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.