This Wired article provides some interesting insights into the intersections of an old corporate tradition such as the LEGO corporation and online fan communities of the hacking, open source breed. (Found it via Jake McKee’s blog).
It’s an interesting read, which also sheds some light on the dilemma facing businesses and individuals who walk the delicate balance between salaried, financed “work” and volunteer “fan” input; when are people paid to do work for you, and when aren’t they?
Peer production, as coined by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler, is basically a method to build something using the internet and a lot of people’s spare time and spare expertise. It utilizes the effect a lot of connected computers can create via the internet. It makes possible the creation of value of such different projects, companies and products as peer-to-peer filesharing, Wikipedia and even Google, whose value lies almost exclusively in the cached pages of websites, brought together in “search results”. As of now, most if not all such collaborative efforts are unpaid, based on volunteer work.
One assumption of Kaplak’s is that a lot of people are kept out of the peer production loops on the internet, because they simply do not have as much “spare time” to spend on their interests, as college students and rich geeks do, to put it bluntly. Most people with a fulltime dayjob and a family with small children, for instance, wouldn’t ever find time to contribute even to Wikipedia. Where can one find the time for something like this? Unless, of course, one leeches on the “paid time” and so the “spare time” is really lost production time from the wasteful, industrial workflow. This requires that one’s job has a reasonably frequent use of computers connected to the internet, and that management is not too tight.
My point is not that online collaborative efforts as a result are unreasonably unbalanced as they are dominated by young people and geeks (who else can find time to redo one’s edits on an article day in and day out, so that one eventually have to give up?). My point is, that put against “unpaid time” and lofty ideals, “paid time” makes the difference in the end, all the time, as it puts the food on the table. It may be possible to create an online encyclopedia with the voluntary help of thousands of college kids and unemployed geeks with too much spare time on their hands. And it may be possible to develop open source software projects, with the participation of much the same segment of the world’s population. But what about the rest? What happens when the working family man gets released from his daytime job (which he could care less about), because he is able to finance his hobby (which he is passionate about) with a little help from the internet?
This is already happening in some places of the world, among other things thanks to Google’s Adsense program. It is not felt or appreciated quite as much in the West, as it is in Third World countries, where AdSense dollars makes a felt difference. For most, the higher living standards in Europe and USA make AdSense earnings a welcome addition to a regular daytime business or job – in countries such as Egypt or India, it finances a business, a career – or a new car.
These are the financial undercurrents of the new online economy, and it is and will be moving our way, if and when we can build the right products and online architectures to help us take advantage of this economy.