Stirrings of unrest in the digital manor economy
The digital peasants are getting restless. The first signs of unrest are evident in the stirrings of the bloggers filing a suit against the Huffington Post and its parent AOL, which acquired the publication in February for $315 million. The same writers who were happy to contribute for free before the sale are now accusing the publication of turning them into “modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation.” The suit claims that about 9,000 people wrote for the Huffington Post on an unpaid basis, and it argues that their writings helped contribute about a third of the sale value of the site. These bloggers weren’t paid a single penny in the sale—the money went mostly to Huffington and a few investors.
Whether the bloggers have a case or not remains to be seen. The suit, however, brings to the fore tensions inherent in a new kind of production that is emerging today—what we might call “social production.” This kind of work involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive “payment” in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging—that is, in social rather than monetary currencies. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flickr, and many other stalwarts of today’s digital economy are enablers and beneficiaries of such production. They couldn’t possibly exist without the content of social producers, without the unpaid, albeit fun, labor. It is we who create Facebook profiles and post to them, we who share our thoughts on Twitter, we who upload our pictures to Flickr, we who post our medical data on PatientsLikeMe—it is we who are the new producers. Without us making these daily micro-contributions, none of these platforms could persist and grow and create value at the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the Huffington case brings us face-to-face with the reality that we, as social producers, are all becoming digital peasants. By turn, we are the heroic commoners feeding revolutions in the Middle East and, at the same time, “modern serfs” working on Mark Zuckerberg’s and other digital plantations.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited by and believe in the promise of social production. Social production enables networks of people to accomplish unimaginable feats of value creation without any money—or at least without much money. I use Wikipedia, I donate spare computer capacity to SETI@home, and I am in awe of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir, which stitches together videos of people from around the world into a single chorus. I believe in the power of social production and platforms such as these to transform the world. And our collective actions, our collective contributions, whether writing, singing, tagging, rating, or solving puzzles, are critical to making this possible (see an excerpt from my talk on social production below).
However, there is a potential dark side to social production, and the way we structure our efforts is critical. This is where the lessons from manor economics become relevant. Just like digital manor economies today, the manorialism of feudal society in medieval Europe integrated many elements of commons production. In most manors, peasants and tenants were assigned rights to use the commons—pastures, forests, fisheries, soil—within each manor’s boundaries. Some of the early principles of commons production we write about today were first evident in manor economies, where inhabitants had to agree on rules for cultivation, grazing and fishing.
The dark side of manor economics, however, lay in the fact that it perpetuated huge inherited disparities in incomes. So while most of the population in these Middle Age pastoral settings survived at subsistence levels, the lords of the manor were able to live lavishly off the rent, taxes, and free labor the tenants were obligated to supply them with, as well as various fees tenants had to pay for the use of resources such as mills, bakeries, or wine-presses.
And here the similarities emerge. Digital manor economies are driven by technologies that, at their core, are commons-creating. They define a new path for creating value, different from institutional production, which relies on paid employees. Digital manor economies rely on “production” by the many non-employees, and they promote the ethos of the commons—openness, transparency, speaking out-of-turn, making micro-contributions, adding to others’ content. However, the ethos of the commons is undermined when the commons are traded as commodities. The tension becomes particularly acute when the same technologies that drive commons creation are also eliminating paid work for many of the commoners (just think what has happened to the journalism profession, music production and distribution, publishing, among others). Then, the dark side of manor economics comes to the fore. In the digital manor, the company founders and some of the early investors function as the lord and his family—they cash in on the commons production to make huge sums of money. And this is where the clash between the two cultures, the two systems of production, arises. It’s a clash that is likely to grow simply because the number of commons-creating endeavors is growing exponentially.
We, the armies of digital peasants, scramble for subsistence in digital manor economies, lucky to receive scraps of ad dollars here and there, but mostly getting by, sometimes happily, on social rewards—fun, social connections, online reputations. But when the commons are sold or traded on Wall Street, the vast disparities between us, the peasants, and them, the lords, become more obvious and more objectionable. After all, we have evolved since the medieval times. We have different expectations of our society. We have a different view of fairness.
So the lawsuit against the Huffington Post is not just about an army of disgruntled bloggers. It is about how we build the economy of social production. It is our way of beginning to scrape together a new regulatory structure and a new set of norms for the new way we work and create wealth. Let’s hope that in the process we don’t repeat the past. We can do better than to re-construct the Middle Ages in the digital economy.