So Lawrence Lessig writes that YouTube is a ‘fake sharing site’ rather than a ‘real sharing site’ because YouTube doesn’t make it easy to download their content. Nick Carr grabs this a couple of days later and runs with it a bit, claiming Lessig is trying to transform Web 2.0 into a ideological term that promotes ‘digital communalism in which private property becomes common property.’ Sure, Nick’s exaggerating – Lessig clarifies things here. But I’ll forgive Nick for the hyperbole as long as he keeps writing paragraphs like this one:
Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.
Leaving aside ‘exploitation’, which is a value-laden word, that’s exactly how it works – whether you think the users are suckers or engaging in a fair exchange, the content of many does indeed produce cash (or in the case of YouTube, $1.6 billion in Google stock) for a few. Now, I don’t care much about the definition of Web 2.0, and I doubt you’ll catch me debating whether a company is Web 2.0 or not – it’s all semantics. But I’m very curious to see whether the cash-for-a-few from the content-of-many model is stable. When people are truly exploited, they react to end their exploitation. We’ve seen this happen, dramatically, over privacy concerns at Facebook. We’ve yet to see it happen over issues like Lessig’s ‘fake-sharing.’ Why no protest? It could be because the users simply don’t care – the inability to download from YouTube or profit off the content doesn’t concern them. (Certainly the ability to profit from a video hasn’t done much for Revver.)
I’ve been thinking about exploitation a lot lately in the context of my latest project, a tool for collective user action. I suspect much of our online culture comes about by default, because the individuals who want something different lack good tools for organization and collective action – so I’m trying to build the tools. But in working on the tools I’ve had to question what I mean by exploitation. Originally, I treated it as a simple fact, inherent in the economic system – the proles can be happy and content, thanks to false consciousness / capitalist hegemony / what-have-you, but they’re still exploited, and the tool needed to make them aware of that. I soon realized that there’s nothing more obnoxious than a consciousness-raiser, and switched to treating exploitation as a state of mind – if people don’t feel exploited, then they’re not being exploited, no matter how much this rubs against my ‘money-to-the-people’ inclinations. All I can really do is build the tools for self-organization, try and bring people to them, and see what they decide to organize for and protest against in the course of their own deliberations and discussions. Maybe ‘fake-sharing’ – what I’d call data lock-in – will be widely condemned. Maybe not.
I probably shouldn’t dwell too much on this – I’ve got enough to do just building the tools.