Social Media Sharecroppers

We're all unpaid employees of Facebook.

Yesterday’s post “Top 100 Websites Illustrate Long Tail” generated an interesting sidebar discussion about whether comparing site’s like Facebook and WordPress with original content sites was equivalent to comparing apples and oranges. Commenter John Personna argued, “we need a distinction between sites that do some kind of editorial direction and those that are more like providers, or carriers.”

Well, Marc Meyer points me to a four-year-old posting, “Sharecropping the long tail, ” by Nicholas Carr, who recently gained attention from his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

[T]he greater concentration of traffic can largely be explained by the popularity of two “social networking” sites, MySpace and Facebook, which together accounted for 17% of all page views in November 2006. Both MySpace and Facebook are made up of millions of “user profiles” created by their members. If we counted each profile as a separate site, which in a content sense it is, we would find no increase in the concentration of traffic, consistent with the long-tail theory.What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. 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. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

I’m seeing increasing backlash over this in recent weeks, with many people realizing that they don’t actually own their own content and that Facebook or Twitter or whomever can pretty much do with it whatever they will — including locking you out of your account at any time.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.