Viral Spiral - How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
David Bollier (2008)


The Rise of Free Culture


Amateurs discover new tools for creating value: open networks and self-organized commons.

“It was never really clear to me what was going to happen after we launched the licenses,” recalled Glenn Otis Brown. “Would our work be done?” The intense push to craft the licenses and release them now over, Brown and his colleagues were only too happy to ease up in their work. (Van Houweling had left in 2002 to teach law; she is now at the University of California at Berkeley.) Despite his enthusiasm for the licenses, Brown had his private doubts about their future success. “To be honest, I was pretty scared,” he said. “I was worried they were going to go nowhere, and that I was going to be blamed for that.” 173

In January 2003, a month after the CC licenses were announced, however, the project took on a new urgency. The Supreme Court handed down its Eldred ruling, sending a clear signal that the courts were not much interested in reforming copyright law. Soon after this crushing disappointment, Lessig began to intensify his focus on the Creative Commons. “The pressure really increased,” said Brown, “but that’s also when things started to get a lot more fun. That’s when the staff started working on things all the time and we got a stable, permanent staff, instead of contractors.”

What began as a modest licensing experiment began to take on the character of a permanent campaign. Working from the themes in The Future of Ideas, Lessig came to see the Creative Commons as more than a nonprofit custodian of some free public licenses; it was a champion for a bracing new vision of culture. This broader orientation meant reaching out to various creative sectors and the general public with messages that were both practical (“here’s how to use the licenses”) and idealistic (“you, too, can build a better world”).

The band of enterprising law scholars and techies who once saw their challenge as one of bolstering the public domain began to widen their gaze to the vast world of creativity and democratic culture. Social practice, not theory, became the animating force in their work.

This meant reaching out to writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, librarians, academics, and other creators. All faced worrisome threats to their freedoms in the digital environment, as we saw in chapter 2. Lessig and the small Creative Commons staff made it their job to speak to these threats, promote the licenses, and set forth an alternative to the corporate media’s vision of culture.

“Our single, overarching aim,” said Lessig in December 2002, “is to build the public domain, by building projects that expand the range of creative work available for others to build upon.” 174 In an attempt to credential the licenses, the Creative Commons touted endorsements by a number of educational institutions (MIT, Rice University, Stanford Law School), public-spirited tech enterprises (iBiblio, the Internet Archive, O’Reilly & Associates), and venturesome musicians (DJ Spooky, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds).

As if by spontaneous replication, people from far-flung corners of the Internet began to use the licenses on their blogs, their MP3 music files, their photographs, their books. Week after week, the Creative Commons’s blog trumpeted the new recruits — the blog for book designers (Foreword), the database of metadata about music (MusicBrainz), the online storytelling Web site (Fray), the 2004 presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich.

But the larger challenge for Creative Commons was finding ways to reach new constituencies who knew little about technology or copyright law. Why should they bother to use a CC license? This was a major public education challenge. Besides appearing at many conferences and cultivating press coverage, Glenn Brown spent a lot of time developing a Web site that could explain the licenses clearly. Great pains were taken to develop a precise, intuitive user interface to help people learn about the licenses and choose the right one for them. Copyright law was complicated enough; the CC licenses had to be seen as a simple alternative.

Advertisers have plenty of trouble communicating the virtues of mouthwash in a crowded public sphere. Could something as dry and forbidding as copyright law ever be made lucid and even hip? Although not a trained marketer, Glenn Brown had a knack for communicating things simply.Working with graphic designer Ryan Junell and Web designer Matt Haughey, Brown developed a site that combined a certain institutional authority with contemporary pizzazz. This style was on abundant display in a series of jaunty and entertaining Flash animations that explained the rationale for Creative Commons.

Junell designed the now-familiar CC logo as a deliberate counterpoint to the copyright logo, ©. “I thought that Creative Commons should have something like the copyright logo since it deals with the same stuff,” said Junell. “It should be something really simple and pure.” 175 Junell set his sights on making the CC logo a standard, ubiquitous symbol. He hoped that it would eventually be incorporated into the Unicode, an international registry for every character in any language used in software, from % to ∆ to ≠.

In promoting its licenses, Creative Commons fashioned itself as a neutral, respectable defender of individual choice. “Our tools are just that — tools,” said Haughey, who was then developing the CC Web site. “Our model intentionally depends on copyright holders to take responsibility for how they use those tools. Or how they don’t use them: If you’re unsure and want to keep your full copyright, fine. If you choose to allow others to re-use your work, great.” 176 While many CC users were enthusiastically bashing copyright law, Lessig and the CC staff made it a point to defend the basic principles of copyright law — while extolling the value of collaborative creativity and sharing under CC licenses.

Despite praise by the heads of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, the licenses nonetheless did attract critics. Some in the music industry regarded the licenses as a Trojan horse that would dupe unsuspecting artists. David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, told Billboard, “My concern is that many who support Creative Commons also support a point of view that would take away people’s choices about what to do with their own property.” 177 Billboard went on to cite the cautionary tale of a songwriter who was being kept alive by his AIDS medications, thanks to the royalties from a highly successful song. “No one should let artists give up their rights,” said Andy Fraser of the rock group Free. Other critics, such as John Dvorak of PC Magazine, called the CC licenses “humbug” and accused them of adding “some artificial paperwork and complexity to the mechanism [of copyright],” while weakening the rights that an author would otherwise enjoy. 178 Still others had cultural scores to settle and criticized “anything advocated by clever, sleek young lawyers.” 179

Putting aside such quibbles and prejudices, the CC licenses seemed a benign enough idea. Given its reliance on copyright law, how could any entertainment lawyer object? Yet the real significance of the licenses was only appreciated by those who realized that a Great Value Shift was kicking in. For them, the licenses were a useful legal tool and cultural flag for building a new sharing economy.

The Great Value Shift

In retrospect, the CC licenses could not have been launched at a more propitious moment. Networked culture was exploding in 2003. Broadband was rapidly supplanting dial-up Internet access, enabling users to navigate the Web and share information at much faster speeds. Prices for personal computers were dropping even as computing speeds and memory capacity were soaring. Sophisticated new software applications were enabling users to collaborate in more powerful, user-friendly ways. The infrastructure for sharing was reaching a flashpoint.

Put another way, the original promise of the Internet as a gift economy was coming into its own. Originally built as a platform for efficient sharing among academic researchers, the Internet by 2003 was being used by some 600 million people worldwide. 180 The open framework for sharing was no longer just a plaything of technophiles and academics; it was now insinuated into most significant corners of the economy and social life. As it scaled and grew new muscles and limbs, the Internet began to radically change the ways in which wealth is generated and allocated.

I call this the Great Value Shift — a deep structural change in how valuable things are created for commerce and culture. The shift is not only a fundamental shift in business strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of wealth. On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it necessarily privately held. Wealth generated through open platforms is often socially created value that is shared, evolving, and nonmonetized. It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone.

Creative Commons had the good fortune to introduce its licenses just as the Great Value Shift was picking up momentum. The types of distributed innovation first seen in free software were now popping up in every imaginable corner of cyberspace. The social content was not just about listservs and newsgroups, but instant messaging networks, Web logs, podcasts, wikis, social networking sites, collaborative archives, online gaming communities, and much else.

“What we are seeing now,” wrote Yochai Benkler in his book, The Wealth of Networks, “is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s preferred term is “commons-based peer production.” By that, he means systems that are collaborative and non-proprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.” 181

Informal social relationships, working in the unregimented, free space of open platforms, were beginning to change economic production and culture. “Behaviors that were once on the periphery— social motivations, cooperation, friendship, decency — move to the very core of economic life,” Benkler argued. 182 Money and markets do not necessarily control the circulation of creativity; increasingly, online communities — large numbers of people interacting with one another on open platforms — are the engines that create value.

The CC licenses were launched at a moment when the new modes of value creation were just gaining a foothold.

We do not yet have well-accepted theoretical models for understanding this new “socioeconomic space”; the online environments are still so new, and much is still in flux. 183 But it has not escaped the notice of major corporations that online social dynamics can result in some radically more effective models for organizing employees and engaging with customers. A BusinessWeek cover story touted “The Power of Us” in June 2005, profiling the ways in which companies like Procter & Gamble use mass collaboration for R&D; Hewlett-Packard had created a virtual stock market among its staff to gather collective estimates that have improved sales forecasts. 184 The Economist has written about the “fortune of the commons” that can result when there are open technical standards, and business professors such as Henry Chesbrough have examined new “open business models.” 185

Before looking at the many creative sectors that have adopted the CC licenses — the focus of chapter 6 — it helps to understand the Great Value Shift that open networks have catalyzed. In one market after another, open networks have helped new competitors slash all sorts of business costs while enhancing their capacity to innovate and respond to changing consumer demand. Open networks have also given rise to new types of social platforms on the Web, often known as Web 2.0, which are making it economically attractive to serve niche markets. This is the so-called Long Tail. Yet even these sweeping changes in market structure are facing a qualitatively different kind of competition — from the commons sector. It turns out that informal online communities based on trust, reciprocity, and shared social norms can perform a great many tasks more efficiently than markets, and with some measure of social pleasure and fun.

The Endangered Economics of Centralized Media

The dominant systems of communications in the twentieth century — radio, broadcast and cable television, recorded music, theatrical film — required large amounts of centralized capital, corporate management, and professional control. These media have very different business models and practices, but they all rely upon centralized control of capital and distribution to large, fairly undifferentiated audiences. Each depends upon efficiencies derived from high-volume sales and a limited spectrum of commercial choices.

Centralized Media also dictate certain economic and social identities for people. There are “sellers,” who are the prime source of expertise, innovation, and production, and there are “consumers,” who passively buy, or don’t buy, what is offered. Sellers mostly determine what choices are offered to buyers, and they tend to have greater market power and information than consumers. Interactions between sellers and consumers are mostly brief and transactional; there is little ongoing conversation or relationship between seller and buyer.

Much of the strength of the Centralized Media derives from its control of critical “choke points” of product development and distribution. By controlling the technical standards for a product, its retail distribution or its brand identity, a company can maximize its competitive advantages and limit competition. The high concentration of capital needed to communicate through a Centralized Media outlet is itself a useful way to limit competition. No surprise that only large, publicly traded corporations and rich individuals own and control Centralized Media — and that their messages tend to be overtly commercial or commercial-friendly.

While this paradigm is obviously quite attractive for those investors with a piece of the action, it also entails some very large costs that are not readily evident. Companies have to spend a lot on advertising to build a brand identity that can enhance sales. Their “blockbuster” business model entails large upfront costs in order to reap large financial returns. Centralized Media require expensive systems for finding, recruiting, and developing stars; an elaborate marketing apparatus to find and retain customers; and legal and technological means to identify and prosecute “piracy” of creative works.

In a more static environment, this model worked fairly well. But as the Internet revolution proceeded in the 2000s, distributed media started to undercut the economic logic of Centralized Media. Your personal computer, connected to other computers via inexpensive telecommunications and software, can do things more cheaply. Distributed online media not only avoid the costly overhead needed by Centralized Media, they can generate dynamic, interactive, and sociable types of communication: user-generated content! While this amateur content is wildly variable in quality, it does have this virtue: it is more culturally diverse and authentic than the homogenous, overproduced programming of Centralized Media. And because distributed media are not economically driven to amass large, undifferentiated audiences, the content can be more idiosyncratic, passionate, and, in its own ways, creative. There is no “fifty-seven channels and nothing on” problem. The problem is how to locate what you want from among millions of choices.

For all these reasons — but mostly because of the economics— conventional media are becoming more vulnerable to the most advanced Internet-based competitors (Amazon, eBay, Google, Yahoo) as well as to new types of nonmarket social production (e.g., Craigslist, Wikipedia, special-interest affinity groups). We may even be approaching a point at which the historic cost structures and risk management strategies of major media companies are no longer sustainable. Some analysts fret about the long-term viability of American newspapers, whose stock value fell by 42 percent, or $23 billion, between 2005 and 2008. Broadcast and cable television have similar fears. They worry, correctly, that Internet venues are siphoning away “eyeballs” by providing more timely and convenient alternatives. While the amateur videos of YouTube may not have the production quality of NBC, broadcast and cable television cannot ignore an upstart platform that in 2006 was attracting more than 100 million video downloads per day and had a market valuation of $1.65 billion when bought by Google that year. No wonder Cable News Network co-hosted a presidential debate with YouTube in 2007; it needed to reassert its cultural relevance.

Large media companies are struggling to support some huge financial, administrative, and marketing burdens simply to “tread water” and retain some measure of their customary market dominance. This helps explain why Centralized Media are so keenly focused on influencing Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. They want to lock in competitive advantages through regulation. (Consider the fierce battles over media ownership rules, spectrum allocation policies, anticopying technology mandates such as the “broadcast flag,” new copyright and trademark protections, must-carry rules for cable operators, and on and on.) Centralized Media’s great interest in securing legal and regulatory privileges for themselves suggests their relative weakness and decline. For them, it is easier to chase market advantages through political interventions than through innovation, superior performance, and price.

The Economic Advantages of Open Media

By contrast, a profusion of new ventures are finding that a company can thrive on the open networks of the Internet. Even a startup without brand recognition or regulatory preferences can compete on the merits — price, quality, responsiveness — against entrenched giants. They can leverage user-generated content and the vast reservoir of value previously known as the public domain. The success of thousands of new Internet businesses reflects an epochal shift in the terms of competition — a Great Shift in how value is created.

The most significant shifts in the history of capitalism have come when new mechanisms lower the costs of managing risk and serving latent market demand. We are apparently in such a stage of economic transformation today. The genius of the Renaissance banks and the Dutch insurance and shipping companies, for example, was to reinvent the structure of markets through new financial and legal instruments that enabled commercial trust and transparency to work on a larger scale. The limited liability corporation was also a powerful innovation for diversifying risk, coordinating people, and deploying capital on a scale that was previously impossible. 186

In like fashion, the Internet is now facilitating some deep shifts in the cost structures and scale of markets. Innovative online business models are significantly undercutting the (expensive) cost structures of traditional Centralized Media, and in the process sometimes creating entirely new sorts of markets (search engine advertising, discounted travel, specialty niches) and more open, competitive markets.

One of the most intriguing developments is a set of “open business models” that shun closed, proprietary technical standards and content restrictions. Unlike the classic industrial business models of the twentieth century, the new open business models make money by aggressively insinuating themselves into open networks. They are able to identify new trends, mobilize talent, interact with customers, and develop customized products more rapidly than competitors. They are also building ingenious new business models “on top of ” social behaviors of online users. (See chapter 10.)

MySpace, for example, hosts a social network of more than 100 million “friends” (a claim that, even if inflated by inactive user accounts, is indisputably huge). eBay consolidated the world’s garage sales and flea markets into a more efficient market by developing Web-based software that “manages” social trust and reputation and evolves with user interests. Amazon has become a premier online retail Web site by hosting a platform open to all sorts of online vendors and spurred by the recommendations and collective purchase records of buyers. Google devised its famous PageRank search algorithms to aggregate the Web-surfing “wisdom of the crowd,” making online searches vastly more useful.

The basic point is that open media platforms are significantly reducing business coordination and communication costs by leveraging people’s natural social behaviors in ways that conventional businesses simply cannot. Open Web platforms allow large and diverse groups to organize themselves and their projects more easily. Individuals have greater self-defined choice and the capacity to express their own market demand; they need not be constrained by the choices presented to them in the market. The Internet has opened up gushing channels of virtual word of mouth, which is a more trusted form of consumer information than advertising. Those companies with excellent products use favorable word of mouth to reduce their marketing and distribution costs. “Smart mobs” can elevate obscure bloggers and Web sites because they regard them as more trustworthy, expert, and authentic (or entertaining) than those of Centralized Media. Many conservatives now trust the Drudge Report and Free Republic more than CBS News, just as many liberals trust DailyKos and Huffington Post more than CBS News. Indeed, the very genre of “objective journalism” — an artifact of the economic necessity of appealing to broad, lowest-commondenominator audiences — is now in jeopardy.

As people migrate to the Web, advertising revenues for Centralized Media are eroding further, setting off a scramble to devise new advertising vehicles to reach fugitive Internet users. It is a chase that cannot be avoided because that’s where the eyeballs are. Moreover, the value proposition of open networks is too attractive to ignore. But because that value proposition is so radically different from conventional media — a company must revamp its organizational structures, strategies, marketing, etc. —it raises some wrenching choices for Centralized Media: Should they “go native” and let their products loose on open networks? Or would that destroy their entrenched business models for television shows, theatrical films, music CDs, and other content? The vast infrastructure and business practices of Centralized Media cannot be summarily abandoned, but neither can they remain economically tenable over the long haul without significant changes. For now, Centralized Media are attempting an ungainly straddle of both worlds.

Web 2.0: A New Breed of Participatory Media

At the time, Eric Eldred’s Web repository of public-domain books could be seen as a modest little experiment. In retrospect, it can be seen as a dawning cultural archetype. It betokened the power of the amateur. 187 While Centralized Media continue to have greater resources, talent, and political clout, amateurs are finding their voices and new online venues. A significant cultural emancipation is under way. Creative expression need no longer cater to corporate gatekeepers and the imperatives of the mass market. A no-name amateur can produce useful and influential work without having to go through New York, Los Angeles, London, or Tokyo. The do-ityourself culture is flourishing and expanding. With little money or marketing, anyone can launch a viral spiral that, with enough luck and panache, can sweep across global culture.

It is only now dawning on some media chieftains that the biggest threat to Centralized Media is not piracy or online competitors, but nonmarket alternatives: you, me, and the online friends that we can attract. Hollywood and record labels might rail against “pirates” and demand stronger copyright protection, but the real longterm threat to their business models is the migration of consumer attention to amateur creativity and social communication. Social production on open networks has become a powerful creative and economic force in its own right. Ordinary people can now find their own voices and develop folk cultures of their own that may or may not use the market.

After the tech bubble of 2000–2001 burst, the surviving techies and entrepreneurs developed a remarkable range of cheap, versatile software that took to heart the lessons of free software and open networks. Blogs, wikis, social networking software, peer-to-peer file-sharing and metadata tools began to migrate from the tech fringe to the mainstream. There have been many conceptual frames and buzzwords associated with this new order — “smart mobs” (Howard Rheingold), “the wisdom of crowds” (James Surowiecki), “wikinomics” (Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams) — but the catchphrase that has gained the most currency is “Web 2.0,” a term launched by Tim O’Reilly in a canonical 2003 essay. 188

O’Reilly, a prominent publisher of books on open-source software, coined Web 2.0 to describe the fluid social dynamics that occur on open Web platforms — wikis, blogs, social networking Web sites, and other open, collaborative platforms — where people have the freedom to share and reuse work. Web 2.0 amounts to a worldview that celebrates open participation as a way to create valuable collective resources. It regards open technical protocols and content as the basis for this process (whether managed as a commons or a business), and dismisses closed, proprietary regimes as both socially and economically questionable. In essence, Web 2.0 honors socially created value as the basis for value creation, which market players may or may not be able to exploit.

Blogging is more of a social medium than is generally supposed, for example. It is not just the outburst of some ranter in his pajamas, as the stereotype has it, but a social medium that connects people in new ways. Most blogs have a blogroll — a list of admired blogs— which enables the readers of one blog to identify other bloggers engaged in similar conversations. Permalinks — stable Web addresses for blog content — enable people to make reliable Web citations of content, which means that people can coalesce around a shared body of work. And RSS feeds— “Really Simple Syndication” — allow people to “subscribe” to individual blogs and Web sites, enabling them to keep abreast of a sprawling set of communities.

The rise of blog-tracking companies like Technorati and Alexa has also helped blogging become a durable social genre. These companies inventory and rank blogs, and help people discover blogs for virtually any subject of interest — cocktail mixing, high-energy physics, needlework design. By 2007, there were an estimated 100 million blogs in existence (although many were inactive or abandoned), making the blogosphere a powerful cultural force in its own right. There was also a flood of online “news aggregators” — Web sites that cherry-pick their own mix of pieces from the wire services, newspapers, Web sites, blogs, and other online sources. With huge audiences, news aggregators like the Drudge Report (1.6 million unique monthly visitors) and the Huffington Post (773,000 visitors) have begun to rival major daily newspapers in reach and influence.

Another seminal social innovation has been Wikipedia, a strange and wondrous cultural eruption. Founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in January 2001, the English-language Wikipedia began to gain serious momentum in the months after the CC licenses were released, and by early 2003 hosted 100,000 articles. (A “wiki” is a special type of Web site that allows anyone who accesses it to add or modify its contents.) After two years, Wikipedia had amassed a collection of 400,000 articles and inspired the launch of affiliated Wikipedias in more than 100 languages. In May 2008,

Wikipedia featured 10.2 million articles in 255 languages; 2.3 million of the articles were in English. By harnessing the energies of tens of thousands of volunteers to write an infinitely expandable “encyclopedia,” Wikipedia has become the leading symbol for a radically new way of compiling and editing knowledge. 189 Remarkably, the Wikimedia Foundation, the umbrella organization that funds Wikipedia and many sister projects, had fewer than twenty paid employees in 2008 and a budget of less than $2 million.

Wikipedia has also spun off affiliated multilingual, free-content wikis on various subjects. Wikispecies is compiling an inventory of the world’s species, Wikiquote is collecting thousands of memorable quotations, the Wikimedia Commons is providing freely usable media files, and Wikibooks is assembling open-content textbooks. Wiki software has been adopted by dozens of different online communities, giving rise to scores of collaborative Web sites such as Conservapedia (for American political conservatives), Intellipedia (for U.S. intelligence agencies), Wookieepedia (for Star Wars fans), Wikitravel (for travelers), and OpenWetWare (for biological researchers).

In the months following the launch of the CC licenses, peer-topeer (P2P) file sharing was also expanding rapidly. Long associated with illicit sharing of copyrighted music, P2P software in fact has many entirely legitimate uses in science, education, and diverse creative sectors. One of the key attractions of P2P software is its efficiency. It does not need to route information through centralized servers; information can be rapidly shared by routing digital files directly to participants, computer to computer, or by passing it through key nodes in an on-the-fly manner. Even after the courts shut down Napster in 2002, a variety of other P2P software applications — Grokster, Lime Wire, KaZaA, Gnutella, BitTorrent — continued to facilitate online sharing and collaboration. Some thirty-five companies, including Hollywood studios, are sufficiently impressed with the efficiencies of P2P that they have licensed BitTorrent technology to distribute their video content.

Peer-to-peer file sharing has also unleashed radically new types of knowledge creation: volunteers who join the NASA Clickworkers project to count and classify craters on Mars, “citizen scientists” who help compile an interactive database of butterfly and bird sightings, or geneticists from around the world who submit data to the Human Genome Project and share access to the database.

Although the tech world and some Internet users had known about various networking tools for years, the general public was largely in the dark until the presidential campaign of Vermont governor Howard Dean in 2002 and 2003. At the time, Dean was considered a long-shot antiwar candidate with little base and little money. Within a few short months, however, thanks to Dean’s outspoken style and his campaign’s skillful use of the Internet, he became the front-runner in a field of twelve candidates. Dean did not use the Internet as a simple publishing tool, but as a way to stimulate decentralized collaboration and thereby organize a diverse community of supporters. The campaign was not just about Dean, but about the participation of 640,000 volunteers who virtually organized themselves through various online tools. The campaign became a dynamic conversation between the candidate and voters — and generated a gusher of more than $50 million, most of it donations of a hundred dollars or less. So much was raised that Dean famously asked his supporters whether he should forgo federal matching funds, and instead raise more money from them. They agreed. The campaign ultimately imploded, of course, after his famous “Dean’s Scream” speech — itself a complex story — but what is notable is how the Dean campaign vividly demonstrated the speed and power of viral networks.

By 2003 many ordinary people knew about the Napster controversy, the record industry’s scorched-earth litigation tactics against consumers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Eldred case. So people welcomed blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 applications as tools to emancipate themselves culturally. In the mass media era, people had few tools or sufficient money to speak to the general public or organize their own communities of interest. But now, using a lightweight infrastructure of software code and telecommunications, people could build stable online communities that reflected their own values and social practices. No permission or payment necessary. No expensive capital investments.

In many instances, amazingly, virtual communities are performing tasks that existing markets are not performing as efficiently or with as much social trust and goodwill. Craigslist, the free want-ad service that has significantly undercut classified advertising in newspapers, is one of the more stellar examples. In South Korea, OhmyNews.org uses thirty-six thousand citizen-journalists to write up to two hundred online stories a day. The publication is considered the sixth-most influential media outlet in Korea, based on a national magazine poll. Countless specialty blogs are considered more expert and timely sources of information and analysis than mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Taken together, the new participatory media platforms constitute something new under the sun — a globally accessible space that is both personal and public, individual and social. The riot of unfiltered expression that has materialized on the Internet is often dismissed as stupid, unreliable, and silly; or praised as brilliant, stylish, and specialized; or simply accepted as idiosyncratic, irregular, and local. It is all of these things, of course, and that is precisely the point.

If print culture honors the ethic of “edit, then publish,” the Internet inverts it: anything can be made public . . . and then it is up to users to become their own editors. On the Internet, people do not “consume” content, they become active writers, editors, and critics in their own right. They use search engines, news aggregators, and favorite bloggers to identify what they want — or they create their own content, as desired. They are participants, not merely informed consumers who choose what some professional editor offers to them.

The Web 2.0 environment was quite hospitable for the spread of the CC licenses. It enabled people to signal their willingness to share and their enthusiasm for cool niche fare as opposed to massaudience kitsch.Members of online communities could confidently share their work on wikis and collaborative Web sites, knowing that no one could appropriate their content and take it private. Socially, the licenses let people announce their social identity to others and build a countercultural ethos of sharing. The ethos became hipper and more attractive with every new antipiracy measure that Centralized Media instigated.

Open Networks and the Long Tail

While technology and economics have been driving forces in shaping the new participatory platforms, much of their appeal has been frankly cultural. Amateur content on the Net may be raw and irregular, but it also tends to be more interesting and authentic than the highly produced, homogenized fare of commercial media. Some of it vastly outshines the lowest common denominator of mass media. Again, the cheap connectivity of the Internet has been key. It has made it possible for people with incredibly specialized interests to find one another and organize themselves into niche communities. For closeted homosexuals in repressive countries or isolated fans of the actor Wallace Beery, the Internet has enabled them to find one another and mutually feed their narrow interests. You name it, there are sites for it: the fans of obscure musicians, the collectors of beer cans, Iranian exiles, kite flyers. Freed of the economic imperative of attracting huge audiences with broad fare, niche-driven Internet content is able to connect with people’s personal passions and interests: a powerful foundation not just for social communities, but for durable markets.

This, truly, is one of the more profound effects of networking technologies: the subversion of the “blockbuster” economics of the mass media. It is becoming harder and more expensive for film studios and broadcast networks to amass the huge, cross-demographic audiences that they once could. In the networked environment, it turns out that a diversified set of niche markets can be eminently profitable with lower-volume sales. While Centralized Media require a supply-side “push” of content, the Internet enables a demand-side “pull” of content by users. This radically reduces transaction costs and enhances the economic appeal of niche production. It is easier and cheaper for a company (or single creator) to “pull” niche audiences through word of mouth than it is to pay for expensive “push” advertising campaigns. Specialty interests and products that once were dismissed as too marginal or idiosyncratic to be profitable can now flourish in small but robust “pull markets.” 190

The term associated with this phenomenon is the “Long Tail” — the title of a much-cited article by Chris Anderson in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine, later expanded into a book. Anderson explained the “grand transition” now under way:

For too long we’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowestcommon-denominator fare, subjected to brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop. Why? Economics. Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching — a market response to inefficient distribution. . . . Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. . . . 191

The “Long Tail” refers to the huge potential markets that can be created for low-volume niche books, CD, DVDs, and other products. More than half of Amazon’s book sales, for example, come from books that rank below its top 130,000 titles. The implication is that “the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are,” writes Anderson. “In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.”

Unconstrained by the size and tastes of a local customer base or by limited shelf space, online retailers such as Amazon, Netflix (DVDs), Rhapsody (music), and iTunes (music) are showing that the Long Tail can be a very attractive business model. These companies have developed new tools, such as collaborative filtering software and user recommendations, to drive demand for lesser-known titles at the far end of the Long Tail. This is just another instance of using new technologies that leverage people’s natural social dynamics, and in so doing inventing new types of markets.

Another Vehicle for Niche Communities: The Commons

If the Long Tail is a market vehicle for amassing niche communities, the commons is the social analogue. A commons does not revolve around money and market exchange, but around collective participation and shared values. It does not use property rights and contracts in order to generate value; it uses gift exchange and moral commitments to build a community of trust and common purpose. Such communities, it turns out, can generate significant “wealth” — as Richard Stallman demonstrated with free software.

Generically speaking, a commons is a governance regime for managing collective resources sustainably and equitably. The commons is generally associated with open fields, forests, and other natural resources that were collectively used by villagers for their subsistence needs. During the “enclosure movement” in medieval times and extending through the eighteenth century, British gentry and entrepreneurs began to privatize the commons and convert its resources into marketable commodities. Enclosures essentially dispossessed the commoners and installed a new market regime to manage resources that were previously shared. The commoners, unable to feed themselves or participate in markets, migrated to the industrial cities of England to become the wage slaves and beggars who populate Charles Dickens’s novels.

Although markets tend to be more efficient than commons, they also tend to focus on that which can be sold and converted into cash. Markets presume that deserts and the public domain have no value because they have no marketable output. Markets also presume that a commons cannot be sustained because inevitably someone will overuse a shared resource — a practice known as “free riding” —and ruin it. This is the famous “tragedy of the commons” notion popularized by biologist Garret Hardin in a 1968 essay, which described how a few farmers will let their sheep overgraze a common pasture and so destroy it.

The “tragedy of the commons” metaphor has ossified into a truism of neoclassical economics. It takes for granted that shared resources cannot be managed sustainably, and that private property regimes are much better stewards of resources. This prejudice was powerfully rebutted by political scientist Elinor Ostrom in her noted 1990 book Governing the Commons, which marshaled many empirical examples of natural resource commons that have been managed responsibly for decades or even hundreds of years. Ostrom’s scholarship has since given rise to a great deal of academic study of commons, particularly through the International Association for the Study of the Commons and the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. It also inspired thinking about the commons by law scholars like Yochai Benkler, Lawrence Lessig, and James Boyle, who saw close parallels with the commons as they watched corporations use copyright law to enclose culture and information.

Cultural commons differ significantly from natural resource commons in this key respect: they are not finite, depletable resources like pastures or forests. Online commons tend to grow in value as more people participate, provided there is sufficient governance and common technical standards to enable sharing. Online commons, in short, are less susceptible to the dreaded “tragedy of the commons” and, indeed, tend to be highly generative of value. Their output does not get “used up” the way natural resources do.

The burden of Lessig’s 2001 book The Future of Ideas was to argue that the Internet constitutes a great, underappreciated commons. It can serve as the infrastructure for tremendous wealth and innovation if its “layers” — the hardware, software, and content— remain sufficiently open and usable by all. The problem, he warned with great prescience, is that policymakers are generally blind to the value of the commons and markets are too eager to reap short-term individual gains. They fail to appreciate that too much private control at any “layer” of the Internet — through proprietary hardware or software, or excessive copyright or patent protection — can stifle personal freedom, market competition, and innovation. Lessig wanted to name the book Dot.commons, but his publisher rejected it as too obscure.

One of the key advantages of treating key infrastructure (such as Internet transmission protocols and computer operating systems) as a commons is that people have the freedom to modify and improve them, with resulting benefits for all. Innovation and competition can flourish more readily. At the content layer, much of the appeal of the commons is the creative freedom, above and beyond what the market may enable. Precisely because it is a commons, and not a market, people’s freedoms are not constrained by marketability. A commons is a noncommercial, nongovernmental space that is free from corporate manipulations and government meddling. It offers a qualitatively different type of experience than the marketplace or government power. A commons tends to be more informal, a place where people know you by name, and where your contributions are known and welcomed. A commons based on relationships of trust and reciprocity can undertake actions that a business organization requiring extreme control and predictable performance cannot.

Precisely because a commons is open and not organized to maximize profit, its members are often willing to experiment and innovate; new ideas can emerge from the periphery. Value is created through a process that honors individual self-selection for tasks, passionate engagement, serendipitous discovery, experimental creativity, and peer-based recognition of achievement. The Open Prosthetics Project, for example, invites anyone to contribute to the design of a prosthetic limb and/or the specification of limbs that ought to be designed, even if they don’t know how to do it. 192 This has generated such unexpected innovations as limbs specifically adapted for rock climbers and an arm designed for fishing. Athletes who engage in “extreme sports” — skiing, biking, surfing — have been a rich source of ideas for new products, just as software hackers are among the first to come up with innovative programming ideas.

Part of the value proposition of the commons at the content layer is that it can host a more diverse range of expression — personal, social, and creative — than the market, in part because it does not have the burden of having to sustain costly overhead and sell a product. It has other goals — the personal interests and whims of the commoners — and it can often meet those needs inexpensively. Yet the commons does in fact generate many marketable innovations, thanks to its open accessibility, the social relationships it enables and the free sharing and circulation of work.

Seeing the success of online commons, Centralized Media have tried to fight back by embracing elements of user participation. They invite audiences to vote in polls (American Idol), publish lists of “most e-mailed” articles (major newspapers), and direct radio listeners to their Web sites for more information (National Public Radio). Time magazine’s choice for the “Person of the Year” in 2006 — “You,” the primary driver of Web sites like MySpace and YouTube — was a landmark moment in media history: with a pinched smile and backhanded assertion of its cultural authority, Centralized Media formally acknowledged its most powerful competitor, Decentralized Media!

Yet for all the celebration of “you” as the master of your own fate in cyberspace, the question that is skirted is whether “you” can indeed retain control of your stuff in a Centralized Media environment. The point of conventional business models, after all, is to engineer a proprietary lock-in of customers through technological dependence, binding contract terms, frequent-buyer credits, brand loyalty, etc. That’s how companies have traditionally secured a more durable customer base and preempted competition.

But the commons is about securing user freedoms, and not necessarily about prevailing in a market. Web 2.0 may or may not protect both concerns. Like the commons, Web 2.0 relies upon user-generated content, network effects, and bottom-up innovation. But Web 2.0 entrepreneurs, at the end of the day, need to make money. Their sites need to adopt business practices that protect revenue streams. Facebook is catering to advertisers, not users, when they sift through masses of users’ personal data in order to sell targeted advertising. MySpace at one point refused to let its users connect to rival Web sites and outside software “widgets.” 193 In this sense, Web 2.0 media may be “open,” but they are not necessarily “free,” as in freedom. Web 2.0 entrepreneurs are more likely to focus on protecting their market advantages than advancing user freedoms. The two issues may overlap substantially, but they are not identical.

Science-fiction writer William Gibson once wrote, “The future is already here; it’s just not well-distributed yet.” That sums up the Great Value Shift circa 2003. The efficiencies and affordances made possible by the Internet were there. They were enabling all sorts of pioneers to build new business models, new creative genres, and new online communities — but these innovations were unevenly distributed. More to the point, their potential was unevenly perceived, especially in many precincts of Washington officialdom and the corporate world. The challenge for amateurs venturing onto open platforms was to validate the new sorts of socially created value enabled by the Internet.

 173. Interview with Glenn Otis Brown, August 10, 2006.

 174. Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons press release, December 19, 2002; “CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on How It All Began” [weekly e-mail series], October 12, 2005.

 175. Interview with Ryan Junell, September 23, 2006.

 176. Matthew Haughey, “Blogging in the Public Domain,” Creative Commons blog post, February 5, 2003, at http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/3601.

 177. Susan Butler, “Movement to Share Creative Works Raises Concerns in Music Circles,” Billboard, May 28, 2005.

 178. John C. Dvorak, “Creative Commons Humbug: This Scheme Doesn’t Seem to Benefit the Public,” PC Magazine, July 28, 2005.

 179. Researchers at the Economic Observatory of the University of Openness, “Commercial Commons,” on the online journal Metamute, at http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/Commercial-Commons.

 180. Nielsen/Net Ratings estimated 585 million Internet users in 2002; the International Telecommunications Union estimated 665 million. See http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/proiects/how-much-info-2003/internet.htm.

 181. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 60.

 182. Benkler at the iCommons Summit, Dubrovnik, Croatia, June 15, 2007.

 183. An excellent overview of these new spaces is Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (New York: Portfolio, 2006).

 184. Robert D. Hof, “The Power of Us: Mass Collaboration on the Internet Is Shaking Up Business,” BusinessWeek, June 20, 2005, pp. 73–82.

 185. “The Fortune of the Commons,” Economist, May 8, 2003; Henry Chesbrough, Open Business Models: How to Thrive in the New Innovation Landscape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006).

 186. I am indebted to my friend John Clippinger for this insight, as explained in his book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (New York: Public Affairs, 2007), chapter 7, “Transforming Trust: Social Commerce in Renaissance Florence,” pp. 97–114.

 187. Dan Hunter and F. Gregory Lastowka, “Amateur-to-Amateur,” William and Mary Law Review 46, no. 951 (December 2004).

 188. Tim O’Reilly, “What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” O’Reilly Media Web site, September 30, 2005, at http://www.oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-isweb-20.html.

 189. Wikipedia statistics from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About.

 190. David Bollier, “When Push Comes to Pull: The New Economy and Culture of Networking Technology” (Washington, DC: Aspen Institute, 2006), at http://www.aspeninstitute.org/atf/cf/%7BDEB6F227-659B-4EC8-8F84-8DF23CA704F5%7D/2005InfoTechText.pdf.

 191. Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, October 2004, at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html.

 192. http://www.openprosthetics.org.

 193. Rachel Rosmarin, “Why MySpace Blinked,” Forbes, April 24, 2007.

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