Free labor? An attempt to determine the value of user generated content – for the user

On: October 4, 2011
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About Joep Hegger
After growing up in and around the border town of Nijmegen, Joep went to Amsterdam for his BA in Musicology, which he decided to finish in Berlin. After having been there for a while, both writing his BA thesis on the interrelation between music culture and copyright in Western societies and busking on market squares, he decided to come back to Amsterdam to persue a MA degree in New Media, focussing on topics related to his BA thesis. Besides being a MA student, Joep loves to make music, cook, swim, chill out, walk, make photos, look at visual arts, go to weird places with new people and dance to minimal techno.


In discussing labor in our current society, Tiziana Terranova argues that production is a “pervasive feature of the postindustrial economy”. This pervasiveness questions clear distinctions between production and consumption, and between labor and culture. Especially the latter has far-reaching implications. In the light of Terranova’s essay, user generated content must be seen as a form of free labor. Essentially, everything users share online can be used to make money. As Terranova points out, this mechanism is as old as mass media, so there is nothing essentially new about this phenomenon. But through Internet based social media, the pervasiveness of free labor seems to have increased, resulting in various protest reactions against service providers such as Facebook. (( See for example,,, or!/fbresistance ))

Writings on user generated content do elaborate widely on aspects such as the democratizing effect of the phenomenon, stress the ease for the individual Internet user to gain access to information, publish, and start up businesses, or critique this ease in the light of free labor, like Terranova did. However, attempts to gain insight in the revenues of user generated content for the users themselves remains strikingly absent. A lot of work has been done in order to construct theoretical frameworks to observe and critique Internet based social media practices, but little has been done on the question what’s in it for the user. I would like to propose to use these different frameworks as a starting point to assess what users get in return for their content generation, to find if their actions should be labelled “free labor” at all.

Wage for free labor

Sharing content makes third parties money. For example, the market value of Facebook grows with every new post, as it adds to its sellable information database, and, maybe even more important, enlarges the incentive for others to become (more) involved. But apart from making other people money, users also make themselves some. This happens in two ways – by not spending money they would have spent otherwise, and by gaining social value, which can result in being payed indirectly.

The open source movement provides a good example of a lot of users contributing to free alternatives to commercial products. Users voluntarily do the coding of the software, maintain websites that serve as knowledge exchanging platforms, provide peers with user feedback, or contribute in some other way, while they all use free alternatives to commercial software. Another example is social network marketing. Anybody can try to have people link to (or ‘like’) a web page showing a commercial or non-commercial initiative, saving on advertisement costs.

Apart from the money, sharing content might also increase one’s social status. Some argue that individualization actually creates the need for online social networks. True or not, social media definitely provide users with tools to engage in identity building. The very existence of these tools might be an incentive for users to ask themselves how they want to distinguish themselves from other users. Of course, this possibility also implies a limitation, as the way in which users can express themselves is limited by the media used. However, taking politicians and other celebrities as extreme examples (and the online job application as a maybe less extreme example), it is not unlikely that users might be socially and even financially rewarded for sharing content online.


Calculating amounts of money that were never spent is quite complicated, if reasonable at all. Therefore, doing a few thorough case studies might provide the best insight to the question how users directly profit from sharing content online. Five different types of users could be interviewed and outlined in personal profiles. For example, a journalist, a (secondary education) student, a politician, an artist and a shop owner could be interviewed, supposedly resulting in profiles encompassing most of the ways users make money by saving it through sharing via social media.

The effects of the modification of social status through user generated content may be more abstract than the money question, but they might be easier to assess than the latter. A survey could be used to ask users of social media if they (a) have the impression that the content they share helped to construct their identity as they perceive it, if they (b) feel that this identity would remain the same if their presence on the web were to be deleted (and therefore if they feel dependent on those media), if they (c) perceive the presence of public and other figures on the Web through social media as improving those people’s social status, and if they (d) can name one or more instances where (they feel that) their shared content directly or indirectly helped them in obtaining money, among other possible questions. The sample would have to be large, and could optionally involve different geographical locations.


Production is a pervasive feature of our late post-industrial society. Many users of social media become producers of content, to a certain extent. Their free contribution to the content on the Web can be seen as a form of free labor. However, combining the insight of case studies on the one hand and survey data on the other, an image might appear of users gaining financially and socially (or the other way around, as the two aspects might as well create an upward vicious circle) through their actions as Web content generators.


Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on Societies of Control
Tiziana Terranova, Free Labour
Seth C. Lewis et. al, Thinking about Citizen Journalism
Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schijndel, Imagine there is no copyrights and no cultural conglomerates too

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