Twitter’s slave labor force

Imagine the editor of a respectable news website approaches you, and says he would like to hire you for a part-time job. You will surf the web in search of interesting news stories, and identify those that you think the news website should link to so as to keep its readers engaged. You might supply some accompanying text as well. You will spend 30 minutes a day, every day.

Sure, you say; you think you can fit that into your schedule. What’s the pay? The editor says: Nothing.

Nothing? Can someone really expect you to spend the equivalent of 22 eight-hour days, about a month of workdays, every year, for no compensation at all? Why yes.

Divide Twitter users into two groups. One group consists of passive consumers who use their Twitter feed as a personalized source of news and entertainment. They never tweet; they are pure customers, who (I suppose) see some advantage to this type of news aggregation. They pay by resting their eyeballs on ads and promotions, the source of Twitter’s revenues.

The other group consists of hybrid worker-consumers. Like the first group, they “consume” the Twitter feed as a source of news and entertainment. But, unlike the first group, they also labor for free, spending hours over the year dutifully tweeting and retweeting Web materials they think of general interest, along with brief snippets of text.

The first group gets something for nothing; the second group gets nothing for something. The members of the latter group are pure suckers. Twitter doesn’t compensate them with anything, not even in kind, for their labor that the first group doesn’t get for free.

How did Twitter pull off this amazing feat—of not only obtaining billions of dollars per year in free labor, but from highly intelligent and educated people—academics and journalists—who are normally hard to fool?

The answer seems to be that once Twitter was able to persuade some famous people to start using Twitter, the lure for ordinary mortals was irresistible. (This, even though the truly famous do not actually send tweets but pay their PR agents to send tweets for them, or buy up followers in the gray market.) The rest is a matter of exploiting well-known foibles of human psychology. Crystalline metrics establish a ranking system that enables you to compare yourself to your peers, lording over those beneath you while chasing after those just above you. A fairly reliable albeit radically decentralized system of obtaining followers ensures that you will progress toward an achievable goal as long as you keep sending those tweets. Positive feedback to your own tweets in the form of likes and retweets, with the occasional jackpot when your tweet goes viral, creates an irresistible variable ratio schedule of rewards that keeps you engaged. If only the work—and that’s what it is—weren’t so damn tedious!

It’s a con, but an impressive con, the sort Tom Sawyer would appreciate.