Is MySpace Exploiting You?

MySpaceGreaseMonkey.jpgThe Web 2.0 backlash has begun. From the right, Andrew Keen voices a cultural conservatism uneasy with the new egalitarianism of networked media, claiming that the “media and culture industries’ [purpose] . . . is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent.” He laments the “Napsterization” of old gatekeepers and their replacement by new context providers like FaceBook, MySpace, Google, and ochlocratic intermediaries. I see where he’s coming from, though I think Keen is way too quick to conflate media conglomerates and nonprofits as guarantors of quality.

On the left, Trebor Scholz worries that these new intermediaries recapitulate old patterns of exploitation. The labor of millions on their MySpace page results, most often, in nothing paid to them, and vast sums going to Rupert Murdoch. Scholz questions whether Web 2.0 really brings the decentralization its proponents hope for:

The most central sites of the World Wide Web create massive surplus value and small startups are frequently bought out by the Walmarts of the Internet (NewsCorp, Yahoo, Google) the very moment that they attract sufficient numbers of page views. People spend most time on the sites of these giants and not in the “mom and pop stores.” Almost 12 percent of all time spent by Americans online is spend on MySpace.

Scholz admits that “The picture of net publics being used is . . . complicated by the fact that participants undeniably get a lot out of their participation. There is the pleasure of creation and mere social enjoyment. . . . They share their life experiences and archive their memories. They are getting jobs, find dates and arguably contribute to the greater good.” Nevertheless, he’s raising some interesting questions about the very nature of labor and “just enrichment” in the digital age.

So are social media megasites exploitative?

As a skeptic of IP expansionism, I am wary of the exploitation idea if only because it threatens to instill in more and more people a “right to be paid” for what they contribute to the social networking behemoth (and to reconcile them to paying for anything else they see and do online…a sort of compensational theodicy for perfect control & metering of their online activities). I envision some dystopic anticommons of people all demanding to be paid for their contribution. Moreover, as Trebor has pointed out, it’s more likely than not that the context-providers have the upper hand bargaining here.

But I do think that people who contribute to these sites do deserve a right to know how they are governed, and to contribute to that governance. We should be prepared to challenge “black boxes,” and not to simply accept site founders’ claims that they need to keep us in the dark about how they’re run because that’s the trade secret they need to keep ahead of competitors (and to be incentivized to improve their sites).

We need to question the claim that sites are successful because of their great innovation; rather, their innovation may well be deemed to be great only because the site is successful. It’s like Thomas Schelling‘s old parable about two restaurants that are empty at 6PM; one person randomly chooses one of them, and then all succeeding customers go to that one, because they want to choose the restaurant that is “popular.” The origins of the popularity never get interrogated. Except, in the search engine and social networking context, we get to hear many post hoc explanations for why the owners of the successful sites are so much smarter than their vanquished competitors. Hagiographers in the business press have many incentives to rationalize the existing order.

The classic libertarian response, that “you can go to another site,” does not cut it, because of these network effects. By and large, you can’t just start your own site and expect to have anything like the competitive advantage you gain from playing on the platforms of established players.

The best alternative is to have new, public and transparent search engines and social media sites, perhaps with some government funding for basic research and infrastructure. (If only the U.S. government had required digital deposit of books for copyright, we wouldn’t so desperately need a Google Library.) And, failing that, let’s have a lot more transparency from the major players, regardless of claims that that will take away the trade secrets that made them great.

PS: Susan Crawford has a great post on the whole panel that included Trebor’s talk.

Photo Credit: Flickr/LeeOfBorg.

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