Not This Again: IEEE Plays Up Bogus 'Digital Sharecropping' Argument Again

from the make-it-stop dept

Nearly six years ago, we wrote about the ridiculousness of Nick Carr's suggestion that Web 2.0 was all about "digital sharecropping", in which online service providers are somehow "exploiting" users to take the fruits of their labors. I would hope that, with six years of hindsight, people would still remember what a completely nonsensical argument this is -- based as it is on the economically clueless suggestion that the only possible benefit someone could get from using an online service is money. Of course that's not true. The reason that so many people use something like YouTube isn't because they're being exploited, but because it enables something wonderful and powerful for free. Prior to YouTube, if you wanted to put up a video, you had to install complex or expensive server software, pay a ton for bandwidth... oh yeah, and hope that whoever wanted to watch the video had the proper software to view it. YouTube took all of that away, and made it all free (and even added easy ways to monetize it). If that's exploitation, sign me up to be exploited. Similarly, look at a platform like Twitter, which has enabled amazingly powerful real time communications that has connected me with people worldwide in ways never before possible. That's not exploitation. It's called providing something of value.

So it's a shame to see the IEEE basically rehash Carr's silly argument as if it were still relevant, setting up a strawman about how "Web 2.0" (really, is anyone still using that term?) was all about empowerment, but the reality is that (*gasp*) there are companies involved. And some of them... (wait for it...) make money!
But the road to Utopia all too often ends up detouring through the business district, and Web 2.0 has been no exception. By offering the means of production free to their users, other leviathan sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have generated enormous amounts of content at almost no expense. Even better, this content is a gold mine for targeted advertising.

Over in Utopia, the “workers” who generated all those articles, photos, tweets, and videos would get a cut of the profits they helped to generate. In the business district, however, users retain their amateur status, while the companies they labor for rake in billions. Worse, contributors don’t even own the content they create. The smallest of the small print in the terms of use, which you must agree to in order to get an account, states that the company can use your content as it sees fit.
Beyond the fact that this is a common misreading of the terms of service of most of the sites he's talking about (which merely request a license to make sure that their hosting of the content you put up is legit), author Paul McFedries completely ignores the tremendous value that people get for using those platforms... almost all of which is given out for free. While economic value is often measured in dollar terms, that doesn't mean that people don't get value if actual dollars aren't exchanged. The people using these platforms aren't being exploited -- they use them because they really, really value them.
Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, calls this digital feudalism and laments that we “are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”
And this is equally misguided. All sorts of things people do create value for others. Almost no economic activity is entirely contained so that only the person doing the initial activity retains 100% of the benefits. Concepts like externalities and spillovers exist in economics for a very good reason -- and part of the problem is people who don't understand that creating excess value that benefits others is actually a core reason we have economic growth in the first place. Creating value for others is of tremendous economic value. The problem is that people ignore the fact that those doing the creating are getting back more than enough value directly or they wouldn't be doing the activity in the first place.

It's a shame that we're still having these discussions today, after we've had many more years of experience with all of these valuable services to recognize that it's not exploitation to get a tremendously useful service for free, while also increasing value for others. It's actually how we innovate and grow the economy itself.
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Filed Under: benefits, economics, exploitation, externalities, sharecropping, spillovers, value


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  1. icon
    TasMot (profile), 4 Oct 2012 @ 12:49pm

    OK, All My YouTube Slaves

    Get busy making videos to put up on YouTube because you have to - because I said so, so there.

    Google, I've got all of the slaves busy making you free videos. I'll get them up there as soon as they are done, so you can make all that free money on your free internet connection (you know, the one you don't have to pay for).

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