Best of 2006

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Free Labor

Best Idea

The year 2006 may well be remembered as the annus mirabilis of free work. Whether it comes from open-source developers, obsessive fans, angry customers, or lonely Web addicts looking to burnish their egos with a little attention online, businesses have learned how to leverage the gratis workforce as never before. So much so that futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler argue that “prosuming,” or creating what we consume, is restructuring the economy by funneling free money from the hidden economy back into the mainstream one that economists track. For many people, this amounts to an extra nonpaying job--one that’s done on behalf of some of the biggest corporations in the world. This, the Tofflers say, will radically rework the way we make, measure, and manipulate wealth. The movement encompasses everything from the creation of software such as the Mozilla Firefox browser, to user-generated advertising for a Doritos spot for the 2007 Super Bowl, to online news sites such as Digg.com. Letting users participate in the creative process not only brings in new ideas, it provides a natural incentive for them to spread the word and generate PR juice. For marketers, user-generated content is becoming a valuable trendmining tool. For Web developers, releasing source code for outsiders to build on has become integral to maintaining a competitive edge. Already, though, rumors abound that companies are paying people on the sly to act as consumer ambassadors, eroding confidence in the new model. How long before the unpaids start stomping for their cut? Catch them while you can.

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