My reservoir of patience, deep as it may be, is running dry. Nearly a year has passed since the culmination of the fabled Carr-Benkler Wager, and Yochai Benkler has yet to pay his debt to me. Dude, have you heard of PayPal? I haven’t even received a simple acknowledgement of my triumph.
What, you ask, is the Carr-Benkler Wager? Well, that’s hard to say definitively. But here’s how Benkler defined it back in July of 2006, when Web 2.0 was still an innocent babe cooing happily in its mother’s arms:
We could decide to appoint between one and three people [that never happened] who, on some date certain – let’s say two years from now, on August 1st 2008 [this was later extended to five years, so the operative date was August 1, 2011] – survey the web or blogosphere, and seek out the most influential sites in some major category: for example, relevance and filtration (like Digg); or visual images (like Flickr). And they will then decide whether they are peer production processes or whether they are price-incentivized systems. While it is possible that there will be a price-based player there, I predict that the major systems will be primarily peer-based.
I took the bet. I argued that, if you looked at the most influential sites across major categories of online activity in 2011, you would find them to be dominated by price-based players (i.e., commercial entities), whereas Benkler argued that they would be dominated by peer-production players (i.e., loose, unmanaged groups of unpaid contributors). Basically, the wager boiled down to this: Is the web fated to follow the path of earlier media and become dominated by commercial interests, or will it be ruled by amateurs operating outside the traditional marketplace and its money-making incentives? (Just to be clear, neither Benkler nor I saw this as a black and white question. Peer production and commercial production will both continue to exist online – as they always have offline. What Benkler predicted is that peer production would be the dominant mode of online production; I disagreed.)
This is an essential question – maybe the essential question – about the fate of the net. It’s pretty much the same question that Tim Wu posed, more eloquently, in his 2010 book The Master Switch:
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the second closing of the traditional information industries was complete … [T]he industrial concentration had reached levels not seen since the 1950s. The one great exception to this dominion of big business was the Internet, its users, and the industry that had grown on the network. Amid the consolidation, the 1990s also saw the so-called Internet revolution. Would it lead to the downfall of these consolidating superpowers? Some certainly thought so. “We are seeing the emergence of a new stage in the information economy,” prophesied Yochai Benkler. “It is displacing the industrial information economy …”
Unfortunately, the media and communications conglomerates didn’t consult Benkler as their soothsayer. With aggregate audiences in the billions and combined revenues in the trillions, they had – in fact, have – a very different vision of the future: the Internet either remade in their likeness, or at the very least rendered harmless to their core business interests. … Is the Internet really different? Every other invention of its kind has had its period of openness, only to become the basis of yet another information empire. Which is mightier: the radicalism of the Internet or the inevitability of the Cycle?
So what’s happened over the last five years? Let’s look at the blogosphere. Many of the most popular sites in 2006 were strictly amateur productions, often written by a lone scribbler. Today, the most popular blog sites are almost all corporate productions, usually written by teams of wage-earners employed by corporations, often large media corporations. That doesn’t mean the amateurs have gone away; it just means they’ve been marginalized. Video? In 2006, YouTube was a playground of amateur videographers, uploading their work for kicks. The amateurs are still there, but the most popular videos today are corporate productions – from TV networks, film studios, recording companies, publishing companies, game studios – and even a lot of the amateur productions are wrapped in advertisements. Beyond YouTube, online video is dominated by sites syndicating professional productions: Hulu, Vevo, Netflix, and the various TV networks, et al. Online music? Definitely dominated by sites offering professional productions from record companies (iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon, etc.). Again, there’s still plenty of amateur music online, but the dominant outlets are fundamentally commercial. Even open-source software – one of Benkler’s core examples of peer production – has shifted in the last five years toward commercial dominance, with many contributors to the largest open-source projects being salaried employees of software firms.
There are certainly places where unpaid contributors continue to play a dominant role online – photography, Wikipedia – but they are exceptions to the net’s general evolution away from a populist medium and toward a commercial one. There is also, importantly, the phenomenal rise of Facebook and Twitter. But what is the nature of Facebook and Twitter? Certainly, most contributors are not getting paid for their activity, but many of the most popular tweeters and Facebook pages are motivated by commercial interests – entertainers and other celebrities promoting their (profit-making) careers, journalists contributing as an element of their (salary-paying) jobs, corporations using the networks as PR or marketing channels, etc. And, beyond the individual contributors, Facebook and Twitter are of course commercial entities that operate their sites for profit (or at least for IPO riches). What Benkler calls social production is not going to disappear from the net – thank goodness – but, like amateur radio, it is turning into a sideshow. Wu’s “Cycle” is, once again, playing out. The dominant production systems in most online media categories are commercial ones.
I am happy to consider the counterargument – that Benkler was right and that the web has become less commercial over the last five years. But even a cursory glance over the net’s recent history makes it hard for me to believe that such a case can be made. So I will continue to await my PayPal windfall from Yochai Benkler.
How much will that windfall amount to? Exactly this much: $0.00. Unlike the web, the Carr-Benkler Wager exists outside of all price-incentivized systems. It is a purely social bet.