Category Archives: Yochai_Benkler

gift economy or honeymoon?

There was some discussion here last week about the ethics and economics of online publishing following the Belgian court’s ruling against Google News in a copyright spat with the Copiepresse newspaper group. The crux of the debate: should creators of online media — whether major newspapers or small-time blogs, TV networks or tiny web video impresarios — be entitled to a slice of the pie on ad-supported sites in which their content is the main driver of traffic?
It seems to me that there’s a difference between a search service like Google News, which shows only excerpts and links back to original pages, and a social media site like YouTube, where user-created media is the content. There’s a general agreement in online culture about the validity of search engines: they index the Web for us and make it usable, and if they want to finance the operation through peripheral advertising then more power to them. The economics of social media sites, on the other hand, are still being worked out.
For now, the average YouTube-er is happy to generate the site’s content pro bono. But this could just be the honeymoon period. As big media companies begin securing revenue-sharing deals with YouTube and its competitors (see the recent YouTube-Viacom negotiations and the entrance of Joost onto the web video scene), independent producers may begin to ask why they’re getting the short end of the stick. An interesting thing to watch out for in the months and years ahead is whether (and if so, how) smaller producers start organizing into bargaining collectives. Imagine a labor union of top YouTube broadcasters threatening a freeze on new content unless moneys get redistributed. A similar thing could happen on community-filtered news sites like Digg, Reddit and Netscape in which unpaid users serve as editors and tastemakers for millions of readers. Already a few of the more talented linkers are getting signed up for paying gigs.
Justin Fox has a smart piece in Time looking at the explosion of unpaid peer production across the Net and at some of the high-profile predictions that have been made about how this will develop over time. On the one side, Fox presents Yochai Benkler, the Yale legal scholar who last year published a landmark study of the new online economy, The Wealth of Networks. Benkler argues that the radically decentralized modes of knowledge production that we’re seeing emerge will thrive well into the future on volunteer labor and non-proprietary information cultures (think open source software or Wikipedia), forming a ground-level gift economy on which other profitable businesses can be built.
Less sure is Nicholas Carr, an influential skeptic of most new Web crazes who insists that it’s only a matter of time (about a decade) before new markets are established for the compensation of network labor. Carr has frequently pointed to the proliferation of governance measures on Wikipedia as a creeping professionalization of that project and evidence that the hype of cyber-volunteerism is overblown. As creative online communities become more structured and the number of eyeballs on them increases, so this argument goes, new revenue structures will almost certainly be invented. Carr cites Internet entrepreneur Jason Calcanis, founder of the for-profit blog network Weblogs, Inc., who proposes the following model for the future of network publishing: “identify the top 5% of the audience and buy their time.”
Taken together, these two positions have become known as the Carr-Benkler wager, an informal bet sparked by their critical exchange: that within two to five years we should be able to ascertain the direction of the trend, whether it’s the gift economy that’s driving things or some new distributed form of capitalism. Where do you place your bets?

physical books and networks

won_image.jpg The Times yesterday ran a pretty decent article, “Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules”, discussing some recent experiments in book publishing online. One we’ve discussed here previously, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which is available as both a hefty 500-page brick from Yale University Press and in free PDF chapter downloads. There’s also a corresponding readers’ wiki for collective annotation and discussion of the text online. It was an adventurous move for an academic press, though they could have done a better job of integrating the text with the discussion (it would have been fantastic to do something like GAM3R 7H30RY with Benkler’s book).
Also discussed is the new Mark Danielewski novel. His first book, House of Leaves, was published by Pantheon in 2000 after circulating informally on the web among a growing cult readership. His sophmore effort, due out in September, has also racked up some pre-publication mileage, but in a more controlled experiment. According to the Times, the book “will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work who have added hundreds of annotations, some of which are to be published in the physical book’s margins.” Annotations were submitted through an online forum on Danielewski’s web site, a forum that does not include a version of the text (though apparently 60 “digital galleys” were distributed to an inner circle of devoted readers).
The Times piece ends with an interesting quote from Danielewski, who, despite his roots in networked samizdat, is still ultimately focused on the book as a carefully crafted physical reading experience:

Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. “Only Revolutions,” he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. “As excited as I am by technology, I’m ultimately creating a book that can’t exist online,” he said. “The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you’re exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that’s the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.”

Fragmented as our reading habits (and lives) have become, there’s a persistent impulse, especially in fiction, toward the linear. Danielewski is probably right that the new networked modes of reading and writing might serve to buttress rather than unravel the old ways. Playing with the straight line (twisting it, braiding it, chopping it) is the writer’s art, and a front-to-end vessel like the book is a compelling restraint in which to work. This made me think of Anna Karenina, which is practically two novels braided together, the central characters, Anna and Levin, meeting just once, and then only glancingly.
I prefer to think of the networked book not as a replacement for print but as a parallel. What’s particularly interesting is how the two can inform one another, how a physical book can end up being changed and charged by its journey through a networked process. This certainly will be the case for the two books in progress the Institute is currently hosting, Mitch Stephens’ history of atheism and Ken Wark’s critical theory of video games. Though the books will eventually be “cooked” by a print publisher — Carroll & Graf, in Mitch’s case, and a university press (possibly Harvard or MIT), in Ken’s — they will almost certainly end up different for their having been networkshopped. Situating the book’s formative phase in the network can further boost the voltage between the covers.
chimp.jpg An analogy. The more we learn about the evolution of biological life, the more we understand that the origin of species seldom follows a linear path. There’s a good deal of hybridization, random mutation, and general mixing. A paper recently published in Nature hypothesizes that the genetic link between humans and chimpanzees is at least a million years more recent than had previously been thought based on fossil evidence. The implication is that, for millennia, proto-chimps and proto-humans were interbreeding in a torrid cross-species affair.
Eventually, species become distinct (or extinct), but for long stretches it’s a story of hybridity. And so with media. Things are not necessarily replaced, but rather changed. Photography unleashed Impressionism from the paint brush; television, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book argues, acted as a foil for the postmodern American novel. The blog and the news aggregator may not kill the newspaper, but they will undoubtedly change it. And so the book. You see that glint in the chimp’s eye? A period of interbreeding has commenced.

access to the a2k conference 2006

Jesse and I have just arrived at the Yale University to police barricades, blocked of streets, bus loads of demonstrators, and general confusion. I wish I could say that it was in support of protecting open and accessible knowledge, as we are here to attend the Access 2 Knowledge conference. However, the crowds of Falun Gong supporters (with a few Free Tibet activists in the mix) were protesting the arrival of President Hu Jintao from China. Wandering the streets of New Haven to find an unblocked entrance to the law school, Jesse and I reflected a bit on the irony of the difficulty of physically “accessing” the building where we will hear current thinking and planning on the making knowledge accessible.
The conference’s stated goal is to “bring together leading thinkers and activists on access to knowledge policy from North and South, in order to generate concrete research agendas and policy solutions for the next decade…The A2K Conference aims to help build an intellectual framework that will protect access to knowledge both as the basis for sustainable human development and to safeguard human rights.” Sessions will cover peer production, economics of a2k, copyright, access to science and medicine, network neutrality and privacy.
We very excited to be here, as presenters include some of our favorite IP / Copyright / Open Content thinkers: Yochai Benkler, Eric Von Hippel, Susan Crawford, and Terry Fisher. We’re sure that by Sunday, we’ll have more to add to the list.
Stay tuned for more.