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The Online Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Sunday’s NYT captured the metaphor of the moment:  Sawyerism.  An explanation and a comment below the jump.

From the Times: 

Tom Sawyer, metaphor of the digital age? Or cliché? Whichever, Mark Twain’s 19th-century sprite is being name-checked a lot lately as a handy way to describe the Internet vogue du jour: exploiting free labor and content online. (Which brings to mind a reputed P. T. Barnum line. But never mind.) Excerpts follow. TOM KUNTZ

Tom Sawyer got it right. Why paint a fence when you can get your friends to do it for you for free? He would have been the perfect new-media mogul. Spending time and money creating content on the Internet is so hopelessly dated, so dotcom, so very, very 1.0. The secret of today’s successful Web 2.0 companies: build a place that attracts people by encouraging them to create the content — thereby drawing even more people in to create even more stuff. The poster child of this Sawyeresque business model is the photo-sharing site called Flickr. Time, May 8, 2006

We’re going to take the Tom Sawyer view and see how our users paint the fence.

Marissa Mayer, Google vice president, USA Today, May 11

These [online] games, like Phetch, employ a technique called “human computation” — harnessing the human brain to collectively perform tasks that digital computers have yet to master … It’s the same trick the fictional Tom Sawyer famously used to get his friends to whitewash a fence for him, only multiplied millions of times.

Ascribe Newswire, Sept. 19

Most of these new-media companies apply the Tom Sawyer principle to the media business. You recall: Tom had to whitewash a fence, but persuaded other boys to whitewash it for him, by charging them for the privilege. The new-media model is to get “users” — as audiences are called, as if they were addicts — to create content, and then charge advertisers for the privilege of showing up., Dec. 1

Like Tom Sawyer convincing pals that it’s fun to paint a fence, the founders and Yelp Community Manager Nish Nadaraja used charm and trendy friends to make writing reviews for Yelp feel like a big party for San Francisco locals.

Business Week Online, Dec. 7

In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” we have a … hero of our new media age, who is able to persuade his play pals not only to do the work for him but to pay him for the privilege of painting a fence. This is the next stage of competition. What can you get your users to do for you?

India Today, April 9, 2007

I’m guessing ole Tom’s trickery is not a sustainable model for encouraging mass collaboration in a 21st century business venture. I think sustainable participatory models of business collaboration require financial incentives.

Blog post last week at

Twain remains timeless (my contractor even made a Tom Sawyer reference last night, keeping his distance from my own sawing and hammering), but at least some of this commentary seems to miss the mark.  The metaphor appears to focus on Sawyer-the-exploiter, in a manner akin to Nick Carr’s references to Web 2.0 sharecroppers.  Does Sawyerism focus, instead, on the whitewashers themselves?  Twain wrote:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.

The sage Miyagi, heir to Tom Sawyer, knew the same thing.  Paint the fence.  Wax on, wax off.  Sand the floor.  What is Work to pre-Miyagi Big Media is Play to post-Miyagi New Medians.  Trickery?  Only if we persist in putting the Tom Sawyerish rabbit in the hat.  What if New Medians really are just playing?  Who is the exploiter, and who is the exploited?  Large swaths of the venture and Big Media content communities are dying to pay to whitewash the social networking fence.

3 thoughts on “The Online Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

  1. The metaphoric struggle is as interesting as the debate on the merits. Of course, the metaphoric struggle *is* the debate on the merits. “They’re working” vs. “they’re playing” is the “Tastes Great!” vs. “Less Filling!” of the 21st century, that is, an endless, pointless debate. (Oops! Metaphors again!) So instead we search for the “right” description: whitewashing the fence? sharecropping? The challenge here isn’t the Cardozo-ish “take care that metaphors may enslave us”; Cardozo had it — metaphorically — backwards. We’re constrained here analytically precisely because we *haven’t* yet found the right metaphor.

  2. Okay, I get the point better now. I think that’s why I tried to push the debate on Trebor’s ideas more toward democratic norms and transparency in the “context providers” that make all the money “off the backs of” the users.

    Of course, as James Grimmelmann points out, I haven’t specified exactly how that will work. But a piece Oren Bracha and I are now working on will give some idea of what the very successful context providers owe their communities, and the community as a whole.

    Perhaps also the emphasis should be less on “compensate the workers” than a focus on potential “unjust enrichment.”

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