Generosity and post-scarcity economic media models: Why I love participatory culture

One of the stumbling blocks for media companies looking to create sustainable digital business models is that the economic models differ in fundamental ways from the predominant models of the 20th Century.

Look at the media models of the 20th Century, and they are all based to some extent on scarcity and monopoly. Printing presses are expensive and create an economic limit to the number of newspapers that any given market will support. Satellites are incredibly expensive. Cable television infrastructure is expensive. Scarcity leads to the development of stable, de facto monopolies. Sky dominates satellite television in the UK. Cable television providers are usually granted monopolies in all but the largest of cities. Again, in all but the largest markets, newspapers have come to enjoy a monopoly position. (It is why I find it a bit rich that media monopolies are railing against Google. Monopolists trying to use the law and courts to defend their position against a rising monopolist should be the plot for a farce. Why don’t we create a web television series?)

The internet is different because media companies don’t have monopoly control over the means of distribution. News International and Gannett don’t own the presses that power the internet. BSkyB doesn’t own the satellites. Comcast owns the last mile of copper, but much of the internet is beyond its control.

The cost of media production has also dramatically decreased allowing people to create media with motivations that are not economic, which seems insane and alien to people who make a living creating media. However, creating media and sharing it with others is key to many communities online. Note, I’m talking about people sharing the media that they create, not sharing media created by people whose motivations are economic. Why the distinction? Sharing is a loaded term to the ‘creative industries’ which they want to redefine as theft. I’m not talking about sharing their content.

For those who don’t understand the “culture of generosity” on the internet, please read Caterina Fake’s moving defence of participatory culture. Caterina was one of the co-founders of photo sharing site Flickr and launched “a collective intelligence decision making system” called Hunch last year. Drawing on examples from her own experience going back to 1994, she explains why:

people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money

That’s about as foreign as one can think to mass media culture. Not doing something for ego or money? Why bother?

I can tell you why I bother. A global culture of participation has been, for me, key in meeting one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Belonging. Originally participatory culture was something I did in my spare time because their was no place for it in my professional work, but co-creation in journalism has been one of the most richly rewarding aspects of my career.

This is a mental bookmark for a much longer post looking at the economics of post-scarcity media, something I’ve been thinking about after meeting Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. I first met Matt when I chaired a discussion about his book at the RSA, and I interviewed him for the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast about piracy, copyright and remix culture. Matt said that we need more study of “post-scarcity economics”, something  not seen in real-world goods but definitely in the virtual world of digital content.

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7 thoughts on “Generosity and post-scarcity economic media models: Why I love participatory culture

  1. One-sided denigrations of traditional media really get to me.

    I’ll start where I agree. I don’t dispute that media companies are able to create monopolies, and have done so in the past. I don’t dispute that such monopolies are looking less assured with the rise of what you call participatory culture, though many more people go to Google than to any one blog.

    I can quickly list some of my relatively minor gripes with the posting. You posit the motivation of established media companies as purely economic, and that of online communities as purely participatory. So that’s a case of money = bad, sharing freely = good? What’s wrong with making money, exactly, and what, exactly, in this context? And online communities are not purely participatory – they are filled with people who want only want to be listened to.

    Also, you write of the culture of generosity on the Internet. Really? That is not the first thing that springs to mind. What about the hate-filled, misogynistic, shouting-till-you’re-hoarse culture? This is a not insignificant result of having a freed space for people to talk in.

    So, my main problem with the posting is that you describe the only two reasons why mass media sources engage in publishing as money-making and egotism. (Sorry, what was wrong with making money again? I have a wife and child to support – I don’t think participatory culture will help very much in this). You are a supposedly serious individual misrepresenting a mass of media sources to suit a very narrow argument. What about being motivated by pride in publishing quality, accurate, informed content – such as the Financial Times – or a desire to uphold a particular reputation with your audience? There are too many bloggers who simply do not wish to know about their audience – they therefore should not expect one.

    The willful misrepresentation of all established media sources to prove the superiority of rising ones is one feature of the digital age which I just can not get used to.

  2. André, you write: “So that’s a case of money = bad, sharing freely = good”

    Your words. Not mine. Here was the first line of this post:

    One of the stumbling blocks for media companies looking to create sustainable digital business models is that the economic models differ in fundamental ways from the predominant models of the 20th Century.

    Would someone expressing concern about developing sustainable digital media business models hold the view that “money=bad”? No. I’m a professional journalist who has seen hundreds of colleagues and friends lose or be forced to leave their jobs in 2009. I do not hold the view that money=bad. As a matter of fact, I really wish that more of us has learned about the media business before things got into such a state.

    The broader point of the post is that media companies do not enjoy the monopoly position that they did in the 20th Century. In the post, I focus on the content created by passionate amateurs and how that is competing for people’s finite attention. However, one could argue that with convergence, media companies are now crossing into each other’s business. Newspapers now create video and audio, competing with radio and TV. With this increased competition, content is no longer scarce as it was through much of the last century. The scarce resource is now attention. This has a dramatic affect on the types of business models that will be successful to support professional content creators.

    You write:

    Also, Anderson writes of the culture of generosity on the Internet. Really? That is not the first thing to spring to mind. What about the hate-filled, misogynistic, shouting-till-you’re-hoarse culture? This is a not insignificant result of having a freed space for people to talk in.

    Just as the existence of hate, misogyny and xenophobia offline doesn’t negate the existence of generosity in human societies, the existence of hate, misogyny and xenophobia on the Internet doesn’t negate the generosity in online cultures. The internet merely reflects human nature. You seem more concerned about the dangers of free speech, “a freed space for people to talk in”, rather than the internet. The internet did not create “hate-filled, misogynistic, shouting-till-you’re-hoarse culture”.

    The internet is not a monolith. It is made of millions of cultures and sub-cultures, some loud and hate-filled and others filled with generous people. You can’t choose where you are born and grow up, but online, you can choose where you live.

    Certainly for content creators there are other motivations than simply their egos and a hunger for power. Just because I posited some motivations doesn’t mean I negated others. I’m a journalist because I want to provide people with the information they need to function in a democratic society.

    You write:

    There are too many bloggers who simply do not wish to know about their audience – they therefore should not expect one.

    You both miss the points I was making about participatory culture while making the point that many who create content for a living don’t understand the motivations for those who create and share content for non-economic reasons. Most bloggers write not for their 15 minutes of fame but for the 15 people they are famous for. They view it not as publication but as communication. As the Pew Research Centre in the US found:

    …most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

    76% of bloggers say a reason they blog is to document their personal experiences and share them with others.

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/236/a-blogger-portrait

    If you feel the need to counter my position, at least don’t misrepresent it.

  3. Thanks Kevin for an interesting reply. I must say, with respect, that I find the reply much more illuminating and persuasive than the original post. It would have been nice to have seen such attention to detail and persuasion in the original. There’s in fact a lot I agree with in the reply.

    I’d like to stress that I am not against participatory culture. I am not fearful of freed spaces for people to create communities in (and it’s rather typical of you to imply that I am). I am writing this in one – and I enjoy having the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with you. What I reacted to in your original post was the impression that participatory culture is inherently superior to established media. This, to my mind, denigrates examples of established media that have deserved reputations.

    I disagree with your point that you don’t negate a motivation by not writing about it. The tone of your original post is very positive towards participatory culture – and traditional media are either spoken of less warmly or not at all. This does actually result in a kind of negation.

    Thanks, though, genuinely, for your reply, which I will take some time to re-read.

    It is interesting that the longest and most serious response I’ve had to something I’ve blogged is in response to a highly critical post. Would you call this an example of participatory culture as well?

  4. Andre,

    Yes, blogging is (or can be) an example of participatory culture. The big issue is whether it’s blogging, Twitter, YouTube, etc isn’t about the technology but about the level of participation. It’s not social media if you’re not social.

    In terms of attention to detail in the original post, as I said, it was a placeholder. I jotted it down quite quickly during a busy day so I could pick it up later. Blogging is a process, and although I like having everything as polished as possible, sometimes, I jot down a quick thought to return to later.

    I’m not sure if you had a blog before the one linked to in your comments, but I notice that your archives only go back a few months. I’m not going to assume that you’re new to blogging, but it’s very likely. One thing I’d suggest is that context is everything. I sensed from your comment that you thought I was just another blogger lobbing grenades at the traditional media. Nope, I’m much more of a sceptical (some might say jaded) insider. I hear the traditional media making a lot of self-justifying arguments right now. Newspapers (I happen to work for one, although I’m writing for myself here) are making some of these arguments to justify government support. Now, I’m not against publicly supported media. I worked for the BBC for 8 years, and I have a lot of respect for the possibilities under that model. However, I fear sometimes we’re believing our own, not too unprodigious, propaganda.

    I also fear that the self-justification is getting in the way of needed changes. I see a lot of defensiveness, much of it understandable in the context of economic anxiety. However, I think we have an opportunity to look at what we do, leave some of it behind, and move forward closer to our ideals. Note: I’m not saying my ideals, but the ideals that we keep touting make the press such an important element to a democratic society.

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