Digital Sharecropping

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Nicholas Carr:

"One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It's a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It's only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale - on a web scale - that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it's simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy." (

"It's worth remembering that the business model of Web 2.0 social networks is the sharecropping model. After the Civil War, when the original sharecropping system took hold in the American south, the plantation owners made money in two ways. They leased land to the sharecroppers, and they also leased them their tools. It's no different this time. The payments for land (Web pages) and tools (video widgets et al.) don't come directly, through exchanges of cash, but rather indirectly, through the sale of advertisements. But the idea is the same." (


Key argument: Peer Production, Crowdsourcing, when done on private platforms, is a form of exploitation of free labour.

Tim Slee, reacting to an earlier blog commentary:

"The distinguishing technological feature of the collaborative web ("web 2.0") is the shift from peer-to-peer networks to a "platform" architecture that is built on top of the lower-level protocols of the Internet.

Wikipedia is a platform: it defines the ways in which you can interact with it, stores the changes you make, and provides security and authentication mechanisms among other things. Facebook is a platform. Amazon is a platform. YouTube is a platform. Blogging takes place on platforms. So the authors are wrong when they say that "As a result of various forces—notably the ascension of the general purpose computer, peer-to-peer technologies, and the internet—all manner of established verities in the content industry are falling." [p215] None of the platforms mentioned above operate in a peer-to-peer manner.

The distinction matters because when content is built on a platform, it is in some important senses owned by the platform-owner or aggregator. Private ownership is present, even if the content (videos, book reviews etc) is explicitly shared by its amateur producer. The suggestion that "Users can modify open source software as they see fit, and can choose whether to make their modifications publicly available, but cannot charge for the use of software derived from an open source program." is incorrect for open source software itself (it applies only to GPL'd software and not software produced under other open source licenses such as the BSD license, and even then copyright owners - such as MySQL AB, now a part of Sun Microsystems - can and do charge for some versions of the software). More importantly for this paper, it is also misleading when it comes to collaborative content. Chad and Steve cannot sell an individual video produced by an amateur, but they can sell the entire collection of videos lock stock and barrel to Google for about a third of a billion dollars each; Michael Birch can sell Bebo and all its content (including Billy Bragg's songs) to AOL and pocket $600 million. Now that's commercial. Or you can get a seat at Davos, of course, which now seems to be the Cannes red carpet equivalent for our youthful webby leaders.

Amateur production on a non-commercial platform such as Wikipedia is non-commercial. And it's important. No argument there. But amateur production on a commercial platform is commercial activity. With one party in each transaction motivated my money, it's the sound of one hand shaking. Back in 2003 Tim Bray's dinner companion Robb Beal introduced the phrase "digital sharecropping" to distinguished building software "for any platform that is owned and operated by a company" from building sofware for the web. But now that dichotomy has faded: the web includes many platforms owned and operated by companies and sharecropping has moved online along with it. Nicholas Carr has been particularly pointed about the movement of digital sharecropping onto the web, and Seth Finkelstein has pointed to several examples including citizen journalism. It's a phrase that should be front and centre of everyone's mind when they see the phrase "networked production".

The distinction can often be seen in who is sharing what. On a non-commercial platform, the amateurs share and the platform owners share as well. At least, my understanding is that on Wikipedia not only the content but also the software and large amounts of data mining derived from it about users and so on is shared publicly. In contrast, on a commercial platform only the amateur material is shared. The contributions of the commercial part of the transaction (Amazon's sales data for example; data on user habits; the software that runs the platform itself) are not shared -- in fact this half of the story is hidden with as much zealousness as the source code of any closed-source company." (

Tim Slee continues with another important argument:

"One argument made by the authors is that the incorporation of money into production would drive out amateur efforts in a blood-donation kind of way. I'm happy to help push someone's car out from a snow drift for free, but I wouldn't do it for a dollar. But there are two groups of people with an incentive to keep money out of the equation: one is the promoters of real community-driven, shared production (the authors' camp, and one I'm quite happy with) and the other is the turbocapitalist platform owners such as Amazon (would you review a book for a nickel? would you trust the review of someone who did?) It is this shared interest in supressing the role of money for very different reasons that makes me most queasy in contemplating the future of the Internet. We need to be clear in distinguishing public goods from privately owned plantations." (

More Information

  1. Tim Bray introduces the concept in 2003,