Is Web 2.0 About Exploitation Or Empowerment?

from the an-academic-look dept

Earlier this year, at the Mesh Conference in Toronto, I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Baym, a professor of communications at the University of Kansas. She's been doing tremendous research into questions concerning online "fan" communities around musicians. She's just posted her latest paper, with Robert Burnett from Karlstad University in Sweden, examining the question of whether or not Web 2.0 "fan communities" are really about exploitation or empowerment. This is a question we've addressed before, given that web 2.0 critics, such as Nicholas Carr, like to ignore that there are non-monetary benefits in the economy, and thus assume that any activity done for reasons other than money are exploitation.

The paper takes a balanced look at the Swedish independent music scene, which relies heavily on fan communities to act as filters and promoters of the music. The record labels don't focus so much on "selling music" so much as building up attention that can then be monetized in many different ways. Thus, they encourage fans to share and promote their music for them. So, is this use of fans exploitation?

The paper shows that, contrary to the "exploitation" view, the fans often get plenty of value out of the whole process, if not directly in monetary terms. As the paper notes, the concept of "exploitation" suggests a cost to the participant, but if they get more out of participating than they give up, then it hardly seems like exploitation. Instead, it's a reasonable choice in a non-monetary market, where they get more value than they put in. Plus, the paper notes that some of the fan participants eventually do make some money out of their efforts as well. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. There are plenty of folks who became highly involved in a hobby and are eventually able to turn that into a business.

But the bigger issue for many fans, is simply being able to build relationships with the musicians they love -- and with other fans. To them, that's worth a lot more than money, and it's hard to see how building strong relationships and friendships can be seen as exploitation.

On top of that, the paper notes that the fans also make use of certain strategies to make sure -- implicitly or explicitly -- that they're not being exploited. In other words, whether they realize it or not, they're aware at some level of the possibility of being exploited by the situation, and they make certain choices to protect against that possibility. Overall, a very interesting paper that's worth reading, and I look forward to more research on this topic.


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    some old guy, Oct 17th, 2008 @ 7:24pm

    they are not different words.

    You say tomato, I say well, something.

    The business angle is indeed exploiting the users. Because from strictly the business PoV, they are getting for free what is quite expensive when you have to pay for it.

    From the PoV of the users, it is empowerment. They are getting something quite valuable to them, and only giving up that which they are willing to surrender for free anyways.

    So yes, it is exploitation, and yes, it is empowerment.

    That seems ok to me.

     

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    No Six Pack, Oct 17th, 2008 @ 8:10pm

    It depends

    It depends upon your definition of web 2.0.

    java script, flash and other such crapware is certainly being used in the exploitation of unsuspecting users.

    Whether the user gains any benefit from said exploitation is moot considering that they are most likely unaware of the consequences.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 17th, 2008 @ 8:27pm

    given that web 2.0 critics, such as Nicholas Carr, like to ignore that there are non-monetary benefits in the economy, and thus assume that any activity done for reasons other than money are exploitation. Where do you come up with this crap? Just pull it out of thin air? From page 139 of my book The Big Switch: "The biggest reason people contribute to [Web 2.0] sites is no different from the reason they pursue hobbies or donate their time to charitable causes or community groups: because they enjoy it. It gives them satisfaction. People naturally like to create things, to show off their creations to others, to talk about themselves and their families, and to be part of communal projects. It's no different on the Internet. ... The uploading of videos, the writing of blogs, the debugging of open-source code, the editing of Wikipedia entries - all are simply new forms of the pastimes or charitable work that people have always engaged in outside their paid jobs." It's about empowerment and exploitation.

     

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    Nick Carr, Oct 17th, 2008 @ 8:28pm

    not either-or, but both-and

    given that web 2.0 critics, such as Nicholas Carr, like to ignore that there are non-monetary benefits in the economy, and thus assume that any activity done for reasons other than money are exploitation. Where do you come up with this crap? Just pull it out of thin air? From page 139 of my book The Big Switch: "The biggest reason people contribute to [Web 2.0] sites is no different from the reason they pursue hobbies or donate their time to charitable causes or community groups: because they enjoy it. It gives them satisfaction. People naturally like to create things, to show off their creations to others, to talk about themselves and their families, and to be part of communal projects. It's no different on the Internet. ... The uploading of videos, the writing of blogs, the debugging of open-source code, the editing of Wikipedia entries - all are simply new forms of the pastimes or charitable work that people have always engaged in outside their paid jobs." It's about empowerment and exploitation.

     

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      Mike (profile), Oct 19th, 2008 @ 1:55am

      Re: not either-or, but both-and

      Where do you come up with this crap? Just pull it out of thin air?

      Nope. From your words.

      For example, let's take the clip you posted here:

      "The biggest reason people contribute to [Web 2.0] sites is no different from the reason they pursue hobbies or donate their time to charitable causes or community groups: because they enjoy it. It gives them satisfaction. People naturally like to create things, to show off their creations to others, to talk about themselves and their families, and to be part of communal projects."

      Do you not realize how pejorative that sounds? You make it sound like it's a *charitable* act. It's not about *charity*. You assume that anything non-monetary is charitable, and that's both insulting and wrong.

      It's actually about a *fair* transaction. Each side gets something in the bargain, and they're both happy with it. That's not the way you position it. Until you understand that, you'll never understand why such things work.

      It's about empowerment and exploitation.

      Except that it's not.

       

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    Parent's Basement Dweller, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 1:35am

    I'm picking my nose right now.

     

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    Web 2.0, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 2:42am

    Facebook? What's that?

    Well, I think we saw a good compilation of the power that comes with Web 2.0.

    Our good friends at The Register have found a way to include the word "Bitch" with anything that has to do with the iconic Web 2.0 website Facebook-- a few Google searches will gleam light on the demeanor of Marc Zuckerburg, this little, 2-inch man as his business card reads "CEO... bitch"

    So why did Microsoft invest in this little bitch? I mean, it seems everyone's leaving in droves.

    It seems kinda like working for George W Bush as Secretary of State/Press/Defense/Treasury/Interior et al, and saying "I have to leave because I found a better job"

    Are you kidding me? Who

     

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    Web 2.0, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 2:42am

    Facebook? What's that?

    Well, I think we saw a good compilation of the power that comes with Web 2.0.

    Our good friends at The Register have found a way to include the word "Bitch" with anything that has to do with the iconic Web 2.0 website Facebook-- a few Google searches will gleam light on the demeanor of Marc Zuckerburg, this little, 2-inch man as his business card reads "CEO... bitch"

    So why did Microsoft invest in this little bitch? I mean, it seems everyone's leaving in droves.

    It seems kinda like working for George W Bush as Secretary of State/Press/Defense/Treasury/Interior et al, and saying "I have to leave because I found a better job"

    Are you kidding me? Who? is the problem, bitch?

     

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    PJ Brunet, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 8:28am

    An interesting (fiction) book on this subject: Idoru by William Gibson.

     

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    jonnyq, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 6:08pm

    "there are non-monetary benefits in the economy"

    It amazes me how often this point is lost on people. Money is not the economy. Money is an economic indicator, money is an economic tool, and money is a unit of measurement. But the ecomony is the sum of transactions of goods and services. If you and I can complete a transaction without money, then the economy is still working. If you can give me free content and a discuss forum while I give you meaningful discussion and ad impressions - and we agree that's a fair transaction - then the economy is working fine. On this particular blog, there are more parts to the transaction than that, and they're harder to put your finger on. You can call it Barter 2.0 if you want, but it's still economics.

     

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    Seth Finkelstein, Oct 18th, 2008 @ 11:44pm

    Pummelling a straw-man on critics

    "given that web 2.0 critics, such as Nicholas Carr, like to ignore that there are non-monetary benefits in the economy, ..."

    BANG! POW! Down goes the straw-man! Never had a chance ...

    C'mon Mike, any but the most superficial critic engages with that argument. For heaven's sake, it's one of the first counter-claims one hears when criticizing the wonderful brave new world of unpaid labor. The idea that this is some sort of killer argument that hasn't been heard, is absurd.

    What is true, is that critics of critics like to ignore that those arguing against the glories of digital sharecropping have considered the objections.

     

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      Mike (profile), Oct 19th, 2008 @ 1:57am

      Re: Pummelling a straw-man on critics

      C'mon Mike, any but the most superficial critic engages with that argument.

      What do you mean? Carr has repeated it over and over again, despite his claim not to have done so.

      What is true, is that critics of critics like to ignore that those arguing against the glories of digital sharecropping have considered the objections.

      Carr still hasn't addressed it in the slightest. I'm not saying others haven't considered it, but even your choice of the phrase "digital sharecropping" shows where you stand on it.

       

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    Seth Finkelstein, Oct 19th, 2008 @ 9:13am

    Re: Pummelling a straw-man on critics

    I mean exactly what I said - *engages* - in that the argument is not ignored, but addressed. That doesn't mean it's treated positively or in a way that "Web 2.0" evangelists like. A statement such as (my emphasis) "assume that ANY activity done for reasons other than money are exploitation." is an absurd portrayal, that no intelligent critic maintains.

    I don't mean to counter-strawman you, but your view comes across to me as an inverse argument of that extreme type, so maybe that's the framework you're using to determine critics are making the extreme argument. That is - "Each side gets something in the bargain, and they're both happy with it." - that's basically a tautology. It's true for compulsive gamblers and cult members. They "get something" and are "happy" at some level. But is it a *fair* transaction? Only in a trivial sense.

    It comes down to: What is a "*FAIR* transaction"?
    If you use a simplistic, Libertarian-type definition (no-gun-to-the-head), you then start defending all sorts of sleazes and manipulators, because what they do doesn't fall within that narrow definition. Between them being "fair transaction", and the definition being wrong, I'd say the definition is wrong.

     

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      Mike (profile), Oct 19th, 2008 @ 11:18am

      Re: Re: Pummelling a straw-man on critics

      I mean exactly what I said - *engages* - in that the argument is not ignored, but addressed.

      I have yet to see Carr *address* it any meaningful manner.

      That doesn't mean it's treated positively or in a way that "Web 2.0" evangelists like.

      Hmm. I certainly don't consider myself a Web 2.0 "evangelist." I'm pretty critical of much of it. But, whatever.

      A statement such as (my emphasis) "assume that ANY activity done for reasons other than money are exploitation." is an absurd portrayal, that no intelligent critic maintains.

      It's pretty much what Carr has said. If it's your position that Carr is not an intelligent critic, well, then that's something you'll have to take up with him. I tend to think he's intelligent, but spectacularly wrong repeatedly.

      That is - "Each side gets something in the bargain, and they're both happy with it." - that's basically a tautology. It's true for compulsive gamblers and cult members. They "get something" and are "happy" at some level. But is it a *fair* transaction? Only in a trivial sense.

      Seth, if you can't understand the difference, it's not worth continuing this conversation. I know you like to take extreme positions, but this is too much.

      It comes down to: What is a "*FAIR* transaction"?

      I don't think you actually understand what it means. You seem to be implying that those who take part in various web 2.0 sites have been tricked or brainwashed into participating.

      As this study shows, that's simply not true. And, in fact, the individuals take specific steps to make sure that's not true.

       

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    Howard_NYC, Oct 19th, 2008 @ 12:18pm

    ROLF...

    yeah, laughing am I...

    Q: what about all those beta testers amongst you?

    so what, you get a free copy of the final product... no way does that average out to more than a buck an hour...

     

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    Seth Finkelstein, Oct 19th, 2008 @ 12:49pm

    Re: Pummelling a straw-man on critics

    By "intelligent critic", I meant I don't deny that there do exist people who are superficial ranters. If there was any ambiguity, I'll say outright that I regard Nick Carr as an intelligent critic.

    > "Seth, if you can't understand the difference, it's not worth continuing this conversation. I know you like to take extreme positions, but this is too much."

    What is the difference, i.e. what is the moral theory you're using? (roughly - of course nothing like that can be outlined perfectly) I contend I'm taking the opposite of an extreme position - I'm asking a nuanced moral question - WHAT IS *FAIR*? The point of the cult follower and the compulsive gambler examples is to show the trivial Libertarian-type answer (Nobody forces the compulsive gambler into the casino! Nobody forces the cultist to give all money to the cult!) is dumb.

    > "You seem to be implying that those who take part in various web 2.0 sites have been tricked or brainwashed into participating."

    I favor phrases like prey upon their dreams and aspirations, emotional manipulation, deceptive marketing, etc. No smiley.

    Again, you're knocking down a strawman. If you pretend I say something absurd like every person who takes any part in any web 2.0 site is categorically and absolutely deceived, then you can feel good by pretending I don't know or haven't hear or "ignore" that not everything is money. If you acknowledge I HAVE HEARD THE REBUTTAL ARGUMENT, and I HAVE REPLIED (as has Nick Carr, though not saying he'd reply as I have), that there are extensive attempts to exploit people by the use of techniques that UNFAIRLY (defined as according to a complicated ethical framework!) play on foibles of human nature, then you can't just dismiss it.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 19th, 2008 @ 5:33pm

      Re: Re: Pummelling a straw-man on critics

      Again, you're knocking down a strawman.

      No, Mike is inferring the meaning of your comparison between "Web 2.0" sites, cults, and casinos. If that's not what you meant, you'll have to clarify.

      If you acknowledge I HAVE HEARD THE REBUTTAL ARGUMENT, and I HAVE REPLIED, that there are extensive attempts to exploit people by the use of techniques that UNFAIRLY play on foibles of human nature, then you can't just dismiss it.

      You are going to have to give one concrete example of a web site with a significant user base that fits that description. No single Web 2.0 model I can imagine - including Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket, icanhascheezburger.com, any Blogger blog - fit that description. (That is, unless by "complicated ethical framework", you're referring to some obscure ethical nuance that you'll invent to fit your example.)

       

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    anonymous coward, Oct 19th, 2008 @ 7:35pm

    monkey wrench

    Wouldn't it be the companies that pay extra thinking they NEED Web 2.0 DHTML/XHTML/CSS/RSS/XML Ajax-powered W3C Validated Cascading Stylistically Solid State HD DVI-Compatible Quad Core SLI Compatible Crossfire Ready Microwaveable OLED Force-Feedback Touch-Sensitive Fuel Cell Powered everything that get "exploited"?

    I mean there are of course lots of examples of appropriate applications of almost all things mentioned above, but I'm pretty sure that users mostly won't use a website if they didn't think it was useful, and although you could make an argument that users could be "tricked" into thinking they "need" a product or service, or "tricked" into believing something is better for superficial or "trendy" reasons (ie Mac OSX as a productive, usable, not cumbersome operating system, and Apple as something other then a fashion company with a snooty and fanatic fan base), that would be more an argument about marketing/advertising in general and really has nothing to do with Web 2.0, which I suppose in this context is taken loosely to encompass social networking, AJAX, and glassy looking GUI frameworks? In any case, all of those things are buzz words that COMPANIES like to latch onto because COMPANIES think they need these things to attract users. Sometimes they're right, but not always.

    Then there is of course the argument that AJAX and such "exploit" web browsers by forcing them to do things they weren't designed to do, but seeing how most of web design falls under the category of forcing something to do somethings it wasn't designed to do, that argument would fall on deft ears.

    And just in case there is anyone here whom I haven't provoked in some way, INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE GAHHHHH PEOPLE SHOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY FOR DIGITAL CONTENT AND "PAYING" FOR THINGS LIKE SOFTWARE AND MUSIC WHEN THEY ARE DIGITALLY DISTRIBUTED IS PROBABLY A BETTER EXAMPLE OF "EXPLOITATION" THAN ANYTHING ANYONE HAS BROUGHT UP. IF IT HAS A PRICE TAG AND ALL IT REALLY IS IS A DUPLICATE OF AN EXISTING FILE SOMEWHERE ELSE, YOU ARE BEING EXPLOITED IF SOMEONE MAKES YOU PAY FOR IT AND THERE IS NO WAY SUCH THINGS WILL STILL COST MONEY FIFTY YEARS FROM NOW (during the nuclear winter)

     

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    gitei, Nov 14th, 2008 @ 1:21pm

    Is there such a thing as virtual aesthetics?

    Will memory and human senses(ie. touch, feel, see, hear with the physical body) matter after singularity?

    If I play music on drum in field and want the performance to live only as live performance- will this performance be considered un-real because it does not get copied and live in a digital format? what about conceptual art?

    I love art and philosophy and feel like web 2.0 is described like religion or some kind of telelogical idea about progress.

     

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    niko, Jun 11th, 2009 @ 10:37am

    A U.S.-based language monitoring group crowned Web 2.0 as the one millionth word or phrase in the English language on Wednesday, although other linguists slammed it as nonsense and a stunt. http://true.moneyoasis.net/web-2-0-crowned-one-millionth-english-word/

     

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