A startup appeared on Twitter in December of last year, summoning users to "join the revolution."
I follow a number of very idealistic, occasionally grating political commentators, so that first call to action was not out of place. But the tweet drew reactions of such rage, disgust and disbelief that they were hard to ignore. It had been posted by a company called Freesist, and its "revolution" is that it wants you to work for free.
On Freesist, users are invited to trade work requests—you earn a "point" with every job completed, which you can then spend on your own freelance requests. Ideally the tasks are specialized enough to require a freelancer but too inconsequential to justify hiring one for actual money. Examples might include writing some copy in a foreign language, or resolving an issue with code that's already been written.
Freesist haven't had the easiest time of it. Its launch was messy—the angry tweets remain from back in December:
Nor did it help that the company's initial pitch read as predatory: "Freesist lets you find freelancers willing to work for free."
The site is aimed at small businesses, as well as at students seeking work experience. "We're not telling freelancers to work [only] for free," Basil Farraj, Freesist's CTO and co-founder, told me over Skype. "We respect everyone's job and that everyone is different. Let's say you're freelancing and you get paid for that, you might still have one or two hours a week in which you can exchange your skills for free."
The site is currently in beta. I click over, set up a rudimentary profile, and list my skills as copywriting, creative writing and writing for business. Very quickly, I'm able to find someone seeking creative writing. However, it turns out to be Farraj himself.
Of course every business has to work out how to survive, we'll figure that out later on...
Most of the requests on the site at present come from Freesist's own team, scuppering my plan to try out the service. The user base isn't there yet—during the days I checked in on it, there were on average four or five requests posted to the site–but several issues are already apparent. One question is how Freesist plans to actually make money—the company isn't funded yet (raising a further question: Was Freesist.com itself built for free?), nor do it plan to switch to a pay-per-use model. When I ask, Farraj is optimistic: "Of course every business has to work out how to survive, we'll figure that out later on..."
Another issue is moderation: What if members disagree over work? Will they have any rights, or is nothing protected when it's a swap rather than a contract? There's no option to report users yet, but Farraj and his fellow co-founder, CEO Kfir Zaltsman, say they plan to add one soon. If a dispute occurs after a job is completed, the user who did the work will still receive their point while the unsatisfied recipient will get their point back. The tactic risks devaluing their system, somewhat, and assumes goodwill of the users. This seems to be a running theme—ultimately, Freesist are counting on users to make their own deals, and not abuse the system.
There's a false assertion at the heart of projects like Freesist, which is that bartering runs deep in human nature. It doesn't: modern scholarship suggests that the "barter economy" never existed, and it was a theory dreamed up by 18th century philosopher Adam Smith. Freesist references that same myth on its "about" page:
Before the invention of money, people would barter with all sorts of things, for example: vegetables, wool, meat, etc. In today's digital age, bartering is still an option. We do it all the time, without even noticing. Freesist can provide an alternative for today's consumer practices.
It might not be part of ancient history, but can't bartering be good? Isn't it altruistic, at least, to reach out to a stranger and to trust them? One of the requests currently posted to the site is someone seeking "Life Advice." How do you quantify a job like that, without somebody getting ripped off in the process?
Will people be sufficiently "nice" to work for strangers for free?
"We believe that people are basically nice," Farraj says, "but we will have to learn about our users and order everything so that they're comfortable. Many companies struggle with fake users, or users who tell lies, and it's something we'll learn how to deal with as the company gets bigger."
By never promising money in the first place, will Freesist be able to avoid disappointing their users? And will people be sufficiently "nice" to work for strangers for free?
It's worth remembering a similar startup which launched disastrously in 2014: Runaview pitched itself as comedy streaming network where celebrities and media could "promote themselves for free" (i.e. produce content, without payment). It was publicly slated and disavowed by Dom Joly, the British comedian who was claimed to be the face of the company.
Today all that remains of Runaview is its negative press coverage, outlining a site which sounds a lot like standard social media: a blank platform, populated by its users. This is the common thread between Facebook and Twitter and sites like Freesist: all three ask their users to work without payment, but only one, oddly, is honest about it.
It hardly needs to be said that we are the product of any free online service we use. We feed Facebook our data by staying logged in. We make money for Google by using its products. We earn money for advertisers just by walking around town using our phones.
Nor is working for free—even within a traditional office—especially shocking. A recent UK survey shows an increase in unpaid work overtime. In the same study, 70 percent of the freelancers were asked at least once in the last year to work for free (under-25s were almost twice as likely to agree to it).
Still, none of this should make working for nothing seem normal. Millennials, especially, are vulnerable as freelancers: beaten down by endless internships and "paid-in-experience" experiences, we never properly learned our own value.
Freesist may come from a place of optimism, but it arrives with painfully clear oversights. If you agree to work for free, it's almost always with the promise that eventually you won't have to. But Freesist believe you'll hang around and keep working: it implies that the world is only going to become more broken, the market more predatory, and that the same people who would have you work for free, through an impersonal online service, will eventually become your friends.
It's interesting how technology strives to conceal its own cost: siphoned away with one-click buttons, in-game purchases and monthly subscriptions, the more "seamless" our spending, the easier it is for companies to profit. Sometimes it feels like the internet is a casino, like all our money has been turned into chips. Sometimes it feels the internet costs nothing at all.
This corresponds, too, with how startups founders approach their jobs: you "do what you love," so the hours don't count. Only a startup would conceive of work without money, because in Startup Land a "valuation" is quasi-fictional. Between investment rounds and fund-sucking death spirals, startup culture treats money like gamblers do: there's either plenty of it, or none.
Startups have no place "revolutionizing" work because they don't know how everyday work functions in the first place. And Freesist is no "revolution." Rather, it accounts for the fallout of another upheaval, one set in motion years ago through automation, "Uberization," and the erosion of workers' rights.
Perhaps very soon money won't matter, in a world with no jobs. Instead we'll all be at home using Freesist, working for free, cycling through the motions of the paying jobs we once had.