Facebook’s free labor


Facebook has been working over the last year or so to translate its pages into different languages. To do this, Facebook has largely been relying on volunteers – unpaid translators willing to help Facebook on their own time. (See an article on this here).

Imagine 50 years ago, a publisher from a large house comes up to you and says, “Will you put in countless hours translating this book for me? We’re going to make money off it, but we’re not going to give you any. Ok?” Would any of us do it? However today, on the web, it seems that Facebook has no lack of volunteers it can rely on to do its work for it. Why are people so willing to devote their time to translate Facebook?

My thought is that people enjoy being able to see their work immediately, and have others see it too. It may be vain, but the web is increasing exposure, so people are eager to show their work. Another reason is perhaps that people enjoy Facebook’s product and want to be a part of it, even if they aren’t getting paid. But that raises the question, why didn’t we see this type of thing before? Was it just a lack of access? Thoughts?


  1. skass

    April 21, 2008 @ 9:52 am


    One possibility is the time barrier. A person could spend just five minutes translating Facebook and then never do it again. While theoretically the same phenomenon could have occurred in the pre-web publishing world, practical difficulties make that impossible. It would take five minutes to print out your work, seal it in an envelope, and toss it in the mail box (or you could have sent it by fax, but that would tie up your phone line). The web has lowered the minimum initial time input.

  2. tsullivan

    April 21, 2008 @ 10:47 am


    The one non-web project that seems similar to me is the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The editors asked people to volunteer to read works of literature and pull out good quotes for them to use. See the original “Appeal” at http://www.oed.com/archive/appeal-1879-04/p1.html. A large number of people volunteered – a partial list is at http://www.oed.com/about/contributors/bio.html.

    Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman tells the story of one of the volunteer contributors, a mental patient.

  3. Meg

    April 21, 2008 @ 12:41 pm


    Perhaps we should ask the people who contribute to Wikipedia. 😉 I think, though, that it may very well stem from a desire to see one’s work in a public forum. Even if anyone with an internet connection can contribute to the ‘conversation’ these days, working for an established entity, just as in the pre-Internet world, carries an added cache. Thus, I think that the ability to see the value of one’s work product recognized, combined with the chance to work for a formidable force in the online world, drives certain people to volunteer their translation services.