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Welcome to the Antique Shop Part Two: Is Crowdsourced Work Evil?

12/09/2011 10:13 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

I talked with a woman from a huge retailer who inspects factories in India. The stories she shared with me are harrowing -- little children standing at machines, and mothers standing at assembly lines with babies strapped to their backs and not having the opportunity to nurse their babies when they got hungry. I'd love for everyone in the United States to have a Prius and premium cable, but I'd vote for clean water and enough to eat for people in any country, first. So it's hard for me to get too worked up about jobs leaving the U.S. via outsourcing, and even harder for me to think that granular work like the type that lends itself to crowdsourcing is a bad thing.

In the previous story about the crowdsourcing of work, I talked about my friend, a photographer who saw her business dwindle as digital photos hit the scene a few years ago. My photographer friend (who feared she'd lose her business five years ago) is back in action. She only shoots weddings and portraits now, on weekends, but she's filled in the rest of her time with other projects. "People still really care about the quality of their wedding and special-event photos," she says. Digital cameras and phones have killed the rest of her business, but that is giving her a chance to figure out what else she has to sell -- and to explore creatively. Throughout our lifetimes, we've seen business models shift in surprising ways. As a little kid, I was shocked when Life magazine folded. I had had the idea that it was an edifice like the Empire State Building. My husband is a Buddhist now, and he says "Change is good."

I lead an online community where we talk about business and life and jobs, and over the years we've had a lot of posts from graphic designers and other content people decrying the state of things in the content realm. I've moderated tons of posts that talked about the evil that is done to experienced web designers and artists by new entrants into their fields who are willing to work for peanuts. I've tended to post these messages without comment, but sometimes I've chimed in to say "Once we've developed a marketable skill set, is the ethical thing to bar the door and keep other people out?"

I remember when one photography magazine got slammed for accepting photographs without paying for them, the idea being that they were encouraging hobbyist photographers and hurting professional ones. I don't see it that way. My dad was a magazine publisher (we didn't use the word 'print' back then; it went without saying) and I'm sure glad that things were as good in the magazine business as they were, back then; it's a much harder row to hoe, these days. At the same time, I earn a big chunk of my income through writing, and so I struggle a bit with the typical writer's wheeze "No one values content anymore." My editors do. Why? The stuff I write evidently speaks to the audience the magazine or website I'm writing for wants to attract. I write exactly what I think, so it's not like I'm pandering to earn a buck.

There are folks who hate my stuff and don't hesitate to write and tell me about it. That is fine. That's branding! It's a wonderful thing. I tell clients, "You want to pull in the people you should be pulling in, and push the rest away." "Push?" they ask. "That's emphatic." "More than push," I say. "Violently push -- repel. Like the wrong end of a magnet." If my antique shop has only Beaux Arts pieces in it and you like mid-century modern, I wish you the best, but I don't have time to talk to you.

I don't worry about crowdsourcing for graphic designers and other content people because I believe and I've experienced that the good stuff will rise to the top. People will pay for it if the artist him- or herself knows the value of what he or she is creating, and will stand for that value.

Outsourcing was a huge shift in American business, but outsourcing shipped off a bunch of traditional units, or what HR weenies like me call FTEs (full-time equivalents). My clients tell me how it goes down: "They called us into a room. We all got laid off. They're shipping our jobs to India." Sometimes, they hire some of the American folks to go to India and train the newbies, and when they've come back, they're strangely uplifted. "It's weird," these returning trainers tell me. "The folks in Bangalore are great, and we sort of bonded. But the gulf is huge. They're not going to be able to do it."

A lot of times, they can't, and the work comes back. I have one headhunter friend who specializes in filling IT slots when American employers realize that the outsourcing solution isn't working out the way they thought it would. The cultural stuff, the frenetic American business style, the crisis orientation we've got going in American business, the jargon -- that stuff is huge. It's not simple to make those translations. Employers are going to continue to try to save big bucks by outsourcing work, but I think the bigger change in the workplace -- really, the big story that will shift employment as we've known it into a whole new sphere -- is the rise of crowdsourcing for non-creative work, which is going to have impact on pretty much everybody.

This is the second in a series of three articles on the topic of crowdsourced work.