[iDC] The Ethics of Participation
michelsub2004 at gmail.com
Thu Jan 4 19:34:36 EST 2007
A very useful and interesting post, to which I'd like to play advocate of
I'd like to focus on the concrete choices of both individuals and
>From the point of view of the 'individual collectivist', i.e. the user, he
has a new and emerging type of need which requires participatory platforms.
It's where he can express himself, share, eventually produce something in
common (a hierarchy of needs ranging from the self to the other).
Where to do this? He/she has a choice to using a nonprofit, such as
Wikipedia, or a corporate funded environment. Wikipedia is far from perfect,
as I recently experienced around an entry with Ken Wilber, where entrenched
advocates deleted almost all the critique. Apparently, the democratic
majority of the Wikipedia has decided that blogs have no authority, which is
really ironic. So, I'm just saying, Wikipedia is a fine example of peer
production, but it is still problematic. Using a corporate environment like
YouTube or Amazon, or delicious, I'm a very big fan of the latter, it has
really changed my information habits, you have extremely useful and
well-working services. In the case of delicious, there is also the potential
of influencing people with your ideas, as you are inevitably networked. So
you have imperfect nonprofits, well-functioning privately owned platforms.
An alternative is to create your own cooperatives: it is very difficult, you
have to find the funds, you have to be better than the alternatives. So
that, participating in the existing nonprofit or private platforms is a
natural first choice. Doing that choice, you are part of a broad social
movement, you are within the contradictions of the supply, and you are part
of the learning experiences who are facing the duality of those services.
You are part of the user and audience communities. I find this to be a very
compelling choice. This is not to say you have to acquiesce, but by sharing
your opinions, you play a role. If I would instead join a small alternative,
it would probably work less well, you'd be in a small incrowd of the
like-minded, you'd have all kinds of problems of funding. Of course, it can
work, as Linux has proven, but success is probably also dependent on the
evilness of the alternative, which was very clear in the case of MS.
Now from the point of view of the producers. Once you have success, you
start having to face very large costs, just to fund the access. You can go
the route of user donations, a very dificult one; you can look for
subsidies, a very politized game which makes you dependent on state or
foundations or corporations, or you can create a business model out of it.
The latter is not automatically evil: you can have cooperative business
models, co-ownership, ethical or responsible business models.
I'll add with the provocative argument around peer production. If peer
production is truly non-reciprocal, i.e freely contributed labour, and
universal usage on the basis of the need, then reactions of those that do
not mind partial commercialization, make a lot of sense. Free software
programmers know this very well, they have developed a whole ecology of
support mechanisms, do not mind the derivate services by businesses, as long
as within the producing community, there is no direct payment and thus
unequality of rewards (this crowds out the nonreciprocal motivation, see
recently the dunctanc debate within debian), and as long as the commons is
This means that revenue-sharing is not necessarily a good solution either,
as it immediately distorts the productive process, you are no longer doing
it for the use or expressive value alone, but must then chase popularity,
and all its entailing compromises. Your'e no longer in non-reciprocal peer
production either. Similarly, as soon as you create a cooperative business
model, you exit the zone of non-reciprocal peer production, and enter
another zone of a scarce market, you are part of the competive game. Just as
useful in my view is to participate, but to be critical of the for-profit
compromises that are going to be made by the owners, to create some kind of
real but elastic limit, beyond which they would seen to be entering a
betrayal zone. When that is clear, then you can go away to alternatives, and
you will be followed massively (see the MySpace exodus)
Free software peer producers however, have strong links, are strong as a
community. In the intermediate zone of individual collectivism, you have
only weak links, since you are there in the first place for your own
expressive and sharing needs. But that does not mean that they
powerless and there have been quite a few instances of backtracking by
amazon and the others, whenever the community of users have been energized.
The corporate platform makers are very dependent on their user communities,
as dependent as they are on their shareholders. Even in those weak-link
communities, many users intuitively understand that their platforms have to
be sustainable, that they are the true, but non-reciprocal producers of the
value, that they get all kinds of non-monetary value out of it, and that the
platform organizers need equally to make a living. These users are not just
naive, they are co-productive of their environment. The task, in my view, of
the ethically more aware, is to move with them, learn with them, learn from
In conclusion, I'm all for an ethics of participation, I'm all for ethical
consistency, but it provides no easy answers, can easily descend in the
moral righteousness of an isolated incrowd.
So here we are, we all have a primary responsibility to feed ourselves and
our families, to make our own projects sustainable, facing different
choices, such as self-funding, chasing subsidies, or finding a business
model. Choosing the latter part is not necessarily evil', chasing
competitively for subsidies is not necessarily 'good'. Choosing the path of
donations can be suicidal ...
On 1/5/07, Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
> Online sharing practices have profoundly changed culture, business, and
> education. "Web 2" was the most-cited Wikipedia entry of 2006. Time Magazine
> made "You" the person
> of the year. Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail received "street
> credibility." All this and the often-stated growth statistics indicate the
> increasingly broad acceptance of sites
> that offer "user-generated" content. What would be included in a course on
> the ethics of participation?
> Media philosopher Yochai Benkler argues in-depth for the new economical
> model of the networked commons, benefitting from the "harnessing of
> collective intelligence." There is
> the unpaid Amazon.com book reviewer who, for reasons yet to be determined
> for certain, writes thousands of reviews a year thus helping the global
> readership to make better
> picks but also massively aiding the billionaires at Amazon.
> In December 2006, writer, editor, and speaker Nicholas Carr wrote that
> "putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but
> withholding from those same masses
> any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly
> efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided
> by the very many and
> concentrate it into the hands of the very few." (1)
> This keep-the-spate-but-the-potatoes-are-mine mentality is puzzling. Today
> the means of production are dirt cheap and immaterial labor is easily
> distributed. The imperative for
> companies is to attract content submissions. This attention will translate
> into cash. YouTube is one good example for this. Watch the quirky video clip
> "A Message From Chad and
> Steve," the co-founders of Youtube, presenting themselves shortly after
> their merger with Google ($1.6 billion in stocks). They are tumbling of
> euphoria about the money and
> their talk of "staying committed to community and best services" comes
> across as being rather amusingly bogus. Two kings have gotten together? The
> fact that the co-founders
> of YouTube spark youthful silliness does not mean that they are not prime
> examples of the Californian ideology à la Web2.
> There are hundreds of video responses to this clip. Such
> widely-accessible, geographically distributed, almost real-time,
> conversational video practice has not existed before. What
> follows are some examples from the responses starting some critical
> voices. "Renetto" points out that Chad and Steve "made money of the backs of
> the YouTube users."
> Indeed, the YouTube copyright specifications prevent people from making
> commercial use of the uploaded content. However, they don't prevent YouTube
> from generating profit
> by selling search list ranking to companies to name one possible way of
> generating cash from attention.
> The YouTube Terms and Conditions state:
> "Content on the Website... may not be used, copied, reproduced,
> distributed, ... sold, licensed, or otherwise exploited for any other
> purposes whatsoever without the prior written
> consent of the respective owners. ... For clarity, you retain all of your
> ownership rights in your User Submissions. However, by submitting the User
> Submissions to YouTube, you
> hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free,
> sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute,
> prepare derivative works of, display, and
> perform the User Submissions..." (2)
> At the time of the merger, YouTube had not made profits but Google perhaps
> realized that a site with 1 million page views and 65.000 video uploads a
> day, will be a perfect
> vehicle for the distribution of (commercial) film. In the near future,
> viewing scenarios for commercial films will drift away from traditional
> cinemas to the computer screen near
> you. YouTube is also an ideal platform where amateur-style and
> professional video ads can still reach the eye balls of consumers. There are
> IKEA advertisements, for example,
> but also politicians like John Edwards wake up to the fact that the
> millions are watching.
> Some of the following videos exemplify the personal investment of youth in
> services like YouTube. "Unsweet" says it in no uncertain terms: "I'd be
> completed crushed if YouTube
> would be taken away from us." The YouTube web service, in "Unsweet's"
> words sounds very much like a toy instrument given to a child.
> Danah boyd discussed the case of MySpace and points out that social
> networking sites serve as a "public display of connection." Teenagers can
> visualize their social network on
> MySpace, which validates them in the eyes of their peers. (3)
> "Namerae" asks herself what is so bad about the Google/YouTube merger
> because Google has provided such great customer service.
> "Nuodai" who is 15 year old and lives in Britain, on the other hand,
> elaborates on his philosophy of why a merger is a bad idea.
> "NoHoGirls" think of themselves as "bringing the community together," as
> making their videos for "the community." Here the motivation may be to have
> fun creating goofy
> videos but at the same time their desire to be as rich and popular as Chad
> and Steve is transparent.
> Genuine concern but also admiration is also reflected in Jackson's video
> statement. He says "Congratulations for selling out YouTube. ... We are
> proud of you guys for going so far
> with it." "Jeffmara" joins this choir "Congrats on being acquired, what a
> great validation of your work. You guys deserve every bit of that cash."
> "Thatpspguy" says "Who would
> have thunk it, eh? Congratulations. You are now the richest people on
> YouTube, way to go."
> Contributors upload their material, a slice of their life, to corporate
> sociable environments. It's not just teenagers who identify. "PhillFlash" is
> (perhaps) 50 years old. He performs
> the surprise he felt about the news of the merger "YouTube... oh, WE are
> in the news."
> At any time the company can change their video player (they did) on the
> site or ask sites to be taken down that offer plug-ions to download YouTube
> videos (they did not thus
> far). There is also no guarantee that YouTube will not start charging for
> the hosting service and bandwidth.
> In the context of YouTube but also sites like CiteUlike, del.icio.us, and
> others, I suggest that contributors are driven by a hybrid mix of
> motivations. I call this "individualistic
> collectivism": contributors are not exclusively in it for themselves but
> they are also not completely driven by the idea of the greater good. Peter
> Kollock (1999) identifies
> anticipated reciprocity, increased recognition, as well as a sense of
> efficacy and community as motivating factors. (4) For a more in-depth loom
> at the emotional and social
> motivations for participation see my essay The Participatory Challenge,
> first published in DataBrowser 3.
> In the case of Amazon.com it is relatively easy to understand that the
> attention economy leads to cash. Amazon.com has become a great research
> tool. The many contributors
> have out-cooperated Amazon.com's competition. My local bookstore cannot
> line up 12 individuals who tell me what they think of a book. (Of course we
> all heard the horror stories
> of authors promoting themselves by impersonating reputable people in a
> given industry, but that's not the majority of reviews.) People come to
> Amazon.com to research a book
> and then also buy it there. However, the latter is not inevitable. If we
> are aiming for "ethical consistency," then we could buy the book elsewhere.
> Edward Said demanded such consistency in his essay Speaking Truth to
> Power, but the term "ethical consistency" was coined by the French
> philosopher Alain Badiou. (5) In his
> book "Ethics" Badiou (2001) mounts a critique of contemporary ethics
> discourses, which he describes as "at best variations on ancient religious
> and moral preaching, at worst a
> threatening mix of conservatism and the death drive." (6) For Badiou, such
> discourses are installed in order to reinforce the status quo.
> But what I suggest as an ethics of participation is in fact quite
> different. "Ethical consistency" in relation to participatory cultures means
> that we are standing up for our values
> and beliefs. You may be against centralization and radically for the open
> access to knowledge. What matters most, however, is that you follow through
> on those beliefs.
> This discussion is complicated by the fact that there is indeed hardly any
> outside space of the capitalist managerial logic. Today you discover a
> useful sociable web tool and
> tomorrow it will be acquired by Yahoo or MTV. Good luck, finding remaining
> Habermasian public spaces online... Even in SecondLife, consumer experiences
> are constructed within
> "user-created" contexts.
> It'd be naive to completely condemn business models such as Amazon.com.
> They are not radically evil (as Badiou would put it). However, Google's
> corporate slogan Don't Be Evil
> looks quite different today than it did even two years ago. The future
> society will be full of hybrid economic schemes and hybrid identities.
> Today, companies learn how to make
> money in the cracks of the day-to-day culture of sharing online. They
> understand the importance of a low threshold; the easier it is for the
> "masses" to enter their environments
> and contribute content, the more the company will profit.
> The act of participation is political: people offer their contribution but
> the rules of the context to which they contribute are often vague. Many
> YouTube contributors were unaware
> of the company's long-standing efforts to make money of the immaterial and
> often creative labor of this community of interest. Content producers are,
> in a Marxian sense,
> alienated from the product of their labor because they don't have full
> control over its future on the site (other than its removal). Cooperation is
> often manipulated or even forced.
> According to Carr the top ten sites on the World Wide Web accounted for
> 40% of total Internet page views in November 2006. I'd add that the
> user-generated content is the
> prime reason for this concentration. (MySpace and Facebook together
> accounted for 17% of all page views in the same month.) Such centralization
> happened at the same time
> that the number of domain names increased from 2.1 million to 5.1 million.
> Michael Hardt writes that "Affective labor is one face of what I will call
> "immaterial labor", which has assumed a dominant position with respect to
> the other forms of labor in the
> global capitalist economy. ... [G]iven the role of affective labor as one
> of the strongest links in the chain of capitalist postmodernization, its
> potential for subversion and
> autonomous constitution is all the greater." (7)
> How can our immaterial labor be turned into an autonomous act? We can
> start by counteracting the mentioned centralization by not (exclusively)
> using mainstream services.
> (Many predictions for 2007 included the rise of an ocean of user-built
> online applications). We can re-direct our "micro-volunteerism" toward
> not-for-profit projects like Archive.org
> or Wikipedia. Archive.org offers video upload functionality but is much
> slower and complicated to use. Even creating simple awareness of future
> dependence on mainstream
> services like Flickr, YouTube, Amazon is valuable. These are admittedly
> micro-actions that counteract American-style convenience; they can be
> implemented right away. I propose
> this as a modest starting point for a discussion of the ethics of
> (1) <http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/12/sharecropping_t.php>
> (2) <http://www.youtube.com/t/terms>
> (3) <http://www.danah.org/papers/PublicDisplays.pdf>
> (4) <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/kollock/papers/economies.htm>
> (5) Badiou. A. "Ethics" New York: Verso. p60
> (6) Badiou. A. "Ethics" New York: Verso. p90
> (7) <http://www.vinculo-a.net/english_site/text_hardt.html>
> Blog entry
> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (
> iDC at bbs.thing.net
> List Archive:
The P2P Foundation researches, documents and promotes peer to peer
Wiki and Encyclopedia, at http://p2pfoundation.net; Blog, at
http://blog.p2pfoundation.net; Newsletter, at
Basic essay at http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499; interview at
video interview, at
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