gift economy or honeymoon? 02.23.2007, 6:22 AM
posted by ben vershbow
There was some discussion here last week about the ethics and economics of online publishing following the Belgian court's ruling against Google News in a copyright spat with the Copiepresse newspaper group. The crux of the debate: should creators of online media -- whether major newspapers or small-time blogs, TV networks or tiny web video impresarios -- be entitled to a slice of the pie on ad-supported sites in which their content is the main driver of traffic?
It seems to me that there's a difference between a search service like Google News, which shows only excerpts and links back to original pages, and a social media site like YouTube, where user-created media is the content. There's a general agreement in online culture about the validity of search engines: they index the Web for us and make it usable, and if they want to finance the operation through peripheral advertising then more power to them. The economics of social media sites, on the other hand, are still being worked out.
For now, the average YouTube-er is happy to generate the site's content pro bono. But this could just be the honeymoon period. As big media companies begin securing revenue-sharing deals with YouTube and its competitors (see the recent YouTube-Viacom negotiations and the entrance of Joost onto the web video scene), independent producers may begin to ask why they're getting the short end of the stick. An interesting thing to watch out for in the months and years ahead is whether (and if so, how) smaller producers start organizing into bargaining collectives. Imagine a labor union of top YouTube broadcasters threatening a freeze on new content unless moneys get redistributed. A similar thing could happen on community-filtered news sites like Digg, Reddit and Netscape in which unpaid users serve as editors and tastemakers for millions of readers. Already a few of the more talented linkers are getting signed up for paying gigs.
Justin Fox has a smart piece in Time looking at the explosion of unpaid peer production across the Net and at some of the high-profile predictions that have been made about how this will develop over time. On the one side, Fox presents Yochai Benkler, the Yale legal scholar who last year published a landmark study of the new online economy, The Wealth of Networks. Benkler argues that the radically decentralized modes of knowledge production that we're seeing emerge will thrive well into the future on volunteer labor and non-proprietary information cultures (think open source software or Wikipedia), forming a ground-level gift economy on which other profitable businesses can be built.
Less sure is Nicholas Carr, an influential skeptic of most new Web crazes who insists that it's only a matter of time (about a decade) before new markets are established for the compensation of network labor. Carr has frequently pointed to the proliferation of governance measures on Wikipedia as a creeping professionalization of that project and evidence that the hype of cyber-volunteerism is overblown. As creative online communities become more structured and the number of eyeballs on them increases, so this argument goes, new revenue structures will almost certainly be invented. Carr cites Internet entrepreneur Jason Calcanis, founder of the for-profit blog network Weblogs, Inc., who proposes the following model for the future of network publishing: "identify the top 5% of the audience and buy their time."
Taken together, these two positions have become known as the Carr-Benkler wager, an informal bet sparked by their critical exchange: that within two to five years we should be able to ascertain the direction of the trend, whether it's the gift economy that's driving things or some new distributed form of capitalism. Where do you place your bets?
Gary Frost on February 23, 2007 7:18 AM:
There is a difference between publising and street vending. The networked book is going to require publishing.
shai on February 23, 2007 7:50 AM:
There's an important distinction to be made among YouTube users (and other providers of free content). There are those who are just uploading something for fun/to share with friends, those who are making a serious effort at distributing a TV show or some other "product", and there are probably some folks somewhere in the middle (who may not be trying too hard, but are still putting out a good product). There's also the politicians and business folk, who are using YouTube like a blog, to put their video message in front of as many people as possible.
The problem with the "gift economy" idea is it treats everyone like that first class of users (who are just uploading videos on a lark). Those users, however, are generally producing pretty junky videos, and aren't a solid basis for YouTube. There is indeed a possibility that the top quality producers, the ones who get the most eyeballs, will start organizing a union (YouTube Workers Local 232?) to get better bargains. If the Communications Workers of America aren't paying attention to this, they darn well better. Of course, there's no need for the CWA to get on the ball; any lonelygirl15 with an Internet connection an $100 bucks could grab youtubeworkers.org or something like it, and start building such an organization from scratch.
Sally Northmore on February 23, 2007 3:43 PM:
Interesting you should bring this back up... I planned to reply to Bob's post on Atomisation earlier this week in terms of your last post on the Belgian paper suit. Last year during the Google book search suit, the 2nd circuit ruled that the search index wasn't legal in copyright terms as it wasn't a transformative use of an original work. Transformative has a pretty static meaning in copyright law. In their terms, it's pretty hard to argue that a search index such as google is a transformative use of the OW, because it only has meaning to the extent that it guides one accurately to the literal text of somebody else's work. (I'm quoting an old boss in publishing here, btw.) And so in the courts, it didn't fly.
E-books, as well as all the virtual media available now that was once embodied differently (video, etc.), are very different from each other by virtue of their new formats, their reason for being, their processes of production, etc.... But, in the eyes of current copyright law, their status remains the same no matter the medium; the act of taking a work in one medium and putting it into another does not qualify as a transformative use.
This strikes me as nuts--but how do we create a taxonomy of media without stifling it (or doing it justice)? If Carr's predictions come to pass, it'll only serve to reify this lumping of different media into one cap term "media," carte blanche, keeping the draconian strictures on copyright in place.
Eddie A. Tejeda on February 23, 2007 11:41 PM:
Here is an interesting report on the issue:
"Time recently published an article entitled Getting rich off those who work for free which, among other things, talked about free software this way:
Open-source, volunteer-created computer software like the Linux operating system and the Firefox Web browser have also established themselves as significant and lasting economic realities.
It is not uncommon to see Linux referred to as a volunteer-created system, as opposed to the corporate-sponsored, proprietary alternatives. There has been little research, however, into how much work on Linux is truly "volunteer" - done on a hacker's spare, unpaid time. In general, the assumption that Linux is created by volunteers is simply accepted."
"The end result of all this is that a number of the widely-expressed opinions about kernel development turn out to be true. There really are thousands of developers - at least, almost 2,000 who put in at least one patch over the course of the last year. Linus Torvalds is directly responsible for a very small portion of the code which makes it into the kernel. Contemporary kernel development is spread out among a broad group of people, most of whom are paid for the work they do. Overall, the picture is of a broad-based and well-supported development community."
Jay Rosen on February 25, 2007 9:54 PM:
My bets are:
People will continue to cooperate to produce things of value on the Net because they want those things to exist.
People who do not engage in such activity--and wouldn't--will not understand it, and especially won't understand the motivations of the people doing it.
Other people will ask themselves, "how can we make money off this?" and a tiny minority of them will understand the activity well enough to do so.
Those who do make money from it will have to share it with the most productive peers engaged in peer production.
Whatever happens, Nick Carr will be skeptical.
Eddie A. Tejeda on February 26, 2007 1:53 AM:
"An interesting thing to watch out for in the months and years ahead is whether (and if so, how) smaller producers start organizing into bargaining collectives. Imagine a labor union of top YouTube broadcasters threatening a freeze on new content unless moneys get redistributed."
I saw this happen, in a relatively small scale, in YouTube a few months ago. A guy named "johnreagannumber1" organized a a "bed-in" to protest the technology problems plaguing YouTube. For example, he explains, that one YouTube member was getting contacted by the BBC for a documentary they were making, but the internal messaging system was prohibiting him from responding. He argued that YouTube had to meet their end of the bargain if they expected people to continue contributing:
Here is the video talking about the bedin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM53vVKJHh0
At the end, it appeared to have been a success, and he made a collage of about 100 people, from all over the world, who participated in the bed-in.
Although many problems remained, some problems were fixed, and YouTube did take notice of what was going on. To outsiders this appear like silly games, but from the tone of people like johnreagannumber1 and the many who participated, this was a serious protest. Organization between content producers at this level is not too crazy.... it just happens under most people's radar.
sally Northmore on February 26, 2007 4:25 PM:
What is the difference in providing / producing the content versus the medium? (ie, the youtubers vs the open-source programmers.) Will these become more or less distinct?
bowerbird on February 27, 2007 1:24 AM:
with collaborative filtering pulling out the gems
from the long-tail on an ever-increasing basis,
there won't be any "prime producers" any more, and
word-of-mouth filtering by individuals can't scale.
and neither will there be any "top-tier" sites...