I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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I Read a Book! Chris Anderson’s “Free”

So I was at a reception the other day, talking to someone about the internet and the free/gift economy and how it’s the inevitable future of a lot of industries, including journalism. The discussion invariably turned to Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price and I talked up the book and Anderson’s theories.

“So you liked the book, then?” asked my colleague.
“No, not really.” I said, after a pause.
Considering my enthusiasm over Anderson’s last book, The Long Tail, and my own defense of the free/gift economy model on this very blog, my cool reception to “Free” surprised the hell out of me, too.

With all the hype and debate surrounding Chris Anderson’s book, months before it was even released, it’s no wonder that the backlash started less than a week after it officially hit bookstores. Earlier this year, the influential Wired editor and author of The Long Tail brought his thesis of giving products away as marketing strategy to South by Southwest and was greeted with as much skepticism as enthusiasm from attendees (myself included). So Malcolm Gladwell’s review of the book in the New Yorker summed up a lot of the overall criticism of the book, even before it was released:
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Our MIT6 Conference Presentation: The Intellectual Property of Remix Culture

After a truly great time presenting about fan culture two years ago at MIT5: Creativity, Ownership, and Collaboration in the Digital Age, we presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media in Transition Conference — this year entitled MIT6: Stone and papyrus, storage and transition (MiT 6). While our conference summary is forthcoming, here is our presentation (originally entitled: The Intellectual Property of User-generated Content), though the full paper will be on the conference website:

Generators of remix culture create communities and content, making the intellectual property of others more valuable, but receive no compensation for their work that increases the value of another’s property, and receive little to no rights in what they have created or added. Our presentation focuses on a particular sub-set of user-generated content: derivative/ transformative works of creativity – such as music videos (or vidding), fan-fiction, fan-zines and websites – though it could be applied to any situation where there is tension between a corporate content owner and its audience about ownership of the “brand” usually due to concerns of degrading market value or anti-piracy.


So what do we mean when we talk about intellectual property? To greatly simplify, we are focusing on copyright and trademark. In the U.S, copyright attaches to works immediately, once a creative, intellectual, scientific, or artistic works is fixed in a tangible form — and exists for life of the creator plus 70 years. The right to create derivative works is given to the creators — but there is fair use that allows others to use copyrighted works. Trademarks are the “branding” imagery plus auxiliary content (Apple brand computers, Apple brand music providing network (iTunes), Apple brand symbol, etc.) — and require registration, can be kept forever, yet need to be protected to be kept. An additional complicating factor are licenses — either for use of specific intellectual property or for use of a platform, such as YouTube.

Henry Jenkins writes in Convergence Culture that

“American intellectual property law has been rewritten to reflect the demands of mass media producers–away from providing economic incentives for individual artists and toward protecting the enormous economic investments made in branded entertainment”


Those who are part of participatory culture are often not seeking compensation in traditional ways, yet are not just doing it for the LOLs. Viviana Zelizer discusses the social meaning of money in her same titled book:

“Money [according to some theorists] destroys, necessarily replacing personal bonds with calculative instrumental ties, corrupting cultural meanings with materialistic concerns…. Observers of commercialization in Western countries have thought they saw devastating consequences of money’s irresistible spread: the inexorable homogenation and flattening of social ties.

Money may not be what fans are seeking — instead recognition, credit, etc — but what are likely at the bare minimum to be seeking the ability to continue to participate. And continue to strengthening social ties in multiple ways — to each other, to the work, and to creators/owners.

LESSIG! (done in Khan style)

Laurence Lessig’s recent book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy discusses our present situation, includes a lengthy discussion of the economics of two types of culture — commercial and sharing.

A commercial economy [is centered on] money or “price” [as] a central term of the ordinary, or normal exchange.

Of all the possible terms for exchange within a sharing economy, the single term that isn’t appropriate is money.

But Lessig discusses a combination between the commercial economy and the sharing economy — the hybrid economy:

The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims.

If those within the sharing economy begin to think of themselves as tools of a commercial economy, they will be less willing to play. If those within a commercial economy begin to think of it as a sharing economy, that may reduce their focus on economic reward.

Much of Lessig’s discussion about hybrid economies is applicable to fan culture and other examples of participatory culture and user-generated content. Therefore, our presentation is about both the successes and failures of hybrid economies and about how in order to get something of value, some measure of control over property needs to be loosened. Commodifying the value added by user-generated content varies greatly depending on who or what is determining the value. culture.

Tiziana Terranova also discusses the role of moral economy that discusses “free labor” found in fan participation:

“Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited….The fruit of collective cultural labor has been not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices.

Firefly/Serenity (we have this section blogged here)

Harry Potter (we have a longer version of this section here)

Recently, J.K. Rowling won a case preventing the print publication of the Lexicon, a non-licensed encyclopedia of the Harry Potter universe. While barely mentioned during the trial, this case is not just about one book, but concerns the entire Harry Potter fan community.

The Lexicon was created as a online encyclopedia with a large number of fans helping to make the entries accurate. When Vander Ark signed his book deal, completely ignored were the countless fans that contributed and made the website a success. So the lawsuit was fight between the author and the compiler/host of a fan-created work. Yet the fans who have contributed to the Lexicon get neither money nor recognition of their contribution.

The longest mention of fans during the trial was by the publisher:

Q… if you win this case, out of the money that you receive, you don’t plan to give any of it to fans who submitted their work, their time, to submitting information from Ms. Rowling’s book to Mr. Vander Ark’s website, is that right?

Q. You’re going to give back money to the fans, is that what you’re saying?
A. If the book is successful, there’s a lot of possibilities.

Later, the judge said that the issue of fan payment/contribution was irrelevant:

Whether or not the fans contributed … is a side issue.

J.K. Rowling has always been supportive of the fan community surrounding her works, interceding on behalf of fanworks (she is however against fanworks that use underage characters in illegal physical situations). This case has led to a rift in the Harry Potter fan community, with the Leaky Cauldron (the most popular Harry Potter news-site/message-board) cutting all ties to the Lexicon.

A recent New York Times article, Public Provides Giggles; Bloggers Get the Book Deal, discusses how user input to websites, such as I Can Has Cheezburger? (book sold over 100,000 copies), has led to website owners receiving compensation while those that created value receive nothing:

the latest frenzy is over books that take the lazy, Tom Sawyer approach to authorship. The creators come up with a goofy or witty idea, put it up on a simple platform like Twitter and Tumblr, and wait for contributors to provide all of the content. The authors put their energy into publicizing the sites and compiling the best material.

Nowhere mentioned in the article is whether contributors receive recognition or compensation.

Star Wars

Star Wars is often talked about as a positive example — after all, there is a highly active fan community and a fanfilm contest. However, at present, Lucasfilm only allows for and takes control over certain types of fanworks — and zealously goes after those that do not fit their standards, even if those works arguably could be considered to be fair use.

Both Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006) and Anne Elizabeth Moore in Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (2007) quote the same Lucasfilm exec, who said in the New York Times in 2002:

“We’ve been very clear all along where we draw the line. We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.”

Moore describes the control Lucasfilm expects over the fandom as

It is an idealized brand environment that prohibits any potential negative, critical, or neutral comment.
…The Lucasfilm IP strategy, therefore, might read something like this: imitation is the sincerest, and only allowable, form of flatterry. Yet in practice, this narrow definition of fandom, while encouraging freedoms of certain speech, actively discourages others …[and] even punishes them. The strategy begins to look like a legally enforced suspension of critical engagement.”

Lessig says

A careful reading of Lucasfilm’s terms of use show that in exchange for the right to remix Lucasfilm’s creativity, the remixer has to give up all rights to what he produces. In particular, the remixer grants to Lucasfilm the “exclusive right” to the remix — including any commercial rights — for free. To any content the remixer uploads to the site, he grants to Lucasfilm a perpetual non-exclusive right, again including commercial rights and again for free.

The remixer is allowed to work, but the product of his work is not his. Put in terms appropriately (for Hollywood) over the top: The remixer becomes the sharecropper of the digital age.

Lucas is of course free, subject to “fair use,” to do whatever he wants with his creative work. The law of copyright grants him an exclusive right to “derivatives”; a remix is plainly a derivative. And it’s true that no one is forcing anyone to make a remix for free.

Nine Inch Nails (we have a shorter version of this section here)

Conversely, the band Nine Inch Nails and the musician behind it, Trent Reznor, has in recent years spearheaded novel approaches to user generated content that allows a symbiotic/collaborative relationship with fans and their work. It closely represents both the fundamental mindset of Open Source developer communities (distributed ownership) as well as adopting a model very similar to to the curious copyright culture in Japan, anmoku no ryokai, that allows derivative manga to be sold alongside their corporate-owned source. This approach won’t work for every corporate owner/creator, and it’s certainly not the only one, but it’s at least one current example of a hybrid.

NIN’s fanbase have had a traditional unusually interactive relationship with each other and with the band, serving as self-selected ambassadors and archivists for both official releases of the band and NIN fanworks:

NIN Historian: started in 2002, a fan run website that has documented memorabilia from live NIN shows from the bands inception.

NIN Remixes.com: an archive of fan-created remixes of Nine Inch Nails songs, which allows indivuals to upload their own work, and existed before Trent Reznor allowed his post – Interscope work to be distributed under a Creative Commons license. Remix.nin.com , started two years ago and exists alongside ninremixes.com, the fan run site that has existed for over 5 years. Universal Music group halted the launch of the “official” site

Year Zero ARG: As part of the Alternate Reality Game that accompanied YZ, three of the tracks were made available on flash drives ata couple of NIN shows. When the tracks were leaked on the internet, RIAA cracked down on the fans leaked tracks and remixes, even though the ARG campaign was officially condoned by Universal Music Group.

From Billboard:

“An RIAA representative confirms this, a move that boggles the minds of many. “These f*cking idiots are going after a campaign that the label signed off on,” the source says.”

Since the Creative Commons blog has already put together links:

First, there’s the critical acclaim and two Grammy nominations, which testify to the work’s strength as a musical piece. But what has got us really excited is how well the album has done with music fans. Aside from generating over $1.6 million in revenue for NIN in its first week and hitting #1 on Billboard’s Electronic charts, Last.fm has the album ranked as the 4th-most-listened to album of the year, with over 5,222,525 scrobbles.

Even more exciting, however, is that Ghosts I-IV is ranked the best selling MP3 album of 2008 on Amazon’s MP3 store.

The post (mirrored on Laurence Lessig) has an explanation for this:

So why would fans bother buying files that were identical to the ones on the file sharing networks? One explanation is the convenience and ease of use of NIN and Amazon’s MP3 stores. But another is that fans understood that purchasing MP3s would directly support the music and career of a musician they liked. The next time someone tries to convince you that releasing music under CC will cannibalize digital sales, remember that Ghosts I-IV broke that rule…

In The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law Posner and Landes state that

“When several artists contribute to creating an integrated expressive work, it is efficient to vest copyright in one person [or company] and who better than the initiator and coordinator of the project?”

Posner and Landes continue

… [I]f a work is offered as a substitute for another work, then it takes away sales from the copied work. If the work is offered as criticism, it may take away sales too, but not by virtue of the copying– by virtue of the criticism, which should be permitted.”

The Ghosts example is certainly an argument against that statement. Recently, NIN went a step further in extending creative control to fans by “discovering” 400GB of high definition concert video footage online and inviting fans to create their own video projects.

There’s a bit of history behind this: after learning that a home video release of the most recent tour NIN was not in the cards (long story behind that, but at least according to Reznor, it was due in part to his former record label roadblocking him), some disappointed fans took it upon themselves to organize an online community to create a fan-produced video of the last show of the tour. From fan website http://thisoneisonus.org:

On 5th May, 2008, Nine Inch Nails released their latest album, The Slip, free online, as a gift to their fans. Or as Trent put it: “This one’s on me”.

On December 13th, 2008, dozens of Nine Inch Nails fans recorded the last show in the Lights In The Sky tour at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas:

By working together, we aim to create a DVD to document this show that will be released free online, and possibly as a not-for-profit physical release. This one, is on us. Our time. Our effort. Our present to all NIN fans.

This was all with the indirect “blessing” of Reznor, who even before the video leak, loosened up the video security at the the show, allowing fans to record their own footage. Now to be sure, artists condoning and supporting fan video isn’t entirely a new concept either: back in ‘04, the Beastie Boys gave video cameras to fans and released an entire feature concert film of fan-shot video. And long before they became Public Enemy number 1 to grassroots fan activity, Metallica released a video, Cliff ‘em All, that featured some fan-made video record during their early years. But providing what is essentially a DVD’s worth of video footage for fans to play with is notable: it’s a gesture that embraces the open source/Creative Commons approach to fan-works and fair use that presumes a kind of perceived collective ownership of property. (A court would argue whether the derivative works of remixes and fan videos belong to Reznor or the fans, but there’s cultural perception within that particular community that the footage is owned collectively the fan community at large.)

Each party receives compensation from this sharing economy: NIN gets to leverage the enthusiasm of fans, who are willing to invest time and money to serve as free marketing ambassadors for the band, while fans recieve a product to consume free-of-charge.


We’re at a point now where more content/owners creators depending on social media/viral and word of mouth marketing to extend their reach and fans using technology and media tools to create increasingly sophisticated derivative works that conflate the role of media producer/consumer/owner/ambassador. Now, we’re seeing those worlds bump into each other. Current copyright law and culture hasn’t yet caught up to these advances in technology and culture. Pat Aufderheide mentioned at her presentation at MIT6 about a 20th century mindset to fair use being carried over into 21st century practice, and I think that’s what we are seeing here.There’s room here for scholars and practitioners to identify these “best (and worst) practices” of this hybrid economy model to replicate and to guide policy decisions, with more companies at least exploring the possibilities of adopting an approach that allows for a safe haven for fans/brand supporters/etc. to create content that would benefits all parties, and also allow users to edcate themselves on their own rights and responsibilities as media producers in this public sphere.

Laurence Lessig says that:

“there is a deep divide between those who believe that obsessive control is the hybrid’s path to profit … It is for the privilege of getting to remix … that these new creators are told they must waive any rights of their own. They should be happy with whatever they get (especially as most of them are probably “pirates” anyway).

A decade from now, [a controlling] Vaderesque [approach to remix culture] will look as silly as the advice lawyers gave the recording industry a decade ago. New entrants, not as obsessed with total control, will generate radically more successful remix markets. The people who spend hundreds of hours creating this new work will flock to places and companies where their integrity as creators is respected. As every revolution in democratizing technologies since the beginning of time has demonstrated, victory goes to those who embrace with respect the new creators….Businesses will have to think carefully about which terms will excite the masses to work for them for free. Competition will help define these terms. But if one more lawyer protected from the market may be permitted a prediction, I suggest sharecropping will not survive long as a successful strategy for the remixer.

Spoilers spoiling for a fight?: The impact of comment trolling and other unwanted online activities

Every time I login to this blog — or my other blogs — or my email, I need to spend time dealing with unwanted materials. Fortunately, it’s usually a small amount of two-clicks-til-total-removal spam that I need to deal with, but others have had more serious issues to deal with, ranging from the limits of access to a email mailing list, to blog comments, to lawsuits about anonymous personalized statements perceived to be threatening and libelous. Interestingly, all of these issues have recently hit the larger legal community.

These issues were discussed in On the internet no one can hear you turning off your blog: the impact of trolling, including the comments on the University of Chicago law faculty blog and the now-shuttered Patry copyright blog.  The legal community is a microcosm of how difficult it is to contain the internetz regarding issues such as managing the limits of free speech, promoting discourse, community building (and in some communities the related issue of “safe space”), avoiding “true” threats, and the new permanence of the internet — where everything one has ever said or done is still available for perusal.

On Above the Law, a law news source, the new comment policy is:

As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means. . . .[W]e’ll be changing our site design so that comments will default to “hidden.” If you want to see the comments, you must affirmatively opt-in, by clicking a button to reveal them (either the “show them anyway” button within the post, or the “comments” button / counter on the front page).

On a popular law blog, Balkinization, comments have been turned off by default — to be changed by the post author:

[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.

Commenting within a larger discussion about commenting cultures on Concurring Opinions, James Grimmelmann states that

It’s all about social norms, typically as influenced strongly by early patterns. If people come to a site and see respectful extended arguments, they learn that norm of commenting. If they see illiterate YouTube-ish babble, they add their own bleats. And if they see nasty personal attacks, they say nasty things. Most highly successful online communities with positive norms had someone who took a very active early role in setting a good tone. (Metafilter and Flickr are well-known examples.) Once a norm is in place, it tends to stay in place, because visitors self-select into participating in communities with norms they like, and because regular visitors enforce compliance with the norms.

The details and the nuances of online community moderation are much more complex, of course, but there’s a lot of support for this basic tipping-point story.

Grimmelmann’s observations about the relationship between what is communicated within a community and how that becomes the norm within applies to what is summarized as “The Autoadmit lawsuit”.

As summarized in an article in Portfolio, anonymous comments were posted about actual women in lawschool on the Autoadmit message boards:

When it comes to Heller and Iravani, some of [the comments] were unique all right: uniquely sadistic, subjecting the women to what can only be called a cyber-stoning, in which participants vied to hurl the biggest rock. They wrote, falsely, that Heller has herpes and had bribed her way into Yale—helped by a secret lesbian affair with the dean of admissions—and that Iravani has gonorrhea, is addicted to heroin, and had exchanged oral sex with Yale Law School’s dean for a passing grade in civil procedure. The spectacle was either astonishingly horrific or almost banal, depending on how old and what sex you are, on what you deem funny, and on how much time you spend on the internet. And where.

Posters appeared to be overwhelmingly male; it was women, particularly beautiful women, particularly beautiful women at the top law schools, particularly beautiful minority women at the top law schools, who were most often skewered, dissected, and fantasized about.

I would include some examples of the anonymous comments here, but they are so that I don’t want to repeat them here on my space, where their inclusion will lead to this blog getting more spam comments (if interested read the amended complaint). Feministe has a series of posts detailing the reasons why women discussed on these posts and others believed themselves to be threatened.

The autoadmit comments were accepted and promoted within the online community and therefore continued. To “protect” the autoadmit community after the first series of complaints, many commenters made increasingly disturbing, threatening, and false statements to keep the community “safe” for those who wanted to make such comments; yet the “real world” impact (jobs, emotional impact) was perceived as only affecting those within the community — not those outsiders being commented on — trying to destroy their “fun.”

For websites and blogs (and social media) that want to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, this situation shows why it is imperative to have policies in place before there are problems and to have the policy inforced by the community and the “host.” That is the reason for our policy for The Learned Fangirl:

All opinions in blog posts are our own and do not reflect the views of our employers. Please comment, but this is our space, so we will delete comments that we think are uncivil, off-topic, spam, or otherwise inappropriate.


And in one additional law-based wrinkle to the Obama’s administration’ s implementation of  social networking similar to the campaign: the First Amendment. If you’ve been on any popular blog or website with frequent commenting, how useful do you think it would be for the government or the public if government websites had comments, yet were unable to edit, suppress, or modify the comments in any way? I would say very minimally useful, so I wish the Obama administration luck in making social networking work.

Book Review: Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, is the highly recommended third book by Laurence Lessig, focusing on why and how copyright laws need to be changed to allow for greater innovation. If you’ve read the two previous books The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world and Free culture: the nature and future of creativity — or heard one of Lessig’s exciting lectures, much of Remix will seem familiar, remixed with new examples of copyright owners pushing their rights beyond culturally acceptable bounds and why the time frame for copyright should be shortened, allowing works to enter the public domain.

But this book demonstrates the value of remixing, adding a lengthy discussion of the economics of two types of culture — commercial and sharing.

A commercial economy [is centered on] money or “price” [as] a central term of the ordinary, or normal exchange.

Of all the possible terms for exchange within a sharing economy, the single term that isn’t appropriate is money.

But Lessig discusses a combination between the commercial economy and the sharing economy — the hybrid economy:

The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims.

If those within the sharing economy begin to think of themselves as tools of a commercial economy, they will be less willing to play. If those within a commercial economy begin to think of it as a sharing economy, that may reduce their focus on economic reward.

Much of Lessig’s discussion about hybrid economies is applicable to fan culture and other examples of participatory culture and user-generated content. He does use the examples of Harry Potter fandom (relying heavily on Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture) and Second Life.

We’ll be using this section extensively in our future writings, so our readers will be seeing much more of the ideas in Remix.

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Every [] user is a potential creator and consumer

Summary: Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, more appropriately subtitled “the power of organizing without [traditional formalized] organizations” explores an interesting theoretical model for understanding online social interactions and group dynamics and collaborative production, ranging from the supposed blogger / journalist dichotomy to open source code creation to fan interactions.

Group Interactions

One of the most important elements of this book are the definitions that can be used in other contexts. Shirky describes a scale of online interaction ranging from sharing to cooperation to collection action. With collective action

no one person can take credit for what gets created, and the project could not come into being without the participation of many.

Collective action takes additional effort by participants because

it requires a group of people to commit themselves to undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members. … [It] creates shared responsibility, by tying the user’s identity to the identity of the group.

Future of Professionalism, especially Journalism

What is likely the most controversial section relates to the deprofessionalization of journalism, according to Shirky. Shirky writes about how professionalism in journalism, with editorial judgment traditionally serving as a filter between media creators and recipients. He compares filtering with our increasingly interactive media environment:

The old ways of filtering were neither universal not ideal; they were simply good for the technology of the day, and reasonably effective… The brute economic logic of allowing anyone to create anything and make it available to anyone creates such a staggering volume of new material, every day, that no group of professionals will be adequate to filter the material.

Filter-then-publish, whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of resources that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter.

[Therefore] globally free publishing [online] is making public speech and action more valuable, even as its absolute diminishes the specialness of professional publishing.

He does not, however, describe bloggers as the replacement for journalists; after all, they are two groups that can interact, venn diagram style. One aspect missing from his discussion of journalism as a profession was a discussion of ethical standards. All professions have codes of conduct, ranging from the imposed-with-enforcement due to licensing (lawyers, doctors) to the self-imposed (librarians). Journalists fall in between the extremes, with blogging, citizen / grassroots journalism, and political bloviating by “journalists” have made defining the profession increasingly difficult. Dan Gillmor and the Center for Citizen Media have done their part to set the Principles for Citizen Journalism, but considering the weakened state of the traditional media, defining a “journalist” will continue to be in flux.

The future of collaboration — and the impact of fan labor

Shirky also is concerned about how collaborative systems work — and how they can fail:

…shared interest can now create that longevity … [and] is the secret of the open source ecosystem and … of all the large-scale and long-lived forms of sharing, collaborative work, and collective action now being tried. Because anyone can try anything, the projects that fail, fail quickly, but the people working on those projects can migrate just as quickly to the things that are visibly working. … open source projects advertise their successes and get failure for free. The arrangement allows the successes to become host to a community of sustained interest.

Shirky mentions a user protest about changes in Flickr, but the user/creator reaction to the platform owner’s changes can apply to many other circumstances, such as the Livejournal purge of “controversial” materials:

a small but very vocal part of the Flickr population went very publicly berserk castigating Flick and threatening to move to another photo service….What the most vociferous users objected to was the incontrovertible evidence that they were not in control. Although they had contributed the photos that make Flickr what it is, they were not in a position to say no to a unilateral change from Yahoo. The fact that the change was relatively minor didn’t matter, because even a minor change exposed the users’ relative powerlessness. …[T]he amount of public agita is indicative of how seriously users take the implicit bargain, even when (and perhaps especially when it is not explicitly supported by contract.

“Platform drift”, as many of us have seen already in free email services (moving from hotmail, to yahoo, now to gmail) and social networks (from friendster to facebook and myspace), is a concern, but so is perceived exploitation, as Shirky describes with the “perceived bargain changes” with AOL’s volunteers:

After AOL’s stock price rose into the stratosphere, …[some] guides banded together to file a class-action suit, claiming AOL had unfairly profited from their work. Nothing had changed about the job they were being asked to do; everything changed about the financial context they did it in, and that was enough to poison their goodwill.

The law’s role

So what makes a successful social tool? According to Shirky, and the name of one of the chapters, it takes a promise, a tool, and a bargain. Where does the law, in terms of contract play in the success? It can play a role in the bargain, though it often doesn’t. This differs from traditional means of contract formation and enforcement — even when there is a click-through license, the terms are not what limits or constructs “the bargain.”

The essential part of the bargain is that the users have to agree to it. It can’t be instantiated as a set of contractual rules, because users don’t read the fine print. … Instead, the bargain has to be part of the lived experience of interaction. (emphasis added)

The difference between ownership of the tool and the “ownership” of the productivity often causes conflict (and is something we are very interested in studying and writing about). While not focused on by Shirky, I think this is at the heart of the legal controversies between users/creators and more traditional owners of intellectual property, and I appreciate that it is mentioned here, if only in passing.

He also mentions the blurring of different rights due to the interactive aspects of social media:

To speak online is to publish and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly.

In conclusion, read this book if you are interested in online social organization theory. While the examples will become dated over time (why does he use “weblogging” for blogging in 2008?), the theoretical models and great charts will continue to be useful.

On the internet no one can hear you turning off your blog: the impact of trolling

Recently, the New York Times had an article about trolls and how their actions affect others online. Online trolling has often, though not always, been specifically targeted at women and girls, with threats against Kathy Sierra and the AutoAdmit trolling and subsequent lawsuit.

However, trolling‘s impact is broad, impacting not only those with personal blogs or those in “safe space” online communities, but also professional blogging. The issue of trolling needs to be addressed by all blogs because all blogs will likely have some level of trolling, especially if one’s definition of trolling includes all time-wasting comment management (spam, I’m talking to you!). I’ve heard corporate lawyers state that due to their concerns about the copyright of those who post comments they strongly discourage disemvoweling or editing of comments, instead preferring to suggest complete elimination of unwanted comments. Of course there are ways of making space only available to those you specifically allow entry, such as livejournal’s “friends only” status, but that significantly limits discourse.

Recently William Patry has closed down his well-regarded copyright blog, at first deleting the entire archive and only leaving a goodbye post (archives subsequently restored). Keep in mind when reading the quote below that this is someone who is one of the most well-known and regarded specialists in his field, who has been in professional practice for over twenty-five years.

In order to encourage open discussion [on my blog] I permitted not only comments but anonymous and pseudonymous comments. I did that because I wanted to encourage the largest number of people to participate, and after four years I believe that was the right decision. But it is also the right decision to end the blog. …. I cannot see what more I could have done to make what was a personal blog more separate from my employer….

On top of this there are the crazies, whom it is impossible to reason with, who do not have a life of their own and so insist on ruining the lives of others, and preferably as many as possible. I asked myself last week after having to deal with the craziest of the crazies yet, “why subject yourself to this?” I could come up with no reason why I should: My grandfather chose to be a psychiatrist, but I chose a different professional path, one that doesn’t obligate me to put up with such nonsense.

In the end, I concluded that it is no longer possible for me to have a blog that will be respected for what it is, a personal blog.

Even the University of Chicago Law Faculty Blog has implemented a comments policy:

The Law School therefore encourages readers of the Faculty Blog to engage in respectful conversation – as one would at a conference or in a classroom – with faculty posters and other readers through use of the Blog’s “Comments” feature.

.. all comments will be subject to approval by a Law School moderator [and] may fail to be approved or may be edited if the moderator deems that they:

  • contain unsolicited advertisements (“spam”),
  • are unrelated to the subject matter of the post or of subsequent approved comments,
  • contain ad hominem attacks or abusive or gratuitously offensive language.

Comments policy do play a role in limiting trolling because they help shape what is acceptable discourse. But trolls will still troll and someone (a real live person) still needs to read comments to limit trolling.

The problems of the Internet are not new to humanity, instead there is a new distribution means of various acts, ranging from being mean, to committing cruel acts, to crimes. However, the internet allows for a new form of the heckler’s veto, where those that “yell” the loudest or the most often (as in a denial-of-service attack) can limit the speech of those that created that specific space on the internet. And if the heckler threatens enough, speech by the original speaker or others that agree can be severely curtailed. The cost to those who do not agree with the troll — from the blog host to the other readers can be great — and the troll is only limited by how much time he is willing to spend.

Some have and will likely say — toughen up! or First Amendment with no limits, yay! But that doesn’t solve the underlying social problem of some speakers limiting speech through speaking rudely, cruelly, or threateningly (“but I didn’t mean it! You [any group here] are humourless). If William Patry and the University of Chicago Law faculty find this a difficult issue to address, it is no wonder why the rest of the blogging community finds trolling so problematic.