Society of the Underemployed

As an economics nerd I have a lot of thoughts about weblogs and theories of incentive. Weblogs share some social and economic motivations with the world of open source software yet I struggle to quantify the economic effects on an individual publisher level.

The key overlooked metric of the blogosphere is the society of the underemployed. People with full-time jobs and a paycheck who rather be doing something else on a full or part-time basis utilize weblog tools in an attempt to gain notoriety or possibly a new job. Weblogs are the karaoke night of online journalism where many participants are singing the same song and everyone dreams of their moment in the spotlight. Weblogs have found their way into the cubicles and bedrooms of America as individuals long to be heard and recognized where no such recognition exists before.

During the boom years of the late 1990s employees could be selective about their employers and companies made huge efforts to attract employees and keep turnover as low as possible. An employee defined his or her work environment, hours, and was free to pursue whatever career path entered his or her mind. The boom years came crashing down and quality minds scrambled for work. Dreams were forgotten and bright minds took jobs at Starbucks, happy to pay the bills but creatively dormant. In 2001 Pyra struggled to stay alive and Mena Trott crafted her very own “Winner” ribbon before starting work on Movable Type with Ben. People wanted to keep their dreams alive but reality was closing in.

Along came the world of weblogs. Individuals publishing personal experience for peer review and archived for the world to see. Cubicle dwellers had an outlet, a way to be discovered and appreciated, and a way to dream of a way out of their less than ideal world of collecting a paycheck but little else. Even writing about a cheese sandwich is a welcome distraction from an unsatisfying job.

Eventually weblogs evolved into more than cheese sandwiches and short posts. Free hosted services such as Blogger’s BlogSpot allowed anyone to get started in the world of weblogs and created a tool boom similar to Web-based e-mail and instant messaging before it. Corporate distractions were now more serious. Link blogs evolved into excerpts and then posts. Weblog authors now had to differentiate themselves based on content. Passionate and underemployed individuals were ready to step up and share their areas of expertise with the world.

Weblogs have led to many hires based on reputation gained in ways previously not possible. Local journalism, political analysis, and stock selections are served up by individuals with full-time jobs unrelated to their weblogs. Companies are now able to tap into this large community of the underemployed and utilize a small portion of their time for free. Market research is widely available without the need for expensive focus group testing. All enabled by a network of people contributing to an online world throughout their day. Companies who get it right are able to benefit from the efforts of eager participants in exchange for the chance of fame and/or recognition. Start-ups are especially likely to get it right since they need all the help they can get. Companies should learn how to better utilize the society of the underemployed, gain goodwill, and increase loyalty.