books and the man, part II (sort of) 09.18.2007, 10:28 AM
posted by sebastian mary
So in my last post I compared the sentiments expressed in Pope's Dunciad to those of Andrew Keen's The Cult of The Amateur, and suggested some parallels between the eighteenth-century print boom and the explosion of user-generated content in web2.0. The point I wanted to make was that the model of content production championed by Keen is historically-specific and relies on an economic context where printed matter is common enough to be marketed to the general public, but still scarce enough to enable writers to make a living from selling units of content to their audiences.
I've been gnawing for some time at the question of what happens to creative writers - or artists in general - in a world where success of content is based not on its scarcity (the 'high art' model) but on ubiquity and infinite reproducibility. If copyright no longer exists, how can (already often cash-strapped) independent arts workers sell their work? And what will they do if they can't?
So I was intrigued to come across Meta-Markets, an experiment by MIT media artist Burak Arikan, currently in beta. In this 'marketplace', users can 'IPO' shares in del.icio.us links, Feedburner feeds, Flickr profile views and the like. It's pleasing in a surreal way to watch shares in 'you' going up and down - particularly as I'm trading from London and most of the others are based in NY, so the stocks go crazy at weird times of the day and night relative to me. But it also provokes some intriguing speculations around the potential to create an economic model for the arts online that is genuinely based on the internet's drive toward reproducibility rather than scarcity.
One of Arikan's stated aims with Meta-Markets is to explore ways in which creative types can leverage their immaterial labor as new kinds of 'currency' - in other words, to find a business model for trading cultural stuff online that isn't dependent on price per copyrighted unit. And it starts some intriguing trains of thought. In order to 'IPO' a link, you have to have been the first to bookmark it, and at least 10 others have to have bookmarked it after you. So it requires both some minimal popularity, and also a 'first claim' ownership. I was irked to find, for example, that I couldn't bookmark my own website and then sell stocks in it, because someone else already 'owns' that link.
So, I wondered, what if real money were involved? Supposing my website suddenly shot up the Alexa rankings, would I be in a position of watching someone else make a fortune on 'ownership' of my bookmarks? Or would the first thing to do after launching something online be to bookmark the URL so as to ensure you can trade on its popularity? Following that train of thought a little further, it's possible to imagine some folksonomic inversion of the centralised copyright law taking the place of the existing system. This might then enable artists and writers to claim a fuzzy, emergent 'ownership' of creative online work and thus to find ways of making a living from it.
But I think that's a long way off, if it ever happens at all. Meanwhile, we're a long way from having any consistently viable independent revenue model for online artists, who find themselves between starvation, corporate sponsorship and the sometimes rather stodgy world of public/philanthropic arts funding. But again, maybe that's not such a bad thing, of which more next time...
J Bushnell on September 21, 2007 9:13 AM:
This idea of a "reputation economy" is very interesting, and may currently be being explored best by SF writers: I'd check out Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom" or the early chapters of Charles Stross' "Accelerando" for a fairly in-depth examination of how a world with a reputation economy might function.