“What we are seeing now,” writes Yale law professor Yochai Benkler in his techno-anarcho-utopian magnum opus The Wealth of Networks, “is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination … As computers become cheaper and as network connections become faster, cheaper, and ubiquitous, we are seeing the phenomenon of peer production of information scale to much larger sizes, performing more complex tasks than were possible in the past for nonprofessional production.”
What this all amounts to, says Benkler, is “a quite basic transformation in the world around us, and how we act, alone and in concert with others, to shape our own understanding of the world we occupy and that of others with whom we share it.” By changing “the way we create and exchange information, knowledge, and culture,” he concludes, “we can make the twenty-first century one that offers individuals greater autonomy, political communities greater democracy, and societies greater opportunities for cultural self-reflection and human connection.”
Clearly, Benkler is suggesting that we’re undergoing a radical reordering of the means of producing and consuming cultural goods, one that will bring us – as long as the industrialists and lawmakers don’t screw it up – to a supra-earthly paradise of thought and symbol. The moneychangers and their managerial goon squads will be thrown out of the temple, and the people will share their creative gifts freely over a dense network of fiber optic cables, a new and serpentless Tree of Knowledge hung with tasty digital fruit. (Whoa. I’m starting to speak in tongues, like Kevin Kelly’s evil twin.) Benkler’s tome provides arguably the most eloquent and certainly the most exhaustive explanation, and defense, of the idea of what some have called “the gift economy.” As Benkler’s fellow-traveler Lawrence Lessig blurbs, “No work to date has more carefully or convincingly made the case for a fundamental change in how we understand the economy of society.”
But how convincing is Benkler’s case? The string from which it hangs is his contention that we are seeing “the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Amateurs and volunteers have always been active in producing creative works, of course. Emily Dickinson didn’t write her poems to get rich, and community orchestras and theater troupes rely mainly on volunteers. But in the past such enterprises have been small-scale affairs (in terms of production, not necessarily artistic merit), limited to the work of an individual or a tiny, local group. What Benkler argues is that the Internet will allow the model to “scale to much larger sizes, performing more complex tasks than were possible in the past for nonprofessional production.” Teams of amateurs, working for free and without managerial oversight in technology-mediated collectives, will be able to do what up until now has required formal and usually for-profit organizations manned and managed by professionals who get paid for their work. The amateur collective will thus supplant the professional institution as the engine of common culture.
So how strong is Benkler’s string? Will the decentralized web collectives be able to operate successfully outside “the price system” and without “managerial structure”? The fact is, it’s too soon to know for sure. We should be skeptical, though. For one thing, in the past we’ve seen a pattern of amateur activity springing up in the wake of the invention of a new communication medium, only to be followed by increasing professionalization and commercialization. The invention of the radio – the original “wireless” technology – spurred the creation of a vast network of amateur broadcasters, but that nonprofessional network was soon displaced by a smaller set of commercial radio stations that were better able to fulfill the desires of the listening public.
For another thing, we’re already seeing the (re)emergence of formal managerial structure in new online media. As examples supporting his thesis, Benkler points to (among others) Wikipedia and open-source software. As I have described more than once on this blog – with tedious regularity, in fact – Wikipedia has been steadily wrapping itself in an ever more elaborate and hierarchical management structure as it has pursued its goal of improving its quality. Open-source software, too, has been successful not because it lacks a management structure but because it has a very good one. I won’t rehash these points again – you can look here, here and here – but I think that Benkler’s belief that large-scale efforts to create cultural goods will succeed without management structure is dubious, at best.
But what about the ability of those efforts to exist outside the price system? Here, Benkler’s string seems a bit stronger. But it’s starting to fray. One thing that has become clear is that the success of social production collectives hinges on the intensive contributions of a very small subset of their members. Not only that, but it’s possible to identify who these people are and to measure their contributions with considerable precision. That means, as well, that these people are valuable in old-fashioned monetary terms – that they could charge for what they do. They have, in other words, a price, even if they’re not currently charging it. The question, then, is simple: Will the “amateurs” go pro? If they have a price, will they take it?
We are going to start finding out the answer to that question, thanks in some measure to Jason Calacanis. Calacanis, whose company Weblogs was one of the first to pay bloggers, is an unbeliever in the gift economy, and yesterday he in effect called Benkler’s bluff. He offered to put the elite diggers and taggers that do most of the work at sites like Digg on his payroll – if they’d come and work for him instead of the competition. He offered, in other words, to bring the social mediators into the price system. It’s worth quoting some of what Calacanis wrote, just to emphasize how his model is the antithesis of Benkler’s:
When [my partner] and I started Weblogs, Inc. the idea of paying bloggers – heck, even making money from blogging – was considered offensive to many. Blogging was, as the case was stated, a highly personal activity that should not be trivialized by the forces of commerce and greed. I don’t have a complicated relationship with money or capitalism: I love them both and see them as simply as fuel and the process by which fuel is produced. Money to me means time, time means quality, and quality means success …
Talented people’s time in our society is primarily engaged with money … Talent wins, and talent needs to get paid. I love paying talented people so they can sleep well at night doing what they love. That’s my biggest joy in business: gettin’ people paid … The concept of “free” content producers, which I think WIRED called crowdsourcing, is going to be a short-lived joke. A loophole in the content business that will be closed by savvy startups which identify the top 5% of the audience and buy their time.
I think that what Calacanis is getting at is that the reason “social media” has existed outside the price system up until now is simply that a market hadn’t yet emerged for this new kind of labor. We weren’t yet able to assign a value – in monetary terms – to what these workers were doing; we weren’t even able to draw distinctions between what they were contributing. We couldn’t see the talent for the crowd. Now, though, the amateurs are being sorted according to their individual skills, calculations as to the monetary value of those skills are starting to be made, and a market appears to be taking shape. As buyers and sellers come into this market, we’ll see whether large-scale social media can in fact survive outside the price system, or whether it’s fated to be subsumed into professional media. Which is mightier – Benkler’s dream or Calacanis’s wallet?