Quite a few stories about our brave new web-enabled economy made rounds last week, and together they provide an interesting survey of the culture of work in the Information Age. It starts, more or less, with James Surowiecki's appraisal of Upstart in The New Yorker. His measured confidence in the new model for personal loans, in which individuals borrow money from wealthy patrons in exchange for a percentage of future earnings based on one's projected income (typically 3–4% over 5–10 years; no more than 7%). The idea is to provide a structured horizon for opportunities that require a small amount of capital, whether it is entrepreneurial or educational—they also recently announced a kind of 'third party' scholarship program for aspiring developers who are looking for a patron to defray the costs of code school, a $12,000, 12-week program with a 90% placement rate at an average of $80 large starting salary.
New York Magazine's Kevin Roose responds a darker view of Upstart, drawing an analogy with indentured servitude, citing a rosy Bloomberg segment (above) on TaskRabbit as another example of unfounded buoyancy. Roose portrays the entire 'gig economy'—as noted in the San Francisco Chronicle—as a fallacious boon to a still-faltering workforce, an empty promise for the underemployed masses.
Leah Busque, CEO of Taskrabbit, notes that when she started the company in 2008, "words like 'collaborative consumption' and the 'sharing economy' didn't exist yet," but Roose is suggesting that those phenomena are not facilitating the process of making a living on one's own terms. On the contrary, they may be making it more difficult to do so, since gigs often go to the lowest bidder. Extrapolating on Tim Kreider's opinion piece in last week's Times Sunday Review, he posits a sinister corollary to the notion that information want to be free: that even work is trending towards 'good enough.'
But that, of course, is just one side of the proverbial coin: the Internet has also lowered or altogether demolished many of the barriers to entry for unassuming or otherwise unlikely entrepreneurs. Kickstarter comes to mind, but Etsy is particularly relevant for their recently-announced seller guidelines, which mark a potentially significant new direction for the company. NPR reports:
Now, I'm hardly an expert the ins and outs of Etsy's growth—a December 2012 NPR story (a response to a Wired article by Rob Walker) notes that they made $800m last year—but I'm sympathetic to their new tack. The most logical way for Etsy, the e-commerce platform, to sustain its phenomenal growth is to let its homegrown enterprises bloom. It shouldn't have to come at the expense of Etsy, the online community, but seeing as 'handmade' denotes goods can be produced at various scales, more ambitious sellers will inevitably expand their operations beyond a single person, on the site or elsewhere. Perhaps it's simply a matter of ensuring that first-time sellers are in fact one-person affairs at the outset, in compliance with the existing policy, and are allowed to grow after a certain window of time.
Meanwhile a BusinessWeek article explores the possibility that the seller who opts for outsourcing would gain an appreciable competitive advantage over a more principled rival. Again, I can't speak to whether or not Etsy faces the risk of outright cannibalizing its user base, but this strikes me another version of the 'lowest bidder' argument, i.e. a market economy.
Of course, it's an age-old question about labor and human capital: it feels equally strange to put a price on one's potential worth and to not be under- or uncompensated for doing work. In the case of the incensed Etsy sellers and Kreider's op-ed, the artist, designer, writer, et al, add intangible value to the final product, and the availability of less expensive options influences the customer or client's understanding of such value. The notion of an online marketplace for items that are 'handmade' to rigorous criteria, then, is a way of making that effort tangible, at least to the extent that a website can make things tangible.. (New platforms from Aftcra to Zibbet are looking to fill the void.)
It comes down to whether you're optimistic or pessimistic about individuals and their ability to create value—whether you believe these opportunities should be considered purely as such, i.e. entirely novel modes of working, or if they are symptoms of broader socioeconomic and cultural forces at work (so to speak), i.e. "desperate times call for measures." Do crowdfunding and e-commerce open doors for bootstrappers who would not have pursued these opportunities otherwise, or are they merely windows into gainful employment for those who have lost jobs in a shrinking economy? In short, what did all of these Upstarts, Taskrabbits, Etsyers, etc., do before there was such a thing? (Point taken that they're distinct economic propositions with different audiences in terms of both buyers and sellers, but there's no denying that it's a trend...)
We welcome your questions, concerns and anecdotes in the comments, but we'll leave you with a related 'data exhaust Tumblog': Sad Etsy Boyfriends is a variation on "Unhappy Hipsters."
Now that's what I call creative repurposing.