Of late, throughout this rather impotent universe so lamely termed the blogoshpere, there has been some buzz regarding the fairness of big user generated content communities like YouTube. The thinking goes something like this: All these poor souls are posting their hard work and getting nothing… not a share of ad revenue, not a free meal, not a hot dog, or pencil and pen set… nothing in return. In fact Nick Carr has gone as far as to refer to these unfortunate souls as sharecroppers… a term which not so lightly evokes the social ills of the Jim Crow south. I guess it’s not too far of a stretch to compare a system that was used to extend institutionalized racism post-slavery to one that denies drunk frat boys direct revenue from their weekend party cellphone video.
We seem to have gone through the looking glass… at some point we went down the rabbit hole, swallowed the red pill, ate the brown acid… somewhere along the line we lost any sense of what exploitation looks like. To argue or even suggest that millions of users happily sharing their lives and experiences with friends, neighbors, and family are somehow being exploited because the vehicle that makes this community possible turns a profit is really kind of stupid. This is after all a capitalist society and services rendered usually require payment. That payment in the case of these sites is simply deflected to a third party. Imagine if that worked offline… free meals at the local bistro if you watch advertising at your table before the meal.
To be sure there are many (myself included) who wouldn’t want to watch ads before every meal… and for those of us who don’t there would be plenty of restaurants willing to take cash in direct exchange for food… it’s our choice. And that’s the bottom line here… choice. Every single person sharing video on YouTube or images on Flickr has the choice to exit the system anytime they want. They also have the choice to host their stuff on their own site (if they want to pay for the service and administer the technology on their own).
Why don’t they? Simply put, it’s just not worth it. Why go through all the trouble of setting up your own site, learning the ins and outs of web administration, paying a monthly fee just to share a few seconds of video that could be easily hosted on a free community site? For most people it’s a no-brainer… they get something for nothing.
So why are all these “bloggers” throwing around terms like exploitation and comparing MySpace to a sharecropping system? Again, simply put, it’s fear. Most of these bloggers are professional content creators… they make their living off paid content models that are under attack by new sites that are monetizing user generated content (UGC). This fear precludes them from viewing the UGC phenomenon with clear eyes. It also makes them view the companies that are taking advantage of the phenomenon as heartless, wicked, and exploitive. Rather than adapt they attack, constantly throwing cold water through cautionary posts and caveats.
It’s true that the media landscape is changing… dynastic fortunes are being won and lost based on decisions being made right now. Technology is spreading out the game, bringing in more players, less professionalism, more egalitarianism, less elitism. Conversations are igniting ideas… moments are being immortalized in bits… and people are starting to talk.
This can be scary. It can also be a time of unbounded opportunity. And as with most things… we each have a choice which one it will be for us.