From digital sharecropping to post-Web 2.0 platform independence

One of the things we follow at the P2P Foundation is the social conflicts that arise around peer to peer logics of cooperation, and a few months ago, we attempted to formulate a typology of social relations in the article, The Social Web and its Social Contracts (some interesting comments by Geoff Cox are here).

In this article we note the crucial difference between commons-based peer production proper (Linux), sharing through proprietary platforms, and crowdsourcing as 3 distinct modalities. We monitor conflicts that arise between peer producers/sharers and the netarchical businesses through a delicious tag. These new forms of exploitation have been called digital sharecropping, by analogy with farm workers not owning their lands and their tools, and the exploitation by those who provided it to them. Web 2.0 sharers face a similar situation, as their production is located on platforms they do not own nor control.

Seth Finkelstein reports on a interesting recent case study in the Guardian. It involves a “dispute (over the amount of space devoted to advertising) between the wiki-hosting startup company Wikia, Inc and the creators of the sites it hosts, is a case study of the conflicts between so-called community and commerce“.

Here’s the crux of the case:

At the start of June, Wikia’s CEO announced that many changes would be made to the appearance of sites, mainly to have more advertising and for the ads to be more prominent. As Wikia’s community development manager put it: “We have to change things in order to make Wikia financially stable. Unfortunately, Google ads in the footer pay pennies a click, and nobody clicks”. He went on to explain that ads paying based on view count were needed. And that type of advertiser wants their ad to be displayed where viewers are sure to see it, such as within an article, near the top.

In reaction, various content creators made it clear they understood the needs of the company and had no objection to advertising per se. But putting ads inside content risked changing their material from articles into decorated billboards. The conflict between management and (unpaid) labour became acrimonious. There were declarations such as: “If Wikia does not resolve this situation to our satisfaction, then we will leave, taking our content, our communities’ inward links, our established service marks and our fellow editors with us.

Seth then mentions one of the more active opposition groups:

at least one group – devoted fans of the shape-changing toy robots called Transformers – is determined to secede from Wikia. This site was used as part of the chief executive’s initial announcement above, but now has a page of accusations against Wikia management. One member working on the move wrote on his blog that “the attitude towards the people generating the content they’re making money off of has been to lie, pacify, misdirect or condescend“.

Note that the planned new site, at, will still have advertising. But, wrote one member, the ads “will be placed more tastefully than the current trend on Wikia … it’s when it goes into the article area that we get testy“.

The struggle between community and platform is but one modality however, and the TFWiki initiative points to an alternative, which is for peer producers to build their own platforms and not to rely on the goodwill of the platform owners.

This is the purpose of Jesse Vincent, who in a great presentation on digital sharecropping announces the launch of Prophet, a distributed database that allows the sharing of “data with your friends and coworkers – all without a central server.” The aim he says, is to obtain a post-Web 2.0 independence on the proprietary platforms.

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