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.

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