Commoditize: to render a (good or service) widely available and interchangeable
From nearly the moment it expanded beyond universities and government agencies, the Internet was seen as a way to connect people from anywhere in the world. Today, that vision has been largely realized — but there is a downside to this connectivity that is rarely considered. Easy access to large, almost unlimited, numbers of people has turned us into commodities. For all but the superstars among us, it has, per the definition, rendered humans widely available and interchangeable. In some cases, I would argue that this ease of access has even made us disposable.
Consider the process of dating before the advent of Match, OK Cupid, Tinder, and the like. Getting a date required work. You had to meet someone through friends, a bar, or random luck, and unless you were regularly frequenting social settings and pursuing every possibility, your pool of options was somewhat limited. Because of this friction, when you got a date you were more likely to put some effort into making it successful. Obviously plenty of bad dates still happened but standing someone up was considered uncouth.
These days, getting a date is just a few clicks away. The massive expansion in our options and the ease with which we can now meet people has turned dating into a low effort throw away process. Swipe right, swipe left, one warm body can be easily replaced by another.
In many cases, the online marketplaces for human talent and labor have been designed to emphasize price, thus forcing more qualified providers into a race to the bottom along with everyone else. Think about 99designs, the marketplace for graphic artists. The buyer sets a price, or as they call it “a prize,” and dozens of graphic artists work for free creating different designs for the buyer to choose from. In the end, only one designer gets paid while 10 or 20 others have done work for nothing. It’s usually a good deal for the buyer but not so much for the graphic artists whose work has been commoditized to the point where they are expected to do it for free, with only a 1 in 20 or so chance of getting paid.
But does this model, with its abundance of commoditized sellers, really provide the buyer with the highest quality product? In the 99designs example, how much effort are graphic designers really putting into their samples when they know they probably won’t get paid for their work?
I’ve had the fortunate experience of working with a talented designer who took the time to understand my needs and produced work that consistently exceeded my expectations. If she were to work within the confines of 99designs, would she put forward her best effort when the most she could hope for is to win a good percentage of the competitions she enters which would still be far below her actual worth? Doubtful. She either wouldn’t put her work on 99designs at all (she doesn’t) or she would put minimal effort into her samples.
While it’s true these online marketplaces have made it easier for buyers and sellers to find each other, the abundance of options for the buyers have made lowest transaction price the overwhelming standard by which sellers are judged. People have been conditioned to think it’s easier to go to the next and/or the cheapest. Even quality sellers, whether that be a person of good character looking for a date or a talented graphic designer, get treated in the same manner as the rabble.
In addition to making it easier to access people, the Internet has also made it easier to manage them. If you’ve ever run a business, you know that employing people is a difficult process. From hiring to scheduling to making payroll, having employees is a commitment. But again, by leveraging the mass connectivity provided by the Internet along with the new tools for managing these workers, companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Task Rabbit have assembled massive pools of labor who can be dismissed and replaced on a whim. If companies such as these decide to change their terms of service or pay rates and their workers have to take a pay cut, too bad. There are more rabbits and drivers where they came from and they were never actually employees anyway.
It’s easy to dismiss this commoditizing of humans as nothing more than a minor side effect of more efficient marketplaces. If you’re typically on the buyer’s side of these transactions you probably see it as a good thing. And while it’s made everything from dating to food delivery cheaper and more accessible, I’m afraid the way we’ve begun to devalue people is an unhealthy and increasingly common perspective.
There may be a seemingly endless supply of interchangeable bodies willing to do the work, or in the dating scenario willing to meet us for a drink, but it’s important to remember that these are people, human beings, and not just a commodity that can be discarded and replaced.
Francisco Dao is the founder of SEAL Camp and 50Kings. He is a former columnist for PandoDaily and Inc.com, a career entrepreneur, author, and former stand-up comic. He writes every other weekend for VentureBeat.