[iDC] The Ethics of Participation

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Thu Jan 4 20:31:56 EST 2007


I think that your call for a discussion of the the ethics of 
participation is useful and  important and I look forward to hearing 
people's thoughts on this vital issue.

My own belief, however,  is that your articulation of the problem is 
predicated on certain assumptions about what constitutes value in the 
participatory networked culture, and I'd like to challenge or at least 
address those assumptions. First I'll try to intelligently and 
concisely articulate them:

You quote Nicholas Carr's point 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 analysis, and others like it, are obviously deeply indebted – both 
for their terminology and critical framework – to Marxist traditions 
that are themselves based on thorough and reasonable analyses of 
industrial economic paradigms. But the networked economy is not an 
industrial paradigm and I think that neither these terms nor concepts 
can be ported to it without bringing along certain potentially 
misleading assumptions.

Carr says first of all that users do not have 'ownership of the product 
of their work' when they post to Amazon, Youtube etc. But is this 
really so? On one level, users who submit content are still free to do 
whatever they want with their work, including sell it, or post it 
elsewhere. So it's hard to argue that they do not own it, although what 
is certain is that they do not own it with the same level of 
exclusivity as they would if they didn't post to YouTube or Amazon. But 
I'm pretty sure that the Terms and Conditions you go on to quote

> "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)

only apply to content that has been uploaded. And once it has been 
removed then the conditions no longer apply. But in either case, I want 
to make a larger point about what constitutes 'the product of one's 

What if the product of one's work when writing an Amazon review is not, 
in fact, the words you have written? What if the 'ownership' of those 
words is no more important than the 'ownership' of the words you speak 
in conversation? What if the real product of your work is the 
relationships that those words engender? If that were the case, then it 
would be difficult to say that Amazon owns those relationships. That 
would not be true. What would, however, be true, is that it enables 
those relationships. And what's more it does so for free.

Maybe Amazon creates another kind of value, too. Maybe it creates 
collective value by consolidating and then redistributing a vast 
archive of critical knowledge free of charge.

BUT THEY GET RICH OFF OUR BACKS I can hear many of you yelling. (Hello, 
Brian! ;) yeah, well so did a lot of people who have done useful 

But really, I'm not out to defend Amazon or YouTube and I do believe 
that there are better ways (i.e. better for more people) to develop 
user-generated culture than these inchoate apps. My basic point, 
however, is that I think that in a user-generated networked culture you 
have to locate value in processes (like relationships) rather than 
products.  I think that we need to be talking about the Process 

And I'm not even going to get into explaining that the Product Economy 
is a literate invention (there, when you write something you can only 
locate its value in the writing itself because you cannot measure or 
track and pursue the relationships your writings engender - you will 
never meet your readers, whereas in oral cultures this is not the case, 
nor is it the case in the neo-oral networked sphere) though it is both 
true and of great importance in understanding how the ethics of 
participation are different online than off.

I just want to conclude by pointing out the obvious, that if we are to 
engage a discussion of the ethics of participation we should not delay 
in tipping our hats to Creative Commons.


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