Wikinomics and an Age of Exploitation

I’m curently heading up to Newcastle for the bTWEEN re:boot re:place conference for East Anglian media producers and agencies.  I’m speaking with Katie Lips of kisky netmedia on the role of mobile and social media in digital media productions and commissions.  Should be fun.

But this post is primarily about the Don Tapscott lecture and panel that occurred on Thursday night at the RSA focusing on the downturn of the economy in ‘an age of uncertainty’.  Given Tapscott‘s history and focus on new technologies, there was an expectation that there’d be a discussionon the role of technology in leading an economic recovery.

Depressingly, however, the panel were extraordinarily dull and predictable in their addressing of the issues that Tapscott addressed in his presentation and in his work more broadly.  Importantly, instead of focusing on the topic at hand – the role of technology in economic development and the economic implications of collaborative commmunities – the panel instead focused on their own biases and on the inspiration for Tapscott’s work.  On the issue of economics and economic recovery, it was thus, in a word, woeful.

I’m not going to spend too long on what the panel said – my twitter stream at #rsatapscott says it all.  Suffice to say the supposed ‘economist’, Lord Eatwell, was so extraordinary as to say that internet technology should not be compared with the combustion engine or with the industrial revolution – mind-bogglingly irrelevant as well as inappropriate for the technologies.  As Tapscott pointed out it bears a much closer resemblance to the invention of the printing press.  Dan Hind didn’t say much,but responded to Tapscott and said virtually nothing about the current global financial crisis and the role of technology in recovery.  And Andrew Keen was predictably critical of technology, and even made the extraordinary statement that the internet was ‘invented by the counter culture’ – I suspect that the military and academic sectors that actually invented the technologies behind the internet would be surprised to hear themselves so-described.

But importantly the issues of the economic structure of collaborative communities were *not* addressed.  It troubles me that this subject is so poorly addressed.  Commentators like Tapscott, Shirky, Leadbeater and others all highlight examples of the collaboratively generated wikipedia and other open source initiatives but they always talk about the product as being low-cost and even ‘free’.

This is categorically untrue.

There *is* a cost associated with the production of these entities and it *will* impact on the economic structure of business in the future.  Someone is paying for the bandwidth, and someone is paying for the server space on which these communities are being stored.  Someone is maintaining the systems to maximise up-time and someone is countering the daily attacks from misanthropic crackers who seek to brng down the collaborative community giants.  And perhaps most importantly, *many* people are investing their time and passion in their communities to create a valuable resource for others.

Advocates of these technologies (of which I am ostensibly one) tend to argue that the network effects model operates for these communities, in that the contributers of content receive a benefit for their participation at least equal to their contribution, and that this benefit increases with the number of active, contributing members of their community/content channel.

However, as more and more of these collaborative networks of information exchange emerge, there is the potential for an expectation of increased participation to maintain either competitive intelligence or community reputation in collaborative communities.  Further, as many collaborative communities are generating income for an independent company (eg: Facebook, MySpace, etc) and the value of those communities is almost entirely dependent on the content being produced by community members, there is the implication that these companies are profiteering from the labour of an unpaid community.  Intellectual property in these communities is already a grey area and has generated much debate, particularly with regards to Facebook’s recent attempts to change its Terms of Service.  But even in Creative Commons oriented communities, if the hosting network is generating value and income from the input of the community without contemplating any kind of pecuniary relationship with its army of contributors, then the obvious question that arises is: is this relationship exploitative?

It may not be slave labour, but it is free labour, and if there is growing pressure on communitty members to devote more and more time to their collaborative communities as either a mechanism in sustaining or growing their knowledge in their area of expertise, or even as a means of sustaining their contacts, then this can only impinge on personal time.  Further, economic growth is generated by investment in the products and outputs of a social group (whether that be niche, geographic or global).  While it may well be politically correct to consider positive collaborative, production in information products as part of that investment, it’s not sustainable as a sole business investment.  There are still sustainability needs of communities – from food to building resources – which are traded using currency, not reputation.  To be blunt, you can’t eat your production of entries to a collaborative community.

The issue is that while collaborative communities are an extraordinarily rich source of interest and value for participants, it’s not sustainable as a sole production regime, and there is a serious question over the ethics of profiteering from the contributions of comuunity participants.

I’m frustrated that in economic exploration of the boons of collaboration and social networks, there is insufficient exploration of the economic trends and imperatives operating in a networked society.  There has so far been a glossing over of the implications of these ‘wikinomics‘ (Tapscott’s term) and there is as yet little focus on the profits beging generated by organisations providing mere infrastructure for community collaboration.  We have an opportunity right now to address these issues, and economists and social commentators have an obligation to explore this with much more cognizance of the society we are generating.  I did get to ask a question at the RSA event last Thursday on this subject, but while the question was posed, there was no attempt to facilitate an answer to the question.

I don’t want to come across as a luddite by any means; I am an advocate and evangelist of social media, after all.  I just feel that we are as yet being far too glib in our exploration of the economic impact of collaborative communities and that we may well be marching straight in to an age not just of uncertainty, but of exploitation.

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