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Written by Winter Trabex.

For freelancers looking to make money online through non-traditional markets, oDesk and Elance provides an extraordinary opportunity to do so. For the first time, instead of standing in line, filling out applications, calling people or waiting for calls, people looking for work could simply write a few paragraphs as to why they felt they deserve any given position. Most often, they were hired or not hired within days of their submission. The traditional marketplace for employees requires long periods of waiting, frustration, and a gradual growing sense of futility as it becomes readily apparent that employers just aren’t that interested in hiring people, even though they have vacancies open. Getting hired on to a job at a physical location often requires being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right people, or looking like a model ready to pose in K-Mart circulars with jeans and itchy sweaters.

More often than not, skill did not factor into whether a person got hired or not. There is no way for a store’s management team to be able to tell how hard a person will work; it is a blind draw. The results can be unpredictable. Thus, expenses rose while turnover increased, training became ever more necessary (even while companies everywhere decreased training hours), and the financial risk of hiring a person increased. Utilizing freelancers for jobs decreases both expenses and training. A freelancer only has to prove that he or she has what it takes to get the job done. No training is required. It is for this reason that Hillary Clinton recently promised to “crack down” on businesses that use employees as independent contractors. Freelancing is good; therefore, it must be regulated and controlled. In this case, regulation means more taxation and more government oversight. If freelancing proved to be a negative for the employment marketplace, chances are good that companies like oDesk and Elance would receive government subsidies in the name of job creation.

In December of 2013, in the midst of a lucrative market that saw more and more people moving away from traditional commuter-based jobs every year, the two companies announced that they would merge into one. Elance became an oDesk company. oDesk has since changed its name to Upwork. Almost two years have passed since the merger. Both sites have continued to operate independent of each other. Over time, it has become clear that Elance is the better of the two sites. Nevertheless, Upwork has continued on its merry way to destroy a significant source of revenue in the hopes that the majority of both employers and freelancers will move over to the new platform.

This is functionally the same as Wal-Mart closing down all its Sam’s Club locations in the hopes that all the customers from Sam’s Club will migrate to Wal-Mart. Reality is a bit more complicated than that. There are plenty of other websites, such as freelancer.com, that offer the same service that both Upwork websites offer. The choice presented to Elance users in the face of their platform being closed isn’t simply whether to move to Upwork or mothball their business. The choice is whether to move to another site, or continue to develop their existing relationships outside of the website platform. Thus far, it appears that the Upwork management team does not understand this.

A series of posts and threads on the website delineate what changes will take place. They can be viewed here, here, and here. The replies from the Elance community regarding the shutdown of the website they use for business purposes has been overwhemingly critical of Upwork for making the decision. Quite a lot of people (myself included) prefer to use both. Over time, it has become apparent that Upwork is simply inferior to Elance. The reasons for this are many and varied. Suffice it to say that there are fewer opportunities on Upwork, and what opportunities exist are harder to take advantage of. It is more difficult for freelancers to engage with employers. The jobs that are available pay less, often well below a living wage.

The migration that’s occurred over time has been from Upwork to Elance, not the other way around. By voting with their feet and with their money, people are rejecting the Upwork platform. Consequently, it is with a sense of surrealism that I observed the responses on the threads listed above. Upwork has entered into downright propaganda. They are trying to convince everyone that things will be better, that they’ll make more money, and have a better experience. No one is buying it.

As an example, they’ve already got censorship working in full effect. For years, companies all over the world have been able to observe what happens when a company such as facebook heavily censors its users, even to the point of suspending or disabling accounts for the use of free speech. People are leaving facebook, in droves. Though facebook is still hanging on, these days looking more like MySpace than ever, the days of the company inspiring an Egyptian Spring or Occupy Wall Street is over. This largely has to do with government interference with individual’s personal accounts. In 2011, Julian Assange, creator of Wikileaks, called facebook a “spy machine.”

Though Upwork does not appear to be engaging in personal data mining for the purpose of turning such data over to the government, it is not difficult to imagine that this will eventually be the case. One example of Upwork’s censorship is as follows. Users receive an email stating why their post was deleted. I received the following:

This is to inform you that your post (see below) was deleted from the Water Cooler because it violated Elance’s Community Guidelines:
https://www.elance.com/q/community/guidelines

Please note, we will not allow posts that disparage other users, Elance/Upwork employees and/or the Elance, oDesk, or Upwork brands. Additionally, we will not allow discussions that encourage other users to work against our brands.

Please note that repeated violations will not be tolerated and may result in the suspension or termination of your account.

For the following post:

Looks like you guys got it backwards. Instead of moving elance to upwork, you should have just killed off upwork and moved everyone over here.
This one is going to cost you guys thousands upon thousands of dollars, just wait and see.

Whether they found such a post disparaging or not, I cannot say. I considered that post for a little while before I submitted it. I wanted to make sure that I got my message across. I felt then, and feel now, that closing off Elance is tantamount to corporate suicide. Why slaughter the goose that lays golden eggs?

Author Judy Blume, who has experienced censorship personally, had a great deal to say about it. She created her own website advising people on the negative effects censorship has. She writes (about censorship in the classroom):

Fear. I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.

In between the lines of Blume’s criticism of censorship lies hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been lost over time as a result of books being censored, or banned. Today, amazon.com and other sites like it have created an ebook publishing industry that has erased book censorship entirely. The result is that publishers are making more money than ever before, people are reading more e-books from independent publishers than they were five years ago, and, perhaps more significantly, Amazon keeps collecting those royalty fees.

Conversely, the print publishing industry, together with a host of other industries regulated by the FCC, have been losing ground over time. Netflix’s uncensored show Orange Is The New Black has led the way for three straight seasons while other network and cable programming include a litany of shows that have been cancelled despite a strong response from its fans. This ranges from the original Star Trek being censored in the 1980’s (four episodes of which were removed from the BBC’s broadcast schedule due to objectionable content) to more recent examples such as Hannibal (an episode of which was not broadcast for similar reasons).

It is not difficult to imagine people turning their backs on network and cable TV when they can’t watch what they want to watch. Such platforms do not treat adults as adults; instead, network executives often play the part of the content nanny, only allowing shows to air of which they approve. This, more than anything, has led to people turning off their televisions, cancelling their cable service, and moving to digital media outlets. Network and cable television shows can no longer afford to make twenty-six episodes (or more) of a show in one season. There just isn’t enough interest from the public. Broadcast television could use controversial subject matter, nudity, violence, or any other method they want for the purpose of grabbing headlines, and viewers. That they are prohibited from doing so results in other outlets achieving the same thing; the result is that money flows away from broadcast TV and into digital media.

To put it another way: censorship is a method that inhibits, or prohibits, business expansion by means of cutting off people from providing or creating value for that business. In the case of Upwork, the value created by individuals is their opinions on what the two sites are like. If Upwork takes user comments seriously (and they haven’t thus far), then they’ll make the improvements people want. People will be happy to use the site. All theawards the company won for having a successful business appear to have occurred four to six years ago. For Silicon Valley businesses, that’s an eternity; there are already other, better, sites out there.

Upwork estimates that in September of 2015, Elance will be no more. Perhaps the beginning of the end occurred in 2013 when the merger was announced. Perhaps it has yet to come. Regardless of the result, it appears that their plan to create ten billion dollars in freelance revenue six years from now will very quietly fall flat on its face. There is no proclamation, however sweet sounding, that can make people believe anything other than what can be objectively observed around them. To put it another way, Upwork is telling people that roses will bloom in a garden that they plan to tear up before throwing salt upon it.

Perhaps the day when the company appears before a government committee begging for subsidies is not that far off. If the company chooses instead the course of bankruptcy, or worse still, or being shoved into a corner called obsolescence, it will be a lesson to freelancer websites everywhere. The lesson is: if you want to make money, you have to do better than your competition. It’s a simple enough lesson that appears to have been ignored by everyone who puts together the website called Upwork.

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