Social production guru, heal thyself

I was pleased to see that Yochai Benkler launched a blog on Monday – and, since the first (and as yet only) post was a response to my claim of victory in the Carr-Benkler Wager, I think I can even take a bit of credit for inspiring the professor to join the hurly-burly of the blogosphere. Welcome, Yochai! Long may you blog!

I fear, however, that no one explained to Yochai the concept of Comments. You see, on Monday I scribbled out a fairly long reply to his post, and submitted it through his comment form. I was hoping, as a long-time social producer myself, to spur a good, non-price-incentivized online conversation. But, now five days later, my comment has not appeared on his blog. In fact, no comments have appeared. Perhaps it’s a technical glitch, but since Yochai’s blog is one of many Harvard Law blogs, I have to think that the Comment form is working and that the fault lies with the blogger. (I even resubmitted my comment, just in case there was a glitch with the first submission.)

Memo to Yochai: social production begins at home.

Fortunately, I saved a copy of my comment. So, while waiting for Yochai to get around to tending his comment stream, I will post it here:


Thanks for your considered reply. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to discover that I disagree with your claim that you’ve won our wager. I think you’re doing more than a little cherry-picking here, both in choosing categories and in defining categories. Most important, you’re shortchanging the actual content that circulates online, which I would consider the most important factor in diagnosing the nature of production. For example, you highlight “music distribution” and “music funding,” but you ignore the music itself (the important thing), which continues to be dominated by price-incentivized production – even on p-to-p networks, the vast majority of what’s traded is music produced by paid professionals. The same goes, for example, for news reporting, where peer production is a minuscule slice of the pie. Where is the great expansion of the peer production model that you promised six years ago? Where are all the Wikipedias in other realms of informational goods? The fact is, the spread of social production just hasn’t happened. Even open-source software – your primary example of social production – has moved away from peer production and toward price-incentivized production. I don’t say that this is necessarily a good thing, I just say that it’s the reality of what’s happening.

Here’s my (quick and dirty) alternative rundown of whether the most influential sites in major categories of online activity are generally characterized by price-incentivized production (pi) or peer production (pp):

News reporting/writing: pi (relatively little pp)

News opinion: pi (Huff Post has mix, but shifting toward more pi, both by Huff Post paid staff and for others writing as paid employees of other organizations; other popular news opinion sites are dominantly pi)

News story discovery/aggregation: unclear (are Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon et al. really the most influential, or are they secondary to the editorial decision-making by sites like NY Times, WSJ, BBC, Guardian, Daily Mail, The Atlantic, and other traditional papers and magazines? I don’t think this is an easy one to figure out. My own sense is that traditional news organizations play a dominant role in shaping what news is seen and read online, though I acknowledge the importance of social production in the sharing of links to stories and the incorporation of social-production tools at traditional newspaper and magazine sites.)

General (non-news) web content discovery/aggregation: pp

Blogging: pi (big change from 2006)

Other writing: pi

Music (creation): pi

Music (discovery/aggregation): difficult to say, as a lot of sites (eg, YouTube) have mixed models, but I would give the edge to pi based on dominance of big retailing sites (iTunes, Amazon), big streaming sites (Spotify, Rhapsody), and artist and record company sites. Certainly since 2006, there’s been a shift toward commercial sites.

Photographs: pp

Video (creation): pi (with all due respect to YouTube amateurs, professionally produced TV shows, TV show clips, movies, movie clips, music videos, advertisements, now dominate online viewing through YouTube, Hulu, Netfllix, tv sites, newspaper sites, e.g. WSJ video, professional blog sites with video components, etc.

Radio/podcasting: pi

Recipes: pi

Charitable giving: pi (i.e., operated by paid staff)

Reviews: pp (a big, diffuse category that could be broken up in many ways, but I think overall pp dominates in use, if not influence)

How-to advice: pi

Encyclopedias: pp

E-books: pi (that goes for even self-published e-books)

Apps: pi

Games: pi

Advertising: pi (except classified advertising, which goes pp thanks to Craigslist)

Education and training: pi

Weather reports and forecasts: pi

Greeting cards and invitations: pi

Scholarship: pi

Political campaigns: pi (the social-networking hype that attended the first Obama campaign turned out to be overblown; campaigns continue to be professionally managed operations)

Pornography: pi (again, with all due respect to the intrepid amateurs)

The fact is that peer production hasn’t revolutionized models of content production online, even if we grant (as I do) that peer production continues to play an important (and occasionally dominant) role in some areas.

Social networking? Yes, social networking is, by definition, social networking, but even in what we define as social networking, do you really dispute that price-incentivized content is not playing an ever larger (rather than smaller) role? Here, to illustrate, are the Top 20 most popular Facebook pages as of the end of 2010 (most recent stats I could find):

1. Texas Hold’em Poker (Zynga page)

2. Facebook

3. Michael Jackson

4. Lady Gaga

5. Family Guy

6. YouTube

7. Eminem

8. Vin Diesel

9. Twilight Saga

10. Starbucks

11. Megan Fox

12. South Park

13. Coca-Cola

14. House (TV show)

15. Linkin Park

16. Barack Obama

17. Lil Wayne

18. Justin Bieber

19. Mafia Wars (Zynga)

20. Cristiano Ronaldo

Of the ten most viewed YouTube videos of all time (as of this month), nine are professional productions and only one (yes, it’s “Charlie Bit My Finger”) is a non-price-incentivized production. Even Twitter is far from a pure p-to-p site; many contributors contribute as part of their jobs. I think what we’re learning – and it’s hardly a surprise – is that when a for-profit corporation operates a social network, it becomes steadily more commercialized.

I don’t expect that I’ve convinced you that I’ve won the bet, but it sure would be nice if you would acknowledge the web’s shift, since 2006, to a medium ever more dominated by professionally produced content and ever more controlled by commercial interests, for better or for worse.

And welcome to blogging,


One thought on “Social production guru, heal thyself

  1. Charles

    Oops, I posted the following comment in the May 1 thread, intending to post it here.

    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 that largely existed to advance the commercial interests of the developer. WordPress is a loose network of independent nodes sharing links through social media.

    Server side: social production wins.

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