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Selling a community

October 08, 2007

The sharecropper rollup continues. The little plantation Newsvine has been bought by the big plantation MSNBC for a non-transparent amount of cash. "I personally would like to thank all Newsvine users who have helped make Newsvine what it is," wrote Newsvine cofounder Calvin Tang yesterday.

But not all the Newsvine 'croppers are content with a little pat on the back, reports Jeremy Wagstaff. Here's what one disgruntled user had to say:

In the end I feel dejected, sad and I guess just a little like we should have seen this one coming. What, pray tell is going to happen to OUR huge sums of ad revenue? I mean you guys are making mad loot out of this deal, what about our money?

"Our" money? Get real, dude. Besides, don't you know that you get the satisfaction of being part of a community, and that's what social production is really all about. Let the crass capitalists dirty their hands with the exchange of greenbacks. You're pursuing a higher calling. Read what Benkler says, and be enlightened. (You can ignore the bit about how "the rise of greater scope for individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture ... threatens the incumbents of the industrial information economy." That was just a little countercultural giddiness.)

Now, let's be fair. As far as the plantations go, Newsvine is fairly progressive. It shares some ad revenues with some of its sharecroppers, and, says Tang, "the revenue sharing arrangement ... will continue in its present form for the time being." And it does let its users maintain the copyright on the content they generate, though in submitting their work to the site they automatically "grant Newsvine a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, perpetual and fully sublicensable and transferable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such User Content in any media, now known or hereafter devised."

Still, writes Wagstaff, "there's the nagging feeling that money is being made on the backs of others":

From the comments [on the acquisition] a lot of Newsvine users feel a sense of loyalty and protectiveness towards the site and its founders. And although it's obvious that the best exit strategy for a site like this is to be bought out by a bigger player, probably one in old media, the illusion that something like Newsvine is an antidote to old media is an important one to maintain; how many, otherwise, would expend effort and time contributing for free if they felt the primary goal of the site was to get bought out?

It was hard to buy and sell physical communities. Online communities, though, are tradable assets. That means that the motivations of the owners of the communities - and they are owners - are going to diverge from those of the members. The latter's gifts are the former's raw material. The best way to square those divergent motives may well be through the careful maintenance of a set of mutually agreeable illusions.


Nick - I love this post (esp. the notion of info "sharecroppers"). However I take exception to your very last word.

You say:

The best way to square those divergent motives may well be through the careful maintenance of a set of mutually agreeable illusions.

But instead of illusions why not mutually agreable "realities". There is no good reason that plantation sites cannot be owned and run by the participants. In travel we are working on that model now via travel blogging. I'm hoping that notion will prevail in the future because it creates a superior distribution of work and money for the internet ecosystem.

Posted by: Joe Duck [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 8, 2007 04:24 PM

[Caveat: I'm put together this deal. My post here.]

Nick, I'm not sure if I'm reading too deeply into this, but you seem to posit the kernel of an interesting idea here: people should always, in all context, in all situations, not only own their content, but be able to distribute and monetize it, not only as single units (stories, photos), but also from general participation (commenting, seeding, digging, and anything else that contribute to the platform as a whole). And that all communities are owned by their users, through some sort of magical co-op (probably modeled on the open-source movement) in which everyone contributes and benefits.

This sounds utopian, but we are not anywhere near that state. I too can imagine some vague world where everyone has OpenID and everyone is co-distributing their content to multiple places and people's networks area as valuable as their blog posts. Oh, and let's throw in the attention economy too.

We're nowhere near that world. Will be ever be? Maybe. In the mean time, community members will have to enjoy their 90% -- 90%!!!! -- shares, the benefit of people who want to create robust communities, and the pleasure that comes with a lot of people reading your content. (This, by the way, is more than you can say about SlashDot or MeFi or pretty much any other user-contribution site.)

No video uploader made a penny off the YouTube-Google deal, but the users of Newsvine stand to make plenty from this deal -- more content, more features, and potentially more traffic. This is about as win-win of a world as we can possible inhabit right now.

Posted by: Rex Sorgatz [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 8, 2007 05:09 PM

Why can't the sharecroppers own the plantation? Why, indeed, it's a good idea.

I think the danger with the illusions and the realities is that the new owner of the farm may make changes that are ultimately destructive to the community. Most acquirers view their acquisition as a commodity, and they all view it as, well, theirs to do with as they see fit. Only the very smartest ones manage to empower the acquisition to carry on the successful aspects well enough to stay true to the original vision.

Meanwhile, the acquirer generally has in mind a fairly radical mechanism to start making a buck almost immediately. This involves radically reducing things they view as redundant and inserting their own substitutes. Founders often look at these things, realize they're entrepreneurs and life in the big city is so different they move on.

This sort of behavior shatters the illusion and the reality in a way that's tough for the community to survive.



Posted by: BobWarfield [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 8, 2007 05:14 PM

Rex, It's not so much that you're digging too deep as that you're digging in the wrong hole. You're digging in the one marked Utopianist Hideout, whereas Rough Type hangs out in the one marked Utopianist Grave. I admit that I get the two confused sometimes, too. (I like the name of your blog, by the way. It jibes with this.)

All, I don't think the co-op model will work in practice, as the vast majority of the contributors to these sites neither care about nor desire ownership. For one thing, the money's in aggregation; each individual's ownership stake typically amounts to a trivial amount. Establishing and participating in a co-op would just be a nuisance.

Bob, I always here about the fragility of online communities - how they'll break apart if an owner changes some terms - but I see no evidence of that fragility in reality. I don't think most people care about these things. In fact, the idea that they're participating in a "community" is probably held by only a very small portion of the users.


Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 8, 2007 06:36 PM

I wrote above without reviewing Newsvine's progressive stance on content ownership. This deal is a bad example of information sharecropping - Newsvine is to be commended on how they've done this as it will empower, not diminish, their members.

Posted by: Joe Duck [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 9, 2007 04:14 PM

Yes, many only benefited by the "attaboy" pat on the back. They received the benefits of being entertained and, perhaps in some lesser way, educated and did not even have to spend the price of a movie ticket. A few might even have enhanced their reputation in the real world and benefited. I do not have any specifics for newsvine, but take the Wikipedia case of Simon Pulsifer Nice bright guy but unemployed. He was a very productive Wikipedia editor and his activities there led to some news coverage which lead to a job offer. He is being paid in Canadian dollars and most others Web 2.0 volunteers are counting up neat little piles of attaboys. How does Robert McHenry put it about Wikipedia? "A game without consequences." That is not exactly true because these Web 2.0 sites have an effect: for better or worse as communications networks and information providers, they change how some people think about other people. That matters.

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 03:23 AM

I wanted to point out a pathetic case of people trying to "take credit" for their work at Wikipedia.I have already pointed out that David Gerard expressed plagiaristic ideas about User:Pinktulip, but look at this list. It only exists so that some editors that worked on the short Crystal Gail Mangum page "get credit" after it is merged into the real story, the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case. Look at these admins prod and claw for credit for "protecting" Mangum from Wikipedia and then suggesting that this silly page exists as follows: The following is the deleted revision history of the former article on Crystal Gail Mangum. Portions of that article may have been incorporated into the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case article, and therefore, the authors of this page should be credited according to the GFDL. What hairsplitting! How ludicrous. Are they really going to go and claim credit for individual sentence fragments (that they probably copied from news stories anyway)?!? It is an economy based on collective hallucination that rivals visions of the Virgin Mary and the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Suckers.

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 08:06 AM

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