Funsourcing in virtual worlds

Imagine a place full of literate adults, 100 percent broadband penetration – and people willing to work for pennies an hour. There’s no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance, and no labor laws.

Sounds better than China, doesn’t it?

The place is Second Life — and other social virtual worlds also offer similar opportunities to find low-cost labor.

So why do people want to work for such low wages?

Playing around

For many users of Second Life and similar worlds, there’s an element of fun in earning money inside the world, and spending it on virtual clothing, toys, and accessories. It may not make much practical sense, since the hourly wages are so low, but it makes a certain amount of emotional sense when compared to the purchasing power of virtual money.

For example, say in the “real word,” I expect to work for five hours to earn enough money to buy a nice dress. If I can get the same dress in the virtual world for the same amount of time or less, I might feel that I’m coming out ahead, especially if I get the same amount of enjoyment out of that dress as I would from a real one, wearing it to parties or business functions, for example.

However, employers should be aware that virtual employees can be flighty, due to real-world concerns or even boredom.

In many ways, virtual employees are similar to minimum-wage-earning teenagers. They like jobs where they get to hang out with their friends, work in a glamorous setting, or learn a useful skill.

For example, a person interested in role playing games may enjoy working in a store that sells gaming equipment and costumes.

Someone interested in film may enjoy being an extra on a machinima film set.

An aspiring artist might be interested in a design job.

Clearly, not every job lends itself to being funsourced. A routine data entry job would be a difficult sell in a social gaming environment, for example.

Payoff

The benefits of funsourcing go beyond just the low-cost labor. By recruiting in a virtual world, a company can also help cultivate a new crop of potential employees who have a positive, fun attitude towards the company.

Funsourcing can also be part of a marketing effort, as friends of the employees drop by to visit. Even advertising the job opportunities and interviewing candidates could help market a company, especially if the customers and the potential employees come from the same pool of people.

Funsourced workers can also be used to create content. However, companies should be aware that legally copyrights belong, by default, to the legal person creating the content. This means that companies should request that content creators assign rights, or sign work-for-hire contracts. Note that the contracts need to be signed by the actual people creating the content, and not by their in-world pseudonyms. The only exception should be when the content creator has formed a legal business entity under their in-world name.

Other potential legal pitfalls to watch out for are cases when the company and the virtual employee are located in the same country, the company tells the employee when and where to work, and controls the content of the job itself. In that case, the employee may well fall under the labor regulations of that country.

In the U.S., for example, if I hire someone to work forty hours a week for me, and I expect them to be online during those hours, and do the work I give them, then it doesn’t matter whether they work in my office, telecommute from their home office, or work out of a virtual business location — they’re still an employee and entitled to legal protection such as minimum wages. If you’re not sure whether your virtual employees are also actual employees, check with a legal adviser.

Etiqutte

Funsourcing can easily backfire if the employees feel that they are being taken advantage of, so it’s important to be honest with the employees.

If the employees are motivated by the promise of a regular staff position in the future, then that staff position should be attainable to some proportion of the funsourced workforce. And the workers should know ahead of time what their odds are of getting a regular job.

Other possible perks — such as training, mentoring programs, or access to high-level executives — should also be reasonably attainable.

Funsourced workers may also need more support and oversight than regular employees.

Finally, it should go without saying that virtual employees should not be subject to discrimination or harassment. Virtual people have feelings, too. More than that, virtual people have real-life lawyers.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • JayR Cela

    Nice article Maria, I enjoyed reading it very much. I have been a SL resident since 9-19-2005, although it is possible for the right personality type of individual to actually make a RL living within a virtual world, this is by no way the norm, at least not yet. I look forward to reading more of your future insights into Virtual Worlds and how the lines between RL and VL will eventually blur together. Please feel free to look me up next time you are in-world Second Life.

    JayR Cela :_)

  • It will be very interesting to watch how tax, regulatory and employee protection policies evolve with respect to global employee sourcing in virtual worlds. In Second Life, several entities now pay $8/hr (U.S. dollars), and currently bypass taxes by paying employees through PayPal. I have read that PayPal will be divulging more information to the IRS by 2012 – which might make the current micro-payments less attractive to virtual employees.