In valuing work, social relationships can be more motivating than money

predictably irrationalIn reference to my post a few days ago about free on-line writing possibly devaluing paid prose, an interesting post came my way from Mary Hamilton at her Metamedia blog in which she talks about unpaid work versus paid from a standpoint of social relationships.

Hamilton cites a chapter from a book called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, on the effect of market forces on social relationships. The chapter talks about an experiment studying how hard students would work on mindless tasks if paid nothing, fifty cents, or five dollars for their work. It turns out the students who were not getting paid were the ones who worked the hardest. Hamilton concludes:

Money – even the mention of money – always sours the social norm. When the social contract is based on goodwill and barter that doesn’t mention a monetary value, people are willing to work for very little. The minute money is mentioned, people switch to using market norms, and suddenly discover that their reward for working is way under the market rate.

Hamilton sets this in the context of arguments over the UK’s National Union of Journalists’ campaign against unpaid work experience for journalists. The argument seems to be between those who see the journalists as working for the social values of work experience and name exposure, and those who see them as not being fairly compensated by the values of the market. She also brings up the flap over the Huffington Post selling for $315 million on the strength of unpaid bloggers, and a number of those bloggers suddenly getting upset at not being paid fair market rates.

But I think this is interesting in a wider sense as well, because it essentially explains the entire open source/free software culture, in which people build and give away entire operating systems for the sheer joy of doing it together. And it might explain why the creators of licenses like the GPL are so rabid about trying to lock social values in and make it ever harder for commercial entities to profit from their work.

It also explains the popularity and viability of wikis such as Wikipedia, TVTropes, and the myriad wikia fan wikis. (And why Wikipedia keeps chugging along when Google’s Knol fizzled.) And it explains fanfic and other on-line writing communities, and why even professional writers like Mercedes Lackey will write fanfic in their time off. And it explains why collaborative settings like Elizabeth Bear’s Shadow Unit or Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad, or Runes of Gallidon might point the way to the future of books. Social relationships can be a lot stronger than financial ones.

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