Don’t pay contributors (but don’t treat them like crap either)

In today’s Business Observer section, I have an article about whether or not companies setting up user-generated websites should consider paying those users for their content.

Revver tried it (paying users $1 million in its first year), but the overwhelming reach of YouTube has greatly limited their success. People who post videos to Revver have to also post them to YouTube or find someone else doing it for them.

And, of course, there’s Capazoo, whose business model involved having its users “tip” each other and getting a cut of that pie. This week, they appear to have died a horrible, horrible death, though it seems to have been more about bad management than a bad business idea.

I spoke to Evan Prodromou, who wrote an essay last July about the problems inherent with paying wiki contributors. The arguments hold true for video-sharing sites, blogs and just about anything where users are expected to work to give your site value.

His conclusion is that “it just doesn’t make a lot of sense” that websites pay for users, because payment makes it seem like work. Instead, they should focus on building communities, where work is valued in a non-monetary sense, and more importantly where the contributions provide value to the users themselves. YouTube allows you to share videos and give them a global reach. Same with Flickr on the photo side. These are user-generated websites, but they’re seen primarily as free services to users.

Many clueless latecomers to the user content game (and especially many media organizations) have been trying to push user participation to the point where they’re beating us over the head with it. Newspapers cut and paste uninteresting, anonymous comments from their message boards. TV weather presenters introduce photos of snow (and dogs in snow) taken by viewers. They all plead with you to share your news tips so they can get the exclusive (and not credit you for it) — provided that news tip doesn’t require too much investigation, of course.

When you try to share your family photos or stories about grandma, shocked that such dreck actually gets published/broadcast, you’re met with 1,000-word user agreements that state IN ALL CAPS that you give up all rights to your content including moral rights and (effectively) copyright, and they can do whatever they want with it without asking you or paying you a dime, even if it has nothing to do with the reason you submitted it. Oh yeah, and it also gives them the right to seize your home, take your dog and copy everything from your hard drive. Didn’t you read that part?

The result is that we get a lot of fluff, but very little useful information. Uninformed opinion, but little news. In other words, a whole lot of junk.

As a freelancer, I’m tempted to say that paying people is the answer. Forget this user-generated crap and get real journalists, photographers, videographers and writers to give you quality news and information. But that plea would fall on deaf ears of money-crunching media executives who see Web 2.0 as a magic ticket to free labour.

One of the lessons that should probably be taken away from this is that in order to get good content from your users, you have to respect them and at least not seem to be evil. They have to feel like they’re doing something valuable that’s worth their time (paid or not). Right now, getting your picture in the paper or on TV is still a pretty big reward for those seeking their 15 minutes. But if nobody reads that paper or watches that TV station because they don’t have quality content, will that continue?

As the article mentions, there are some coming out on the pro-payment bandwagon. Jason Calacanis says that top contributors (that 1-2% who represent the majority of content) are providing much more value to these websites than they’re taking back, and it makes sense to pay them if only to keep them loyal.

Even Wikimedia (which runs Wikipedia and related sites) is paying contributors for the first time with its Philip Greenspun Illustration Project. It’s an exceptional case, with money donated for a very specific purpose. But it represents a step toward paying users for their work.

Prodromou himself agrees that some work should probably be paid for. Administrative work, editing and other non-sexy contributions probably wouldn’t get done otherwise. It makes sense to have a small staff of employees to concentrate on that work. At the same time, web projects must be careful about not instilling a sense of resentment among its non-paid users. It’s a fine line to travel.

But what do you think? Does paying users cheapen what they contribute? Should only extreme superusers get paid for what they do? Or should the economy be allowed to give a monetary value to even the smallest contribution, even though for most people payment would be orders of magnitude less than what we would consider a minimum wage?

(Side note: This article sets a new record for the delay between filing and publication. I completed the article in November, and it sat on the shelf while the Business Observer section was being planned. Since it wasn’t particularly timely, it stayed there until just this week.)

12 thoughts on “Don’t pay contributors (but don’t treat them like crap either)

  1. Fred

    I hope that this web2.0 craze ends soon. It’s okay for sites like flickr and stuff like that… But, and i’m sorry to say this… but sites like Cent papiers are nowhere near ready to take the place of La Presse, Le Devoir or whatever. The users that actually bring good quality content to sites/medias should get a retribution. Sending pics of my (hypothetic) dog for weather reports is not what i’m looking for in a serious news source so enough of that crap!

    In short, i agree wholehearthtedly with you..!

    (really sorry if my comment is full of errors… EN is my second language..)

  2. Philippe-A.

    Voir encourage their readears to comment by awarding them with points that increse their chances to win stuff, mostly cds and show tickets. Not so long ago, these points were used in an auction (their word) where you could actually purchase these prizes.

    The comments on Voir are by far the most uninteresting, uselss and flat out stupid of the whole wide web.

  3. Fred

    It has been said that the Internet would be better without comments everywhere.. On digg, youtube, that’s true. On Slashdot, from times to times, comments are interesting…

    And Voir readers are not humans. Everybody knows that they are chimps smashing their keyboards OR wannabe sceners who want to belong so much to said (whatever it is) scene… Voir is the Pitchfork of local media…

  4. oniquet

    @Fred : CentPapiers’ goal is not to take the place of La Presse or whatever. I don’t know where you got that. It’s a complement to those big medias and you should have read it because there is many great content on fields not covered by mainstream medias, even though it’s still a work in progress, an experiment. Furthermore, we are redistributing revenues to the writers.

  5. Peter

    I don’t see how paying users who generate content cheapens what they contribute. It’s just the opposite. Paying someone places value on what they do. It gives the person an incentive to work hard and produce a good product. It’s like any other enterprise. You get what you pay for.

  6. Fagstein Post author

    @Peter: I think part of the problem is that users would get paid a very small amount for what they contribute. Would you think your work was valued more if you got paid 5 cents an hour for it than if you did it as a volunteer?

  7. oniquet

    @Fagstein : it’s kind of a vicious circle… we wan’t to invest time and money on this kind of project so it can grow, but we don’t want for people to think as CentPapiers (or whatever 2.0 thing) “as a magic ticket to free labour”. So our compromise is to give some of the revenues (all of it for now) to some of the contributors as a bonus.

  8. Peter

    I would agree that paying someone a minimal amount for content would not place much more “value” on their work. The point I was trying to make is that the idea of paying someone for content, does not necessarily cheapen the content itself. The best journalism is still done by paid journalists.

    Most user-generated content on the web IS fluff. The reason is that most users don’t create content for others, they create it for themselves. People have a need to express themselves. It’s egotism, and I feel it’s the motivation for much of the user generated content out there. That’s the value they get out of it. My point is not to criticize the fluff, but to argue that I don’t think that most users feel the need to be paid.

  9. Dom

    I can beat your record for time between filing and publishing. I wrote something for MtlDiary in October and it still hasn’t seen the light of day!

  10. fred

    @oniquet: i have read cent papiers and yes… once in a while there is good stuff.. but it isnt often enough to be a reliable news source … ive read more pieces by conspirationist freak than anything…

    anyway… it a beginning and it’s a nice read once in a while…

  11. Tim

    The largest issue I see is determining the worth of user-generated content. With the mass quantity of content being thrown at these sites (and these companies need this volume for economies of scale and marginal profit), it’s impossible to determine value on an individual basis.

    The alternatives, as I see it, are fixed-rate or percentage of advertising revenue. Revenue sharing is the fairest and rewards quality authors, but find a Web 2.0 company that’s willing to implement a system of royalties ad vitam æternam. (Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s 12-cent residual checks from Japan? Multiply by the number of posters on Youtube!) Fixed-rate pay would rob that minority of quality authors, but, well it’s better than a kick in the balls.

    I think the best we can hope for is that these companies respect copyright of the author but openly ask for an exclusive license. Quality authors that generate enough revenue should be in a position to negotiate a non-exclusive license. For money, go pro.

    Conversely, this should be how “traditional” media differentiate themselves in a market full of user-generated content. Prove to information consumers (shudders) that you are worth paying for because you deliver quality content that you paid for through a payroll of quality journalists, columnists, freelancers, editors and designers, as well as an expense account for quality materials, tools and travel.

    “Traditional” media shouldn’t be afraid to elicit consumer input. Letters to the editor and opinion pieces—hell, even pictures of the snow—have their place. But not at the expense of professionally drafted material. That’s not just treating contributors like crap, but your customers like saps.

    I know, I’m living in a pipe dream.

    Speaking of which, Steve… you can send my 5¢ to the following address: … =¬P


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