Compensating the Crowd

Sheri Candler has a thoughtful follow-up to her previous post about the potential for crowdsourcing to turn into a form of exploitation. Although I argued that participants in a project like Life in a Day might get involved for non-monetary reasons, I generally agree with her thesis that filmmakers should compensate contributors for their involvement, but I am pointing to the argument because I think it illustrates one of the thornier issues out there when it comes to media culture today and the role of the “audience” in producing value for an entertainment property.

I’ll start by stating that one aspect of Sheri’s argument still perplexes me a little. She treats contributors to Life in a Day as if they are aspiring independent filmmakers who contributed out of a desire to be discovered, noting the attraction of having “your work would be held up there right alongside theirs.” I’m sure there were a number of filmmakers who contributed out of a desire to be discovered, but again, I’d argue that a number of other motivations (self-expression, curiosity, boredom) likely drove people to contribute. I’d also wonder how many filmmakers out there believe this is an opportunity for discovery given that they were likely to get just a few second–probably a minute at best–of screen time in the final product.

But I think Sheri offers some astute suggestions for compensating participants in the project. Her suggestion of a $100 licensing check for contributors whose footage appears in the film seems like an effective payment compromise, but I’d argue that some of her other suggestions are even more effective. As she suggests, Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott could have done monthly video chats with YouTube users as a way to engage with contributors (an approach that likely would have helped to sustain enthusiasm for the project and build anticipation for the theatrical release). Sheri also criticizes the producers of Life in a Day for pulling the film offline and argues that it should have been freely available on the web under the assumption that positive buzz would have drawn people into theaters. I’m a little skeptical on that point. Making the film available for free likely reduces the urgency to see it on the big screen, although I am well aware of the exceptions to this rule.

Of course, crowdsourcing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the role of audiences in producing value (and I think Sheri is acutely aware of this point). We also produce value by going on Flixster or Netflix to rank films, by mentioning movies and TV shows on Twitter or Facebook (data which is now compiled by marketing companies). A number of scholars have even argued that the mere process of watching TV is a form of labor because your attention is being sold to advertisers. To some extent, crowdsourcing is always implicated in that process of producing value, but as Sheri suggests, there are ways of rewarding participants by creating more inclusive, engaging forms of culture.

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