A clarification of some comments I made at the New School…

I had a fantastic time at the New School Friday night, giving a talk with Trebor Scholz and danah boyd. It’s great fun to share the stage with smart people who are working in your field, but not on precisely the same issues you’re focused on. What was especially exciting was sharing the stage with two people as passionate about the issues they’re focused on as I am about the issues I advocate for. One of the downsides of academia is that some colleages seem to check their passions at the door. (Not at the door to the Berkman Center, fortunately – there’s lots of passion to go around there.)

Susan Crawford and Nancy Scola both blogged the event in detail, so I won’t perform my usual trick of blogging panels I sat on. But I feel compelled to explain some of my comments in a bit more detail and turn an onstage spat with Trebor into a longer conversation, if possible.

I know danah’s work pretty well – I read her blog religiously and make a point of cornering her and grilling her on her recent discoveries whenever our paths on the moving circus intersect. But I don’t know Trebor or his work as well… and while I know he reads my work (and was kind enough to invite me onto the panel), he’s got no reason to know my biography prior to my work on Global Voices. This led to a pretty funny situation: Trebor’s talk argued that websites that rely on user-created content to sell ads are exploiting their workers – the youth who contribute to MySpace are feeding the Rupert Murdoch media machine and are unwitting dupes in forwarding his political agenda.

This is an interesting argument and one not without merit. But it’s a hard argument for me not to take very personally. I was one of the co-founders of Tripod.com, one of the first sites in the world (alongside Geocities.com and Angelfire.com – which I also ran for a stint) to try to make money from user-created content. We failed, for the most part – we made money from venture capitalists who thought we might, someday, make money from user generated content. But if you’re looking for an exploitative capitalist trying to profit from the sweat of the proletariat’s labors, I’m your man. The fact that I’m able to work on projects like BlogAfrica, Global Voices, Worldchanging.com and Geekcorps is a direct consequence of the fact that I helped build some of the models that now make Trebor so nervous.

I was overly dismissive in responding to Trebor’s ideas and concerns while on stage – I was trying to be funny, or at least provocative, and I wanted to make sure we had time for some of the other issues that came up in the three talks and didn’t want to have a long debate about the value of capitalist models of production. But in the process, I was probably too dismissive of Trebor’s ideas, and I misrepresented my own feelings about the situation. Specifically, I ended up arguing that no one is making kids use these services and that there are alternatives people can set up to commercial services. Both of those are oversimplifications.

In the era when I built web services, there wasn’t much platform lock-in. Tripod build HTML webpages, and so did Geocities. If we did something to piss you off, you could cut and paste your HTML and move to another service, or to your own server. As a result, we tried very, very hard to be responsive to users concerns, and to take care of the users who created lots of traffic for us. We ended up flying some of our best members to Williamstown and interviewing them, inviting them to suggest how we could make the service better. And we put together a number of programs that helped members make money from their websites, helping them profit from selling books, CDs and ad space.

Then again, we also didn’t make enough money to cover our costs. Giving away disk space to users with high uptime in the hopes that they’d generate enough page views to cover our expenses was a business with some obvious problems. Some of my best work at Tripod had to do with staunching the bleeding fiscally – finding ways to get rid of sites that cost us tons of money and generated no revenue, because they were distributing porn or pirated software, both of which were banned under our terms of service…

The services that people – especially young people – are using today have a powerful community lock-in factor. Sure, you could use something other than MySpace, but if all your friends are on that service, who’s going to be in your favorite eight? How will you know how popular you really are? If your friends are all already on a platform like this, it may not be a real choice for you switch to a platform that gives you ownership over your content.

I think the way to address these concerns – if you’re persuaded that they are major concerns – is to try to bring interoperability back into these services, probably by creating competing services. Railing about the injustice of MySpace is unlikely to create much change. Creating a MySpace alternative – YourSpace, perhaps – that allows users to own their content, share in revenue from ads, and interoperate as much as possible with existing MySpace users just might. (You can imagine MySpace deciding to block this sort of service – “YourSpace” allows you to include MySpace members in a top eight until MySpace blocks incoming requests that originate from a YourSpace page…)

But I worry that Trebor’s critique misses a major issue – it’s really, really hard to run these sorts of community sites. It costs an immense amount of money, both to develop the software and to maintain high uptime servers. I think Trebor’s right to point out that users are creating value for companies in participating in these networks… but I would argue that these networks are more often mutualistic rather than parasitic. If they’re truly parasitic, they tend to lose users quickly and open opportunities for less offensive competitors.

Anyway – a long way of saying what I should have said Friday night. Here’s hoping Trebor will be willing to continue the conversation soon.

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