The allure of digital serfdom is a fiction created by big business owners

; Date: Mon Jun 17 2019

Tags: Digital Serfs

Every few months I come across a new YouTube video complaining about how hard it is today to earn a living through making YouTube videos. I feel for those making the complaint, but I also remember my struggles in what I call Digital Serfdom. YouTube is just one of many web sites over the years offering us the chance to post content to the site, and the site owner will direct a stream of revenue our way. The complaints made by these modern YouTubers are nothing new.

Almost exactly 10 years ago I learned about and what was at the time called Citizen Journalism. The deal was straightforward - anyone can sign up to write on, and in exchange for writing news articles we would be paid about $0.01 per page view. At the time (2009) Examiner had a staff of Editors overseeing what we did, and the Editors were proactively working with us to hone our craft. Further, in the Examiner back end there were training videos showing us how to craft news articles, and more importantly the use of social media to promote our own work.

I, like many, jumped in and did my best to be a Journalist and I had dreams of earning a full time income via Examiner. My goal was to positively influence society towards using electric vehicles, by way of writing news articles.

But the dream turned into frustration after frustration. The income never lived up to anything much. The editors were laid off a few months after I joined, and we had less and less oversight every year. Examiner changed things around several times. For a couple years, for example, Examiner had a back end area designed as a community discussion board for Examiners to talk with each other. But that discussion area turned into a huge gripe fest, with everyone complaining to the moon and back about how Examiner's policy changes were screwing everyone.

Finally in July 2016, Examiner suddenly closed its doors and deleted all our content with no opportunity to download anything.

Serfdom. The Wikipedia article talks about it being "a condition of debt bondage". Owing a debt to a feudal Lord put a person into bondage with that Lord. Serfs were a little bit freer than Slaves, but not by much.

Therefore the phrase Digital Serfdom is not quite accurate. At no time did Examiner exercise any control over my body. But, Examiner exercised the right to vaporize the work posted on its site, and to vaporize the status we all had as Examiners.

Like today's YouTube Creator, an Examiner had a certain status. We could write news articles that could get into the news system (via Google News) and therefore we had a Voice that could potentially influence public opinion.

A YouTube Creator has a status based on posting content on a major platform. Writers on Medium have a similar status, since Medium is also a major platform.

That status is enticing, because it is more prestigious than publishing content to your own website. For example I've written a lot of answers on Quora and currently get 30,000 views to answers per month, and have written a few articles on Medium and currently get 20-30,000 views to those articles per month. For this website, TechSparx, I've written over 1000 postings and after a couple years of work to gain attention the site gets 20,000 page views a month. It was a lot easier to get that traffic level on those major platforms than it was with my own website.

Therefore - while I did not owe a debt to Examiner, making my status different than Serfdom, Examiner's leverage over me was the status I gained as a writer for Examiner. Having that status was enticing enough to make me write 500+ news articles on the site, and to focus my business activity around being an Examiner.

By comparison I understand why today's YouTube creators are angry at YouTube. The ones with a busy YouTube channel have earned a status. They have a following, an audience, eagerly looking for new videos, and what they say via their videos is influencing that audience. But YouTube's policy changes threaten that status.

In order to keep that status the YouTubers must do what YouTube says. But the complaints is that YouTube is changing the rules repeatedly, and that YouTube does not apply the rules equally across all channels.

In other words YouTube is in a role similar to a Feudal Lord. YouTube can yank someones status or income at any time based on a determination that the YouTuber has violated some rule. Rules that change frequently, or are applied inequitably across YouTube channels.

It's not just YouTube, there are other major platforms where folks were told they could post content and reap rewards of some kind.

For example years ago Salon.COM (the news website) had an area called Open Salon. It was a blog open to anyone to write articles, and Salon even allowed us to post our own advertising codes. That made it possible to write articles that lived in the domain, which were monetized using e.g. Google Adsense. After a couple years Salon summarily canned the Open Salon project and deleted everything.

The leading such platform today for writers is Medium. A Medium writer can sign up to monetize articles, earning a few cents per page view. Some are talking about how to earn a full-time living writing articles on Medium. But - there is an exodus currently of Medium Publications leaving the platform due to policy changes. Isn't it possible that Medium will change the rules to make it unpalatable for writers to continue writing on Medium?

Digital serfdom isn't just about creating content for websites. There are many services enticing us with "do this task in your spare time and we'll pay you". Some examples are:

  • Uber and Lyft, where folks who own cars are enticed to take the role of taxi drivers
  • AirBNB, where folks are enticed to take the role of hotel operators
  • UserTesting, where folks are enticed to perform website usability testing
  • Rev, where folks are enticed to provide audio transcription services
  • Door Dash and other delivery services entice folks to deliver food or groceries to customers
  • Bird Scooters and Lime Scooters entice folks to drive around collecting electric scooters, charge them overnight, then place them back on the street in the morning

While these services were initially spun as a Gig Economy, where we earn a few bucks in our spare time, some see these as a place to earn a full time income.

But - Uber and Lyft drivers - you do know that both companies are working on self driving cars? Once effective self driving cars are available that a bunch of RoboTaxi services are in the wings waiting to be launched. Once the RoboTaxi services launch your services as a Uber or Lyft driver simply will not be needed.

The status in all these cases is one of Independent Contractor. When I worked as an Examiner, I was independent of Examiner and my status was Independent Contractor. I sometimes do website testing through UserTesting, and my status is Independent Contractor. I write articles on Medium, and my status is Independent Contractor.

Independent Contractors can be "fired" at any time, and that word ("fired") doesn't even apply because we are not employees of these companies. Instead we have a Contract, and the Contract can be terminated at any time.

None of these companies care about us. They're looking for cheap workers where they don't have to pay health insurance or other benefits.

About the Author(s)

( David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.