The Volunteer Economy

by Doc Searls

How much are Yahoo's volunteers worth? And how much less will Yahoo be worth if Microsoft scares them away? That's the question that should be at the center of talk about Yahoo's value — both as an acquisition for Microsoft and as good company to work for with.

Here's how Dave Winer puts it:

In the 20th century we were couch potatoes. In the 21st we do it for ourselves.

The first tech company that fully embraces this, not just in the form of User Generated Content (what an insult) but by giving us power (that comes from stock) will rule the world. If Y! had the guts, it won't be long before they're making tender offers to buy out Ballmer.

This is an highly provocative thought. Or set of thoughts. Why should stock go only to employees, friends, family, board members and buyers on the stock exchanges? Why not anybody who contributes? I suppose there are technical reasons why not. (I'm not expert on this stuff.) But the concept of rewarding involvement by users and customers with stock makes sense in a world that is increasingly knit together by volunteer contributions and associations.

Peter Drucker said "Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer." He was talking about business.

The term "social networks" never sat comfortably with me. When I look at Flickr, Facebook, and especially at the development communities that grow (and grow around) code, I see something more constructive than social. It's barn-raising on a massive scale, but so widely distributed and full of noise that the constructive work is easy to miss.

And terms like "user generated content" make it worse.

It says something about my comparative hope for both companies that, on the whole, I would much rather volunteer for Yahoo than Microsoft. (Even though I have much more interaction, all of it positive, with individuals at Microsoft — perhaps because they're the ones reaching out to open development communities.) Yahoo was born of the Web. It's Net-native. Most of what it does adds value to the Net's platform, not just to one operating system.

The default assumption by Wall Street and the mainstream media seems to be that Yahoo is a goner if they don't take this deal. But in fact Yahoo is a goose that's still laying plenty of golden eggs. And it's laying those eggs in nests comprised of users on the Web, not on just one OS platform.

If Microsoft buys Yahoo and then insists that Yahoo develop software and services first or only for Windows, it will kill that goose. And not just because Yahoo employees will split. It will lose the users.

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