on social network sharecropping

Heather posted something this morning that’s had me thinking about this pretty much all day.

Occasionally, Tim Bray talks about “sharecropping” as related to the world of open source vs. proprietary software and APIs.

What‘s a Sharecropper?· I found a good definition at InterAction Design:

“A farmer who works a farm owned by someone else. The owner provides the land, seed, and tools exchange for part of the crops and goods produced on the farm.”

It’s a lousy position to be in, because you’re never going to make much, and if the land’s owner finds something better to do with the land, you’re history.

Now, we’re all furiously publishing reams of content into various social network applications and services. We post updates to Twitter. We write on walls in Facebook (or, more likely, just play Scrabulous). We post photos to Flickr. We put videos on Google Video, YouTube, and now Flickr.

Tractor SilhouetteWhile all of these activities are valued, and contribute to the sense of online community, they are basically the activities of a sharecropper. Tilling the landowner’s field, toiling in the landowner’s soil, until, eventually, the landowner reaps the rewards.

I think it’s important to own your own land. It’s important to publish content in a way that you, and only you, can control. I think it’s important to be able to decide what you publish, how you publish, and what can be done with that. Even if you’re not publishing content in the traditional sense, the data generated by your activities has meaning. Google mines your subscriptions in Google Reader, as well as your searches. Flickr tracks whose photos you fave, and where you comment.

Publishing content into a third party proprietary application is nothing more than sharecropping. You don’t truly own what you are doing, and you are not the primary beneficiary of your actions.

Heritage Park - 13This isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to sharecropping. There are typically more people in a third party community service than would be active in an individually-operated one. The community-critical-mass issue could be solved through effective use of loosely joined individual services – I could post photos to my blog, or to Gallery2, and others could comment or reuse at will. I could post stuff to my blog, and others can use it at will. Part of this would require some more robust digital identity management stuff – if we’re using potentially hundreds of individually run services, we’re not going to create accounts on each. Something like OpenID could help here.

The other benefit of sharecropping is that, on a third-party system, you typically don’t have to worry about infrastructure. It could be argued (as I seem to do on a daily basis) that the infrastructure is trivial to manage now. Anyone (ANYONE!) can set up a server account, and use one-click installs to run any of a long list of great applications, for less than $10/month. Infrastructure is not the limiting factor any more.

Now, with that said, I’m going to go check Flickr for new photos from my contacts, and then check Twitter to see what my friends are up to. Then, I’ll fire up Google Reader to see what they’re doing on their own land.

Update: It also strikes me that compelling students to publish content into institutional repositories and course management systems is tantamount to forced sharecropping. We need to do better by our students than to guide them toward embracing sharecropping as the preferred expression of digital identity.


  1. Raj

    That is certainly an interesting thought, especially when you look at all the ads that are scattered through the landlord sites. When you throw in tracking sites like Socialthing or Second Brain, you get another “harvest” available as they are then able to drop in their own ads (eventually). Facebook is certainly making a mint off this as it will gladly act as a collection site, selling not only the ads, but the information about the user that imports.

    Paying to remove ads certainly helps, but to truly be free one would have to pay a strange and varied network of land owners controlling both hardware and bandwidth that one may never be able to track down and pay off.

  2. or… just farm your own land. the equivalent of a farmer’s cooperative could be used to help individual farmers to work together even more effectively than the large corporate landholders…

  3. D’Arcy-
    I’ve often wondered how good an idea .edu e-mails are. Why give your id to the people you are paying for an education?
    And the forced online portfolios- unless the school is donating a lifelong hosting account, students are going to have a hard time moving it- esp. if they’ve built some link love.
    I’m starting to think that students should be rewarded for keeping their own “reservation” be it on wordpress.com and a gmail account.
    I just had a former student/interns edu address go dark- so now, I have no way of keeping in touch-
    after spending almost $100K at Udayton- he deserves better than that.

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  7. Sharecropping or Community Gardening?

    I’ve spent many years enriching Community Gardening sites – hauling seaweed & manure, double-digging beds. Probably reaped my share of veggies from it all to render the effort at enrichment worthwhile.

    “Soil” is relatively easier to come by, in the online world – pretty cheap & easy to set up your own domain, host your own material – unlike the small patches of real soil available for urban gardening. What is to be gained by taking a “community gardening” approach to online publication, if “finding tillable soil” is not so much of an issue?

    In the real community gardening world, come things like shared seeds – those gorgeous tomatoes my neighbor’s family has been keeping seeds for for generations, from the Old Country; discovering that your plot has been watered by your neighbor on that day you were tied up & couldn’t make it, & they noticed your beets wilting; a willing recipient, wheelbarrow attached, of your far-too-many baseball-bat sized zucchinis; a new recipe for your bounty-crop of carrots. And the satisfaction of knowing that when you move along, someone appreciative will inherit your double-dug, seaweed-mulched plot, and continue its cultivation.

    Can we envision social networking sites to be an expression of virtual community gardening, rather than virtual sharecropping? What might be the points of distinction between these?

  8. Will, I think it comes down to who benefits from the activity. With a community garden, it is the community that benefits. With the various social networking services, the members do benefit, but only as much as the landowner allows. The fact that community is able to flourish under these conditions says something pretty profound about the power of community – but it’s still sharecropping as long as the members are tending the landowner’s fields.

  9. Aron

    This is a pretty nicely balanced evaluation of the situation. I like the idea of running my own blog/gallery/etc, but managing to bring it into the fold of a community is still a daunting endeavour. I’ve been wondering what Flickr would look like as a distributed gallery… member sites could maintain presence via xml-rpc or something and any site could be an entry point into the worldwide community of galleries.

  10. Jim

    Brilliantly stated, D’Arcy. The sharecropping metaphor for our activities in these other services is quite powerful, and cuts to the quick on a lot of the reasons why one would want to own the conditions of possibility for their online content. This is a metaphor I will be borrowing from continually in the near future, and will be using this post as a touchstone for framing the transition from institutional to personal publishing platforms for all kinds of online media. D’Arcy is back on the blog in rare form!

  11. @Aron – I’d LOVE to see what a distributed architecture could do along the lines of what Flickr has done as a centralized one. Could be as simple as trackbacks/pingbacks and OpenID logins. Could be something so much more robust…

    @Jim – Tim Bray deserves the credit for talking about sharecropping. I just (over)extended his extension of the metaphor 🙂 I do really believe this, though. I’ve been debating hosting my own photos for awhile – one of the reasons I set up mindfulseeing.com – but never pulled the trigger because the community is what makes these things so cool, and I’d lose that if I left the Flickr plantation…

  12. I do like a good metaphor, and this one is quite powerful. Just to pull at the seams a bit – sharecropping is ‘bad’ in the real world because it relates to a limited resource (land), but in the online world, we don’t have scarcity, we have abundance. So are the negatives then as strong as they are in the real world? The danger of the grow your own approach is that we end up too disaggregated. The benefit you get from being on Flickr, say, is the immediacy of a community, which is otherwise bloody hard work to build up. If they make a bit of money off the back of that through advertising, it doesn’t ‘cost’ you anything. It’s not like the land owner taking a share of your crop where you lose something substantial, so maybe that’s a fair trade.
    Having said that though, I generally agree with you. I think we tend to see a process of decentralisation after one of centralisation. So, you could argue that Flickr, FB, etc centralise our efforts, and then we decentralise back to our blogs, but use some form of glue/self aggregator to create your own versions of these things.

  13. The thing about metaphors- is they depend on a common understanding of the metaphor.
    Farming has been around since day two.
    I’ll posit that we couldn’t have distributed masses to aggregate until after we’d had the critical mass to create the standards that would enable the aggregation.
    ie. had we not had the huge communities like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube- we wouldn’t have come to the RSS standards and trackbacks etc so quick.
    The web has moved at incredible speed- especially in building mass. Now, the question is- when this all really does become as easy as WordPress (and some of my students still find it tough- but then again- they find the basic OS tough) will the common person prefer being part of a large group- a city? or an individual farmer in the country?
    Past experience says many will find their home in the largest communities…

  14. @Martin I would argue that because there is no real sense of scarcity online, that sharecropping is far worse there than in the real world. Real world sharecropping can be effective for the individual farmers because it gives them access to things they might not otherwise be able to afford (land, tools, raw materials, processing, storage). In online applications, there is no scarcity. Every individual has access to essentially the same tools as the largest “landowner” – there is no reason to not till your own land.

    Disaggregation is the very real downside to distributed individual services – and that’s where much work needs to be done. OpenID needs to be beefed up. Things like OpenSocial need to be extended. Data portability, application interoperability etc… XML-RPC, trackback, and lots of other little ways of connecting apps together…

    @David I’m not saying that communities aren’t important – they are absolutely essential. My only concern here is that the community, in the form of a “company town” is not functional or beneficial to anyone but the Company.

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  17. It seems to me that when you have someone such as myself who is quite technologically ignorant; most anything we do online is going to be on someone else’s “land”. We depend on that “landowner” to manage things for us, so that we can go ahead an plant our crops, so to speak.

  18. Rachel, there’s a distinction between hosted services, such as wordpress.com, uniblogs.org etc… and sharecropping social networks such as Ning, Twitter, Facebook, etc…

    The ones that are just providing hosting in exchange for a fee or other arrangement are an entirely different ball of wax from the ones that take ownership over your content and/or plaster ads all over it to gather revenue for themselves.

    I’ve got absolutely nothing with properly run hosted services. It’s the less upstanding ones that are sucking the soul out of the social networks.

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  20. I was waiting to see if any of the comments would touch on a couple of other farming scenarios. Agrobusiness – where the “farm” is run by a corporation that may be publicly owned or in private control, and collectives/cooperatives ie. a Hutterite Colony. It may not be necessary to throw these into the mix, and there may not be overly relevant direct connections to social networking, but I did just in case it stimulates some other lines of thinking. Both are essentially products of sharecroppers who were fed up or displaced. Individual sharecroppers found new lands where they could till their own soil, flourish and let the next generation continue. This was the norm for quite a while, but times change. If the next generation doesn’t want to take over the family farm it gets sold, usually to another farming operation which then gets bigger until = agrobusiness. Individual sharecroppers with something in common ie. religious beliefs did a similar thing except as a group. Today, many are as successful if not more so as any big Agrobusiness around and have more than kept pace operationally (except they usually pay cash for the big tractors and combines). I have a few ideas of some parallels that could be drawn to social networking, especially in the field of education, but need to think about it some more, and as soon as I begin to till my own land, will plant it in the soil there.

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