Jaron Lanier recently called the Web 2.0 movement “digital maoism.” Now, as if on cue, the Cultural Revolution has begun.
Lawrence Lessig, in a post titled “The Ethics of Web 2.0,” suggests that some Web 2.0 companies are not fit to wear the Web 2.0 label. There are real Web 2.0 companies, and there are sham Web 2.0 companies. There are those that maintain their ethical purity, that obey the Code, and there are the transgressors, the ones that have fallen from the shining path. As in kindergarden, it all comes down to the way you share:
A “true sharing” site doesn’t try to exercise ultimate control over the content it serves. It permits, in other words, content to move as users choose. A “fake sharing” site, by contrast, gives you tools to make [it] seem as if there’s sharing, but in fact, all the tools drive traffic and control back to a single site.
YouTube is Lessig’s villain, the counterrevolutionary force that threatens the web’s emergent communalist state. “YouTube,” he writes, “gives users very cool code to either ‘embed’ content on other sites, or to effectively send links of content to other sites. But never does the system give users an easy way to actually get the content someone else has uploaded … this functionality – critical to true sharing – is not built into the YouTube system.” It may hide its true nature behind a seductive mask of coolness, but make no mistake: YouTube is an imposter. It has failed “to respect the ethics of the web.”
“By contrast,” writes Lessig, “every other major Web 2.0 company does expressly enable true sharing.” The companies that Lessig uses to support this incredible statement are Flickr, blip.tv, EyeSpot, Revver, and “even Google.” Blip.tv? EyeSpot? Revver? These are “major Web 2.0 companies”? What about MySpace? What about Facebook? What about Digg? What about Craigslist? What about Google’s vast search business? Do any of these “expressly enable true sharing” of their core content? No, Lessig’s audacious attempt at revisionism just doesn’t fly.
But Lessig isn’t really interested in describing the world as it is. His eyes are on a further goal. He wants to redefine “Web 2.0″ in order to promote a particular ideology, the ideology of digital communalism in which private property becomes common property and the individual interest is subsumed into the public interest – in which we become the web and the web becomes us.
The process of social enlightenment always begins with the reshaping of language. According to Lessig, Web 2.0 is not, as you might have assumed, a technological or a business term. It’s an ethical term, a moral term. Differences “in business models,” he writes, “should be a focus of those keen to push the values of Web 2.0.” In a gloss on Lessig’s post, Joi Ito writes that “we can’t really expect users to initially understand the distinction [between real sharing and fake sharing].” But “in the long run, users will understand that stand-alone or closed services do not allow them the freedoms that are becoming exceedingly more common in the Web 2.0 area.” It is hard not to hear the echo of Mao patiently explaining how the masses will make the transition from China 1.0 to China 2.0:
Because of their lack of political and social experience, quite a number of young people are unable to see the contrast between the old China and the new, and it is not easy for them thoroughly to comprehend … the long period of arduous work needed before a happy socialist society can be established. That is why we must constantly carry on lively and effective political education among the masses and should always tell them the truth about the difficulties that crop up and discuss with them how to surmount these difficulties.
But what’s the point, really? Does Lessig genuinely think that entrepreneurs and their backers are going to line up to take some True Sharer Pledge, to choose to pursue an abstract ideal of ethical purity rather than profit? To propose a moral test for membership in the Web 2.0 club seems, at this late date, like an exercise in reality avoidance. The wheels of commerce are turning, and they’re grinding all these grand intellectual distinctions into dust. Like Mao, Lessig and his comrades are not only on the wrong side of human nature and the wrong side of culture; they’re also on the wrong side of history. They fooled themselves into believing that Web 2.0 was introducing a new economic system – a system of “social production” – that would serve as the foundation of a democratic, utopian model of culture creation. They were wrong. Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By 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, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.
The Cultural Revolution is over. It ended before it even began, The victors are the counterrevolutionaries. And they have $1.65 billion to prove it.