The economic downturn is not going to kill Wikipedia.

Please. Will the talking heads just shut up?

That dude who wrote that book slamming “amateurs,” which I will not name because like hell I’m gonna give him free press, has written something else equally stupid. This time it’s short, at least, and free, and therefore not nearly as offensive as the whole goddamn book.

So full of crap

But he is making the asinine and no doubt intentionally inflammatory argument that the economic downturn will make people stop contributing to insert media darling web 2.0 community here in favor of payola, Web 2.0 style.

When we think of the Great Depression, we imagine long lines of gaunt men, caps in hand, waiting for soup handouts. The equivalent photos of today’s economic hard times — displayed for free, of course, on Flickr — may be represented by images of unemployed people in front of their computers cheerfully donating their labor to Wikipedia.

Oh, pleeeeeeeeeeeease.

In his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, MIT behavorial economist Dan Ariely suggests that most of us are irrational when it comes to determining the value of our labor. I’m not sure.

Well, you know, that’s just one uneducated man’s opinion. Oh wait. Dan Ariely is an MIT behavioral economist. Who does genuine scientific research. And cites other people’s genuine scientific research. There’s, like, at least 3 decades of research on these topics.

And this guy is… a history major![1] (Would I like fries with this rant? Why… yes!)

So, about that point

So how will today’s brutal economic climate change the Web 2.0 “free” economy? It will result in the rise of online media businesses that reward their contributors with cash; it will mean the success of Knol over Wikipedia, Mahalo over Google, TheAtlantic.com over the HuffingtonPost.com, iTunes over MySpace, Hulu over YouTube Inc. , Playboy.com over Voyeurweb.com, TechCrunch over the blogosphere, CNN’s professional journalism over CNN’s iReporter citizen-journalism… The hungry and cold unemployed masses aren’t going to continue giving away their intellectual labor on the Internet in the speculative hope that they might get some “back end” revenue. “Free” doesn’t fill anyone’s belly; it doesn’t warm anyone up.

Oh NO! Better start shorting stock in Jimmy Wales!

But in reality, there’s this thing called science

Most people don’t do it for the “back end” revenue (which is a term I think he made up just then). They do it because they like to, because it gives them fuzzy feelings, because they like helping people, because that supports their self-image of being a helpful person, because it gets their name out there, and because they like basking in the warm glow of geek cred.

Everybody knows—or should know, in this age of cheap and accessible neuroscience/sociology popularization—that when you pay somebody for something (or even mention money), their reasoning flips a switch, from pleasure / social justifications (e.g. I’m posting on digg because it’s fun! or I’m writing this Linux tutorial because it makes me feel good to help people, plus I get geek cred! or I’m helping you move your heavyass sofa because you’re my friend and that’s what friends do!) to economic justification (Like, dude! $1 for a digg post is so not worth me actually hunting down something NEW, here comes recycled blog spam. Or What the hell? You think $40 was enough to help you carry that damn couch? It was made out of fucking lead! Fuck you too!).

Once you’ve got somebody sitting there, economizing in their head about their effort vs your money, you’re pretty much screwed. There’s no way you can pay people what their actual effort is worth, with your Web 2.0 “business” (or friend-powered moving endeavor). Once they start thinking economically they’ll see it’s a waste of their time… and since you’ve sucked the joy out of it by making it work, they’re gonna disappear. Poof!

Even when their coffers are already pretty empty. People have such an overpowering sense of fairness that they’d rather get nothing than receive an unfair cut.

But if you don’t believe me, just look for the shining examples of paid-for content on the interwebs. Look at Squidoo. Look at Netscape’s digg killer (quick! can you name it? I couldn’t, I had to google it). Yahoo! Answers. Et cetera, ad nauseum.

Timely business book cliché

This is also illustrated in the har-har-aren’t-we-businessmen-clever-nudge-nudge apocryphal story about the old man who couldn’t get these noisy kids to stop playing in his yard, and believe you me, he tried everything right up to and including shaking his cane and calling them whippersnappers. Nothing worked. Until one fine day when he hit on the idea of paying them.

“Your young voices, so full of cheer, do me a world of good. I love to have you playing in my yard. It brightens up my day,” he told them, “I’ll give you each 50 cents each day to come play.” At first the kids thought, “Score! Free money!” And yet, money was less powerful motivator than the joy of being annoying little bastards and so they slowly trailed off in their enthusiasm for playing—because now it had become work—until one day the old man told them he forgot his quarters in his other pants, and they never came back again.

Which just goes to show, you shouldn’t piss off old dudes with lots of time and access to pop psychology books.

And if you’re going to rope your friends into helping you move, do everyone a favor and pay them in beer, pizza and affection, not money.

And if you think you’re going to write world-changing social software—or worse yet be a social software critic—do the world a favor and read a book on psychology first.

A special note for the one-uppers

PS — Don’t bring up Mechanical Turk. It’s a different case, and you know it.

[1] OK, the annoying dude also has a master’s degree in polysci, but I remain unimpressed.

11 Comments

  1. Ashley says:

    Why have your recent posts gone with an aggressive approach?

    I subscribed to your blog because I liked your rails stuff, but now all your posts are just depressive to read,; I don’t want to imagine what your thinking when your actually writing them… :/

  2. Amy says:

    I’m thinkin, "Teehee! I am gonna clean that mofo’s clock!" and generally having a rip-roaring good time.

  3. Amy says:

    And sometimes I cackle.

  4. Adrian Short says:

    How much are you paying for comments these days, Amy?

    I’d love to be able to contribute for nothing but times are hard.

    Hope you understand. It’s a choice between saying something pertinent here and ploughing on with my forthcoming title, "Homo economicus and other mythical beasts".

  5. Thomas says:

    Thanks for the article. It’s a relief to read something reasonable in these times of hysteria and doomsaying. :)

  6. cafetu says:

    Some men can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

  7. Reinis says:

    People ARE emotional and irrational. Everybody has different values on everything and anything. And money..is by far not the most important motivator. End of story. :)

    I like your posts, Amy. :)

  8. awannabe says:

    re: People rather get nothing than an unfair cut.

    Thanks for the article. The point was beautifully illustrated.

  9. Andrew says:

    God I hate that guy too, as if everyday people can’t be good enough, so nietzschean in his elitism.

    Great post, thanks for the free read!

  10. Mark Frost says:

    Knol over Wikipedia? Mahalo over Google? Youtube being dethroned? That would be one fucked up episode of the Twilight Zone. I feel sorry for the guy who has to live with those delusional thoughts.

  11. Amy says:

    @Adrian, the going rate is… less than zero. Sorry! :)

    @Thomas and @awannabe, thanks! I do like hearing from you. I’ll try to keep it coming.

    @cafetu, hahaha. Thanks. You made me smile.

    @Andrew, what? Free? You must be joking. Everybody else paid $19.95. Fork it!

    @Mark, you know, I honestly don’t think he believes what he’s saying. I think he’s a conscious agit-prop. I mean, most people consider that a person might be WRONG when reading his writings, but how often do they consider he might just be faking it for attention and money?

    I don’t think this guy believes what he’s writing, I think he found a niche where he can get an audience, mentioned in the Wall St Journal, all that crap. I bet when he’s home alone he rubs his hands together and cackles, "I can’t believe they buy this shit! MWAHHAAH."

    Which is why I won’t name him, his book, or link. If anyone cares, they can Google it without trouble.

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