Would you work for free? I’m not talking about volunteering at your favourite charity, or helping out friends and family when they need extra hands painting walls. I’m talking about spending actual time and effort doing work that would ordinarily result in a pay cheque, but in this instance fills someone else’s coffers and not yours. It’s called the free labour economy and it’s been around for a long time. And now, even though times are hard and getting harder, the free labour economy is experiencing a surge in growth, and it’s all online.
Stephen Baker (businessweek.com) explores the whole online free labour phenomenon with particular focus on ThisNext.com, a shopping site founded by “serial entrepreneur” Gordon Gould that is manned almost entirely by volunteers. The site has become hugely successful with around 3.5 million visitors per month and it’s all thanks to the hordes of people who seek out quirky, cool and interesting products and submit them for the purchasing public’s attention, for free.
Laura Sweet, one of ThisNext’s most successful volunteers, calls it a labour of love. Gould himself is a little more cynical, attributing the large number of contributions to vanity and the need to build personal brands. “In their niches, they can become mini-Oprahs,” he says.
And therein lies the rub, as the world slowly becomes more virtual and we live more of our lives online, a shining online reputation or personal brand is worth more than financial remuneration. In fact, in many cases it can lead to outstanding remuneration, depending on how successfully you manage your brand. In addition, people are looking for more meaning in their lives, meaning that is not necessarily purely spiritual, but that isn’t tied in to material gains either. It has to do with personal satisfaction and for many people, watching their hard work bear real fruit in a virtual environment is reward enough.
It’s also very addictive, not to mention ego boosting. For instance, before Laura Sweet discovered ThisNext, she used her spare time to create shopping lists of recommended items for all her friends and family. And in all likelihood that satisfied her altruistic ego, the one that likes to be helpful and appreciated. But as soon as ThisNext comes along, despite Sweet’s claims of a labour of love, it becomes a numbers game, and panders to vanity, which isn’t altruistic at all.
The first product that Sweet submitted (a fishbowl worth around $400!) was an instant hit – which provides a rush, as well as tremendous incentive to do it again. Sweet’s ThisNext status – because you have to have some kind of hierarchy for motivational purposes, it can’t all be about love – is number one in San Francisco, Washington and Denver, and I’m pretty sure that she’s willing to work her tail off to keep it that way. As are all members of the free economy who become addicted to success.
And the harder they work to maintain their status and build their personal brands and network, the more people like Gordon Gould profit. He’s not even worried when superstars such as Sweet lose their shine and fall back down to earth, because he knows that there are dozens more queuing up to touch the heavens.
While Online Reputation Management becomes ever more important for companies all over the world, so too has personal brand management; and there is very little to choose between the two.