Pay up, Yochai Benkler

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.


10 thoughts on “Pay up, Yochai Benkler

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding “There are certainly places where unpaid contributors continue to play a dominant role online”, I would say that Wikipedia benefits enormously from a “market distortion” due to Google doing deliberate algorithm changes which kill would-be commercial competitors. Note the algorithm changes themselves are well-discussed in the SEO world, but the law/policy types will not take that factor into account, as it is unfavorable to the story they are telling.

    See, e.g. my blog post

    “Google “Farmer” Update Blesses Wikipedia, Curses Mahalo, Centralization”

    Tom Slee has been blogging for a while about the commercialization contrary Benkler, see e.g.

  2. tomslee

    The reason for the non-payment may be that YB believes he won. In last year’s “The Penguin and the Leviathan” (p191) he writes about this and concludes: “This is why I’m so confident that sometime in 2011, Nick Carr will be buying me dinner”.

    You could also have mentioned the content farms. Not sure how they have prospered since recent Google algorithm updates, but the last time I looked eHow, DemandMedia etc were comparable to Wikipedia.

    PS Thanks for the links Seth. In Penguin % Leviathan Benkler restates his Barbie claim (p24) as “If you think of the top ten results on any given Google search, again you will find a large component of nonprofit, or personal, and in any event free and open sites providing the ultimate answer”.

  3. Nick Carr

    “This is why I’m so confident that sometime in 2011, Nick Carr will be buying me dinner”

    Dream on, Yochai. That’s a great example of the confirmation bias in action.

    But, because I am intent on keeping this wager uncontaminated by money, I am not going to demand that Yochai buy me dinner. I am asking that he make me dinner, preferably using vegetables and livestock that he raised himself (or that his neighbors raised themselves).

    And, yes, I agree that content farms – and they seem to be doing fine, judging from my Google searches – are another example of the shift toward salaried labor in online production. (See this article.) As are all the aggregation drones employed by newspapers and magazines. I also forgot to mention that the relatively new phenomenon of e-book self-publishing, through services like Kindle Direct Publishing, is overwhelmingly motivated by money-seeking. And try searching for a recipe – the results will be dominated by a few large cooking sites, mainly run by big publishers.

  4. Nick Carr

    Tom and Seth,

    That Barbie example is an illuminating one. Here are current first-page results from a Google (U.S.) search for keyword “Barbie”:

    1. (Mattel site)

    2. (Mattel site)

    3. Wikipedia Barbie page

    4. (Mattel site)

    5. Facebook Barbie page (I assume that this is operated by Mattel, but I’m not sure)

    6. Mattel home page

    7. Zazzle retail site Barbie page

    8. Toys R Us Barbie page

    9. (Mattel site)

    There was also a link to a Toronto Sun story on Barbie.

    (See Tom’s original post for context showing how much the web has changed since 2006.)

  5. Rob_knight

    If Digg and Flickr were 2006-era examples of peer production, I think 2012 Twitter fits well enough into that category. Reddit might be another example which supports Benkler’s case. I’m not actually sure where Kickstarter would fit, as it doesn’t seem to have been anticipated by the terms of the bet – it’s money-seeking, but not (yet) ‘corporate’; I suspect that Benkler would want to claim it for his side of the argument. Overall, though, I share the view that Benkler must have lost the bet, if only because he proposed it and he hasn’t clearly won.

    A more interesting question, for me, is this: an increase in the amount of commercial production online is explicable simply by increases in online marketing budgets; the understanding of how social media works is now widespread enough that it’s easy to hire people to participate in it in return for modest salaries. Online marketing has increased in relative importance for most businesses, and the size of the online economy has expanded. But has it expanded *faster* than the Benklerian sector and, if it has, will it continue to do so? Companies have a certain capacity to increase their online activities by continuing to re-allocate their budgets away from offline marketing and towards online marketing, but at some point there won’t be anything left to re-allocate. It’s still possible that the internet is expanding faster than it can be understood and controlled even by those paid very handsomely to do so.

    Also, to the extent that online services become susceptible to organised manipulation by paid participants, do they begin to decline in usefulness? Google’s great breakthrough in its early days was that it was quite difficult (read: expensive) to game the search rankings. This has now ceased to be true, and in the period since 2006, Google’s search has become progressively less useful. I’d argue that Google search has become more predictable – the Barbie results above are a case in point – and this is precisely the problem. If you can easily guess that Mattel, Wikipedia and Facebook are the top results, what’s the point in doing a Google search? The Silicon Valley sharks have scented blood already and “a new search engine” is top of Paul Graham’s list of “frighteningly ambitious startup ideas”; sure, the next Google is a long way off, but when it happens I suspect that the first effect it will have will be to make a lot of corporate SEO redundant. How many times can companies afford to start over on the next iteration of web X.0?

  6. Mlsif

    Price-based or peer-based?

    Classified advertising: Craigslist

    News filtering: Reddit

    Information collection: Wikipedia

    Top political blog: DailyKos or Huffington Post, take your pick

    Video sharing: YouTube

    All of these are peer-based, primarily filled with freely donated content. Only the latter two, HuffPost and YouTube, are owned by major corporations and have front-pages driven by commercial values.

    I’d say it’s hardly clear who has won this bet.

    Micah Sifry

  7. Nick Carr


    I’m happy to put Classified ads into Benkler’s column, with a caveat: I’m not sure there’s actually any difference between the “producer” of a classified ad that appears on Craigslist and the “producer” of a classified ad that appears in a newspaper. If Craigslist were dominated by bartering, that would be a different story, but it’s not.

    Reddit? No doubt very popular and a good site, but compare its traffic (and traffic of similar peer-produced news-filtering sites) with the traffic that goes to news sites that use paid editors or other employees to filter content (New York Times, BBC, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, CNN, Daily Mail, etc, etc.). Does peer production really dominate news filtering? I don’t think so if you look at the traffic numbers.

    Encyclopedias go to Benkler, as I noted.

    With blogs – including political ones – it’s just a fantasy to suggest that the last five years haven’t seen a big shift toward commercialization and a growing dominance of more traditional editorial structures. We’ve seen (a) many mainstream publications create popular blogs as extensions of their traditional publications and (b) popular “new media” blogs adopt more formal business organizations with reporting and editorial staffs (I would include Daily Kos and, even more so, Huff Post in that trend). That doesn’t mean that unpaid contributors don’t play an important role, but to suggest that blogging is essentially peer production today is nuts.

    As I discussed, the big story with YouTube over the last five years has been one of commercialization. Go look at the top videos and see how many are professional productions.

    Whether or not a company is a “major corporation” is important, but in regard to this wager beside the point; if a small company pays its production staff, it’s not peer production as Benkler (and most others) define it.


  8. Dave Harrison

    Interesting debate. I’ve written quite a bit about Benkler’s thesis and what I believe are its existential roots. I also have an independent blog that strangely gets about 100,000 reads per month and is growing nicely.

    My expectations are that if and when there’s a policy change along SOPA/PIPA lines, it will set a new hurdle for independent bloggers of say $1,500 per month to keep your seat at the table and maintain compliance with whatever terror or copyright angle the lobbyists are able to slip through (as contrasted with Godaddy’s current $10 per month).

    I somewhat expected it to happen six months ago and expected some sort of consolidation of independent bloggers to respond in what I would call a publishing cooperative. The feedback loop for independent bloggers (or for Facebook users for that matter) is so compelling that it tends to squash the economics as it can be viewed simply as a replacement of television as a use of free time or simply a self-expression outlet.

    However, if you have to pay more than a nominal amount to mitigate “reasonable” copyright liability, then that hurdle will wipe out most of the chorus and those that remain will consolidate into some guild of sorts I would expect.

    Those independents that have taken the direct marketing approach to selling low ROI product advertisements on their site may have survived round 1 of Carr v Benkler while at the same time exposing their site to some higher level of commercial obligation towards digital rights management. One of the most interesting things I have seen in the tragedy of the creative commons space since its discovery by Berners-Lee occurred only this past week… gumroad.

    This fellow at has set up what is effectively a ticket master franchise for the monetization of URLs rather than their resultant content. While the debate over digital rights management rages on, who would have thought that you could make a bit of money off the itself. URLs as a surplus currency. I didn’t see that coming. Would you pay me 99 cents for access to a treasure map showing where $100 is hidden in your neighborhood? If so, is it the map you’re buying or access to the map. The gumroad paradigm really displays the Achille’s heel of the nature of virtual goods… they’re virtual.

    Dave Harrison

    plus 14 articles that include Benkler reference:

  9. Charles

    There is an interesting piece of evidence on the server side. I notice Berkman ditched that piece of crap Radio Userland blogging system and switched to WordPress. This effectively erased the Berkman fellowship of the self-proclaimed “inventor of blogging,” Dave Winer, who took the opportunity to shove Harvard into his company’s software.

    Radio Userland was a proprietary commercial app. WordPress is an Open Source project. RU hasn’t been updated since 2005, WordPress had a new beta release within the last 2 weeks. RU depended on a monolithic, centralized server model. WordPress is a loose network of independent nodes sharing links through social media.

    Server side: social production wins.

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