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Cyber Sweatshops

March 10, 2011

Listening a few weeks ago to CBC’s Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, I heard a featured radio documentary by Ira Basen discussing a little-known fledgling corporation called Demand Media Studios.

This piece caught my interest because Sherwood became affiliated with them a little more than a month ago – and his experience with Demand Media as one of their “freelance writers,” had been much like the one discussed on the radio.

Although Demand Media presents itself in an appealing light – as a kind of cyber intermediary connecting freelance writers with freelance writing opportunities on the internet – the reality is very different.

Your role as a writer for Demand Media is to generate answers to the obscure questions that are frequently typed into search engines such as Google. The compensation a Demand Media writer reaps for his/her 500 word response (in addition to the minimum one hour of research required to competently answer the question, “how to make a baby doll blink?”) is an average of $5.00. As the the documentary host, (who is also a Demand Media writer), quite rightly pointed out, he would need to write a minimum of three articles an hour just to make a salary more substantial than he would flipping burgers at a local chain.

The answers provided by Demand Media writers are then posted on websites such as eHow.com which are themselves subsidiaries of Demand Media. By the use of this business model, Demand Media became a $1 billion corporation at the time of its Initial Public Offering in 2010.

People have begun, justifiably, to refer to “content farming” organizations like Demand Media as the sweatshops of the information age.

This also brings to mind recent revelations about Huffington Post – the liberal online journal that has been getting so much buzz of late. Only recently did it become widely known that editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington (previous conservative columnist, and ex-wife of former Republican congressman Michael Huffington) had not been paying the majority of her writers, and just recently sold Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million and an attractive corporate title.

A few years ago, I remember a seeing a documentary about the latest trend in sweatshop labor. The piece was entitled “Chinese Gold Miners” and it was about sweatshops whose aim is to “farm” points or “gold coins” which are used as currency in online multiplayer games. These virtual points/coins can then be sold to gamers  for real money on sites such as eBay. Warehouses with enormous computer banks provide sleeping quarters and work space for a workforce, half of whom play to maximize their acquisition of gold online while the other half sleeps, and every twelve hours they switch.

Marshall McLuhan, the prophetic thinker of our times, predicted that just as manufactured products were the primary object of consumption in the twentieth century, information would be the commodity of the twenty-first. When paired with a dominant philosophy of free-market capitalism, it makes sense that whether the desired object de jour is a manufactured item, or a piece of information, the object is to produce that item as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and to disseminate it en mass; whatever it takes.

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