Good neighbors

[Updated 20/10 – tidying-up, response to Adam, Malik quote ect ect]


Through the various link services, last week I found that my RSS entries were being published to a GreatestJournal site. I’d never heard of GreatestJournal, and when I went to contact the site to ask them to remove the feed, there is no contact information. I did find, though, a trouble ticket area and submitted a ticket asking the site to remove the account.

In reply, “GreatestJournal” (whoever they are) told Shelley that her RSS feed was in the public domain, so they could do whatever they liked with it. (“You might wish to take your feed down if you don’t want people to use it.” That’s helpful.)

One other thing: the email in which they conveyed this information had a copyright notice at the bottom. (Shelley reprinted it anyway.)

Coincidentally, I’d recently been reading this post on EconoMeta, in which Adam talks about our changing relationship with our personal data:

one important part of Web 2.0 is the separation of user data from the applications that use it, and the idea that users should own and control this data.

the switching costs imposed by Web 1.0 companies to get a competitive advantage are being replaced by different switching costs created by the *users* of Web 2.0 companies … [e.g.] the switching costs created by the value of a social network at MySpace or a reputation on eBay, as opposed to the switching cost created by the email address and “walled garden” at AOL.

Separation of user data from applications? Check. User ownership and control? Um, not so much.

It seems to me that this is (depending on how charitable you’re feeling) a naive oversight, a lurking contradiction or a dirty little secret at the heart of the “Web 2.0” vision: it’s not about the users. Here’s Tim O’Reilly, no less:

Let’s close, therefore, by summarizing what we believe to be the core competencies of Web 2.0 companies:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models

So we’ve got software companies harnessing collective intelligence, leveraging the Snaggly Fence* – and, of course, exercising control over unique data. Unique and hard-to-recreate data. Unique data that’s continually enriched by its users. We’re talking social software, aren’t we?

It seems increasingly clear that there are two sides to Web 2.0. The sunny side – the ‘social software’ side – is where we ask questions like:

Q: How will the data sources become unique and impossible to recreate?
A: By being enriched!
Q: How will the data be enriched?
A: Through being used by people!
Q: How will people use the data?
A: Quickly, easily, intuitively and in their thousands!

That’s also the easy side of Web 2.0 – there aren’t too many posers there, as you can see.

But there’s another side, where we ask questions like “Who will own those data sources?” – and, increasingly, “How will they get hold of them to begin with?” Which, I think, is where GreatestJournal comes in. In comments at Shelley’s post, Roger Benningfield made the Web 2.0 connection:

I came across a whole swarm of Web 2.0 stuff in my aggregator. “Microformats, XHTML, death to walled gardens!” they cried.And I thought, “Oh, you guys are *fucked*.” Because ultimately, the business models they’re envisioning are going to make GreatestJournal’s response look friendly in comparison. If they ever manage to build any momentum (questionable), they’re going to hit a brick wall of posts like this one… a *big* wall.

Case in point: a thoroughly odd development called Sxore. Adina: “The idea is that if a user signs up to comment on one blog, they’ll be able to comment on other blogs. … Sxore creates an RSS feed for each user. Presumably you can follow comments made by that user across different blogs. So, if you think someone has good ideas about blog visualizations, you get to read what they also think about President Bush.” Hmmm. What was that about users owning and controlling their data again?

Om Malik has been having similar thoughts:

if we tag, bookmark or share, and help or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!Take Skype as an example – it rides on our broadband pipes, for which we a hefty monthly charge. It uses our computers and pipes to replace a network that cost phone companies billions to build. In exchange we can make free phone calls to other Skype users. I have no problems with that. I had no problems with Skype charging me for SkypeIN and SkypeOUT calls as well, for this was only a premium service only to be used if and when needed.

However, now that it is part of eBay, I do cringe a little.

It seems to me that the Web 2.0 hype is about social software, but only in the sense that it’s about monetising social software: in Marxist terms it’s a form of primitive accumulation. In non-Marxist terms, it’s enclosure: appropriating something that exists outside the circuit of trading and ownership and managing the supply so that it can only be obtained within that circuit. Or: stealing it and selling it back. I don’t know what the GreatestJournal business model is, or how Sxore are planning on making their money; probably something perfectly obvious and straightforward. But it seems to involve turning our work into their assets. I’m not too keen.

In response to Adam (in comments), my concern isn’t that it’s impossible to draw a line where the benefits of social software can coexist with monetisation (I myself use and endorse the fine products of, after all). What worries me, firstly, is that the drive for monetisation is producing pressures for closure (and enclosure). Secondly, that half the people who advocate Web 2.0 seem to share the company perspective to the point of positively welcoming these developments (see the O’Reilly sermon linked above) – while a lot of the rest are so committed to the vision as to be spectacularly ill-prepared to put up any resistance.

My immediate reaction to Shelley’s GreatestJournal post was to leap to the defence of walled gardens – “Walled gardens are full of people!”. It’s a nice line, but on reflection I don’t think it’s quite right. What we’re hearing is a sublime (although far from unprecedented) example of chutzpah – a critique of barriers by advocates of enclosure. The blogosphere isn’t a walled garden, it’s a wide-open common where nobody has ownership rights. An enclave which can’t be strip-mined isn’t walled in; all that’s happened is that the predators – who would put their own fences around it if they could – have been walled out. Long may they remain so.

(The Americanism in the title is deliberate, incidentally.)

*There Is No Long Tail


  1. Adam
    Posted 19 October 2005 at 03:18 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Phil, I responded to your comment over at Burningbird, but I’ll just copy it over to here as well. After reading your more detailed post, I guess what you’re saying overall is that a possible dark side of “Web 2.0” is that user data may end up separated, but out of anyone’s control as it gets stolen, misappropriated, etc. My hope at least is that companies who put effort into developing compelling apps find a natural way to own enough data, perhaps aggregate or derived, to monetize and stay in business and yet give users control over their creations as much as possible. I’m not sure where this line is, but if we keep this conversation going I’m sure it’ll get clearer.

    Here’s my response from Burningbird…btw, I’m working on an interesting post on long tails / power laws, and looking forward to your comments once I have time to get it done and posted…

    Hi Phil! I’m not sure what “2.0-bothering” means, but I should point out that the first part of your quote is me, and the second is me summarizing a post by Robert Young. But in any case, I actually think I’d agree with Robert that switching costs *can* be “created by users” — an easy example is the virtual analog of one cafe becoming a popular place to meet your friends: as just one part of a social network, you are kind of stuck going to that cafe, but it’s not because of some action by the cafe, it’s because your friends as a whole decided to hang out there, creating a “switching cost” — if you switch, you can’t hang out with your friends.

    As for the O’Reilly quote, I think it’s closely related to the whole point of what I was at least trying to say in my post: I subscribe to the ideal that users should own all of their data, but sometimes this isn’t practical or even right, and where to draw this line needs more thought by everyone together. Continuing with the physical analogy of the cafe, what if as part of hanging out at the cafe, your friends carved cool stuff into the walls of the cafe booths (as was actually the case at a cafe I used to hang out at). This is “data” that the cafe certainly owns, even though it was generated by users! Now, I’m not sure what the virtual analog of this is, but it’s food for thought; and I hope there’s something in between essentially adding no value and “stealing data and then selling it back,” which I’d certainly agree is wrong but have a hard time thinking of any examples of (?).

    Finally, I think that while I agree that the current round of social software hype might have a lot of hot air circulating, there are in fact some interesting things happening, and one of them is the conversation and new technologies around “separating data from apps.” At least when I talk about this, what I mean is that for example if your blog is at Blogger, you should be able to take your text and images and haul them over to TypePad if you want. This is a completely different issue than defining legitimate uses for publicly available data. The latter is certainly an important question, but has more to do with monetization and recognition than control, since if you make your data public, you necessarily lose a great deal of control over it. That I think is the crux of the issue that prompted this post in the first place…

  2. Adina
    Posted 27 December 2005 at 15:55 | Permalink | Reply

    I suspect this pattern arises from client-server architecture and server cost. Successful client-server apps like google and del and flickr wind up costing someone a truckload of money. They need to do something to pay for the servers. There’s hardware and backup and patches and air conditioning and so on. Even if you factored out venture money and outsourced r&d and the other artifacts of high-tech commercial culture, you’d still need someone to pay for the servers. Thus the classic phenomenon of a successful, idealistic web app provider doing a begathon when the server goes down.

    The governance issues posed by server ownership get particularly strange when it comes to online games; eventually it could lead to political governance, where costs are paid via taxes to a democratically chosen government.

    Some applications (aggregated comments) might be done decentralized. e.g. a shared bookmarking service that aggregates the bookmarks in each of our browsers, and allows browsing and querying of the virtual db, or a decentralized aggregated comment tracker.

    When these apps are conceived after there’s an installed base of tools, it requires painful standards work to make this sort of thing happen, and then the installed base turn adoption process can take years.

    In many cases it’s easier to throw up a server, which gets us into the economic bind.

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