Web 2.0lier than thou

Jaron Lanier recently called the Web 2.0 movement “digital maoism.” Now, as if on cue, the Cultural Revolution has begun.

Lawrence Lessig, in a post titled “The Ethics of Web 2.0,” suggests that some Web 2.0 companies are not fit to wear the Web 2.0 label. There are real Web 2.0 companies, and there are sham Web 2.0 companies. There are those that maintain their ethical purity, that obey the Code, and there are the transgressors, the ones that have fallen from the shining path. As in kindergarden, it all comes down to the way you share:

A “true sharing” site doesn’t try to exercise ultimate control over the content it serves. It permits, in other words, content to move as users choose. A “fake sharing” site, by contrast, gives you tools to make [it] seem as if there’s sharing, but in fact, all the tools drive traffic and control back to a single site.

YouTube is Lessig’s villain, the counterrevolutionary force that threatens the web’s emergent communalist state. “YouTube,” he writes, “gives users very cool code to either ’embed’ content on other sites, or to effectively send links of content to other sites. But never does the system give users an easy way to actually get the content someone else has uploaded … this functionality – critical to true sharing – is not built into the YouTube system.” It may hide its true nature behind a seductive mask of coolness, but make no mistake: YouTube is an imposter. It has failed “to respect the ethics of the web.”

“By contrast,” writes Lessig, “every other major Web 2.0 company does expressly enable true sharing.” The companies that Lessig uses to support this incredible statement are Flickr, blip.tv, EyeSpot, Revver, and “even Google.” Blip.tv? EyeSpot? Revver? These are “major Web 2.0 companies”? What about MySpace? What about Facebook? What about Digg? What about Craigslist? What about Google’s vast search business? Do any of these “expressly enable true sharing” of their core content? No, Lessig’s audacious attempt at revisionism just doesn’t fly.

But Lessig isn’t really interested in describing the world as it is. His eyes are on a further goal. He wants to redefine “Web 2.0” in order to promote a particular ideology, the ideology of digital communalism in which private property becomes common property and the individual interest is subsumed into the public interest – in which we become the web and the web becomes us.

The process of social enlightenment always begins with the reshaping of language. According to Lessig, Web 2.0 is not, as you might have assumed, a technological or a business term. It’s an ethical term, a moral term. Differences “in business models,” he writes, “should be a focus of those keen to push the values of Web 2.0.” In a gloss on Lessig’s post, Joi Ito writes that “we can’t really expect users to initially understand the distinction [between real sharing and fake sharing].” But “in the long run, users will understand that stand-alone or closed services do not allow them the freedoms that are becoming exceedingly more common in the Web 2.0 area.” It is hard not to hear the echo of Mao patiently explaining how the masses will make the transition from China 1.0 to China 2.0:

Because of their lack of political and social experience, quite a number of young people are unable to see the contrast between the old China and the new, and it is not easy for them thoroughly to comprehend … the long period of arduous work needed before a happy socialist society can be established. That is why we must constantly carry on lively and effective political education among the masses and should always tell them the truth about the difficulties that crop up and discuss with them how to surmount these difficulties.

But what’s the point, really? Does Lessig genuinely think that entrepreneurs and their backers are going to line up to take some True Sharer Pledge, to choose to pursue an abstract ideal of ethical purity rather than profit? To propose a moral test for membership in the Web 2.0 club seems, at this late date, like an exercise in reality avoidance. The wheels of commerce are turning, and they’re grinding all these grand intellectual distinctions into dust. Like Mao, Lessig and his comrades are not only on the wrong side of human nature and the wrong side of culture; they’re also on the wrong side of history. They fooled themselves into believing that Web 2.0 was introducing a new economic system – a system of “social production” – that would serve as the foundation of a democratic, utopian model of culture creation. They were wrong. Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. 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, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.

The Cultural Revolution is over. It ended before it even began, The victors are the counterrevolutionaries. And they have $1.65 billion to prove it.

14 thoughts on “Web 2.0lier than thou

  1. Howard Owens

    Web 2.0 Means To Me: Recognizing that the Web is innately about connectedness. It is about users making connections and find their own way around content and social space. The anti-Web 2.0 is about publisher control, push rather than pull.

    I don’t see how YouTube violates that.

    You’re right, the market will decide what Web 2.0 is — that’s part of the beauty of free markets.

    I like your formulation about leveraging free labor. But I think that’s a good thing. It give the best free labor a greater opportunity to rise above the din and become non-free labor. It’s a fair trade: I give you content (as I am now) in exchange for a chance to A) express myself; b) draw attention to my ideas; c) hopefully create more demand for my ideas/content/creations (speaking generically to some extent), and in part of the exchange you (as you do) put advertising around my content. That seems like a perfectly legitimate exchange to me, and the economic value of both sides of the transaction seem well balanced to me. And I’d say the same of YouTube, MySpace, etc.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    Google Buys YouTube – the structure of Bubble 2.0

    “Bubble 2.0 is all about data-mining and getting suckers to work for free (this last is called “user-generated content” or “citizen journalism”). But that’s a fairly expensive game to play (maybe not expensive from a venture capital fund standpoint, but it’s not a garage operation). It also requires a huge amount of marketing. It’s necessary to either somehow convince all those suckers that they should work for free, or find out what it is that they’ll do that you can exploit (this is why there’s a bunch of pilot-fish around the sharks, saying something like “Ecosystems are conversations. When the shark eats you, you are a *participant* in the circle of life – you are the nourishment formerly known as prey, think of yourself as a citizen-lunchmeat”). Both are tough sells, either to the little people that they really want to enrich you by doing grunt labor, or to the big people that they really don’t want to pauperize you by suing about copyright infringement from all that “sharing”.”

  3. George Nimeh

    Great post, Nick.

    I think there is a clear slant in Larence’s writing which is designed to empower the principles drivig Creative Commons. Nothing wrong with that – I’m a big fan, actually – but it seems a bit odd that in a post about ethics he is unable to see/disclose the connection between what he is writing and the purpose it serves.

    Your point about his selection of companies in order to prove his point is spot-on.

    And speaking of 2.0lier than thou … The following is from Neville Hobson’s post about the launch of Crayon:

    We’re a solution provider. We’re an extension of your team. Consider us a new breed of partner – one that keeps everyone honest and on the right path. Our client is not the consumer: our client is the truth.

    Our client is the truth? Wow.


  4. Ian King

    “Our client is the truth.” Thanks, George; I just about lost my lunch on that one. Onanistic language aside, it’s still marketing, and it’s still about spreading “truth” as defined by their clients, and “sharing” this truth (imposing it on?) on their clients’ target markets. But I guess you’ve gotta act like part of the clique to sell to the clique, thus the unspeak of unentrepreneurs who attend unconferences engaging in unmarketing.

    So “Web 2.0” is — aside from the fact that JavaScript actually works — really about swaddling yourself in feel-good language, pretending to be altrustic, and acting the same as ever. Hrmph. Come to think of it, wasn’t there a rash of faux-sensitivity and overuse of pastels in the mid-late ’80s?

  5. Chris_B

    To me its a damn shame that so many “Good Things” can be so easily spoiled by their most vocal advocates. I respect Prof. Lessig’s work on the CC and his (failed) labors against over-reaching copyright law, but I’m afraid he is going to become another Stallman, a vocal advocate of a cause who ends up doing more harm than good by being percieved as the loudest lunatic in the asylum.

  6. JConnell

    Perhaps Lessig should read by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter – their take on how capitalism has absorbed and exploited the so-called counter-culture should be required reading for any naif who believes that they can establish and maintain some kind of purity of ethic and thought in any area of public discourse.

    The proponents of Web 2.0 in education, for instance, like to remind us – correctly – that ‘learning is messy’. Of course, the broader truth is that life is messy! I, for one, am happy to accept this and make the best of things in life as pragmatically as I can. Save us from self-appointed saints.

  7. Lloyd Fassett

    Great post, but I don’t think the analogy goes as far as you take it. Mao forced people to participate in a process that people’s lives depended on – no food on the collective farm meant starvation. No one has to contribute to YouTube. I’d think their economic value is in emotional value. YouTube creates enough millions of points in ’emotional value’ and they can sell it for hard currency on eBay for company buyers. YouTube isn’t as bad as Lessig makes them out to be.

  8. scleland


    Your post is dead on. I love your clarity of thought in seeing through Lessig’s mumbo jumbo and calling it what it is “digital communalism.”

    On my precursorblog and at Netcompetition.org I have long called this thinking a vision of a Socialized Internet.

  9. garyv

    Before I join in with your chorus I would like to disagree on one point: youtube is profiting from “borrowed” content and this cannot and should not be a good way to do business.

    If Lawrence Lessig wants to promote True sharing over fake sharing, that’s his business and I generally agree with your response to his post but condoning (if you are doing that) youtube’s current model of operation cannot be allowed to continue.

  10. ChrisCastle

    An excellent and thoughtful post. I would add this:

    If you understand the Friends of the Commons movment (friendsofthecommons.org) you will understand Lessig. Friends of the Commons is the global communalist group that lists groups and supporters from the radical fringe including Public Knowledge, Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Gigi Sohn, Jenny Toomey, and others from the EFFluviati. It’s all warmed over 60s Utopian Socialism doing everythign it can not to use the word “communist”.

    These folk are in the vanguard of the proletariate, and are the holders of received wisdom, often financed by the newly radicalized MacArthur Foundation (and its ex-New School pukka sahib).

    The question that is never answered in Lessig’s True2 ramblings is whether the content that is being “shared” is content that is authorized for sharing. By the owners. Lessig never troubles himself with such details, although he purports to be a professor in an accredited law school. (I hesitate to refer to him as a lawyer, as I have never seen evidence that he is admitted to practice law in any jurisdiction. Of course, bar admission comes with that nasty obligation to take an oath to support the Constitution fo the United States.)

    What is ironic, of course, is that the pirates that Lessig lionizes are acting like–pirates. What a shock. The GooGooTube (nee YouTube) pirates are stealing for themselves the value of the privately owned content they encourage users to steal by providing an audience to go “ooh, ahh” and “attaboy”.

    But I would bet that if you scratch down under whatever passes for a world view in the Land of the Two Kings, you wouldn’t have to go very far until you heard the sound of Lessig’s feel good rational for stealing. So if Lessig doesn’t like what he sees–its not because the Two Pirate Kings are not acting like pirates. They are acting exactly like pirates, including Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Castro and so on.

    Pirates keep unto themselves that which they take from the defenseless. The Two Pirate Kings did exactly that, so why is anyone surprised.

    The Pirate Kings, whether they are in Menlo Park, Stockholm, Paris or the Mother of All Madrassahs at the GooGoo Law School, are doing exactly what they learned to do from Professor Lessig’s own writings. Steal. I’m sure he’s shocked, shocked, that there is pirating going on.

    I for one would be genuinely shocked if GooGoogle didn’t hold back a substantial portion of the reported $1.65 billion purchase price of GooGooTube as a fund against indemnity claims. A normal indemnity in a relatively innocent operation would be something in the 10-20% range. In the case of the acquisition of a copyright infringement machine, that indemnity basket is probaby more like 50% of the purchase price–$160,000,000 to $800,000,000 or so to settle claims. And like good pirates, they’re waiting to see if they get away with it, to see if small artists have the means and stomach to come after a $120 billion company.

    As a great songwriter (Guy Forsyth) once said “Americans are freedom loving people, and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.”

    Where are the Anonymous Amicii when you need them?

  11. Ibsu

    Wow, Chris… just… wow.

    Can I link to your post for when I need an example of ad hominem fallacy?

    First off, the man graduated from Yale. http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail497.html says that the American Bar Association has recognized him in intellectual property law. He’s argued before the supreme court. He clerked for Scalia. I think it’s safe to assume that he passed the bar.

    Second, Lessig has fervently argued in favor of copyright. He merely argues that the length of copyright is inhibiting creativity and that the advantages that Disney had in “pirating ideas” from his common culture – Steamboat Willy was a parody of a Buster Keaton Character, for example, and that doesn’t mention his pilfering of the Grimm brothers – from his common culture have been removed, and are inhibiting creativity and creative work contrary to the original purpose of copyright.

    Consider Jonathan Coulton – a musician now making money off licensing his material via CC. Another individual took (with permission by Blizzard Entertainment built into World of Warcraft) a video with friends and made an intertextual work. This brought more fame to Coulton, which has allowed him to sell more copies of his music. By giving permission to use (sharing) for new creative principles, he has enhanced the value of the material.

    Lessig explicitly argues in Free Culture that one shouldn’t break the law, but he simultaneously argues that the law is neither in the creators’ interest nor the public interest. He created CC for that reason.

    People such as magnatune and Coulton are making money (very capitalist) through this.

    It’s an interesting experiment. It turns out that people are willing to contribute to the commons, whether by code or by creative content, and that people do end up making money through this venture. It’s an interesting proposition. Is it communalist? Perhaps. Is it subverting capitalism? Absolutely not. While it may be contributing to the death of some business models, that’s what technology does. What is the market for business models that depend on the typewriter, for example?

  12. Million Dollar Hosting

    And who said that Web2.0 is just about sharing? Web2.0 is about new ways of organization, presentation and sharing – managing web information. Not about the freedom at all. Moreover, I think that video streaming is not Web2.0 at all – it not about the new ways of managing information – it is about the new kind format of information – it is web 3.0 at all.

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