Digital sharecropping (rerelease)

Rough Type’s retro summer continues with this post, which originally appeared on this blog on December 19, 2006, under the title “Sharecropping the Long Tail.”

A while back I wrote that Web 2.0, 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, 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.

Richard MacManus’s new analysis of web traffic patterns helps illustrate the point. Despite the explosion of web content, spurred in large part by the reduction in the cost of producing and consuming that content, web traffic appears to be growing more concentrated in a few sites, not less. Using data from Compete, MacManus shows that the top ten sites accounted for 40% of total internet page views in November 2006, up from 31% in November 2001, a 29% increase. The greater concentration comes during a period when the number of domains on the web nearly doubled, from 2.9 million to 5.1 million.

Even if we grant that traffic numbers are unreliable and that page views are not the only way to measure traffic, the trend seems clear: A few big sites increasingly dominate the web.

On the surface of it, this might seem to contradict the long-tail, or power-law, theory. But it’s not so simple. As MacManus shows, the greater concentration of traffic can largely be explained by the popularity of two “social networking” sites, MySpace and Facebook, which together accounted for 17% of all page views in November 2006. Both MySpace and Facebook are made up of millions of “user profiles” created by their members. If we counted each profile as a separate site, which in a content sense it is, we would find no increase in the concentration of traffic, consistent with the long-tail theory.

What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

It strikes me that this dynamic, which I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, at least not on this scale, is the most interesting, and unsettling, economic phenomenon the Internet has produced.

5 thoughts on “Digital sharecropping (rerelease)

  1. Tom Foremski

    Cheap or nearly free content is the lifeblood of the new media industry: GOOG, YHOO, FACE, LNKD, TWIT, HUFF, etc.

    By aggregating huge amounts of nearly free content these companies reduce the value of each ‘unit’ of content. That keeps competitors at bay but it’s a lousy way of monetizing content — unless you have the scale and a very cheep platform — then you make billions, as GOOG does.



    I met with a colleague of mine the other day in real time, in real space. He sounded thoroughly fed up, with the way things have gone in his workplace. It is full now with kids who are working for tiny salaries, and leave work late at night each evening. It was a small construction financial consultancy that had been in a backwater town in Ireland for decades. It was taken over by a UK conglomerate during the boom years. When the financial collapse happened, it was taken over again, by a bigger fish, a multi-national giant who got the entire UK outfit real cheap. To cut a long story short, the new hire kids in there in the backwater Irish town, spend their evenings on the international intranet wiki web 2.0 service the company runs. I guess, there is not much for these kids to do in Ireland now in construction during the recession, other than become low wage wikipedians inside a multi-national giant, and hope for the best. However, for people like my colleague, who are worked like myself on the real coal face of the industry for a while now, all of this seems a bit too weird. I happen to have read your work, and some other bits and pieces about valuation of non-tangible assets in companies. I can kind of grasp what is happening. But for the average ‘expert’ in any industry out there today, with years on the clock, none of it makes any real sense.

  3. Robert Hodges

    I have to confess I don’t get this analogy. Sharecropping is a form of farming that involves a split between property owners and tenants, often to the disadvantage of the latter. Unlike such tenants Facebook users are not locked into the system physically nor do they usually depend on it for their economic well-being.

    What seems more interesting is that Facebook, YouTube, and others draw economic value from deep-seated human tendencies longings for exhibitionism as well as the need to form social groups. Their strength comes from hard-wired behavior of the sort you described in The Shallows. This seems more like 1984 or H.G. Wells than feudal oppression.

  4. Pkmaguire


    You make a very apt point that these web 2.0 platforms are capitalizing off the openness of user-generated content, and by extension off each contributor. Every recording has it’s own intrinsic value, whatever it may be, and the more content we generate the more these companies benefit.

    In light of the current standing of the once-dominant MySpace, user-experience must be taken into consideration. Why is MySpace a shadow of its former prominence? My answer: Web 2.0, in and of itself, doesn’t suffice anymore. Facebook (and MySpace) are not really providing us with our “own sites”. They’re providing us with our own profile or page in a “book” we do not ultimately own. Enter Google+, which promises to give the user more control—even ownership—as an alternative. Indeed, people are catching on to the fact that nothing on the net is free and that these companies are not driven primarily by altruism.

    A user experience that provides more control while also allowing users to showcase their identity has yet to catch fire. Websites are being dismissed or challenged with the derogative “MySpacey” label. Others are continuing to use a subscription-based model. Sometimes subscriptions give a site’s ecosystem an aura of exclusivity, which may prove wise. More often than not, the newspaper-esque, classified advertisement style, HTML laden net, hasn’t evolved. Subscriptions harken back to this time. Prevalent web 2.0 formats, as easy as they are to use, don’t make economic sense to an increasing number of people who generate the social interactions within those platforms.


    I was looking at some of the references contained in a Victoria Stodden slide presentation earlier. In the interests of reference to older writings, I stumbled across an article by Chris Anderson from Wired magazine, of a few years ago. Both Stodden and Anderson in the article are trying to tackle the question, of what new approaches, and new thinking is required in dealing with ‘petabytes’ of available data. I think it relates to what Nicholas Carr is writing about, in some ways.

    Anderson wrote,

    This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

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