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Zuckerberg et al: Foxes guard the hen house

POSTED April 10, 2018 10:00 p.m.

Nasim Aghdam shooting up YouTube headquarters in San Bruno is an unbalanced and inexcusable act by any civilized standard.

The violence aside, it is also an indictment of the gig economy that those getting famously rich by “disrupting” traditional labor models are perpetuating as a way for people to have control of their own destiny and not be a slave to the old 8 to 5 world.

YouTube makes its money by harnessing the creativity of folks who are basically independent contractors that provide video content that they can sell advertising to accompany the material when it reaches a specific level of clicks.

It sounds good until you get into the weeds. Yes, there are those making six figures posting videos of suicide victims running next to ads for personal hygiene products but for every wildly successful content provider there are thousands upon thousands who get used without benefiting. I get it. It’s the artist model where creative souls can express themselves and — when everything aligns perfectly — they can become the Andy Warhol of YouTube basking in notoriety and rolling in the dough.

But in truth for many it is a tech version of a Ponzi scheme. The time and money that most YouTube posters invest is rarely compensated and certainly not to the degree that YouTube rakes in.

YouTube in a way is a benign version of the 19th century version of high tech entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution who created sweatshops with piecemeal pay but with added conditions that the firm must sell “x” amount of product you generate before you will get paid and then attaches various conditions on how you are compensated. Worse yet, those conditions change without notice, are interpreted differently from month to month, and — more often than not — are administered on a “we’ll get back to you when we feel like it” basis when a content provider has a dispute

Granted, no one is forcing anyone to upload videos to YouTube. But firms like YouTube, Uber, Facebook, and Google can’t have it both ways. They want to mine the wealth by breaking all the rules but then they rely on the same rules to argue that they are not doing business in a manner that requires them to compensate those whose work they profit from. There would be no reason to click on YouTube if there was no content to see. And without viewers no one is going to buy advertising. The old economy, of course, would spend massive sums in creating content and would rely on advertising and/or paid subscriptions to generate revenue and hopefully make a profit.

Having piecemeal contractors is always less expensive as you can avoid payroll costs. Applying it to entertainment with a click threshold is even better because you don’t have to pay anyone for their work unless they generate an audience of a certain size.

And since YouTube embraces the shoot first and ask questions later approach to policing content as they don’t have to bother with reviewing or pre-editing, so to speak, videos that are uploaded before they go live.

Google set the 21st century standard for profiting off other people’s work especially when it comes to intellectual creativity.

Fifteen years ago, I had a conversation with a then 21-year-old who argued that he shouldn’t have to pay for anything on the Internet he wanted to access whether it was music or literature. He happened to mention a week prior that one of his goals was to write a book.

Remembering that, I asked whether he thought his book should be free because someone posted it on the Internet. His reply was “no” saying that was different.

That is the exact logic that has guided much of society in tossing aside standards that stood for centuries in the spirit of more open engagement. Book publishers, music recording companies and such were considered parasites.

Today they’ve been replaced by the likes of YouTube, Facebook, and Google. They are the parasites sucking revenue from content producers that often get little or no compensation unless they can come up with outlandish work that appeals to the lowest common dominator to secure hundreds of thousands of clicks. Given the model works best with risqué and sensational content they play the “we’re just providing the town square’” card when a video offends or triggers bullying and violent behavior. But they always conveniently gloss over in their public square analogy that traditional public squares weren’t put in place to sell advertising to enrich those that build public squares.

This is not to imply social media and the various ways the Internet has been used to power the economy and culture is wrong or that they should operate under the rules that applied to commerce prior to phones becoming smart.

What needs to happen are two basic things. If a “tech” firm is engaged in the same business as a traditional “brick and mortar” firm they need to follow the same rules in how employees, contractors, taxes, and legal responsibilities are handled.

And if they are indeed a true Internet business such as one can argue Facebook and YouTube are they need to abide by rules and they can’t be their own rules.

That’s because tech firms on a daily basis are being exposed as basically liars when it comes to enforcing their own rules that they have lauded as being pro-active to protect users and/or customers thus eliminating the need for government regulation.

Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley peers are foxes guarding the hen house.

 

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