Money Ruins Everything, but we have to talk about it anyway

In Money Ruins Everything (blog post, complete article), John Quiggin and Dan Hunter look out at the new forms of creative expression introduced by the Internet (blogs, wikis, citizen journalism, and to some extent open-source software) and conclude that today’s most important innovations are driven by the collaboration of amateurs with non-economic motives. They give this development progressive political overtones by labelling it "the ‘amateur collaborative content’ movement" [p216] and explicitly identify it as a non-commercial alternative to the market. I don’t know Dan Hunter’s other writings but Quiggin, at least, is a social democrat whose views I usually agree with and whose writings I read often and respect, so I don’t disagree lightly with him. But the picture they paint is a distorted one so I have to.

[Note to regular readers: you may want to move right along – much of what’s here is stuff I’ve written earlier in other contexts. It’s just more of the same, but it needs to be said.]

There are three major things wrong with the paper.

  1. A portion of the activity they describe as non-commercial is in fact commercial.
  2. They exaggerate the rise of the amateur in the Internet age.
  3. They neglect the other side of the coin, which is the spread of commercialism into areas that were previously non-commercial.

I thought I’d talk about all three, but it’s taking too long to write and I need to go and cook some dinner as part of my contribution to our household’s creative production so I’ll just address the first. If I were to say something about the other two it would be

(2) in assessing the rise of the new amateurism they neglect instances of amateur production that existed before the Internet and may be driven out by the rise of the Internet. And

(3) Facebook represents the commercialization of conversation, not the amateurization of collaborative content production.

The distinguishing technological feature of the collaborative web ("web 2.0") is the shift from peer-to-peer networks to a "platform" architecture that is built on top of the lower-level protocols of the Internet.

Wikipedia is a platform: it defines the ways in which you can interact with it, stores the changes you make, and provides security and authentication mechanisms among other things. Facebook is a platform. Amazon is a platform. YouTube is a platform. Blogging takes place on platforms. So the authors are wrong when they say that "As a result of various forces—notably the ascension of the general purpose computer, peer-to-peer technologies, and the internet—all manner of established verities in the content industry are falling." [p215] None of the platforms mentioned above operate in a peer-to-peer manner.

The distinction matters because when content is built on a platform, it is in some important senses owned by the platform-owner or aggregator. Private ownership is present, even if the content (videos, book reviews etc) is explicitly shared by its amateur producer. The suggestion that "Users can modify open source software as they see fit, and can choose whether to make their modifications publicly available, but cannot charge for the use of software derived from an open source program." [218] is incorrect for open source software itself (it applies only to GPL’d software and not software produced under other open source licenses such as the BSD license, and even then copyright owners – such as MySQL AB, now a part of Sun Microsystems  –  can and do charge for some versions of the software). More importantly for this paper, it is also misleading when it comes to collaborative content. Chad and Steve cannot sell an individual video produced by an amateur, but they can sell the entire collection of videos lock stock and barrel to Google for about a third of a billion dollars each; Michael Birch can sell Bebo and all its content (including Billy Bragg’s songs) to AOL and pocket $600 million. Now that’s commercial. Or you can get a seat at Davos, of course, which now seems to be the Cannes red carpet equivalent for our youthful webby leaders.

Amateur production on a non-commercial platform such as Wikipedia is non-commercial. And it’s important. No argument there. But amateur production on a commercial platform is commercial activity. With one party in each transaction motivated my money, it’s the sound of one hand shaking. Back in 2003 Tim Bray’s dinner companion Robb Beal introduced the phrase "digital sharecropping" to distinguished building software "for any platform that is owned and operated by a company" from building sofware for the web. But now that dichotomy has faded: the web includes many platforms owned and operated by companies and sharecropping has moved online along with it. Nicholas Carr has been particularly pointed about the movement of digital sharecropping onto the web, and Seth Finkelstein has pointed to several examples including citizen journalism. It’s a phrase that should be front and centre of everyone’s mind when they see the phrase "networked production".

The distinction can often be seen in who is sharing what. On a non-commercial platform, the amateurs share and the platform owners share as well. At least, my understanding is that on Wikipedia not only the content but also the software and large amounts of data mining derived from it about users and so on is shared publicly. In contrast, on a commercial platform only the amateur material is shared. The contributions of the commercial part of the transaction (Amazon’s sales data for example; data on user habits; the software that runs the platform itself) are not shared — in fact this half of the story is hidden with as much zealousness as the source code of any closed-source company. One of the reasons that "The Long Tail" was such a flop of a book is that the data Chris Anderson relies on is unavailable for anyone else to inspect, and much of it was given to him in filtered form by the content owners.

A second failure is most obviously present in the following paragraph (page 245).

Copyright thus provides incentives to the intermediaries of the content industries—publishers, agents, movie studios, retail stores, etc.— where the processes of moving content from creator to user are expensive or capital-intensive. These “content processes” include the creation of the content, the selection of the content for commercial publication, its production and dissemination, its marketing, and its eventual use. Until recently each of these processes has been too expensive, too difficult,  or too specialized for amateurs to undertake. So until now, highly capitalized intermediaries were necessary to ensure that content moved into society.

Amazon, Google and so on are obviously highly capitalized. More so, in fact, than many small distributors of pre-web content. The web is seeing the movement of content into society consolidated into a handful of "highly capitalized intermediaries": very large and wealthy commerically-driven web site owners, including such old-school outfits as News Corporation, the owner of MySpace. It does no good to ignore this trend.

The paper also elides the distinction between amateur and professional motivations, with the temptation to caricature employed work as factory-line production of alienated labour, while amateur work is driven by love. To take a relevant example, what is the overlap between the motivations of John Quiggin (blogger) and John Quiggin (employee)? Is his work for the University of Queensland driven by the his "first rule" which is "never to give more than you get?" [231] And if not, why does he think that software engineers for commercial software companies writing closed-source programs are driven by different motivations? There is a possible argument (nicely made by Geof in a comment on a previous post) about alienation and the relationship between the developer and the code, but this does not cover production in sharecropping platforms. I’m more inclined to go with another comment by Dipper, that participation in many cases can be covered by standard utilitarian calculus.

One argument made by the authors is that the incorporation of money into production would drive out amateur efforts in a blood-donation kind of way. I’m happy to help push someone’s car out from a snow drift for free, but I wouldn’t do it for a dollar. But there are two groups of people with an incentive to keep money out of the equation: one is the promoters of real community-driven, shared production (the authors’ camp, and one I’m quite happy with) and the other is the turbocapitalist platform owners such as Amazon (would you review a book for a nickel? would you trust the review of someone who did?) It is this shared interest in supressing the role of money for very different reasons that makes me most queasy in contemplating the future of the Internet. We need to be clear in distinguishing public goods from privately owned plantations. Unfortunately, in this paper, John Quiggin and Dan Hunter fail to make the distinction and the result is a distorted picture of web-based creative work. Money may ruin everything, but turning a blind eye to money doesn’t get around that problem.

I feel like I’m being harsh on the authors here – as I say, I agree with their political sympathies, and the one I have read (Quiggin) is obviously smart and well informed on many issues. But serious social scientists need to do serious work on the nature of production on the Internet and not just adopt the turbocapitalist line. Me, all I can do is raise a few questions. But then, when it comes to social science, I’m just an amateur.

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  1. Thanks for these useful comments. My view of the platform issue is derived mainly from blogs, which you give as an example of digital sharecropping. It’s true that blogging takes place on platforms of which the most important commercial example is Blogger (as well as, on a broader view of blogs, Livejournal and Myspace). But I don’t see that the platform owner, at least in Blogger’s case, has any significant ownership of the content. When I moved from Blogger, I took the content and the readers with me – admittedly incoming hyperlinks rotted, but they are mostly short-lived in practice anyway. As far as I could see, I was in effect a squatter for the time I was there, not a sharecropper. Now, I’m paying for hosting services myself, but that’s not obviously different from paying for the ISP or the modem.

  2. A bit more, now that comments seem to be working properly. It’s true that Google paid a substantial though undisclosed sum for Blogger, so obviously they have a view more like yours than mine. But on the basis of past experience, I don’t think the argument “someone paid a lot of money for this platform, so it must be commercially valuable” is a conclusive one.
    Also, I agree that blogs are at one end of a spectrum here with sites like Facebook at the other. If Facebook had been bigger when we wrote the paper it would certainly have been worth discussing as a potential counterexample.

  3. Those that believe that “money ruins everything” will go to great lengths to demonstrate that the things they value are not monetary in nature. I am not convinced by the argument that “amateur collaborative innovation” is symbolic of a new trend that transcends market forces. Even volunteering at a soup kitchen can have great non-altruistic value (think resume, meeting like minded people, or attracting a mate with stories of incredible selflessness… and modesty). What has changed is the value structure of pursuits like blogging, open source software, and collaborative encyclopedias. This shift is due to technology, network effects, and the increased prosperity we enjoy in free market societies. There are many ways to measure value. Wikipedia is a wonderful example of a non-commercial organization that has tremendous value. In accounting you would call it “goodwill” and put it on your financial statement. John Quiggin is hopeful that corporate greed is being displaced by a new kind of collective action and Tom insists that corporate greed is alive and well but you have to look under a new rock to find it. In my opinion money is just a metric to help measure certain kinds of value. Web 2.0 is not some kind of hippie dream incarnate no matter how hard we wish it to be so.

  4. John – I do agree that blogging is less platform-dependent than, say, Wikipedia. I guess there is a spectrum of separability where at one end individual contributions maintain their integrity and other qualities if they are removed from the platform, and at the other a contribution has no value when separated from the corpus of which it is a part.
    Platforms, it seems to me, provide a host for composite, integrated corpuses and add value to separable individual works by providing them with shareability and discoverability (tagging of photos etc) and otherwise integrating them into a larger whole.
    Blogging is definitely at one end of this spectrum and as a result we can find blogs no matter which platform they are hosted on (or if they are hosted on a separate server). The platform contribution is thin. At the other end of the spectrum (Facebook, perhaps?) the platform becomes almost indespensible (at least at the moment).
    Which is a wordy way of saying I think I agree with you about blogging as outside the scope of sharecropping.

  5. RAD – the various warm-glow attempts to dismiss altruism descend into tautology (if there is an apparent non-selfish motive, then the achievement of that non-selfish motive becomes a selfish motive). Money may be just a metric for other kinds of value, but that statement itself suggests you acknowledge there are other kinds of value (ie non-monetary).

  6. Taking this a bit further, I have (and I think Dan too) a view that attempts to create the kind of walled garden in which a sharecropping model can work will ultimately fail. Looking backwards, we see this the lesson both of the success of the Internet against competing commercial networks and of what is now, I guess, Web 1.0 against competitors lile WAIS/Gopher. In this context, Facebook is certainly a big test case.

  7. Tom, I think value is a subjective measure. Only when enough people are able to vote on the relative value of something do we approach consensus. Pricing is one way to vote on relative value.
    What I disagree with is the idea that altruistic motives are somehow pure and that any attempt to assign monetary value somehow pollutes this altruistic purity.
    This “money corrupts” idea is implied in both your and John’s arguments and I think it overwhelms all other inputs used to measure value. In this world view, higher profits and/or revenue equates to greater evil.

  8. RAD – I think we can do away with the purity piece (well, I can), but you would have to give up the idea (which I think is in what you say) that everything has a monetary equivalent and that more value maps to more money. Witness today’s Guardian and its article on behavioural economics.

    Listen to the story of Oz Brownlee, late professor at the University of Minnesota. One Friday, he and a colleague stopped to buy some steaks. Finding a long queue, they offered cash to the person in front to swap places. The shopper was dumbstruck – which the academics took as a bargaining ploy, so they raised the price. As news spread down the line, other customers turned hostile. The Minnesota department of economics alumni newsletter goes on: “Attempts to explain that they were … trying to ascertain whether there was a mutually beneficial trade of time for money that might improve their welfare and that of the next person in line without disadvantaging others met with little success.” The economists left without any steak.

  9. Tom S. and John Quiggin: This was another great read (I have been reading this blog for a few months now….ever since Mr. Google’s Guidebook) and the comments-discussion here has been helpful in teasing apart various nuanced differences in platforms. It seems that John Quiggin was hinting at another nuanced difference when he distinguished Blogger from LiveJournal and MySpace. Actually, re-reading his comment, he may have done a bit more lumping of the blogs rather than splitting. It seems that in theory moving from Blogger (or WordPress…here I am lumping those two platforms) to another service may be quite different than moving from Live Journal and MySpace to something else. I would have reason to believe that with respect to the latter two sites there would be some cases where the content is not so easy to separate from the platform. But that may be for some people who are writing journals for particular audiences. Therefore, we may want to be even more nuanced and be careful about talking about “blogging” as one thing. I have to go back and read more about this sharecropping metaphor, but I am reading to believe that in some circumstances writing a blog (on a particular platform, for a particular audience) may be in the vein of sharecropping, though it seems that this may not be the case in John Quiggen’s example of his own blog on Blogger.

  10. Dan, I was meaning to class Myspace and LJ as blogs but also to say that they were a bit more platform-locked. I’m not expert on these, but a quick check suggests you can export Myspace and LJ blogs, though not as easily as with standard blog platforms. Transferring some of the added features would be more difficult again.

  11. “and conclude that today’s most important innovations are driven by the collaboration of amateurs with non-economic motives.”
    So preposterous that it’s not worth reading another word they write.

  12. “and conclude that today’s most important innovations are driven by the collaboration of amateurs with non-economic motives.”
    Why is that proposterous? Carbon fibre and glass fibre technology were developed by scientists “behind the fume cupboard”, in other words despite the organisations for whom the developers worked.

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