Centre for Internet & Society

The wave of free information production on the web is on the wane.

The article was published in the Indian Express on February 18, 2014

The age of volunteerism is officially over. The last decade of the mass adoption of the internet has been fuelled by endless human hours being spent in producing information which is the new currency of our times. The big transition to Web 2.0 began when the individual “user” became more than either an individual or the user. The individual found herself as a part of a collective, finding a voice and a community of others to belong to. Simultaneously, instead of being a passive consumer of the web, the user started producing data — blogs, videos, tweets, content management systems, online discussion boards, massively multiple online role-playing platforms, social network transactions — all of which became a part of the new Web’s widespread popularity.

Almost everything that we understand as the social web today is contingent upon people producing data in their interactions with the world around them. From knowledge producing websites like Wikipedia to entertainment platforms like YouTube, visualisation and data gathering spaces like Pinterest to photographs of self, food and cute animals on Instagram, political and social commentaries on Tumblr to Listicles and memes on Buzzfeed, the internet is a veritable smorgasbord of new information forms, formats and functions that are generated by the users.

What is possibly the most exciting about this burgeoning information universe has been the amount of free labour that goes into it, and often remains invisible. As digital labour scholar Trebor Schulz points out, the internet has become both a factory and a playground, where our leisure time is capitalised into producing work that sustains the new attention and information economies. For instance, the world’s largest social networking site, Facebook, does not produce any of its contents. It is, in fact, a system of information mining and sorting, which works as long as a growing user base continues to produce information on it. Tomorrow, if all of us stop producing Facebook, and only lurk on it, the platform will collapse. Which is why, Facebook continues to acquire new platforms and applications to be integrated into its universe.

Similarly, the real effort that goes into the sustenance of sites like Wikipedia, which has become the de facto reference for global knowledge systems, is carried out by unsung and invisible editors who patiently, meticulously, and without almost any expectation, continue to add, verify, strengthen and curate reliable information that we can use. When the non-profit organisation WikiMedia Foundation prides itself in running one of the least expensive websites in the top 10 most visited sites in the world, it is signalling its deep appreciation for the countless human hours that have made Wikipedia possible.

But, in recent years, there is noticeable stagnation in the wave of free information production on the Web. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We are producing an unprecedented amount of data — we are constantly being watched by surveillance technologies that detect biometric and genetic make-up of all our transactions, or we are inviting people to watch us on social network sites where we reveal some of our deepest secrets and desires, or we are watching ourselves, quantifying everything from things we ate to the number of hours we sleep. And yet, as we live in a world of Big Data, there is a definite decrease in people contributing to production of free information.

As the digital natives move from the web to mobile phones, traditional websites are already facing a crisis. News and media agencies that have celebrated the global citizen media networks have started realising that the individual user is more interested in local networks and information ecologies which are independent of mainstream conglomerates. And people are realising that their time and effort is worth money. They can be easily compensated for their online activities and gain reputation and importance.

The tension only becomes more palpable when people start realising that there are others who are being paid to work on the platforms that they are contributing to. We all knew that this model of depending on free information was not a sustainable one. But it seems the day has arrived, especially with the recent drives on Wikipedia to build specialised knowledge editors. In the last few months, we have seen people in the FemTechNet project — an academic activist feminist project that seeks to remind us of the intersections of feminism and technology in network societies — carry out “Wikistorming”, where students are adding pages of women’s contribution to technologies on Wikipedia. More recently, medicine students at University of Chicago have taken to correcting and adding accurate information to Wikipedia, which is often a source of health information.

Both of these are fantastic efforts to add to the platform that was the underdog that overthrew the mammoth encyclopaedia like The Encyclopaedia Britannica. We hope more specialised users in different locations, fields, disciplines and languages continue to edit and contribute to Wikipedia. However, it is also a signal that the generalist information producer is on the decline. We are transitioning into a new age, where people are going to need rewards, incentives and benefits for performing information transactions on the web. The user is no longer going to be available for free labour, and it is time we started thinking of “paid usership”.

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