When crowdsourcing is exploitation

Amongst the three forms of the new peer-informed economy (next to sharing and commons-oriented peer production proper), crowdsourcing is the most ‘capitalist’, and therefore could arguably be the most exploitative. I have indicated elsewhere the differences between peer production and crowdsourcing, but perhaps it bears repeating:

Peer production is defined by:

– voluntary engagement for the creation of use value, not exchange value

– a production process under the control of the participants

– universal access property regimes, i.e. universal availability of the results.

It is important that there is no direct link between input and output (non-reciprocal character of peer production), i.e. there can be no payment directly linked to the production. When there is such a link, as in paying a programmer to write a specific piece of free software, it will create a commons, but it is not peer production.

Most corporate-driven crowdsourcing will only apply the very first principle, i.e. voluntary engagement but in this case the hope is that it is sold, i.e. it is produced for exchange value, not use value; the companies will aim to drive and control the production process; and the results will be proprietary. Finally, they will introduce payment or Revenue Sharing schemes. In terms of the hierarchy of engagement, crowdsourcing is more akin to swarming than to the collective intelligence of an intentional community, which is the characteristic of peer production only.

So if there is profit sharing, it changes the dynamics and is not peer production. But even worse can be when corporations start making you work, just for their benefit, and without any guarantee that you will get paid for your work. So there is a difference between producing for an open marketplace, where many might by, or not, your product, and when a company asks you to design something specific, but without any guarantee of payment.

This is what is meant with the concept of speculative work. In this model, corporations invite you to design, but will only pay for some of the inputs,it might be yours, or it might not.

Here’s the official explanation from the NoSpec campaign:

“Spec has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis. In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.

In a nutshell, spec requires the designer to invest time and resources with no guarantee of payment.”

In a commentary on this trend, Andrew Hyde is very clear: Speculative work (asking someone to complete a job as an application is a loose promise to pay them if you want to) is evil.

And now, he writes, speculative work is taking on the role and identity of crowdsourcing, as in the activities of the Crowdspring project:

CrowdSpring is a site that attracts people with small budgets for projects ($250 for a company logo) and designers to come up with the designs, including revisions, for clients, with the chance of getting paid. It is speculative work, almost at its worst.

Why is this such a big deal?

Design, unlike other industries is unique in that the intellectual property is put into your deliverable, and when the client asks for you everything you have to put into the project to think about purchasing. I am a designer and this is by far the easiest way to end a friendship with me (asking me or someone else).”

Andrew insists that specwork is different from the selling platforms such as istockphotos:

Not understanding the difference between custom speculative work and selling art backs up my first thought that there is a major ethical vacuum and lack of understanding around design at CrowdSpring.

Going head to head and undermining/ underbidding an entire profession is not something to be done unless you can carry the torch for the industry in the name of good (INGdirect comes to mind).

Is There a Grey Area?

Yes, but very few. Volunteering. I do a lot of volunteer jobs that can be viewed as spec work. As a general rule I only volunteer for non profits that don’t have the energy/ time to look for a designer for a project. I also see some grey when it comes to community contests where a professional designer is hired to take the winner and develop it to the final.”

For example, bearing this distinction in mind, Andrew appreciates Threadless:

Bandwagon fallacies don’t work for a lot of things, including this. If you are talking about ThreadLess, they have done a very good job a) paying their designers fair market value b) involving a community in the beauty of design that traditionally would have been left out and c) making clear that the designs are done for the love of design, not for a 3rd party to profit off of.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.