The new “gift economy”: How flaming notebook, Legomania fueled free labor

   Glad to read that Dell now embraces its customers with “groundswell” technology. Gee, if I hadn’t picked up Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s book on the same subject, I never would have known.   For some of us, it’s a too little too late. I was one of the many unfortunate owners of a problematic Dell laptop: Part of my keyboard melted only weeks after I bought it.  So what did Dell do? It sent me another computer all right – a REFURBUSHED model.  So I paid full price for a new computer, which had a meltdown in no time, and in return I got a used computer. Perhaps if I had been blogging in early 2004, I might have made an impact on a company with shoddy customer service. But Dell did have an impact on me: it lost me forever. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what technology it now uses to lure its customers.

   However, Li and Bernoff’s account in their book, Groundswell, did make me consider a few things relative to Dell. First of all, I wonder if the person with the notebook flambé – the one that actually caught fire – also got a refurbished model. I suspect not, because that mishap was too well publicized for Dell to get away with it. Also, the authors relate that after journalist Jeff Jarvis began “mouthing off about Dell hell,” the company began tracking blog posts. So my question is, what about the rest of us who didn’t blog then? Seems we didn’t matter, which is remarkable considering that blogging was an activity of a small minority back then;  even in 2006, according to Groundswell, online reviews by a blogger rated last, at 30 percent, in sources consumers trusted for information about products or services. So it seems Dell was interested only in a particular kind of customer – whose very public diatribe reached only a limited — perhaps elite — group of other customers. 
   I’m also blown away by the book’s various accounts of people spending what amounts to the equivalent of a job making money for companies that don’t pay them a dime. Dell is one of them. Jeff Stenski, we learn, has a day job as an engineer, but he also posts on Dell’s community support forum. Since 1999, he’s logged on to the forum an equivalent of 123 working days a year.  Jeff singlehandedly saves Dell over $1 million if one out of 20 people reading his posts has, as a result, had their question answered and not called Dell. People like Jeff participate for the “gratitude,” we are told, and this phenomenon is called “psychic income.”
   Ditto for Lego, which fans out “ambassadors,” who have “an explicit responsibility” to listen to other Adult Fans of Lego, “develop consensus, and highlight their desires to the Lego company.”  They become spokespeople for the company’s message, which “has an incalculable value in helping ensure that products designed for adult Lego buyers will actually succeed.”  Yet these folks are not paid in cash; they’re paid in Lego bricks. We further learn that “A company that starts by energizing the groundswell will end up with a whole bunch of unpaid R&D partners.” 
    Then, the authors go on to tell us that if a company has celebrity customers, it can reach out and “secure (and pay for) their participation in advance.”

   This smacks of inequity to me; we get to toil for “psychic income,” unless we are famous, in which case, how can we not get paid in real income?  Also, I wonder if anyone is seeing these massive freebees that boost the company bottom line as glorified online sweatshops. Would there be massive protests over exploitation?
   I did a little digging, and it appears that what we are seeing relative to rolling up our sleeves gratis is part of a gigantic paradigm shift that is documented by Wall Street Journal blogger Gary Hamel, who writes about “Management 2.0.” In addressing the gulf between the Facebook generation’s new work expectations and  the old legacy practices of Fortune 500 companies, Hamel compiled a list of twelve “work-relevant characteristics of online life” that will be used by future employees as yardsticks to determine whether or not your company is passé.  Here’s one of them:
   “Intrinsic rewards matter most. The web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given—add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the joy of accomplishment.”
   Blogging about this phenomenon, Jarvis uses the same terminology to address the “gift economy.”   As a journalist who has been critical of closed minds, it’s critical for me to remain open to this new concept and see how this new economy plays out.

   I do have an immediate concern, though, that warrants addressing. Groundswell informed me there is a Massachusetts company, BzzAgent, that sells word-of-mouth programs; if your company signs up, BzzAgent sends some of its 300,000 “volunteer brand evangelists” your product or coupons for your product. If your product is a thumbs-down, BzzAgent won’t buzz about it; but if they like it, they will.
   Seems to me we’re being told the key reason to embrace “groundswell” is for an honest dialogue with our customers. Are we to believe that BzzAgent’s strategy is genuine communication? And that is precisely why I am just a bit skeptical of the power of “word of mouth.” Li and Bernoff say, “Hear it from one person, and it’s intriguing. Hear it from five or ten, even if you didn’t know them before, and it has to be true.”  Given BzzAgent’s MO, I have reason to worry.


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