Trends with Traction: The Internet's Free Lunch Program is in Peril

When I was in 10th grade, my math teacher ,Mr. Steen, scrawled T-A-N-S-T-A-A-F-L in giant letters across the board on the first day of school. It stood for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."

Seemed like an odd duck thing to do at the time—and I have no idea what it had to do with math—but it was Mr. Steen's intent to make an impression and I still remember it 25 years later. It seems this math teacher knew a thing or two about how to engage young minds.

Sadly, many "Web 2.0" entrepreneurs were not lucky enough to have Mr. Steen for 10th grade math and are suffering the consequences.

A must-read Newsweek article this week titled "Take this blog ands shove it." laments the passing of a foundational tenet of the Web 2.0 "movement." It seems that vast armies of people actually won't provide free labor indefinitely.

This is a big problem because a great number of online businesses that have risen to prominence over the past several years have been built on the premise that vast armies of people actually will provide free labor indefinitely. Oops.

A couple of years ago, hoards of individuals volunteered their time to edit Wikipedia entries in their spare time. Thousands became reviewers on Digg. Zillions started their own blog.

No more.

Today, Digg is trying to shift from a social news channel to a social network (because the world needs one?) because they don't have enough contributors. 95% of those blogs people started never saw a second post. And holy of holies, Wikipedia, has been subjected to the disdainful task of actually recruiting college kids to edit its entries.

Clearly, this has implications for you, dear marketing professional, as you lift heaven and earth to engage your customers to develop content on your behalf. Beware. They are a fickle bunch, those "users" out there.

As Newsweek describes the problem:

Many other elements of the user-generated revolution, meanwhile, are beginning to look sluggish. The practice of crowd sourcing, in particular, worked because the early Web inspired a kind of collective fever, one that made the slog of writing encyclopedia entries feel new, cool, fun. But with three out of four American households online, contributions to the hive mind can seem a bit passé, and Web participation, well, boring—kind of like writing encyclopedia entries for free.

nuance that's important to understand here is that people respond to value. There used to be value in the esteem of being able to brag to your friends (or digital equivalents thereof) that you edited for  Wikipedia. But now that's old news, so there's not so much esteem there. New players on the scene like Gawker and HuffPo have taken a cue from the emerging success of FourSquare and started issuing badges to their most fervent contributors (like this one on the left).

Those badges have value——for now.

Unfortunately, for organizations with a more altruistic mission like Wikipedia, their business model is doomed. Not to failure, but to selling ads so they can pay people to be editors.

Truth be told, I don't remember how Mr. Steen was as a math teacher. But I know he taught me one thing. If someone hands you a sandwich and tells you it's absolutely free, somewhere, something doesn't add up. There ain't no such thing.

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