Sunday, February 22, 2015

Digital sharecropping and individual “brands” online

Back in 2006, a blogger named Nicholas Carr coined the term “digital sharecropping”:

“One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.”

Sonia Simone of Copyblogger further elaborated:

“In other words, anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit.”

“Get your own website and hosting account!”

Simone ends her post on digital sharecropping with some advice for avoiding the trap.

Among other steps, she recommends that content creators have their own website addresses and hosting service accounts. This will prevent a catastrophe in the event that Google+ or Facebook goes the way of MySpace.

I don’t use Facebook much for my online presence (I do have a Facebook account, but it is for personal (i.e., old classmates and relatives) contacts only). I do, however, blog on Google’s blogging platform, Blogger, and I use YouTube for hosting my videos.

I used to do it Ms. Simone’s way, though. For a long time, I had my own website. In fact, I had several of them.

This was the only option before the Web 2.0 platforms were developed. Way back when (in 2001, I believe), I signed up for my first web hosting account with Interland, which shortly thereafter became I later used GoDaddy.

What I immediately found, however, is that while hosting companies give you land to build on, you still have to build your own house. That means you have to learn all about HTML, JavaScript, server administration, as well as the aesthetics of webpage design.

I often enjoy technical details for their own sake, so I did jump into these topics. I also became proficient with the now defunct Microsoft FrontPage, and moderately proficient with Dreamweaver.

What I found, however, was that I was soon spending more time on webpage development and administration than on writing.

This problem became especially acute after Microsoft discontinued the relatively user-friendly FrontPage, and Dreamweaver forced users to plan every page with cascading style sheets (CSS) instead of the far more intuitive WYSIWYG system.

That was back in the mid- to late-2000s. I understand that intermediate solutions are now available, namely in the form of WordPress templates. And I may migrate to something like that in the future. However, even this is not a panacea. Why not?

Because web hosting companies go out of business, too.

Yes, if a web hosting company goes out of business, you’ll still have your domain name, but you’ll lose all of the hosted content that isn’t backed up.

Not only do hosting companies go out of business, they often screw things up. once disabled 60% of the internal links in my site when they implemented an unannounced and poorly executed server change. I had no choice but to kill an entire weekend recreating the links.

Web hosting has become a low-margin, high-volume business. As a result, many hosting companies rely on low-paid technical support services in India and the Philippines. Very often they can only be reached by email. Good luck with that.

But what about content creator “branding”?

A writer or other content creator can be effectively branded on a site like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Blogger.

This is evidenced by the fact that Twitter followers, blog pageviews, and YouTube subscribers are by no means evenly distributed. JA Konrath and I both use the Google Blogger platform, but his blog receives more pageviews than mine does, because JA Konrath the writer is far better known than yours truly is.

But technically, are blogs are more or less the same.

As a content creator, your brand is your name and the content you provide. It really doesn't matter whether your web presence is hosted by Google, YouTube (a Google company, incidentally) or a private hosting account with GoDaddy.

And while domain names are important, they aren’t as important as they used to be. If someone wants to find a particular personality online, their first inclination nowadays is to Google that person’s name. (Web addresses were a lot more crucial when search engines were less accurate and efficient, circa 1998 to 2001.)

This doesn't mean that you should ignore the vulnerability of Web 2.0 platforms. It is important to have all content backed up.

Before I upload anything to my blog (with the exception of the most ephemeral posts) I compose the content in Microsoft Word. This means that I have backups. If Google were to discontinue Blogger tomorrow, I would be able to upload all of my content somewhere else (like say, an independently hosted account with WordPress templates!)

So is there, in fact, “digital sharecropping”? And what about Wikipedia?

Well, yes: Technically speaking, anyone who writes for Wikipedia (where individual authors are not credited) is a digital sharecropper.

I suspect that this is the real reason why Jimmy Wales has never taken the logical step of funding the site through advertising. Ad revenue would immediately bring up the uncomfortable and inconvenient digital sharecropping issue, as all of those ad revenues would have to be somehow distributed. So instead Wikipedia annually engages in a far less efficient and less effective campaign for voluntary donations.

I understand that Wikipedia writers (called “Wikipedians”) aren’t in it for the money or the individual recognition to begin with. (So no—you don’t have to email me and tell me that.) But Wikipedians are, in fact, unpaid contributors for an enterprise in which they have no immediate monetary or reputational interest. At the very least, Wikipedians help Wales (who is worth a respectable $1 million) to secure paid speaking gigs. Most Wikipedians have to pay their bills with far less glamorous and anonymous day jobs. So there is a degree of digital sharecropping going on there—even if it’s relatively small-scale and only moderately exploitive.

And let’s not forget all those blog commenters!

I don’t allow comments at my blog, and I feel absolutely no compunction over this. To begin with, I have no double standard. In all my time on the Internet, I’ve probably posted no more than a half a dozen comments on other people’s blogs. It is something that I do very, very rarely. Almost never, in fact.

If I feel that I have a brilliant point to make, I would much rather make that point here.

Likewise, if you have a brilliant rebuttal, segue, or point of agreement with one of my posts, I would much rather you make that point on your own Twitter, Facebook, or Blogger account.

Nothing induces more guilt in your host’s heart than seeing an insightful, three-paragraph comment from a reader—which I won’t be able to address because I’ve already moved on to something else.

*    *    *

There is, of course, one exception I should mention: And that is the myriad bloggers and/or content creators who post only a few videos or blogs to sites like YouTube or Blogger. These are the folks who upload one cat-on-a-skateboard YouTube video that briefly goes viral, or one confessional blog post that makes a small splash for a short time.

These users will see little to no personal benefit, but they have little invested in terms of time or effort.

It is also true that Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. reap benefits from these individuals in the aggregate. But Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. also provide opportunities for individuals who don’t want to be full-time content creators, but occasionally want to be heard in the public square without making the large individual investment that would otherwise be needed to create their own platforms. When you think about it, this represents a fair tradeoff.

So what’s the bottom line? Digital sharecropping is a real issue—but only if you neglect to brand yourself, or deliberately choose to create content in an anonymous venue (such as Wikipedia).

Google, Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress etc. are merely tools for content creation. These websites and technologies aren’t the content itself. And while discussion of their individual merits and demerits is worthwhile, at the end of the day it is the content—not the platform—that is most likely to determine an individual creator’s success or failure.