Payment, Please!

Some tenets:

  • Contributing to a community, online or offline has value.
  • As long as that value is recognized and rewarded, a community will thrive.
  • Rewards can take the form of money, recognition, or just personal satisfaction.

The premises having been stated, let’s review some of the latest blogosphere fuss. The current wave of conversation around recognizing the value of community contributions began with Jason Calacanis offering to pay the top contributors of link aggregation sites to migrate to the new Netscape site he’s managing. Like many things Jason does, it’s clever, a smart recognition of a new market and opportunity, and not particularly elegant.

To me, it was initially most notable because of the reuse of the phrase “Netscape Navigator” to describe the users who make the most contributions to the site. A friend referred to it as “brand necrophilia” on a private blog, and I find that a particularly apt description. But of course, the post got a lot of attention for being a fairly brash attempt to grab both users and attention.

Jason also offered the following false assertion, I suspect not because he believed it, but because it’s effective propaganda:

The concept of “free” content producers, which I think WIRED called crowdsourcing, is going to be a short-lived joke. A loophole in the content business that will be closed by savvy startups which identify the top 5% of the audience and buy their time.

There were some immediate responses, such as Thomas Hawk’s overwrought contribution, titled “Did Jason Calacanis Just Offer to Hire me for $12,000 a Year?” I mention Thomas’ post because it references my post from last year, The Interesting Economy, along with the response it inspired from Caterina Fake, Economies of Interest. I wanted to revisit those posts because it gives me a chance to clarify something.

I wrote the “Interesting Economy” post as a half-formed thought, literally thinking out loud, right before I jumped on a plane. Foolishly, I had asked the (honest) question “So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo?” Naturally, by the time my flight landed, people seized on this as if I had said “OMG FLICKR OWES ME MONEY”.

Which, um, is incorrect. My goal was to have a conversation that I would have easily had over dinner with Caterina and Stewart, not recognizing how that could be colored by the hysterical contributions of the blogosphere peanut gallery. A conversation about how most great web efforts will have to appeal to both people’s emotional motivations as well as their financial motivations

The good news is, some great conclusions came out of it. Simply, money is a useful way to reward people, but some things are rewarded by things far more meaningful than mere money. Caterina explained this rather eloquently:

Giving and caring include even the simple acts of putting pieces of yourself on the internet — your photos, your poems, your words — and these too are fraught with difficulty when it comes to money.

People will contribute to a community if they feel it’s worth their time. Now here’s where things get tricky. Some people get mad or defensive when you point out that pontification, punditry, and politics are only a tiny part of the reason people communicate through blogs. Similarly, a lot of people have emotional reactions to the fact that contributions are made to online communities like Wikipedia, Craigslist, Flickr, or yes, Digg, for reasons other than pure monetary value.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money; That’s just not why most people use communication tools.

But there’s more than one reason to make a brash offer on the web. Business 2.0 points out, “If nothing else, it’s a good PR move to raise the awareness among the Digg-erati that Netscape wants their attention.” Even the usually mild-mannered Leo Laporte weighs in, stating a truism that should be obvious: “Digg is what it is because of the entire community that participates there. Ditto, and Flicker, and Newsvine.”

And that’s the most reassuring part for me about Kevin Rose’s response to the latest kerfuffle. He addresses the most critical point in making a successful effort on the web.

Listen to your existing community. Think of what your loyal Netscape users must think – you’re essentially telling them that they aren’t good enough and that you have to buy better users. You can have the best submitters in the world, but if your community doesn’t support you it will never work.

I have met both Jason Calacanis and Kevin Rose a number of times, and I genuinely wish them both well with their efforts. They’ve both built good sites. If either one’s a successful, scalable business, then both sites likely are. But you get what you design for.

Netscape will end up with users who value getting paid for their work. Digg will end up with users who are motivated by the desire to contribute to the community. The question is which kind of site you want to participate in, which one makes the web better, which one makes people happier.

Three weeks ago I said I feel strongly we all need to make something meaningful. I think that we’re seeing a clear example of how there’s going to be a reckoning between the two types of motivations. I’m pretty comfortable with the side I’m on.