Originally published in Harvard Business Review. Cover image from Magdiel Lopez/Belmont Creative
By Li Jin and Katie Parrott
One of the most powerful narratives surrounding web3 is that it is a movement toward a better, fairer internet. Specifically, web3 proponents envision an internet in which users can wrest back power from a small number of extractive, centralized institutions, and in which everyone with an internet connection can participate on a level playing field.
But web2 started with a similar promise of empowering individual creators and removing intermediaries — a promise left unfulfilled. Now, standing at the precipice of a new era of the internet, we should ask ourselves: Is web3 actually democratizing opportunity? And if not, how can we better design platforms and governance systems to promote fairness?
Nearly two years ago, I published “The Passion Economy and the Future of Work,” which laid out a vision for online work that was informed by and a reaction to the challenges of the gig economy. While the gig economy represented a major development in the evolution of online-enabled work—removing geographical constraints for work opportunities and offering greater flexibility—it also entailed risks that were disproportionately borne by workers: reduction of leverage, income instability, lack of rights and protections accorded to employees, and lack of autonomy. Through powerful network effects and ownership of data on customers and reputation, gig platforms serve as gatekeepers to their workers being able to access income. Some scholars argue that the gig economy—which encompasses 55 million Americans or 34% of the workforce—has eroded a century’s worth of hard-won worker protections.
The passion economy was envisioned as an evolution and alternative to the gig economy mode of online work, entailing the playbook of building an online audience, cultivating direct user relationships, and monetizing skills/knowledge, content, and other individualized services. (Note that while the passion economy is broader than the creator economy insofar as income is generated from offering a wider range of individualized services and products—not only from content creation—they are overlapping: passion economy workers leverage the tools of the creator economy in order to build an audience that can be monetized in a range of ways. Therefore, I will use the terms interchangeably in this post.)
The appeal and promise of the passion economy are readily apparent: creators can reach a global audience with just an internet connection and earn a living with only 1,000 or 100 true fans. Some creators today are earning millions of dollars per year through engaging in brand deals, selling digital content, creating courses, and more. These online micro-entrepreneurs now number over 50 million in the US. At the same time, excitement from the tech industry around the creator/passion economy is at a fever pitch: nearly every large social media platform is rolling out new funds, programs, and features to attract and retain creators. And a multitude of new startups seeks to serve creators and make it easier for them to earn a living.
In January 2020, essayist Matthew Ball pronounced the metaverse to be the “next great labor platform.” Beyond a portal to entertainment, he envisioned the metaverse as the enabler of an inclusive, high value economy, in which any individual, regardless of location or identity, could participate via virtual labor.
Months later, in the wake of pandemic-induced economic fallout, this prediction quickly materialized. While some jobs moved online, many did not. Particularly impacted were blue-collar workers in emerging economies—local shopkeepers and service workers who watched already unstable income streams dry up. With bills to pay, people turned to new income sources wherever they could find them—including play-to-earn video games.
By Li Jin and Lila Shroff
In the 1930s, the New Deal was a series of programs and projects instituted to aid the unemployed, support economic recovery, and reform the financial system in the midst of the Great Depression. Among the programs was Federal Project Number One, which devoted $27 million—roughly $522 million today—to provide employment for tens of thousands of artists across music, design, visual art, theater, writing, and more. As the largest instance of government patronage of the arts, the program also sought to make art accessible to the wider community and to create a new American style of art.
These programs employed some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko, and yielded over 100,000 works, including murals, sculptures, and paintings. The Federal Art Project aimed to be inclusive of artists of varying experience levels and allowed wide latitude in subject matters and styles, with program director Holger Cahill declaring, “Anything painted by an American artist is American art.”