The Costs of Creation: What is a Fair and Desirable Future for Monetised Online Work and Volunteering?

There is growing awareness that the web comes at a cost, be that from the selling of our personal data, to proliferating paywalls. The wider social costs are becoming clearer too, from the exploitation of workers, to the designing of platforms to swallow up users’ attention. All this makes the question of how the online world ought to be financed ever more pressing.

Answering this means wrestling with further questions in turn. What would it mean to pay the various kinds of online work fairly? And as the drive to “grind” and hustle in the digital world is ever more present, what shouldn’t be paid for or considered work online anyway?

To get to the heart of these questions, Demos brought together people in the UK who are on low or no pay for their online work, to understand what they think a fair and desirable future for web monetisation (the process of turning site visits into a revenue stream) would look like. 

Often what we don’t pay for online is thanks to the efforts of volunteers, from open-source developers, to Wikipedia editors, and many others. To understand the acceptable boundaries of online work, we also listened to those who offer up their time and energy voluntarily online in various ways.

The importance of these discussions is only set to increase. New monetisation technology could offer a fairer, more desirable future for online work. Alternatively, it could encourage monetisation of things that ought to remain as they are, and be co-opted by Big Tech companies to their gain.

How this future pans out matters to us all; worker, volunteer or otherwise. Web monetisation shapes our online experiences, from introducing or reducing friction to our browsing, to deciding what it is we see. Likewise, it influences how people work online and what activities they can monetise in the first place.

Despite these developments, web monetisation is not widely understood. Our research offers an explanation of where we are, and insights into the steps decision-makers, civil society and tech companies need to take to create a fair and desirable future for web monetisation.

What came through from listening to workers and volunteers was how prevailing monetisation is unfair and needs to be changed. Worker and volunteer collective power and visibility must be strengthened.
We also came to understand how a desirable future isn’t about straightforwardly accepting or rejecting monetisation, but about having the appropriate kind in the appropriate settings, while ensuring certain content remains free for all. We need to rethink the nature of online reward systems, determine what we want to protect from monetisation, and determine which organisations best support worker and volunteer autonomy and voice.

Finally, people want this to be the start of the discussion, not the end. To make better decisions about the future of web monetisation requires optimal forms of dialogue, deliberation and decision-making with workers, volunteers and the wider public.

To find out more about the research, visit our microsite and read the full report. And if you want to continue the discussion, you can take part at this link in the same interactive poll that formed part of the research. In this way, we can together continue to broaden the debate about what a fair and desirable future for web monetisation looks like.