How Ethical is the new Web 2.0 business model? (Trebor Scholz)

Trebor Scholz, who maintains and moderates one of the most consistently qualitive mailing lists for the Institute for Distributed Creativity, has recently started an on-going debate on the ethics of participatory culture.

Web 2.0. is three things. It’s a collection of web resources where it is the participants who now directly create the value, using resources provided by privately-owned corporations.

It’s the collection of new tools that make all of that possible.

But finally, it is also a new business model, where the said corporations are aggregating and selling our attention. Is it a fantastic example of voluntary creation of social wealth, or the shameless exploitation of free labour? This is the key question addressed in the debate at IDC.

In this excerpt, Trebor reviews five ethical requirements, and how well Web 2.0 business models are stacking up.


1) “The utilitarian approach: follow the action that does the least harm and
provides the most good.”

YouTube’s payment will in many cases not be equivalent to the value of the uploaded content given its viewership of some 10 million people in cases like the infamous treadmill video. Harm, here, is the loss of time, donation of free creative labor, and a harassment of our attention.

2) “The rights approach: humans have dignity and have thus the right to be
treated as ends and not as means to other ends. This includes the right to be told the truth, the right to make life choices freely, the right to privacy.”

It’d be interesting to get a clear sense of YouTube’s or Amazon’s profits, directly gained from the free immaterial labor of the likes of top-ranked reviewer Harriet Klausner who wrote 13050 reviews. Unpaid. That, to me, makes the underpaid McDonald’s worker look privileged. But, yes, I know: the common good; I’ll comment on that in a moment.

3) “The fairness approach: equals should be treated as equals.”

That’s a tricky one. Who measures equality?

4) The common good approach: sees life as being conducted as part of a group and
asks us to contribute to that group.

Amazon reviewers and all the 65.000 contributors to YouTube every day arguably contribute to the common good. Also Hanah Arendt describes the common good as a key motivation for participation. Sure. The problem in this case, however, is that the common good is helped while at the same time a corporate entity gets rich, rich, and richer: and that is… making a fortune of YOU.

5) “Virtues approach– the idea that ethical action has to be consistent with certain virtues such as honesty, courage, compassion, tolerance, love, integrity, fidelity, fairness, self-control. The question that should be asked is: ‘Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?'”

Are Amazon, YouTube, or MySpace, or…..(fill in other less often targeted
companies) on their best behavior?

To most content creators who are socialized into capitalism, this exploitation of labor may appear to be natural. We receive a service — think “free” (?)… “gift” (?) — and in return our attention gets harassed.

The most perverted version of this naturalized exploitation is Yaadz
( This site offers video ads created and uploaded by the people who watch them. Somebody who loves Nike shoes can now create their own video ad and upload it too. And it’s free. They don’t even have to pay for giving their immaterial labor away for free. In East Germany where people gave socialism a shot for some forty years, many things stank. But surely people would have rolled on the floor laughing if you’d have suggested to them to
create advertisement aimed at themselves for free.

But this dynamic is not more unethical than mostly everything else in capitalism. In stores, more and more services are moved to the ‘guest’ (oh, no- it’s not a “customer” anymore). We dutifully empty our tray in the trash can- full of compassion for the poor service person who’d have to clean up after us otherwise. We forget that this is a deliberate setup with the people who shape these situations being out of our reach. We fill our own cups with coffee, etc.
While Bertram Gross’ term “friendly fascism” is too strong, what happens here is gruesome.

But why complain, like Nicholas Carr, about this exploitative nature of the sociable web? It should not surprise us that behind the hip mask (of music on MySpace or Chinese karaoke on YouTube) hides the grim face of big capital (i.e. Rupert Murdoch). First, it’s your time that is targeted, and second, it’s about harnessing our distributed creativity. The all-out goal is not immediately our money. Our attention is what pays the bills.

The capitalist mother milk makes people look at society through the rosy glasses of corporate interest (instead of their own). Who cares if we ‘outsource’ our life memories to Flickr, which requires all its members to sign on to Yahoo spam now? Well, we should care. And sure, there is always enough room for the exploited to navigate within certain parameters affording them the impression of freedom. is a curious example. Here, the common good is the sales pitch. Yeah, yeah, in the community bookstore you do not find twelve people offering you advise on a book. is hard to beat as a research tool (and who does go through the pain of researching there but then buying elsewhere). The perverted logic of some people in their early twenties is articulated in the question: Why would not I help They offer such an awesome service. And because you paid for the book you are now grateful and leave a review? … What did I miss here?

In the end, what alternatives are there, really? Corporate platforms for socializing are of course also spaces where activism and much interesting artistic practice are situated today. Politicians realize that Youtube and Myspace and also SecondLife are spaces where they have large audiences that may even listen. Will they go out and vote after sitting in a Secondlife lecture by a politician– the verdict is out on that one. And for those among you who think this is all frying small potatoes, and that the issues are much larger and that the world revolution will start in 20 years– well, I certainly don’t see that happening in the US, Europe or Switzerland any time soon. It behooves us to look at the specifics of the current changes and the claims for democratization of society, through “massification” of voice in the sociable web, for example.

We should just give up looking to the web for autonomous spaces, perhaps. The best you can get today is hybrid capitalism. This hybridity of the sociable web is about the interests that are represented. Today’s little web service that represents the true interests of those who populate it, in a Habermasian way, is bought up by Yahoo tomorrow. The hunt for our attention begins.”

6 Comments How Ethical is the new Web 2.0 business model? (Trebor Scholz)

  1. AvatarAdam

    Michel- this is a great piece that neatly summarizes the key questions about web 2.0 and immatrial labour. The thics issue is tricky I think. I don’t think you can simply apply any of the old established perspectives of moral philosophy, utalitarianism, virtue ethics etc- they were all elaborate for different historical sictuatiions. What immaterial labour lacks right now is the fundamental ground for being able to speak of ethics, exploitation, just measure etc- namely a theory of value. How much is your labour/time worth when you write reviews on amazon? If we can’t say that we will never be able to tell wetehr you are being explited or not: maybe the attention that you get form amazon readers is in fact just compensation. I think this is the fundamental point for theoretical politics right now, to find a theory of value rather than letting the value of labour/time simply be determined by the capitalist market. How would such a theory of value look like? Maybe there is no universal theory at all, but more a number of emerging value networks with their own units of measure? An economy of qualities, as some people speak of now (see coming blog post form me), a number of folksonomies. I have no clue 🙂

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  6. AvatarJames

    I was going to leave a comment, but then realized that I would become more fodder for the exploitative nature of the Web. So I guess now you’ll just have to pay me, because having people offer free contributions to a site is evil.

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