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Monday’s lecture, and especially Terrenova’s essay, made me reflect on the bizarre ways in which value is derived from communities/products on the internet, and the role of the “user””s labor in creating it. Companies profit from the creation of “platforms” — in the case of WoW, by charging for subscriptions, and in the case of Facebook (as a metonym for a whole class of web applications), by serving advertisements — by making their use irresistible. (After playing WoW for only an hour I could already feel the amazing and perhaps dangerous dopamine feedback loop of leveling up and finishing quests.) But these products are useful and desirable only when a mass of people use them — WoW isn’t much without guilds, facebook is nothing without friends. The labor each user performs might be freely given (here, free as in freedom, libre), but their free (as in beer, gratis) efforts generate significant capital for the creators of the product. Following this logic, the fact that the crucial metric of value for many Silicon Valley VCs is a product’s number of “users”makes a lot of sense — this is why the seemingly ridiculous yet completely serious people at VC firms give insane valuations to companies that don’t seem to produce anything.

After we listed forms of “free labor” in lecture on Monday, a certain company that doesn’t produce much came to my mind: Waze, the crowdsourced traffic app that asks users to report road conditions (traffic jams, potholes, speed traps, etc.). Using both passive location tracking and active user input, the app aims to give optimal directions to its users. “Nothing can beat real people working together! Imagine millions of drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic and get everyone the best route to work and back, every day,” the app’s website explains, in line with the communist utopian/californian vision of free labor Terranova mentions. Of course, when Google bought Waze and each of the ~100 company employees received around $1.2 million, no one was looking to compensate each user for their contributions to the app. Aren’t users of Waze receiving enough of a reward for their labor — the utility of a product that saves them time and money?