It’s funny how it took the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for the mainstream media to really begin critically discussing one of the fundamental characteristics of the online media space — that much of the content being created, and much of the value being generated — are coming from uncompensated labor, whether it be in the form of blogs, Facebook posts, or tweets.
Indeed, one of the defining elements of the ongoing process of audience evolution is the way in which the boundary lines that traditionally have separated audiences from content producers are rapidly disintegrating. This has, of course, been obvious for quite some time. Yet, very little discussion has focused on the extent to which the valuations of many contemporary online media properties are almost entirely dependent upon this uncompensated labor. And even less discussion has addressed the question of whether this is a sustainable model over the long term. This is certainly an interesting question now that we’re seeing some bloggers promise to no longer contribute to the Huffington Post without being compensated, now that it is owned by AOL.
In Audience Evolution, I relate this situation back to academic discussions that took place in the 1970s and 1980s amongst critical political economists (such as Dallas Smythe) about the “work” of the audience — with the “work” in this case being the activity of watching television programs and advertisements. This “watching as working” as media scholars Sut Jhally and Bill Livant described it, generated value for programmers. It is out of these discussions that the notion of the audience as commodity first arose.
Whether watching TV can genuinely be described as a form of labor is certainly debatable. It’s a much easier case to make today that the modern evolved audience is engaging in labor that creates value and that is going uncompensated in any traditional manner.
But the bottom line is that this model isn’t going anywhere for a number of reasons. First, the media environment has become so fragmented, and the ability to monetize content has consequently become so compromised, that the need to offload the costs of content production to the audience is only going to become more pronounced. Second, this same fragmentation is what compels audiences to contribute to large content aggregators such as the Huffington Post in the first place. Such sites offer a level of access to audiences that simply can not be achieved by any other means. And what the typical user generated content creator wants above all else is attention. Attention is the currency. Attention is the compensation.
And as the media environment continues to fragment, attention is only going to become more valuable. So much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if, five years from now, we saw the institutionalization of the business model in which some content aggregators regularly charged users for posting their content and making it available to the aggregators’ large audience base. Such are the supply and demand dynamics in the contemporary attention economy.