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BuzzFeed’s 19-year-old quizmaker will no longer work for free (cbc.ca)
163 points by pseudolus 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

For me, the real story here is that BF failed to take any action at all to retain a top five driver of traffic to their ad revenue - driven website.

Let's say that quiz interactions from McMahon come out to 5% of ad impressions for all of BF. What would a site as big as BF pay to ensure that those 5% of impressions don't disappear overnight? At most companies, I'd imagine quite a bit.

Even if we look at the low number for revenue generated from McMahon's quizzes ($200k), it's easy to imagine a company paying that much or more to continue driving those numbers. If someone is providing you a service for free that accounts for a very meaningful percentage of revenue, how much revenue could they be generating for you if you actually incentivized them to do that work? 1.25x? 1.5x? 2x? More?

It would seem to me that BF never had the realization that "huh, maybe we should protect this asset instead of protecting our short-term profits and praying she keeps doing this for free forever."

People are sorted into different classes in companies. You’ll never get a company to pay six figures for someone they consider a free intern - regardless of whether it’s in their economic interest.

Nobody's saying she should have been earning six figures. But they could certainly have been smart enough to offer her and other prolific quizmakers paid positions with a revenue share upside if they thought they'd get more quizzes as a result. She's 19 and made 700 quizzes for free - she'd have probably thought an entry level wage and a $10k bonus was Buzzfeed being very generous.

> You’ll never get a company to pay six figures for someone they consider a free intern

And yet here they are, having lost that percentage of revenue because they had this mindset. I don't think she needed a six figure salary necessarily, but BF made exactly no attempt to do _anything_. Unlike an unpaid intern, McMahon could have kept doing this indefinitely, not just for three summer months.

It’s human nature, and it happens not just in business. People get up in arms whenever an open source project tries to monetize in some way other than “support”.

Isn’t the whole point of having things like CEOs and shareholder-elected boards of directors, to find people who are good at optimizing for the business’s profits over what their own human natures tell them to do?

Sure, as irrational as that may be, you're right that it's a larger problem to fix that's probably out of scope here.

But the larger point is that economically productive employees in their early career are almost always exploited, so it wouldn't have been hard for Buzzfeed to throw some relatively token amount towards her and have her be over the moon with it. Most college students would love to get $20k for doing something they were procrastinating and doing for free, especially if you package it with an ego-boosting title.

> If someone is providing you a service for free that accounts for a very meaningful percentage of revenue, how much revenue could they be generating for you if you actually incentivized them to do that work? 1.25x? 1.5x? 2x? More?

In some cases, it could be less output, or lower quality. Money (or other explicit rewards) changes the psychology of doing work vs. volunteering it. It adds pressure, makes the work feel like a job instead of a hobby, and can lead the person doing the work to choke on deadlines, slack off, look for shortcuts, or even give up entirely.

Of course, people providing valuable services to a for-profit business should be fairly compensated, and companies shouldn’t be trying to exploit volunteers.

But monetary “incentives” are in general quite a terrible system for eliciting good work.

I used to write several short articles per day, over several years. I did it for free and highly enjoyed it, but I was eventually paid to do the same (on the same topic), so I can second the commentor above. Once it was paid, I lost interest over time and saw it as a burden more than a pleasure.

It's hard to make money for creative endeavors, for several reasons, and there are generally two ways to make money from them: put everything into it and hope for the best, or have a "real job" and do the creative thing on the side. Regardless, and personally-speaking, I prefer doing creative things for free because that's the best way to keep my interest-level high.

>But monetary “incentives” are in general quite a terrible system for eliciting good work.

I'm glad I don't work for you.

I think what jacobolus is saying is after a certain point, more money won't necessarily lead to better quality of work.

[0] https://hbr.org/1993/09/why-incentive-plans-cannot-work

My argument is that if you pay less than your competitors, you can't expect to hire and retain the best people.

edit: More to the point, I think this idea that people don't work for money is one pushed by management at the expense of the workers, and when I hear employers putting that out there, I assume those employers are... bad to work for, because they think that by being manipulative, they can get you to work for less.

Usually, those employers have less pleasant cultures and pay less than employers who simply pay more than their competition.

Much of the best work I know about was done as people’s hobby projects, self-selected school projects, self-selected projects funded by some kind of patronage system with money not directly tied to output, etc.

I don’t employ anyone, so you don’t need to worry about whether I would hire you to keep doing your hobby and kill your love for it.

I guess since those mangers are generally well paid they must be bad at what they do.

That point, however, is a lot higher than zero, more so in areas with a high cost of living, and still more so for a 19 year old who doesn't have any savings to fall back on and has to establish his earning baseline.

No, I think parts of this are very true. Apple Retail doesn't pay their staff commissions so there's no incentive to drive expensive sales that the staff personally profit from (partly I guess because of just how expensive and seasonal Apple product sales are?).

Myself, and a few other developers, refuse to monetise our third-party apps for the video game Destiny because doing it for free means we have no obligation to any customers. If I was being paid to do this, I would enjoy it a lot less.

It could also be that the marginal traffic or revenue generated by her over the next best quiz author is much less than $200k. If so, having her specifically may only be worth, say, $5k and not worth the hassle in the context of the overall program continuing to work.

I think the logic is there'll always be another naive teenager willing to work for free.

And they're probably not wrong. Bright-eyed teenage students are a self-renewing resource. Industries like BuzzFeeds thrive on them. As long as they keep them coming in as content consumers, they'll never be lacking of people willing to spend time creating content for them. BF can dole out status in a semi-respected field. That alone has value to the students.

This isn't that new. Plenty of companies seem to be A-Okay not paying interns to do real jobs. Apprenticeships in the UK pay just £3.70/h. And every junior position requires 3 years industry experience. It's no surprise that people are forced into working for pennies.

The only real problem for BuzzFeed here is people being able to kick up enough fuss that makes them look bad. Given how the rest of the world treats young workers, I think they'll be fine.

I wonder if she would have kept up the same good work if she had been paid for it. Not meaning it in a bad way, I mean the difference of doing it for fun and doing it for money.

Price and value are two different things.

Looks like quizzes are valuable to BuzzFeed, if the gist of the article is true.

It doesn't necessarily follow that the price of a quiz should go up. The price of a quiz depends on the supply of and demand for quizzes. This quizmaker may be able to charge a premium - certainly the price will be non-zero - but it's unlikely to reflect the value it adds to BuzzFeed.

(This fundamental disconnect between price and value is what drives the greater returns to capital vs returns to labour. Labour competes with other labour; capital captures the difference in the cost of labour and the value created by labour. And the whole system is set up to tax labour instead of capital, because labour isn't very mobile, while capital is global.)

This is called "consumer surplus" generally. Since quizzes are valuable to BuzzFeed they might be willing to pay well for them, but it turns out that competition between quizmakers had pushed the price down near zero. Lucky for BuzzFeed eh?

This reads like a Marxist analysis. Let's focus on the biggest flaws in the reasoning

> Labour competes with other labour

And consequently, capital competes with other capital. And in this day and age, it's not expensive to create a website.

Assuming she's a world genius at making quizzes, all she needs in a domain name + some viral marketing, then slap ads on top on that. Some extra content would help, to drive visitors. But considering how people thrive on just doing quizzes, her MVP may not even need anything besides the quizzes.

> labour isn't very mobile, while capital is global

The $ I spend on mechanical turk and the online contractors I hire when I need them say otherwise.

> capital captures the difference in the cost of labour and the value created by labour.

No, factors of production are paid at their marginal productivity. Capital without labor usually can't produce much. When labor is scarce and highly productive (software engineering), it commends high prices.

I agree with you that writing quizzes seems simple, and a skill that could easily be learned by anyone. However, she has written thousands of them. The article says she was #5 of BF. There are not many people who do that.

Let's take another example: anyone can play basketball. But it takes some special skills to score while a team of highly motivated, trained and paid professionals try to prevent you from scoring. If you keep succeeding, this is what commends a high wage - even if anyone can play basketball.

You wrongly say the parent (which is a straight-ahead reminder of supply and demand, plus some interesting implications springing from tax policy), and then counter with an argument which is even closer to Marxism.

(Although Marx would roll his eyes at the idea that pricing was based on the skill of the producer relative to her peers, and divorced from demand for the good.)

Once upon a time I was prototyping a quiz-building app, and to launch it I needed to create some initial quizzes. It was just soul-crushing work to me, and I never managed to launch the app.

Seems her "secret" for writing a lot of popular quizzes was that it wasn't work to her. I can relate how someone at BuzzFeed getting paid to make them would be much less effective than McMahon creating them as a pastime she naturally enjoys.

So called “shadow work” is becoming more prevalent. When you choose to self checkout at a grocery store you’re essentially doing work for free (scanning and bagging your own groceries) in place of a paid cashier and bagger.

This is only "shadow work" relative to the status quo, and there's no principled reason to privilege the status quo over the alternative. You could just as easily say that tying your shoes is "shadow work" because you at one point could have paid a butler to do it for you (and still can, I suppose). This is true of any of a million things that you do for yourself that you could pay a taskrabbit to do instead.

So the claim that "shadow work" is becoming more prevalent doesn't make a ton of sense, especially when you net it out with the types of labor that are becoming newly salable (through taskrabbit and all the other forms of the gig economy).

One would assume that in a sufficiently competitive market (for examples, certainly in the UK, supermarkets), this then gets passed on in terms of price cuts.

It gets passed on in the form of faster checkouts and shorter lines, resulting in less wasted time.

Disagree. Most people are much slower at scanning things than an actual cashier. Things like produce are especially annoying because you have to search for the item (of which there could be multiple I.e. organic vs non organic bananas). And the error rate is high (will lock up if you don’t immediately put a scanned item in the bag area).

The difference is that [at least at my supermarket], in the space of 2 manned registers, they fit 8 self-registers. So other people have to be 8 times slower for it to be a regression. [at my supermarket much of the produce is bagged and barcoded and the machines are quick and somewhat forgiving in the weighing, so it's not that bad either]

Wouldn’t that be 4x as slow (3 times slower), not 8?

It's absolutely more efficient for me to self-checkout, if I have the right number of items. For some reason, the store I go to has extremely slow cashiers. They have no sense of urgency, probably because it's a low paid job and they're going to be there for 8 hours regardless of speed.

“Please place the item in the bag.”

“Please remove the last scanned item from the bag and scan it before placing it in the bag.”

“Please wait, help is on the way.”

Every damn time.

I really wonder whether that system actually helps prevent theft, or if it was originally put in place because stores suspected that theft would be a problem, and we're just stuck with it now.

Plus, in the couple stores I frequent, there's always an employee standing at the ready to clear out the errors. Which, I imagine, would go a long way toward reducing theft on its own.

Either way, they seem to be universally bad. I can only hope a store tries to buck the trend by turning off the weight check and finds that it causes no problems. Maybe if that happens, the other would follow suit.

I know over the years at least some of the systems have either gotten better or more lenient.

With Walmart specifically I haven't gotten "Unexpected item in bagging area" in a couple of years at least. It's probably a combination of an improved system on Walmart's part and learning how to place items in the bagging area appropriately on my part.

There's obviously a long way to go to make these kind of systems ideal (the UX of entering in produce items is probably the most common frustration for me nowadays) but the all-too-common refrain that I hear that these systems are basically unusable without some employee to constantly babysit them is false, at least at the stores I frequent that have them.

When was the last time you used self checkout? I haven't seen this problem in years. Older systems had this problem but it has been fixed for a while.

> One would assume

I severely doubt it's the case. Besides, businesses aren't typically interested in having a competitive market anyways. It's probably more profitable to not lower prices at all and lobby to make it harder for competitors to lower prices . . . or just conspire with major competitors to keep them higher. Both actions have a strong historical precedent in US markets, at least.

Businesses are generally more competitive than people realize. The average person believes that corporate profits are typically in the 36% range, which is 5X higher than what reality shows:


Partly this is because profits are taxed, so it makes sense to shift profit into some other accounting bucket like capital expenditure / growth, offshore ip etc.

There is a much much stronger historical precedent of businesses competing rather than colluding. Price fixing isn’t a Nash Equilibrium, and therefore, isn’t a stable state. The market will ruthlessly push prices on goods to their lowest profitable price by means of the marginal consumer.

While price fixing obviously happens, it usually only happens in markets with a small number of producers. And even then, it will inevitably collapse.

Look around, goods are very competitive nowadays. Computers are competitively priced, all goods on Amazon, nyc $1 pizza, food, gasoline, cars, clothes, etc.

Very few businesses have the fat margins you claim are the norm. And the businesses that do are usually not producing goods, but renting services: telecoms, advertising, etc.

Concur. I've always been puzzled why self-checkout isn't, say 1% cheaper, considering how much labor costs in supermarkets and razor-thin profit margins.

This seems clear to me: customers aren't remotely rational, and will generally complain about economically fair systems[1] that they feel are "taking away" things they're entitled to. I can't count how many times I heard people complain about baggage fees when they were introduced, and no one ever had a response to "I never fly with baggage, why should I subsidize your propensity to overpack?". Even people who knew way better and would default to an efficient market assumption in every other possible scenario would assume that it was a naked cash grab, the benefits of which accrued entirely to the airlines. The same is true of complaints about Spirit Airlines: how DARE they give me the voluntary option of a low-priced flight without a bunch of (useless, costly) amenities that I feel entitled to? I can go on and on: credit card fees at liquor stores, etc etc.

[1] In particular, rewarding consumers who reduce costs by passing on the cost savings.

When you choose to drive your own car you’re doing work for free in place of a paid driver. When you choose to do your own dishes you’re doing work for free in place of a paid housekeeper. Etc.

Not a good take. In the supermarket example you do free work to save a company money on labor. You don’t save a corporate entity anything when you drive instead of take an Uber or wash dishes instead of hiring a cleaner.

When you drive to work you’re saving your company money by providing free labor since they don’t have to hire someone to drive you to work.

Bad take. If youre an average worker and don’t drive yourself to work and have no alternative form of transportation a company is not going to pony up and pay for a private driver for you.

How is that remotely analagous to the buzzfeed situation or self checkout

If you’re a cheap shopper and you want to go to the grocery store with the cheapest prices, the store is not going to pony up and pay for a bagger for you because that would drive their costs up.

See the analogy now?

No, you can choose to not do work and not shop at a grocery store that doesn’t have a cashier (but then you’re taking about the Amazon Go stores where its a true win win because you just walk out)

If you choose to not drive to a job that you signed up for knowing that your only option to get to work was driving, then you’ll just not earn income. The company won’t otherwise pay to transport you there.

So if you lived somewhere with no grocery stores that have self checkout then it doesn’t count as doing work for free because you have no alternatives?

I think that's true, but, in some ways "work" is in the eye of the beholder.

I mean, long ago, before the invention of the department store or grocery store, the customer wasn't allowed to just roam around in the aisles grabbing products. A clerk had to go and fetch the inventory from the shelves for the customer.

Shoppers today do a tremendous amount of shadow work for the grocery store but think little of it. We actually like it.

One big "mind blown" moment to me was reading about Piggly Wiggly launching the "self-service supermarket" concept. As someone living firmly in the modern world, it was hard to imagine it working any other way than it does now (outside of a detatched-from-reality western movie "General Store")


> At the time of its founding, grocery stores did not allow their customers to gather their own goods. Instead, a customer would give a list of items to a clerk, who would then go through the store, gathering them. This created a greater cost, and therefore higher prices. Piggly Wiggly introduced the innovation of allowing customers to go through the store, gathering their own goods, thus cutting costs and lowering prices.

> Customers at Piggly Wiggly entered the store through a turnstile and walked through four aisles to view the store’s 605 items sold in packages and organized into departments. The customers selected merchandise as they continued through the maze to the cashier. Instantly, packaging and brand recognition became important to companies and consumers.[5]

In some countries these jobs (baggers) does not even exist.

Upside is that the queues are usually much shorter and you do not waste as much time waiting in line. Also, as noted in another comment, it may lead to lower prices.

As much as I like self-checkout, I find the opposite is true, and it gets worse as the number of items increases. Most people are generally pretty slow scanning items as they struggle an extra second or two to find the barcode. It's great for express checkouts, but not for people that have a cart full of items.


- You can keep headphones on and keep listening to a podcast without being rude to the cashier

- You can scan and bag stuff in an order that makes sense (e.g. so you don't get eggs at the bottom) at your own pace

If it gets me out of the shop more quickly it’s a no brainer! But I’m probably an outsider given than north of 95% of my grocery shopping is happily done online.

Stack overflow has the same business model.

To be fair, most platforms and social media sites tend to have the same business model. The only reason YouTube or Medium or Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or whatever else are financially viable is because most people are volunteering their efforts for free.

Arguably the same rings true of every wiki, internet forum and community site in general.

The question hence becomes 'what point does a site or service go from being innocent to exploitative?'

Few would say Wikipedia is exploiting its users. Some may say that about StackOverflow or YouTube, but many would say it about BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post.

What's the line between a community and a platform and a publisher? What kinds of sites and services and business models based on user generated free content are a good thing and which aren't?

I want to publish a few (5-10) videos for my students in the University. I don't want to care about hosting videos, upgrading the protocols, bandwidth (it's ok if my machine get overflow the day before the exam, but the owners of the other computers in the network will ask for my head). Hosting video is a pain. YouTube can solve that in a few click.

(It adds a little of discoverability and traffic, that is nice and useful in internal meetings, but it's not my main reason to use it.)

I would say the exploitative threshold is crossed when the unpaid community members don't derive any value for themselves from the content (or maybe when the community organizer derives significantly more value from it than its users.)

From wikipedia they get information, from the Stackexchange network - answers to questions that enable or improve their work or hobby; Buzzfeed's Justin Bieber haircut quizzes, however, do not provide any value to the users, apart from a tiny fleeting endorphin rush, maybe.

>Buzzfeed's Justin Bieber haircut quizzes, however, do not provide any value to the users, apart from a tiny fleeting endorphin rush, maybe.

Depends on whether you measure people's stated or revealed preferences. Traffic stats make the revealed preferences pretty clear.

It's not the reader that gets exploited it's the creator? What does someone get for answering a question on stack overflow?

often it's just the pleasure of being ignored, or downvoted, or insulted by a newbie who wants you to do some additional free coding work. so, yeah, it's a pretty good deal

Wikipedia is a nonprofit, which is why it gets a pass. YouTube pays (some) creators, so it looks more like a normal business. Stack Overflow is much more interesting to me. People generally love it, but it makes a lot of money off the backs of its unpaid users. I suppose the key factor there is that people see SO as really useful, and doing good unpaid labor there can pay off greatly in indirect ways, like being hired for better jobs.

Volunteering at Stackoverflow is a win-win game for me. When I answer questions there I'm improving my English communication skills while earning online reputation. I'm spreading knowledge and making the Internet a better place and I really hope Stackoverflow is making a buck in order to keep the lights on. It is a great online resource.


And unlike certain other websites Stack Overflow shares the dataset back to us.

> Few would say Wikipedia is exploiting its users.

You started with exploitative commercial sites which "tend to have the same business model." Wikipedia doesn't belong on the low end of a concocted poll of "few---some---many" in that regard. It's a different class of service with a completely different governance, content licensing, software licensing, and log access model. Putting it there pretends those issues aren't vital to your set of questions.

Is BF designed so that Rachel naturally learns how the BF sausage gets made? Seems that a) she never had any interaction with decision makers at BF, b) she still has no way to deduce what inferences can be made when people click on BF quizzes, c) she had no access to the decision-making process at BF nor how her work affects to it.

The consequence of that is she was blind-sided by a set of ethical concerns. It was a tweet from a laid-off employee that first suggested her work may affect BF's bottom line and the livelihood of the people who worked there. The pipe that connected her with BF almost seems designed to have prevented her from ever facing any ethical concern whatsoever.

>The question hence becomes 'what point does a site or service go from being innocent to exploitative?'

>Few would say Wikipedia is exploiting its users. Some may say that about StackOverflow or YouTube, but many would say it about BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post.

You may have answered your own question with your examples. Wikipedia isn't monetized at all. It relies entirely on fundraising. All the rest have some sort of monetization model which is built around the assumption that their users will generate free content that gives their platform its value.

On the monetization spectrum, though, I would say StackOverflow does much better than YouTube. It's designed entirely around providing value to its users, rather than merely selling their eyeballs (you can find lots of information about SO's approach to monetization here: https://stackoverflow.blog/2016/11/15/how-we-make-money-at-s...).

My personal spectrum from best to worst looks like this:

1. Funded by donations (sort of utopian and doesn't always work)

2. Funded by directly selling services/goods worthwhile to the community (pragmatic and mutually beneficial)

3. Funded by selling generic ad space to third parties (lazy as business models go, but newspapers have been doing it for centuries - this is usually a sign the organization doesn't have a well-defined audience: cf. Facebook/Youtube vs. Stack Overflow)

4. Funded by secretively profiling people and selling their personal information without telling them (just evil and gross)

As for platform vs. publisher, that's been an interesting topic in internet law. See for instance Cubby vs. CompuServe in 91: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubby,_Inc._v._CompuServe_Inc.

I guess most people don't help on Stack Overflow expecting any financial reward (maybe reputation) as the vast majority are already working. And, at leas to me, it's more of the spirit: "Help others, and others will help you" (you also learn a lot by answering questions and having comments on them).

The “privileges” you earn on there are comical. I can moderate your site more now? Thanks!!!

"If you're good at something, never do it for free" -- The Joker

pretty sure that was Joker's mother

> "It's just crazy because, like I said, I'm in college. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my career yet, and now I have all these options, so it's really good."

glances over at timer counting down from 15 minutes

She's talented enough that she was driving a substantial portion of BuzzFeed's traffic without work experience at the age of 19.

Netflix did not reach out to her because it's her "15 minutes" they reached out because she has a skillset that overlaps with their needs. Long after we've forgotten about this article she'll likely continue to be successful in internet marketing if that's the route she chooses.

This young woman just learned that something she does for fun in her spare time has a high economic value.

You only need 15 minutes to get your foot in the door someplace.

Wait, so these annoying quizes that keep popping on all social media and that force me to block people because it becomes intolerable - somebody wrote 700 of them just for the fun of it, without payment? This is.... I have no words. I assumed at least somebody made a living out of it, however weird is this way of making money. But just producing clickbait spam filler for free? Surprises ever day.

I guess working for exposure does pay well (landing a job at Netflix) /s

1) Because she gained experience while writing 7000 quizzes

2) Because with said experiences, she developed mastery on the topic (cf the 10'000h rule)

3) Because she can now charge sweet sweet money for her services (being the #5 quiz maker on BF would imply that she knows how to provides value)

In retrospect, even if she did if for free, it wasn't a bad deal: it was a fun way to spend her time and she gained some skills

It's not much different from whoever hacked Linux servers as a teen, then suddenly found this skillset could translate to good money on the market- sometimes more than what they studied for in college.

If buzzfeed hadn’t laid off people she wouldn’t have received these job offers as she would have been none the wiser.

Good. Age shouldn't be used as a means to discriminate against someone. Pay should be based on skill level and ability to provide value.

I'm surprised she was doing it for free in the first place

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