No, blogging for free is not feudalism

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom on Flickr

The sale of the Huffington Post has sparked another raft of posts about how we’re all suckers for building up the value of these companies through giving away our content for free.

The New York Times’s David Carr is typical, describing users as “A Nation of Serfs” and quoting Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa’s similar soundbite “a world of digital feudalism”.

Carr misses the point entirely: that this is not “people working free” (sic) but an exchange. A user exchanges demographic details and content for the functionality offered by Facebook. They put their photos on Flickr because they benefit from the network, access, and tools.

This is nothing new: we do not criticise telephone companies for being built on people ‘giving away their content’ in the form of the billions of conversations that take place across those networks. Or the demographic data we hand over when we sign up. Oh, and we pay them.

It’s a symptom of journalistic egocentrism that it should seem odd that other people hand over their content ‘for free’ (and of being a little threatened?).

Another symptom is to see the likes of Twitter and Facebook as content platforms, rather than communication networks.

Even the Huffington Post is a network as well as a content platform – the interesting problem for that site in selling to AOL is that while some people will have been happy to contribute for the network benefits (access to likeminded individuals), some will not.

But here’s where feudalism is no comparison to make. Serfs didn’t have a choice. Huffpo bloggers can leave – as indeed, many left similar operations before (Anthony De Rosa‘s analysis is sophisticated enough to recognise this). One of the questions occupying my mind at the moment is whether the current domination of Facebook will turn out to be a stepping stone to other forms of blogging, or if the social network will be enough for most people.

The fundamental point is that this is a marketplace, and if the exchange does not feel fair, users will move on – as they did with MySpace, and Friendster before that.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wider problem around corporatisation of the public sphere, but don’t insult millions of people by calling them serfs.

9 thoughts on “No, blogging for free is not feudalism

  1. Dave Saunders

    Thank you! I’m so tired of hearing about how how these models are like a new form of sharecropping. Ohhhh the people are oppressed. They can’t get out. I’ve written for some of these sites and you know what? It really helped me work my chops for writing and honing my reporting skills. That alone had huge value to me, which I took to other clients. How long would it have taken to publish 100 articles for the Washington Post and enjoy the same personal benefits? I don’t even want to think about it.

  2. charlie beckett

    I think there is a misunderstanding of feudalism here. It was actually a system of exchange. Serfs got security in exchange for giving up some of their labour. Knights were given land by a King in exchange for some military service. So everyone ‘benefits’ albeit with a rather rigid hierarchical structure (plus some other downsides such as various wars and plagues).
    So in that sense I think Huff Post blogging might be a kind of feudalism.
    You write something and in return you get the kudos and reach of the Huff Post platform – this may lead to other indirect gain and even direct gain if HuffPo ends up paying you.
    I think the critics of the HuffPo are actually accusing it of ‘slavery’ not feudalism.
    Apologies for what is a totally pedantic point – greetings from the just out of feudalism Old World,
    Charlie Beckett

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  4. aleek

    In your argument, then, is the only difference between Medieval feudalism and modern-not-Medieval-feudalism just that it is optional?

    But surely the *option* still means (to use the language of feudalism for a moment) that the content ‘given’ to these ‘kings’ is always up there, for them to use any time after the physical ‘serf’ has left.

    So, it’s just optional feudalism? In a world where if you are starting out as this kind of content-supplier, there ISN’T any other option. Except to give it up altogether and do something else.

  5. charlie beckett

    Hi Aleek,
    The answer to your first question is Yes, although, let’s not strain the historical analogy too far eh?
    And the answer to your last question is yes, do something else. I think that there are far too many writers in the world, they can’t all be paid for it.

  6. Robin Rowland

    The problem with this article, a form of blogging egocentrism, is that it depends not on the reality of peasant economics but on the Hollywood image of feudal serfs. Unfortunately, since most classical peasant societies no longer exist, peasant economics is no longer taught or studied (unless there is an obscure course at LSE? 🙂 ). Charlie Beckett only hints at the complexity involved in the exchange of good, services and obligations in feudal and other peasant societies.
    If you knew even a little about those peasant societies, you would know that (when the people had the time) they were highly creative in visual arts, music and story telling. That creativity was often channeled into festivals, religious ceremonies, weddings etc. But the bottom line was that even in peasant society no one worked in a creative area for free/nothing. Creativity was rewarded in substantial ways through that system of exchange of goods and services, beyond getting credit for the work. After all even the local woodcarver or story teller sill had to eat.

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