The Gazette today inaugurated its newest columnist, local social marketing guru Mitch Joel of Twist Image, who writes his first column for Business Observer on must-read blogs (he also has it on his blog).
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.)
As promised, today’s article in Business Observer discusses brick-and-mortar companies who violate email netiquette and send unsolicited marketing emails to people. It’s based on three companies I talked about in my “not above outright spam” series:
- Kanuk (which is still sending me such emails)
- Rogers (my wireless provider, who seem to think being a customer is carte blanche for spamming)
In all three cases, I can only theorize about why my email was added to these marketing lists, because not one of them responded to repeated requests for an explanation, the first as a regular spam victim, the second as a reporter researching a story. CIBC’s media relations guy asked for more information about the email, but I never heard from them or their email services provider Komunik again.
A fourth company, Chapters/Indigo, was left out because (a) the article was already way too long, (b) they responded to my request and investigated promptly, and (c) their investigation determined that my mother signed up for an account there two years ago. Here’s what it would have looked like:
Company: Indigo Books and Music
Date: Sept. 24, 2007
What they were selling: Book bargains
Email service provider: ThinData
Indigo’s email followed what has apparently become an industry standard of having people fill out web forms before they can unsubscribe from email lists. And like other companies, it assumed I have an account and wouldn’t let me unsubscribe unless I logged in. But Indigo responded promptly to my initial complaint with a thorough investigation.
Well, actually ThinData found a blog post I wrote with the complaint and then alerted the company. Within two days I had a response from Indigo’s customer service director explaining that someone else (my mother) had used the address to set up an account in 2005, and they have “only recently been reaching out to our past customers.” He unsubscribed me from the list and apologized for problems I had unsubscribing. Both Indigo and ThinData provided copies of extensive privacy and anti-spam policies.
The original message violated some best practices for email marketing that ThinData swears by, such as providing a simple one-click way to unsubscribe. Nevertheless, the provider accepted the response from Indigo and said they “consider this matter resolved.”
That last part sort of irked me. Despite promises that they’re 100% against spam, these companies seem to defer to their clients when it comes to actually determining whether policies are being followed. Explanations are accepted at face value and no independent investigations are done.
The article also includes some suggested best practices for commercial email marketers, compiled from industry sources and the Canadian Task Force on Spam. Hopefully some companies will be a bit more strict about conforming to them.
I’ll let you know if any of these companies decide to respond now that the article is out. In the meantime, do you have any spam gripes about companies that should know better?
Thursday’s Gazette features some letters to the business editor responding to last week’s inaugural Business Observer section, and particularly my opinion piece about independent video producers being exploited by big media.
One of those letters asks an interesting question (which I jokingly alluded to last week): Should letter writers be paid for their opinions?
You are asking us for our opinion on using Web content with no payment to the producer. Well, how about you guys at the Gazette? Why don’t you pay the author when you publish his opinion, or even a letter to the editor? Writing something for publication doesn’t exactly take only a few minutes of his time. An opinion piece, or letter to the editor can take the author hours of his time.
So let’s be upright about this. When The Gazette (or any publication) publishes anything, there should be automatic payment for the author.
Martin Plant, Montreal
At some point, we have to have a discussion as a society over what line exists between freelance journalism (which should be paid for) and reader interaction (which shouldn’t).
As promised, my first opinion/analysis piece appears in today’s business section as part of the new Business Observer weekly page, which includes other pieces from academics and a small glossary of bizl33t from Roberto Rocha.
The crux of the argument is this: YouTube wonders and other amateur producers are being exploited by big media companies who want to reduce costs. Instead of being offered a freelance fee for their work, they’re offered give-us-all-your-rights contracts and no monetary compensation in exchange for the opportunity to have one’s video put on TV.
Some of you might remember a column from Casey McKinnon in the Guardian last year that was along similar lines, and my article is
a blatant rip-off an homage and expansion of that idea. I talked to her and to Dominic Arpin, who hosted TVA’s Vlog show during its brief run in the fall. Vlog, as a news show, relied on fair dealing provisions to side-step copyright. They didn’t ask permission before screening 30-second clips of popular videos online.
Though the article focuses on video, the situation is analogous for audio and text. Media organizations seek “user-generated content” because it’s free. That’s fine for letters to the editor and small comments attached to articles, but what about photos and stories? The line between freelancers and free content is blurring.
Casey’s advice is useful for all independent content producers:
Start thinking like businesspeople and stand up for their rights. Demand fair contracts and proper compensation, and ignore fast-talking TV executives when they say “you don’t need a lawyer.”
If you have any comments about this issue, you can of course add them here (I won’t pay you either, suckers). The Gazette is also soliciting responses to the idea: send them to businessobserver (at) thegazette.canwest.com
(I’ll refrain from pointing out the irony of big media soliciting free content on an article denouncing big media’s exploitation of free content. But at least here you’re doing so willingly.)
UPDATE: Digg it?