Is corporate social media ethical? Is there a “Tom Sawyer syndrome” at work in which people are suckered into doing work thinking that it’s something to be enjoyed?

Those are the provocative questions raised by Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, at the recent South by Southwest Interactive confab. His argument: a key value proposition of social networking is crowdsourcing, in which an actively engaged community contributes new ideas for innovation, or even does some piecework, for little or no compensation. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Zittrain argues that these may be morally questionable ventures.

On these pages at FastForward, we have explored some of the opportunities social networking provides for businesses to improve customer interactions, including reliance on influencers to solve customer problems, as well as crowdsourcing. In the former case, a company essentially can be spared hundreds of thousands of dollars in customer service costs as proponents on the network take care of sticky problems with products or services.

As one observer recently summed up the economics of crowdsourcing:

“Penny-pinching companies are hiring specialists to plumb the vast resources of the Web in search of cheap expert help,” he writes. Crowdsourcing “is gaining momentum among businesses, non-profits and individuals who are getting work done at a fraction of the normal cost.”

Still, Zittrain argued that many social networked arrangements amount to digital sweatshops and opportunities to exploit distressed labor. As he was paraphrased as saying at SWSX:

“Fees paid for crowdsourced tasks are usually so meager that they could not possibly earn participants a living wage, Mr. Zittrain argued. He is familiar with one group drawn to the services: poor graduate students seeking spending money. In many cases, companies have persuaded people to complete simple tasks for no pay at all, instead offering recognition within the volunteer community or points in the guise of a game. Mr. Zittrain called it ‘a wonderful Tom Sawyer syndrome.’”

However, many crowdsourcing arrangements do have compensation at the end, since many are positioned as competitions. Corporations such as GE and federal agencies including NASA position their crowdsourcing efforts as such, with a cash prize at the end as incentive for the selected innovation.  As such, these activities may be as morally questionable as an essay contest.

A counterpoint raised at SWSX was that unlike digital sweatshops, efforts by participants are entirely voluntary, and end-users can log off at any time. In many cases, the work provides benefit to society.

Along these lines, consider the work of Digitalkoot (Digital Volunteers), which has marshalled more than 25,000 volunteers from across Europe and the globe have been partaking in the digitization of historical collections at the National Library of Finland. The Digitalkoot program enlists online volunteers, via crowdsourcing, to help digitize millions of pages of archive material. The project is catching all the text that optical character recognition technology misses, and therefore requires manual patching. Through two online games, volunteers complete small portions of work, or microtasks, to help correctly digitize historical content. The national library reports that the volunteers have already completed more than two million individual tasks, totaling 1,700 hours of work.

Also, while the idea of crowdsourcing labor sounds scary, it also is a huge opportunity for many workers as well. Drake Bennett, writing in the Boston Globe, observed that crowdsouring has opened up greater opportunities for workers and companies across parts of the globe. For example, txteagle, which distributes work to mobile cell-phone users across the globe to handle image, audio and text-based tasks. txteagle is now one of Kenya’s largest employers, employing a 10,000-strong workforce is a network of freelancers.

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