Society - Written by Naumi Haque on Thursday, February 25, 2010 16:21 - 4 Comments
Playbor: When work and fun coincide
People are busy and increasingly pulled in many directions: working, raising a family, maintaining a home, pursuing personal ambitions, and socializing with friends are all conflicting interests vying for an individual’s time. One of the major issues that arise when we talk about collaboration is individual attention, engagement, and time. We use terms like ‘collaborative capacity’ and ‘cognitive surplus’ to describe the amount of time and mental energy available for collaborative tasks. In both cases, these are viewed as scarce resources.
When we study prosumers, one of the reoccurring themes is how to create incentives to get people to contribute their valuable time to an initiative. Increasingly, consumers are challenging the notion that the Internet is recruiting ground for free labor that will willingly engage with your brand, contribute ideas, and co-innovate with you—consumers want some sort of value in exchange for their time. Contrary to what is being proclaimed in popular social media echo chambers, most consumers actually don’t want to co-create with companies; the vast majority of Internet users are happy to be passive consumers and observers, with only a small fraction opting for prosumerism.
This brings be to the main point of this blog post, which is the notion of playbor. I first came across the term—a combination of ‘play’ and ‘labor’—on the Web site for a conference on digital labor hosted by The New School in New York. The Internet as Playground and Factory notes that, “Today, communication is a mode of social production facilitated by new capitalist imperatives and it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between play, consumption and production, life and work, labor and non-labor.” The simple idea driving the playbor discussion: What happens when we collapse the often conflicting interests of work, personal ambitions, and entertainment into a single activity?
We already see examples of this happening on the Web. Consider Google’s Image Labeler, which creates a game out of the legitimate task of tagging and creating metadata for Web images. A less contentious example is Free Rice, which hosts a word game and has sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme for every right answer submitted by players.
Recently, my colleague Jeff DeChambeau wrote a case study about the dating site OKCupid. Unlike eHarmony and other dating sites where the company determines the question set used for matching couples, OKCupid relies on questions submitted by its users. The notion that the users know best about what characteristics make a suitable mate makes sense. Why this is novel from a playbor perspective is that users, through actions that are apparently self-serving, are also contributing to the growth of the site and the effectiveness of its proprietary matching algorithms. What’s more, the actions of users create value for the company in the form of new data and analytic possibilities (for fun examples, see how OKCupid number crunchers use member data to determine what makes a good profile picture, or why dating an older woman might make sense).
For enterprises, these examples raise the question: How can we make work more interesting, more curious, and more playful so that users willingly play to create value? How can we align incentives in a way that lets us harness free labor? What is the appropriate division of labor across a diverse and fluid ecosystem that includes customers, prospects, partners, and competitors?
There are troubling consequences as well. How can consumers be sure of the authenticity of their experiences? Child labor is a discouraged practice, but what about video games that could be designed so that game-play elements actually contribute to the production of a commercial product like a new chip, program, or piece of software? As our environments become highly-instrumented with and capture data from our activities, how are users compensated for, or even made aware of the commercial value of their data? What does it mean for the broader economy when waged and unwaged labor collapse and are often indistinguishable? What does it mean for society when we debase the notion of pure, innocent play? The Internet as Playground and Factory has a great Vimeo page with clips from leading thinkers that are considering and debating these and other issues that arise from playbor. It’s a lot to digest, but this is a great starting point for people interested in the topic form a social studies perspective.
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