On the Digital Gruntwork Labor Market

I am beginning to realize that there is a whole "Groucho Marx" zone of tech work that is in that gray zone which is beneath anyone who is good enough to do it for pay.

One such task is creating and maintaining simple websites using something like WordPress, and dealing with basic security, upgrades, SEO, themes, no-code customization, ftp-ing stuff, making quick and dirty graphics/logos, writing basic copy, doing social media integration, tweaking the cache on occasion etc., is one such kind of work. Everything just short of CSS/PHP hacking.

It takes a broad but shallow skillset, spanning basic tech-savvy, keeping up with developments, basic writing skills, a basic sense of visual design, all glued together with common sense and an experimental attitude.

The sheer amount of stuff you need to know is a problem. It is simple stuff, but voluminous. If I tried to write down everything I know about running WordPress sites, it would run to thousands of pages, and page n would be obsolete by the time I got to writing page _n_+20. So this is not book-knowledge. It is virtual street smarts basically.

I'd love to outsource this stuff, but it is remarkably hard to find people who are both competent and affordable, and trustworthy enough (though the work is trivial, it does involve giving admin access to people). What's worse, I don't really know how to interview them or filter out people who have dangerous holes in their knowledge. The only real test that somebody can do this stuff is that they are running their own sites with at least modest success.

There are tons of people who can do it easily, but if you try to hire them, it is beneath them, and if they agree to do it anyway, it is way too expensive. OTOH there are also tons of people who simply don't know enough to do even this rudimentary stuff. But the moment they learn enough or you teach them, they graduate to the first class. Which means if you want to outsource this stuff you have to deal with high churn.

There is also a third category of traditionally-educated, smart people who could do this stuff, but they are so completely lacking in Web tech instincts that you have to babysit them through every simple step. They lack the "muck around and figure it out" confidence.

Though the work is simple, they are used to a permission-over-forgiveness attitude towards technology, and also an inability to learn from messy web sources (which is a "metis" in James Scott' sense). They are the types who get anxiety attacks unless they can buy a For Dummies book for every piece of what they need to do. Unfortunately, the set of For Dummies books around something like running a WordPress site still covers only 80% of what you need to know, and it gets out of date very quickly. So if you cannot self-learn in the evolving ecosystem via unreliable blog posts, forum discussions etc., you're screwed.

Despite a decade-long boom in blogging-about-blogging and a flood of Dummies books, surprisingly nobody has really figured out how to bring this last population into the digital age.

I think there is a huge opportunity for somebody smart enough to create a usable labor force around such work. The challenge is to create a bucket of work that is both interesting enough for the people to stick with it, useful enough that it is worth outsourcing for publishers, and cheap enough that it is a no-brainer about whether or not to do it.

The bottleneck problem I believe is that you first need to achieve a mindset shift from "school knowledge" to "artisan/metis knowledge." Without the attitude shift, these people simply cannot keep up.
Shared publiclyView activity