When an executive wants to sound humane during a public address to the staff, he or she will trot out the well-worn phrase, "Our most valuable assets leave the building at the end of the day." Clichés are generally true, but this one may not be, thanks to the growth of user-generated content on the Internet. Whether they're creating content for sites like YouTube and Wikipedia, viewer-submitted news services like CNN's iReport or videogames like Spore and LittleBigPlanet, today's most valuable employees will most likely never set foot inside the building—or collect a paycheck. They may be teenagers posting videos of themselves dancing like Soulja Boy, programmers messing around with Twitter's tools to create cool new applications or aspiring game developers who want to create the next big thing. But what they all have in common is a somewhat surprising willingness to work for little more than peer recognition and a long shot at 15 seconds of fame.
Yet is it really a sweatshop if none of the workers is complaining? They're certainly not complaining about Spore—unless it's about how long it's taken videogame creator Will Wright and his team to complete the universe-simulation game, which finally ships in September. Two weeks ago, Wright's employers at Electronic Arts released Spore's Creature Creator as a prelaunch promotion; seven days later, more than 1 million creatures had been created by users and uploaded to the "Sporepedia" for others to enjoy. "We wanted to give the players high diversity, as well as a huge universe to explore," Wright says. "The only way we could possibly achieve this was to, in essence, 'outsource' the majority of our content production to the players." Similarly, Sony's struggling Playstation 3 console is expected to get a boost later this year with the release of LittleBigPlanet, which lets users create their own games using a powerful but playful set of tools. "YouTube doesn't help you to make a video—it just provides a means of distribution," says LittleBigPlanet technical director Alex Evans. "Our particular take on user-generated content focuses on making the act of creation fun."
Whether these 21st-century worker bees can be said to be having fun (is it really entertaining to update a Wikipedia entry?), there's no question that their moonlighting has value even if they're not being compensated. A YouTube spokesperson informed us that 10 hours of video are uploaded to the service every minute, which she says is the equivalent of 57,000 full-length movies every week. The comedy site FunnyOrDie may have broken into the national consciousness with Will Ferrell's hilarious video "The Landlord," but it's the cumulative efforts of all the John Q. Comics that will determine the start-up's future prospects. We asked FunnyOrDie CEO Dick Glover to calculate what his site's estimated 10,000 hours of video would cost if professionally produced; at the "inexpensive" industry rate of $400,000 per half hour, it comes out to $8 billion.
Glover quickly points out that this number is somewhat meaningless because of the vast difference in production values between an Internet short and a low-end Hollywood shoot. Still, it shows the kind of scale he and his colleagues have been able to achieve in a little more than a year. Now, there are some enterprises built around user-generated content that do provide compensation to those whose work is published, like the $100 and yearlong subscriptions offered by the magazines JPG (photography) and Everywhere (travel). But as long as so many of you are willing to work for free, the proprietors of these virtual sweatshops will happily accept.