Web sharecropping

by Rob Horning

27 April 2007


Via Chris Hayes, a link to an essay by Nicolas Carr equating blogging and other user-generated and/or user-organized web content to sharecropping. His point here hinges on the way social networking sites are at once monolithic and composed of millions of highly individualized pages.

What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.

In other words, you maintain your social life on a corporately-owned networking site while that corporation reaps advertising rewards for the vibrancy you bring there. What do you get? The right to broadcast your life to millions of potential viewers on a branded portal.

It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale - on a web scale - that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.

In an earlier essay, Carr challenges the technophilia of proselytizers for Web 2.0 and the inevitable evolution in human consciousness its most zealous proponents argue for.

When we view the Web in religious terms, when we imbue it with our personal yearning for transcendence, we can no longer see it objectively. By necessity, we have to look at the Internet as a moral force, not as a simple collection of inanimate hardware and software. No decent person wants to worship an amoral conglomeration of technology.
And so all the things that Web 2.0 represents - participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism - become unarguably good things, things to be nurtured and applauded, emblems of progress toward a more enlightened state. But is it really so? Is there a counterargument to be made? Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good?

As evidence he cites some egregious Wikipedia entries and wonders “when the intelligence in ‘collective intelligence’ will begin to manifest itself.”

No wisdom of crowds for Carr. He argues that our enthusiasm for the technology of Web 2.0 leads us to value what it makes possible and ascribe goodness to it automatically—we commit the teleological fallacy and assume all change is always for the better, that the quest for greatness is what always motivates lasting historical change. So amateur content and aggregated opinion become bastions of truth and authenticity as opposed to the decadent moribund world of professionalized media and individual experts. Carr rejects all this, siding with the professionals over the amateurs. His argument is pretty compelling, though he sometimes seems unduly defensive, as if he were one of those moribund experts trying to prevent the commercial value of his expertise from eroding.

And so, having gone on for so long, I at long last come to my point. The Internet is changing the economics of creative work - or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture - and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

This is what the Tsarist bureaucrats and petty bourgeois mensheviks must have sounded like to the bolsheviks in October 1917.

He’s arguing for the economic value of gatekeepers, but the argument seems predicated on the idea that a flood of ideologically sanctioned amateur-produced junk will make us all forget real quality when we see it, and I’m not sure that’s true. For an elite group of futurists and technonerds, Web 2.0 is ideologically salient, but I think most people respond to user-generated content in the opposite way, viewing it not as faultless but as illegitimate, and they cling more to sanctioned brands in a confusing and chaotic marketplace of ideas.  Good filters are more valuable than ever and perhaps this is Carr’s point in the later post I initially cited—the more free content produced, the greater the value of the paid filter, be it Google or something else.

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