Working for free

7 Feb

In the TED talk below, Luis von Ahn explains reCAPTCHA, which he created to kill two birds with one stone and work towards a greater good: in typing these words to verify you’re human, you’re also helping to digitize books (you’ll have to watch the video for the full explanation of how it works).

After re-purposing CAPTCHA so each human-typed response helps digitize books, Luis von Ahn wondered how else to use small contributions by many on the Internet for greater good. At TEDxCMU, he shares how his ambitious new project, Duolingo, will help millions learn a new language while translating the Web quickly and accurately — all for free.

In this case, the basic premise is that by retooling something that people already do, you can get them to do some work for free, saving Google (or whoever is digitizing books) the time and money that would be required to do it themselves.

He expands this same sort of idea, creating Duolingo, an online application that will simultaneously help you learn a language and translate texts for free. This would help make a lot of information available to those that speak other languages, all without requiring a paid translator to do the work.

Meanwhile, CNN has come out with iReport, a social network sort of application that basically gets people to do reporting for them for free, all while they lay off paid staff (all lampooned  by Stephen Colbert here)

Automating processes is nothing new. Someone creates some tool that does a task for a low cost, or even free — everything form stamping envelopes to playing chess. But what does it mean when this free tool runs on people, people who are basically working for free, all to the benefit of, in this case, CNN who no longer needs to pay 50 staff members. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? CNN gets free reporting, and apparently hundreds or thousands of iReporters are motivated to provide it to them, presumably getting some sort of gratification out of doing this work.

I suppose a similar sort of thinking could be applied to blogs and such, as opposed to newspapers. When you can get your information for free online, why bother paying for a newspaper?

  • Is it right to have this work done at no cost, possibly at the expense of paid staff?
  • Why do people put so much time into work they’re not really being compensated for?
  • Should these people demand payment?
  • Are these people strictly being taken advantage of, or is this a sort of grand collaborative effort, where people provide each other with news (or whatever other good or service)?
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