutions.
posted by empath at 11:56 AM on May 17


Okay, we have a generation of kids putting themselves into a life time of debt for worthless degrees and finding themselves unable to find work, but the people trying to give everyone an education for a fraction of the cost are the villains? I don't get it.

I dunno, maybe read the article instead of doing the silicon valley kneejerk?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:32 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Okay, we have a generation of kids putting themselves into a life time of debt for worthless degrees and finding themselves unable to find work, but the people trying to give everyone an education for a fraction of the cost are the villains? I don't get it.

There are multiple villains in the sordid story of how higher ed administrators, legislators, and a complacent public sold out students, educators and ultimately the country itself. The people behind MOOCs and their ilk aren't trying to do anything except make as much money as possible while spending as little in overhead as they can get away with, end of story. They're not in this to educate. That's the crux of the problem here, that nobody aside from actual professional educators gives a flying fuck about actual education, and in turn nobody gives a fuck about the real educators ourselves.
posted by clockzero at 2:04 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


They're not in this to educate.

I am pretty sure they are. That is the whole point of the enterprise. I've taken moocs, I find them useful. I've spent zero dollars on them. My experience with them has been one hundred percent positive, and I feel like I've learned a lot. I don't feel like people volunteering to help other people get a free education are being taken advantage of, even if somebody else is making money on it.

I do think it would be better if Coursera was non-profit, but it's not as if there isn't a whole bunch of graft and waste in the non-profit sector.
posted by empath at 3:05 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


And really, this is just a lot of howling into the wind, because they or something like them are going to be around for a long time. You really can't compete with free (or nearly free) in the long run. I'm sure my kids or grandkids will find the idea of going away to college to sleep through a lecture in person a bit quaint.
posted by empath at 3:09 PM on May 17


To add a bit of facts to the discussion:
- UCSC professors have started to work together against the contracts offered to them by their university. These contracts are imposed on the university by Coursera. See here for a discussion:
http://ucscfa.org/2013/06/scfas-ongoing-discussion-concerning-ucscs-contract-with-coursera/
- here are the contracts that have been leaked from Michigan:
http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/400864-coursera-fully-executed-agreement.html
- and those from Kentucky:
http://chronicle.com/article/Document-Courseras-Contract/139531/
Look in particular at points 4 and 5 page 27 there.

I think the big losers will be current graduate students, i.e. future professors for whom there won't be jobs anymore, due to reorganisation of universities.
posted by b9492e7f929dab23426aa2b344d3d5bef083f7e1 at 3:26 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


This is a little like claiming people who go to a bar and hook up with somebody are reducing the demand for quality prostitution. A community website serves a more nuanced purpose than a just providing content.

And many volunteer opportunities serve more nuanced purposes than just free labor.* Someone who works as a volunteer firefighter, fishing guide, art-museum tour leader, etc. might do so for a host of reasons which involve benefits that are very valuable to them, maybe even tangible benefits, just not salary. But apparently, there are people who condemn any volunteer activity that might possibly displace cash-compensated work as "scabbing".

If that's the case: if someone doing something for a benefit other than cash must always bow out if they might possibly be leading to a decrease in demand for cash-compensated labor, then I don't see how you can defend citizen journalism, unpaid blogging, or even writing on Metafilter. To say nothing of changing the oil in your friend's car or fixing their computer. Any of those activities decrease, in some small but definite way, the demand for a paid occupation. (The time that I spend reading other people's comments on MeFi certainly takes away from time that I could be reading work by paid authors, and I probably do subscribe to somewhat fewer magazines today than I did when the Internet was just email and Usenet.) Saying that writing for free and publishing it online at your own expense is somehow okay, when it competes for eyeballs with ad-revenue-generating content written by professionals, but being a volunteer firefighter isn't, seems like self-serving cherrypicking. Because the only difference between the two is one (perhaps but not necessarily) of degree, not one of kind.

The necessary conclusion of the "volunteers as scabs" argument seems to be that anyone not doing whatever they can to maximize the cash value of their own labor is a scab, or at least a bad worker, since it assumes all labor value not captured in cash salary accrues to the employer. And I think that's a simplistic and unrealistically reductionist view of the labor market and of employer/employee relationships.

There are myriad reasons why someone might decide to do something, and direct payment in a capacity as an employee is only one. The ease of quantifying benefits when they are paid out in cash should lead us to believe that they are necessarily the be-all and end-off of human interactions or even of those subset of interactions that we call "work". (Unless, of course, you define "work" to be only that which you wouldn't do without payment, in which case what volunteers do isn't "working" at all.)

* However, I am specifically not talking about unpaid "internships", etc., we all know they're exploitative bullshit. I'm taking that agreement on premise. Industries where employers have basically decided that x years of unpaid internships are required resume padding are just colluding to depress effective starting salaries. Keeping a regulatory eye out for industries where this has become de rigueur and correcting it seems like good sense.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:38 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


Late-breaking correction, last para.: The ease of quantifying benefits when they are paid out in cash shouldn't lead us to believe that they are necessarily the be-all and end-all of of human interactions ...

I should probably see if anyone wants to volunteer as an editor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:35 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


People upthread were saying that Khan Academy and others "do not take ideas or advice from outside their immediate network very well". I don't know about the others, but that is not true for Khan Academy. They are partnering right now with the public school my son attends to work out how to combine online and traditional education for best effect.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:49 PM on May 18


I just had a little pleasant dream play out in my head of an alternate world where we weren't comfortable with that deal, a world where, instead of being fine with Facebook profiting off of ads sold around our content, we demanded a cut of the profits.

Its interesting that this does happen on some social/media/etc sites and not others. On YouTube now, the bar for getting your videos monetized is extremely low, and then you do get a cut of the profits. Whats more, I think without this more people would be upset than they are at the same thing not happening on Facebook. Maybe its because on YT each video is a separate entity/page and so the association of ads to content is very explicit. On Metafilter or Facebook, its harder to judge whose content is really bringing in the ad revenue (if this thread has an ad, does revenue get split evenly among all commenters? Or what? And commenters don't even see ads themselves, since we're all paid users!).
posted by wildcrdj at 9:18 PM on May 18


But when it comes time to do quality art or design, developers are SOL unless they pony up. Contrast that with a designer who can do all sorts of cool shit, then, if they need to, get a developer to do something for free, cuz, "Open Source".

Honestly this seems like a failure on the dev side to me. I guess I'm like the designers in your comment, I don't code for free. But, I have 16 years experience in the field and don't need a GitHub portfolio to get a job. Its strange/concerning to me that for newer devs that seems to be seen as an increasing requirement, and it speaks to the concern above that once volunteerism becomes an expected part or requirement of a job, it will have a coercive effect on pay.

Especially since a lot of open source code is then used by corporations to make money, without any of that money going to the devs who wrote the code.
posted by wildcrdj at 9:30 PM on May 18


People upthread were saying that Khan Academy and others "do not take ideas or advice from outside their immediate network very well". I don't know about the others, but that is not true for Khan Academy. They are partnering right now with the public school my son attends to work out how to combine online and traditional education for best effect.

I didn't say that Khan isn't innovating; I said they don't use outside ideas very effectively. KA, like the big MOOCs are big echo chambers. Khan Academy are using traditional video lectures (that, it turns out, are not at that) in tandem with traditional education. They have added assessments, badges, etc. etc. They talk about gamification - yadda yadda.

Their solutions don't even reach the 100's of millions they claim to want to reach - even though there are competing solutions (obtained via partnership) that would enable KA to do just that - solutions that KA are aware of. Instead, KA are using a clumsy third party solution (Rasberry Pi) to deliver something they call Khan Academy Lite to some developing nations, even though they know about more facile, more interactive, more lightweight, less costly, and speedier solutions that scale. There is a lot more going on at KA that doesn't make sense - especially given all KA's gusto about being the "world's teacher". Don't get me wrong, KA are doing cool stuff, but they - like the MOOCs keep passing up opportunities from outside that could create exponential opportunities to reach people that they currently cannot.
posted by Vibrissae at 4:10 AM on May 19


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