[iDC] Miscellaneous (Interview)

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Sat Jul 7 11:19:02 EDT 2007

Trebor Scholz: Today the owners of information are not in charge of its
organization anymore; they can let the "users" organize the data, they are
taking charge of creating an order of things. That's a central point of your
book. While there are huge benefits to the "tagging public," their labor is
also and not always knowingly monetized. Would you agree that sociable
context-providing platforms like MySpace make people easier to use?

David Weinberger: Yup. Others are profiting from the information we leave behind
on purpose and along the way. Even our mere participation in a site such as
MySpace makes MySpace money by increasing its traffic.  Social tagging, done in
public, gives away lots of information about what we're actually interested in.
There's value in that, and economic value in it as well.

TS: I'm surprised that users don't object to being monetized. Sure, they get
much out of these social operating systems: friendships, dates, a virtual
"home," jobs, skills, information, entertainment... How about a fair share for
the users? While Google (Adsense), Digg, and YouTube consider paying power
users (those with a very high number of weak links), that's still not even
approximating a fair share of the profits. Lawrence Lessig distinguishes fake
sharing and true sharing sites and Nicholas Carr points out that the very few
rich get richer off the backs of the very many. What are the ethical guidelines
that you propose to enterprises that make use of the sociable web?

DW: I don't know. General transparency and opt-in are good, but we're past the
point where we can claim ownership of every piece of data we leave behind. I
believe the business ethical guidelines will emerge -- are emerging -- based on
what we as customers and users object to. Guidelines are not going to emerge top
down (generally) or ahead of time. We'll work this out in practice. It's just
way too complicated. For example, a hot dog vendor who positions her cart in
front of the Apple store on the day the iPhone goes on sale is in some sense
"monetizing" (lord, do I hate that phrase) the Apple store's traffic. So what?
Now, of course not all cases of "monetizing" are analogous to that, but my
point is that the economics of this are complex, nuanced, situation-dependent
and inchoate. Which is just one reason I don't have any ethical guidelines for
you. The other is that I just don't know.

TS: It is true that miscellaneous piles of information are ordered by millions
of people who re-appropriate knowledge. Businesses learn a lot about people
from their profiles and their Delicious clouds. What would be a good code
conduct for "sociable media giants" today? I'd propose transparency of the
rules of the game is one key guideline. Also privacy is a major issue, which we
witnessed with the Facebook Rebellion. Finally, there is also ownership of the
created content and full control over it that should be granted. Do you think
that these propositions are realistic?

DW: They're generally reasonable, but implementation is always difficult because
the norms and purposes of the different social groups are different. (1)
Transparency of the rules is always good (except when playing SimCity). (2)
"Privacy" means "the proper degree of privacy," which is extraordinarily
difficult to figure out these days, and isn't the same for all the
participants; that's why transparency helps. (3) As for ownership, well, I'm
not so sure. It can mean so many things, and we want different degrees of
ownership and control depending on the site.

E.g., I posted a kid's novel (www.my100milliondollarsecret.com) and I'm happy to
have the electronic version used and reused, but I want to get paid if you
decide to print out a copy at www.lulu.com, and I always want attribution if
you're going to reuse a big (how big?) chunk of it. At Twitter, I'd be mildly
peeved if I said something clever and someone else reposted it as hers, but I'd
also be pleased if something I said was so clever that it infiltrated the
culture without attribution: "You know that clever phrase all the kids are
repeating? I wrote that." At Flickr, it's a different story, as it is on my
blog, a comment on someone else's blog, or a rating I leave at Netflix. Once
again, transparency helps, although often even transparency can't help enough,
because life routes around policies.

TS: Well, take Facebook Terms of Service (I brought it up on this list several
times). There it says that: "By posting User Content to any part of the Site,
you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right
to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive,
transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to
use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in
whole or in part) and distribute such User Content..."

I doubt that many users are aware of this policy and while I don't think that
Facebook currently sells user-generated content, they certainly leave that
option open. I find such practices dicey, in particular given the fact that
people on basically all of the sites of the media giants are basically in
communal lock down. They are captive communities as the exit costs are too
high. In the case of Facebook a vast majority of American students is on it and
there is no option to export your content and profile and take your images,
videos, etc, once uploaded with you. That's unethical to say the least.

DW: Yes, companies rely on bad writing to keep their policies unread. I'd
quibble with you about whether Facebook's limitations are unethical -- rather,
their failure to make that clear enough is, to use your word, dicey -- but I
agree that those policies suck. Still, I'm on FaceBook. And that's indicative
of the big problem: The norms are so pliable right now. We're in a transition
and don't yet know what's a "reasonable" amount of privacy to give up. But the
social pressures have us clustering around particular watering holes, accepting
whatever they say are reasonable norms. If the price of maintaining your purity
is becoming a cultural hermit, then kiss purity goodbye.

TS: Do you think it takes large businesses to support large-scale networked
social life? What do you think about the possibility of a non-profit social
networking site?

DW: Yes, it's possible to have large-scale networked social life without direct
support by large businesses. (I'm leaving aside the difficult question of the
degree to which the Web itself depends on the support of large
businesses...thus I am not using the Web as an example of a large scale social
network). Mailing lists are one of the most powerful forms of social
networking.  Do you count Wikipedia as a social network? It certainly has
elements of that. The Open Source community is also a social network. Do you
count FaceBook as a large business? We need large businesses to support social
networks only when we need lots of servers. P2P offers an alternative...

TS: How long will it take for public, independent social networking sites to
emerge, e.g., a KPFA or NPR for social networking?

DW: It will take exactly as long as it takes for someone to invent something so
appealing that people flock to it, plus the imponderables of how and when
social ocean waves are generated. And not a moment sooner! :) (Short answer: I
don't know.)

TS: Today, most of the sociable web reduces networked publics merely to
consumers, ignoring that we all have multi-faceted desires. Also many of the
most visible writers about Web 2.0 stir up interest mainly in business circles.
Is the sociable web mainly a big love affair of big business, a simple mirror of
good old capitalism with corporate interests at the heart of it and non-profits,
cultural producers etc on the periphery?

DW: I think enough has changed on the Web to merit the - admittedly gimmicky -
slapping of a new version number on it. But, I do see the phrase "Web 2.0"
sometimes getting appropriated in a way that I think repeats the mistake
businesses and the media overall have insisted on making about the Web forever.
I was one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which we wrote in 1999
precisely because the media kept talking about the Web as if it were mainly a
commercial opportunity. We instead wanted to point out what we thought people
on the Web already knew: We're there not because we want to do better catalog
shopping but because we get to connect with others and talk in our own voice
about what matters to us. Those who say that only with Web 2.0 have "ordinary
folks" been given a voice and a chance to participate are, in my view, are
making the same old mistake. The Web sent a jolt through our culture from the
very beginning because it was a place for _us_ and our voices and

TS: In the future, communities will be formed based on individual affinities
right there in the city. Just think of Dodgeball. Online, we experience such
cyber-archipelagos, or call them "plural monocultures" already. Topic-driven
communities become heavily monetized. Reed's Law reigns supreme! Are you
concerned about corporate command and control?

DW: I'm worried about it at the level of who owns the tubes, um, pipes. (BTW,
yesterday I posted a long-ish piece about this:
www.hyperorg.com/misc/delamination.html.) The political and economic battle
being waged right now will determine the fate of the Internet, at least in the
US. Aside from that, I'm not too worried about corporations owning our social
lives on the Web. They will and they won't. There'll be apps that lots of us
use that are owned and controlled top down. And there will be lots of ways we
engage socially that are unowned and uncontrolled. And everything in between.
My new motto is: The Web is more of everything.

TS: Thanks for the interview.

More information about the iDC mailing list