eLance fear and loathing; geek history in clothing

Workers at eLance have been revolting over the company's program that charges contractors anywhere from $40 to $150 per month to become "Select" service providers.

4 min read
Whatever happened to the good old days when a man's home was his castle? This week mine turned into a tollbooth.

"Vermel!" I shouted at my 12-year-old son's locked bedroom door. "What's the idea installing this coin-operated lock on the refrigerator?"

Vermel emerged from his room brandishing a copy of the Rumor Mill's recent earnings warning. "Revenue enhancement," he said. "Welcome to the New Home Economy. We can no longer rely on advertising and trade show buffets alone, so we're implementing a premium service charge for chilled food. The days of free fridge-raiding are over."

Toll-based refrigerators are merely a sign of the times, and it isn't just the DuBaud kitchen torn asunder by the resulting strife. Just ask the laboring masses over at eLance, the Kleiner-Perkins-backed Web-based marketplace for independent contractors.

Contract-worker network eLance was recently in the news after its founder, Srini Anumolu, was indicted for alleged misdeeds in his former life as a trader for New York Life.

Weeks before news of Srini's indictment, eLancers were revolting over the company's "Select" program, a newly introduced plan to charge contractors anywhere from $40 to $150 per month to become "Select" service providers.

Some eLance veterans, agitating in the site's Water Cooler discussion forum, objected to the new designation, claiming it implied a higher level of expertise or competence, when in reality it indicated only that their credentials--degrees conferred and prior work experience--had been verified, and that the "Select" provider had been willing to fork over the monthly fee.

"They're using names for the program that elevate some service providers over their peers," said Steve Thompson, a Web developer who started working with eLance in November of 1999 and was recently banned from the site. "The only reason they have that Select label is that they paid for it. They're getting positioned above the rest. But I won't buy a position over my peers."

Thompson set up a protest site and encouraged people to include his alternative "Choice" logo on their eLance pages. According to the erstwhile eLancer, that's when eLance banned the use of third-party logos or "negative" comments about the company and terminated his account.

eLance declined to comment on Thompson specifically but defended its policy of terminating people who "consistently violate terms and conditions regarding transactions and behaviors that are unacceptable on the site."

"Terminations are very, very rare," said Maria Miller, vice president of marketing for eLance. "We have 270,000 buyers and sellers, and we've had less than 10 terminations in our history."

Miller also said candidates for termination got repeated warnings, but Thompson denies he was warned.

"I got no warnings on this," said the disgruntled ex-eLancer. "As soon as I put up my Choice site, they pulled me off, claiming it was a contract violation of their contact policy, but I didn't violate it at all. Then they went through the discussion forums and have been deleting people out who point them to my site, and they deleted everything that has to do with me."

Thompson and other critics still grousing by the Water Cooler fault eLance for trying to milk more money out of them, above and beyond the percentage cut it already takes for any work they line up through the site.

eLance doesn't exactly deny it.

"We are a business, and we are implementing a revenue model that's consistent with the value we provide to buyers and sellers," Miller said. "If we bring in a mechanism for high-quality buyers and sellers to interact and get work done, eLance should be able to collect revenue that's commensurate with the service that we provide."

Meanwhile, eLance is still keeping mum about the fate of its founder, who is on administrative leave pending the resolution of his difficulties with the SEC and the criminal justice system.

"We are moving forward with business as usual," said Miller. His arrest "has had no impact on our business strategy or our business plans, and we can't comment further."

Geek history as fashion statement
With Internet executives increasingly on the run and otherwise watching their backs, nostalgia for the good old boom days is rampant. Nostalgia buffs have a new resource on the Web with the launch of GeekT.org, a comprehensive history of computer technology told through the ephemeral language of fashion.

"I felt that eventually the history of the Valley was going to be told in T-shirts," said GeekT mastermind Lloyd Tabb, employee No. 146 at Netscape and now a philanthropist working on computer use in schools.

Tabb said his T-shirt revelation came to him as he and his wife were cleaning out their closet. As his wife tried to encourage him to part with T-shirts commemorating such august occasions as the release of Netscape Navigator 1.1, he came to the realization that in similar spring cleanings throughout Santa Clara County and beyond, history was being irrevocably lost.

"So I created the site and posted my shirts," Tabb said. "And other people have posted their shirts. People have filled in histories of the shirts and the projects they commemorate--it's a collaborative history project. It's a museum. It's been very exciting."

The project, which now boasts more than 300 shirts, includes a privately minted Apple T-shirt featuring C++ author Bjarne Stroustrup with a screw through his head.

"I never intended the shirt to say 'screw Bjarne,'" T-shirt designer Landon Dyer wrote in the GeekT comments. "It was more of a statement around the fact that I thought (and still think) that C++ was really screwed up." Looks like I'm still locked out of the fridge, so I'm planning to subsist this week on your rumors.