In May of 1999 two people filed a lawsuit against AOL. They were volunteers in the company’s Community Leaders program which encompassed everything from chatroom moderation to teaching online classes. You had to apply to be a Community Leader and once you were selected you had a minimum amount of hours you needed to work every week, a time card to keep track of those hours, and reports that needed to be filed with administration. It had all the hallmarks of a real job which is precisely what those two people claimed in their lawsuit. Their argument was that their role constituted an “employee relationship” but I think it is more accurate to say they were creating value for a company that didn’t even feel the need to provide some kind of subsistence wage.
This story has been told countless times as a jumping off point for arguments that labor has left the factory or that even those companies like Amazon or Uber that have been leaders in the contractor / sharing / worse-than-capitalism economy are not paying enough. Some are even calling for “platform cooperativism” which sounds super cool. But there is another, very big, reason why social media companies (in particular) should be paying their moderators and other community leaders: it helps with diversity.
A similar realization came to the fore during the Progressive Era in the United States. In an effort to weed out corruption and machine-style politics at the municipal level many reformers adopted non-partisan elections (no parties), strong city councils, and very weak mayors. Some towns got rid of them all-together and instead hired a professional city manager. The idea was as simple as it was radical: towns and cities should be scientifically managed not politically organized.
That process of reform was flawed and incomplete but it hit upon a fundamental barrier to community leadership: the unequal distribution of free time. City managers were and still are full-time employees with benefits and a healthy salary. Anyone with the right credentials can be hired to be a city manager. City councils on the other hand, especially in smaller cities and towns, are part-time positions. Whereas the independently wealthy and retired can take a time-consuming job with little-to-no pay, workers and even middle-class folks cannot reasonably run for, let alone do all the work of a political leader. That is, of course, unless they took lots and lots of bribes.
The inability for anyone but the well-off and morally corrupt (lots of overlap in that venn diagram) to run for city councils has actually led to a raise in the wages of council members and even the inclusion of health insurance. This quote from the LA Times sums up the situation nicely:
Some experts said the move to provide healthcare benefits occurred as city councils became less a bastion of white men, many of whom owned local businesses or were executives in local companies. With diversity came a need for better compensation to make public service possible, said David Mora, an analyst with the International City/County Management Assn.
“A health insurance benefit was something that would make it a bit more manageable for the incumbent, so that more people might be able to run for office,” Mora said. “It’s generally accepted practice.”
The responsibilities of a Reddit moderator or Facebook group administrator, like a city council position, can run the gamut from a few hours a month to a full time job. Some people will do these jobs no matter what the personal cost because it means a lot to them and they are willing to absorb substantial opportunity costs. For a vast majority of people however, this is simply not the case. Lots of passionate people can’t take leadership roles in online communities because they cannot afford to give away their labor. That is a good a reason as any to pay people even a few dollars an hour to check for spam and ban some trolls.
Of course, if we were to calculate out the value of all that volunteer labor that makes many of our social media platforms possible, and give that money directly to workers, even accounting for server costs, we’d arrive at some pretty lavish salaries. Consider for example, this back-of-the-envelop math on reddit moderators:
Reddit’s estimated value is about $500 million. Let’s say the stingy corporate types are only willing to spend a quarter of that value on the labor that makes reddit even remotely possible. There are 10,114 active subreddits as of today and while I can’t seem to find the estimated number of active mods, let’s just go with 30,000. Some big subreddits have over 15 mods and most have one or two. There are some complicated arguments over which mods should get paid but let’s just simplify the whole thing and pay each one a flat rate. $125 million (a quarter of reddit’s value) divided by 30,000 is $4,166.
No one can live on $4k a year but consider how conservative we were with the amount going to salaries and how liberal we were with who gets them: sure each moderator of r/pics is going to get far less than what they are owed but collectively that team of 23 will get over $95,000. Perhaps that team could split that money up in some sort of progressive way where a successful and retired photographer can forgo their salary and pass it on to a young upstart. Meanwhile the moderators of small and obscure subreddits like r/Troy (local news for my city of 50,000 people) with only 514 readers would get a relatively sizeable amount of money for a small amount of work.
Just as reformers of the turn of the 20th century realized that paying officials actually reduced corruption, we might do well to start turning volunteers into part-time employees if for no other reason than to encourage a more diverse pool of community leaders. We should be paying them anyway, given that they generate so much value, but even if you are not convinced by the Marxist value-creation argument you can at least get behind improving communities.