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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