Introduction by danah boyd
As an ethnographer and a geek, I’ve both participated in and witnessed the development of the current tech ecosystem, the ecosystem usually referred to as “Web 2.0” or “social media” or, increasingly, that which is fueling “big data.” I’ve watched many of those around me ask themselves hard questions about the moral and societal implications of their contributions (boyd and Crawford 2012). I’m in awe of the fundamentally new ways in which people have been able to connect. I’m ecstatic at the possibilities of using data for good; and I still see the internet as my saving grace. But I struggle with my own contributions to both the scene and the industry of technology. When grappling with the uglier side of the industry, I refuse to reject it all or paint complex people in simplistic terms. This means that I get portrayed as an apologist for the tech industry, but this black and white way of thinking about people and their practices is precisely what concerns me when we talk about the commercial nature of the tech industry and participatory culture more generally. If we really want to understand what’s unfolding, we need to use different analytic techniques to get a nuanced view of commercial culture. This requires us to move past simplistic explanations and caricatures.
My own love of the internet began when I was a teenager trying to escape the hypocrisy of my hometown. Through the internet, I met people around the world and was exposed to new ideas. This led me to study computer science, originally to do computer graphics. During my collegiate years, I watched the internet go from an esoteric geek space to a venture-backed commercial zoo. I had intended to move to San Francisco and be a part of the tech scene, but, by the time I was nearing graduation, the MBAs had overrun the town, and “big ideas” involved creating new websites that did nothing other than make font sizes bigger for elderly internet users and use their interest in big fonts to provide specialty advertising to the elderly. It was gross, and so I opted for graduate school at MIT. From there I watched the bubble burst in 2000.
I moved to San Francisco in the wake of that explosion, ecstatic to be surrounded by geeks and designers who had happily bid adieu to the financial leeches. By 2003, a new tech scene was buzzing. Product people were gathering with user experience thinkers and coders and tech visionaries. I was the resident scholar, even if my credentials were lacking in an academic sense; I had, after all, just dropped out of graduate school and hadn’t re-entered yet. Conferences were held wherever people could get cheap space, and, if the food was free, it was inevitably questionably gelatinous pizza. The signal was loud and clear: it was time to let go of the money and focus on ideas.
There were plenty of people in Silicon Valley in those days who were thinking about creating businesses, folks who thought it was still possible to make it big financially. But they weren’t household names yet, “brogrammers” (a derogatory term for programmers for whom machismo is central) weren’t a thing, and there wasn’t a crazy caste system where status became fraught and contested. Sure, it was hard to ignore certain boisterous people that everyone knew, but the scene was locally defined instead of being shaped by external forces.
The driving frame of the new tech scene was “social software,” and the idea was to build new technologies that would allow people to focus on interacting with others. The tools themselves built on a long tradition of practices formally called “groupware,” but most of the creators imagined something grander and all-encompassing. Wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, tagging, and social networking were all hot topics. Many of those in the scene started espousing philosophies that centered on the ways in which technology could transform society for the better. This strain had a long history, especially for those who viewed the internet as a pathway towards societal enlightenment.
As energy built in Silicon Valley, and to a lesser degree in cities like New York and London and Austin, people started paying attention. Conferences hosted by O’Reilly started attracting large audiences, and SXSW-Interactive, a relic of the first wave of internet culture, started exploding. Most of the geeks weren’t particularly cognizant of the implications as discussion of Web 2.0 began to unfold (Ellison and boyd 2013). As this term started gaining traction, it quickly became apparent that the concept came to mean different things to different constituencies. From my perspective, there are three core facets: technology, practice, and business.
As everyday people began embracing the resultant social media tools, a cultural practice emerged that is also called Web 2.0. When people first embraced social technologies during the Web 1.0 era, there was a stark separation between tools used for personal communication – email, instant messenger, etc. – and tools used to create community – MUDs and MOOs, bulletin boards, etc. While interest-based online communities were highly celebrated, most people’s mediated communication was private. The new wave of social technologies upended this, blurring interest-based communities and friendship-based interactions and bringing interpersonal activities into the public. Additionally, the rise of the “social graph” (the technology behind the relationships underpinning a social network site) meant that people’s conceptions of connection moved away from the notion of group membership to being part of the network. Practically, Web 2.0 ended up meaning social tools designed around the construct of a “friend.” This meant understanding the world through social networks – a dynamic which fascinated sociologists and other network scientists, who began obsessing over the new technologies.
As engagement with these new genres took off, business interests kicked in. Venture capitalists, business-minded entrepreneurs, and advertisers wanted to party like it was 1999 again. Those with a passion for monetization flocked to Silicon Valley, and their exuberance and business-speak made “Web 2.0” a buzzword that transcended the original community that was talking about these issues. It’s this version of Web 2.0 that began to fragment the scene and propelled the tech industry into the forefront of commercial culture.
Over a decade after it all began, it’s hard not to ask critical questions about what’s become of the tech industry. At the same time that companies are reaching record high valuations, Silicon Valley is plagued by arrogance, misogyny, and inequity. Following a global economic downturn, politicians everywhere are turning to technology to be an economic savior, oblivious to the costs of giving that much power to a single sector. Market forces are driving questionable trade-offs, prompting the public to use terms like “icky” and “creepy” and “ugly” to describe everything from the pervasive marketing surveillance culture to the economic disruptions that also destabilize everything from employment to social trust.
It is easy to become dystopic, and plenty of early tech evangelists have. Thinkers such as Jaron Lanier and Sherry Turkle – once leading proponents for infusing tech into everything – are now lambasting the industry with equal zealotry. The early Web 1.0 pioneer Ethan Zuckerman (2014) publicly apologized for his contributions to insidious web advertising practices. At the 2014 SXSW conference, in a session hosted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, two science fiction authors who have been central to the network of geeks surrounding social technologies – Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling – faced off in a debate over whether or not the internet as they knew it was dead or if it could be revived; Cory was far more optimistic and hopeful, but still struggling. Their sentiments reflected the conflicting feelings that many of the geeks in the community are experiencing.
As those inside the tech scene that helped birth the social media ecosystem struggled with their role in it and the wide variation in practices and values, those outside have portrayed Silicon Valley in simplistic capitalist terms. While it’s easy to focus on the obscene profits made by tech companies under the umbrella of Web 2.0, it’s also important to recognize that economic interests cannot fully explain the norms and culture of Silicon Valley. Many engineers and entrepreneurs have a strong vision about how the world should work, and that often drives their decisions even more than profitability. These values, and the implications of them, are often less visible to critics than the profits made by their companies.
Take, for example, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Thanks to Facebook’s launch on the stock market and the ongoing profitability of the company based on advertising revenue, he’s dirty filthy rich. Thanks to his wealth and Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of him in the film The Social Network, most people believe that money, fame, or girls drive Zuckerberg. Based on my interactions with him, I think that this is an unfair and inaccurate depiction. While we vehemently disagree about how to make the world a better place, Zuckerberg genuinely believes that everyone will benefit if everyday people openly share in public. He sees transparency as the solution to inequality, dishonesty, and intolerance. And he feels that the best way to make this happen is by creating a piece of technology. He also believes that capitalism incentivizes the best minds to work hard, which is why he has structured his business the way he has.
Philosophically, I disagree with Zuckerberg. I think that he’s too willing to look the other way as marginalized people are disenfranchised as a byproduct of his efforts to create a more perfect public sphere. And I think that his tools reinforce inequities more than they dissolve them. But I also think that his vision is shaped more by his belief regarding how the world should work than by a capitalist agenda. That said, he now runs a public company and is both beholden to stockholders and the employer of thousands. Vision and beliefs are only one part of people’s decision-making logic, but they should not be conflated with capitalism simply because they are embedded inside capitalist infrastructure.
There is no doubt that the logic of capitalism is baked into Web 2.0, but so are various neoliberal and libertarian beliefs. If the tech industry were purely about raw capitalism, the whole goal would be to exploit people for personal wealth. That is certainly happening in some segments of the industry, just as it did in Web 1.0. But part of what makes the tech industry and its widely embraced social tools so complicated is that capitalism cannot fully explain the dynamics here. This creates analytic challenges, because Marxist critiques of social media and the tech ecosystem often miss the mark, failing to get at the nuances that are at play in the development and dissemination of new social technologies. Furthermore, as the tech industry has expanded, non-profit agendas, governmental interventions, and social desires all play a role in shaping participatory culture. These issues are often intertwined in unexpected and under-analyzed ways.
Web 2.0 and Participatory Culture
Henry: Many critical responses to Web 2.0 assume that participatory culture and Web 2.0 are the same thing. They assume that, if they can discredit Web 2.0, they can discredit the concept of participatory culture. One reason why I am increasingly stressing the pre-digital history of participatory culture is to make the point that this struggle to expand the communicative capacity accessible to the public has a much deeper history, that the desire to participate cannot be reduced to the affordances and promises of recent technological platforms.
Web 2.0 initially seemed to embrace the kinds of grassroots communities we’ve been discussing here, offering some new affordances that have enabled groups to create and share media more easily with each other. But, these companies also sought aggressively to protect the rights of copyright holders, and their very limited grasp of fair use practices constrains the grassroots production of culture. They had to cut deals with advertisers and data-miners and venture capitalists, all designed to make their platforms more profitable. So, whatever the ideals of these technology innovators, underneath the rhetoric of participation are mechanisms of regulation and control. Many of us felt deeply betrayed by the kinds of shifts danah outlines above.
Web 2.0 did represent a fairly fundamental rethinking of how cultural production operates under capitalism, though it did not make producing culture more democratic in any absolute sense. It did broaden who could produce and share culture; it did invite some discourses about responsibility and accountability that have helped to fuel current struggles over corporate terms of service; it did offer a model of cultural and social participation that many found enticing when the terms were first introduced. But those of us who care about the values of participatory culture need to be deeply critical of that move to capture and commodify the public’s participatory impulses.
While early explanations of Web 2.0 seemed to imply a simple and transparent congruence between the interests of producers and consumers, every Web 2.0 company, in practice, has faced struggles over the terms of public participation, debates over data-mining and privacy, copyright issues, censorship issues, or concerns over commercialization and branding. Media companies have had to cede some power to their audiences in order to hold onto their loyalty, and, as they do so, networked audiences are increasingly identifying and acting on collective interests. The reality that Web 2.0 platforms over-promise and under-deliver in terms of participation sets the preconditions for these struggles.
danah: As creators and cultural critics, it’s easy to be wary of these companies, their agendas, and their promises, but, in watching these shifts unfold, I can’t help but hold onto the cultural logic that frames the development of these systems and the various pressures that alter the development of a company and its tools. The creators of most startups over-promise, not because they are seeking to deceive, but because they are telling the story of what they want to create, the vision that drives their efforts. The question then becomes: what are the forces that prompt a shift in their vision?
The quick and dirty answer is capitalism, but the reality is much more complex. Some people start companies to get rich, but many more start companies with an idea to solve a problem they are experiencing and which they feel is not being addressed adequately by the current set of public and private offerings, whether that problem is finding a date, sharing a video, or finding a house to stay in while on vacation. Founders start piecing together code and, at some point, realize that they need help. They seek money from venture capitalists to keep their venture growing and have to make trade-offs; they hire other people to help them and are forced into learning how to manage people. They have to scale beyond their early adopters and balance the conflicting interests of users. Regulators, journalists, and the public writ large respond to their idea, and they have to find a way to manage everyone’s opinion about what should be done. Building these systems to scale is not easy and all sorts of problems come out in the process, highlighting how difficult it is to create something that matters to many people. The story of Web 2.0 began with a vision, but sustaining it required navigating people, capital, and cultural dynamics.
Mimi: What you are both describing with Web 2.0 has a family resemblance to the soul searching that happens when cult media and subcultures go commercial and mainstream. Web 2.0 has become a boundary object between stuff that the subcultural geek values and business, and that’s why it feels so contested. It makes sense that the fans and other groups associated with the subcultural side of things have an ambivalent relationship with Web 2.0 because it sits between grassroots and commercial forms of participatory culture.
I want to call attention to two other tech players that define contemporary participatory culture and are at least as important as the Web 2.0 scene: I think of the big three tech industries for participatory culture as Web 2.0, gaming, and mobile. Those three streams came together at a particular historical moment to produce what we think of as today’s digital and networked participatory culture. And these three industries also have different relationships to the folks formerly known as the audience and have taken different strategies, with different cultural and subcultural capital associated with them.
Gaming is in some ways positioned as an entertainment subculture, similar to how geeks are a tech subculture. Mobile is another case entirely. It was driven by mainstream kids and consumer-facing mass technologies rather than marginal geeky ones. Mobile was not a communication practice driven by subcultural groups and signaling, and it was from the beginning a space dominated by massive consumer technology players. It has a very different origin story than the internet, which had its high-class idealistic origin story, and gaming, which came from a comparatively lowbrow geek DIY oppositional subculture. Texting culture had a populist origin from the start.
Kids growing up with all three of these technology worlds at their fingertips look to games, mobile, and internet culture for different kinds of social and participatory needs. All three of these industries are adapting in tandem with the growth of participatory culture, changing how they interface with their users, fans, audiences. When I started my research on children’s software and games in the 1990s, it was all about shipping shrink-wrapped CD-ROMs to highly defined market niches and throwing the product over the fence to players. Then internet distribution and networked gaming came along, and suddenly the distance between the player and developer narrows dramatically. Players are not only in constant communication with the industry, but they begin actively to mod and hack games in ways that erode the boundaries between players and developers. More recently, mobile has added the dimension of constant and ubiquitous contact. It’s been fascinating observing this increasingly intertwined development happening from the vantage point of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry as well. Now, with mobile, net, gaming, and entertainment culture totally intertwined, you’re seeing the DIY hacker orientation of gamers playing in the same space as the social connectivity of mobile and peer-to-peer colliding with longstanding popular culture practices. The norms and values driving the industry side are being cross-pollinated too.
danah: Technology development was historically a process of design, develop, and deploy. As I mentioned earlier, Web 2.0 introduced the perpetual beta, which means that nothing was ever completed in design or development before being shared with users. As a result, we see the explicit co-construction of technological systems, as opposed to the social construction of technology that many technology scholars discussed in previous generations (Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch, 1987). Not only are companies not throwing software over the fence any longer; they’re also watching users and trying to iterate in response to them. Dan Perkel’s (2008) work on “copy–paste literacy” within MySpace is a great case study for highlighting how big companies are reacting to and engaging with users.
Early on, MySpace basically screwed up. They didn’t have the technical tools to check all of the things that people fit into the forms they were asked to fill out for their profiles. A young woman figured out that she could put in HTML code, and she started putting in HTML code to modify her profile. Engineers in the company recognized this within twelve hours, but they decided not to respond in order to see what would happen. What emerged was this unbelievable community of people figuring out how to modify their profiles, trade layout and background code, and otherwise alter their MySpace profiles in innovative ways. Some at MySpace wanted to put a stop to this practice, especially since a lot of the mods were particularly hideous – replicating the style of 1990s GeoCities – but MySpace’s executives decided that more was to be gained by letting the users maintain control. They only stepped in once this loophole started getting abused by scammers, phishers, and others with more malicious intentions. Over and over again, we see companies building features in response to user practice while users continue to push the boundaries of the technologies’ design.
Mimi: What you describe in the MySpace case reminds me of how Japanese mobile providers stumbled on text messaging after they saw teenage girls sending messages through their pagers. Over time, opportunistic response to accidental discovery of user innovation has evolved into a more explicit set of values and practices on the industry side. In addition to getting more effective at capturing and capitalizing on user and player innovation, tech companies try to benefit from the halo associated with a more populist or democratic approach. Even with this adaptation, though, they are often playing a catchup and appropriation game in relation to user-generated innovation and values. Tech companies are trying to frame these moves in ways that are advantageous to their agenda, but it’s not always clear that they are steering the ship. It’s tempting to think of people like Jobs or Zuckerberg as overlords with a master plan, but the reality is much more complex. They could also be seen as figureheads for movements that already had momentum.
Core to the success of tech enterprises is not only engineering and innovation, but also active listening and methodologies for capitalizing on trends and creativity cultivated in the wilds of the networked world. The positive spin is that the industry is responsive to user and player needs. The negative spin is that it is exploitative because economic value accrues only to the capitalists. It’s important to acknowledge the diversity of players – political and commercial, as well as everyday folk – who are driving change and innovation, whether it is teenage girls in Japan, entrepreneurs in Ghana, or WoW players in China. In an eagerness to critique the tech sector, I see a tendency to over-ascribe agency to Silicon Valley just because there’s a handful of geek boys making a lot of money. It’s important to keep in mind that Web 2.0 is a parochial concern of a narrow segment of a specific industry sector, albeit an influential one.
Henry: You’re insisting on the multiple motives within any given sector, which is realistic. There’s a tendency for Web 2.0 critics to strip away all of the details you two are talking about. The cynical perspective is that capitalism always works the same way – nothing really changes. These critics can sustain those claims by flattening out motives. There is a tendency to say that capitalists are only interested in making money, and not to recognize that many of them individually, even many companies collectively, have a social vision that also defines their goals (as, for example, danah’s reference to Zuckerberg’s social vision).
There are sharp disagreements, debates, and contradictions within companies that are not clear if we simply look at their organizational charts or trace their financial holdings. In many ways, these companies are dysfunctional families, where different units are often competing with each other for resources. Competing visions of the future are pit against each other at every board meeting, with the result that change within the corporation is often one step forward and one step back.
danah: It goes beyond self-justification and conflicted motives. We can critique what Web 2.0 became, but it’s also important to understand where it came from. Web 2.0 set itself as different from what gets retrospectively called Web 1.0. But what is Web 1.0? Is it the dot-com boom, defined by e-commerce and vaporware products created by marketers to capitalize on investor interest? Or does Web 1.0 consist of homepages like those on Tripod and “virtual” communities like the WELL that early technology evangelists such as Howard Rheingold and Stewart Brand celebrated? Or is Web 1.0 the technical architecture comprised of HTTP, URLs, and HTML that was at the computational heart of the World Wide Web?
It’s easy to find capitalism and greed in Web 1.0 too. In the late 1990s, San Francisco was dripping with MBAs looking to make a buck on inane ideas that they sold to venture capitalists. But that wasn’t the whole story. That wasn’t the Web that I fell in love with. Still, when the dot-com boom fell to its knees, I was stunned at how many journalists, investors, and Marxist academics pointed to the crash as proof that the whole Web thing was just a fad. They did so because all they saw was the commercial component. I fear that we’re replicating that cycle.
Henry: One of the places where Web 2.0 rhetoric distorts our understanding of participatory culture has to do with the ways it represents the collective production of knowledge. O’Reilly’s original “What Is Web 2.0” (2005) focuses its discussion of “harnessing collective intelligence” around the blogosphere and also around people adding hyperlinks to existing websites. These are activities that are publicly visible, consciously performed, and involve some degree of collaboration and deliberation. Published just four years later, “Web Squared” (O’Reilly and Battelle 2009), however, is a product of the era of big data and, as a consequence, depicts a considerable loss of collective agency in shaping the directions of the culture. It’s about data shed unknowingly by users in the process of conducting their business and social lives online, but not about the conscious efforts of groups of people to reshape the technological environment to better serve their shared interests. This shift more or less reflects changes in the business environment and provides a rationalization for the kinds of data-mining practices that are more and more dominant in corporate America.
Mimi: Participatory and networked culture is forcing us to confront these relationships between individual and collective agency in fascinating ways. People across cultures are being pushed to grapple with concepts like hive mind and network intelligence which see the individual and the collective are inseparable. It’s one thing to grapple with these issues in the abstract and another to grapple with them experientially and pragmatically through online sharing, privacy settings, and peer production. This vocabulary of collectivism is even filtering into the US mindset, which has been so committed to seeing individual and collective interests as inherently in conflict.
Mimi: Shifting gears a bit, can we talk about alternative governance and revenue models that reflect the spirit of participatory culture? Is it possible to create sustainable organizations and revenue models that are not completely driven by shareholder interests and traditional business models? Can we maintain, or maybe recover, a sense of the public interest and the public sector in digital and networked culture? Whether it’s to do with fandoms, Minecraft servers, or Anonymous, the online world has spawned a whole range of networked collectives that are organized based on a range of community governance models. A cluster of organizations have been building on these models of networked governance – for example, Mozilla, Wikimedia, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, Digital Public Library of America. Some of these models look like traditional non-profit and public-sector models, but some, such as Mozilla, are hybrid commercial and non-commercial models, where they derive commercial revenue to support a non-profit mission, which I think is interesting. Obviously the idea of hybrid economic models has been getting more visibility after Larry Lessig’s book Free Culture (2004) and with the growth of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and the resource-sharing economy. Taking a knee-jerk anti-capitalist stance can stand in the way of thinking creatively about possible alternatives to purely profitdriven and more exploitative modes of capitalist value creation.
In addition to the hybrid model of Mozilla, Wikimedia stands out because there’s no advertising on it, and yet it’s sustainable. I had assumed that it was sustainable because of grants and fundraising, but it’s not. It’s completely community-sustained, and it’s a demonstration of the fact that there are possibilities for alternative models that get past the polarization of capitalists versus critics.
danah: I would disagree with the idea that Wikipedia is inherently sustainable. It’s as sustainable as public media like NPR or PBS. It hosts an annual beg-a-thon, relying on people to sustain it because they’re passionate end-users. It’s able to do this because wealthy people are passionate about the service and have a commitment to a specific vision of the public good. But each year the beg-a-thon gets lengthier and more invasive. The costs of maintaining Wikipedia grow, but the cachet of the site loses its luster. As a result, I often wonder how long it can self-sustain through this route. More importantly, many other kinds of services can’t be sustained through beg-a-thons.
Mimi: The reality of Wikimedia right now is that it is self-sustaining and none of us have the crystal ball as to whether it will survive that way in perpetuity. Just like your local NPR station, it is largely privileged folk who provide that revenue. I object to the begging metaphor because it implies that Wikipedia provides no value. I also have no problem with people with more wealth footing the bill for open resources with collective value, and this should be celebrated and recognized. The question is whether this model would work for other organizations and media types.
danah: Don’t get me wrong – I am a huge fan of the patronage system, but I also believe that social services should be paid for by taxing the wealthy, and this makes me a heretic in many circles. I also think that Wikipedia is extraordinarily valuable. I just get nervous about claims that a model that relies on annual fundraising and benevolent patrons is inherently sustainable. And I refer to it as a beg-a-thon because the language that the site uses during these fundraising efforts is designed to leverage people’s emotions and make them feel obliged to contribute.
Henry: These questions about sustainable alternative models offer a way of moving this conversation forward. We need to have a critical response to the current media environment that reflects both our hopes for the possibilities of collective action within a networked culture and our concerns at the ways that any data we shed can and will be used against us in the marketplace. So many of the academic critics of Web 2.0 stop short of proposing viable alternatives that might allow us to seize some of the opportunities many of us recognized in the early days of the Web. If you start from the premise that everything companies do is by definition evil and corrupt, then you’ve opted out of participating in the conversation about what ethical, sustainable, community-oriented uses of social networking tools and media-sharing platforms might look like. If you fall back on ideals about the purity of public media, that’s probably not going to be what sustains large numbers of experiments in the long run. We need to ask what happens when communities that began by seeing themselves as alternative to dominant social, political, economic, or cultural practices are becoming so dependent on an infrastructure that’s driven by commercial motives.
Mimi: Without being too much of a Pollyanna, I wonder if we can ask how grassroots and participatory culture can exploit commercial culture rather than always assume that directionality goes the other way. I watch kids being incredibly resourceful about getting content for free; I watch how industries like record labels and traditional journalism have been seriously challenged and downsized; and I watch how big auto manufacturers are developing products that enable car-sharing. This isn’t simply “power to the people!” But there are a broad range of actors who take part in tech innovation, and commercial industries are not the ones controlling major cultural shifts. Acknowledging that people are making money off participatory culture is not the same as saying it’s all driven by capitalist incentives and values. I see a real questioning among young people, particularly with the collapse of the labor market for middle-class jobs, about whether capitalism can really deliver on the promise of a better life for the 99 percent.
Fan Culture and Free Labor
Henry: Let me pick up the story from a fan’s perspective. Fans were early adopters and lead users of Web 2.0 platforms; they were quick to embrace LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, and Second Life. Fans were early in experimenting with podcasting, blogging, and mp3 files. While we could see some reduction of the social vision in the ways Web 2.0 companies described these relationships, there also were many points of overlap between the social vision of these companies and the ways that fans described their shared ideals as a community.
The moment I, and many other fans, woke up to the dangers of Web 2.0 was prompted by a company called FanLib, which decided to take a Web 2.0 approach to fan fiction writing. It started out harmlessly enough – working with rights holders to get them to sponsor official fan fiction contests around minor cult series, just to test the waters to see if fans and companies could work together in this way. But FanLib wanted something more – to become the platform for fan fiction on the web. They tried to aggressively undercut some of the platforms that had emerged from fandom itself, recruiting the most visible fan writers and bringing them on board. FanLib adopted a much more corporatized language to speak to the rights holders, suggesting in one prospectus that it was going to teach fans how to “color within the lines.” The fans soon saw the company trying to make a profit off fan fiction writing without taking any legal responsibility to defend the community against any legal ramifications and, perhaps, offering them space to publish their work in return for accepting lots of regulation over their content.
This whole proposition contrasts sharply with the fan community’s long tradition of seeing stories as gifts shared within a circle of friends. In some cases, the stories are written for specific individuals even though shared more broadly. In all cases, they were labors of love for which no one expected compensation. There had been longstanding and very nuanced debates about what forms of revenue from fan publishing would constitute profiteering. Can you make enough from selling a zine to recoup its production costs? Why should we charge more for a print zine than what it cost to print? Can we charge travel to fan conventions or shipping in order to distribute the zine, given that the fans also want to go to the convention for pleasure, and not all fans can afford to attend? And now, this company was moving into a community that had clear ethics governing economic transactions, trying to turn fan fiction from a gift into a commodity.
One outgrowth of these debates around FanLib was the creation of the Organization for Transformative Works, which was designed to enable the fan community to defend its own traditions and protect its own rights to cultural participation. Fan lawyers agreed to defend fans who faced legal pushback for their creative expression. Fan academics created an online journal that would promote the field of fan studies. Fan programmers and entrepreneurs created alternative social media platforms, such as the Archive of Our Own, which would support the sharing of fan works without having to accept the terms offered by Web 2.0 companies. These developments were occurring at the same time that academics were beginning to express their concerns about Web 2.0, and especially their critiques of the “free labor” behind user-generated content (Terranova 2003) – that is, the rhetoric of web 2.0 presumes a world where companies are able to tap into various kinds of “user-generated content,” content that emerges from the creative contribution of participants who, like fans, are motivated to share what they create with others without payment.
danah: It’s important to situate labor in participatory culture in light of broader shifts in how labor is constructed. I grew up in a community defined by blue-collar and agricultural labor during the period in which it was shifting to low-status white-collar and service labor. These shifts had serious consequences. Many in my community experienced the shift from factory to service labor as emasculating. Meanwhile, the rise of the so-called creative class was viewed with disdain. I can’t tell if this was a product of how education was viewed or if it was simply because it was hard for those in my town to get their head around that kind of labor as work.
In this same vein, there was a lot of creative output that wasn’t even seen as labor at all. This didn’t mean that people weren’t involved in garage bands and hoping that they’d one day be famous. Or that they weren’t making quilts for family members that could’ve been sold. It’s just that there was a stark separation between what was constructed as labor and what was understood to be in the realm of family and community, hobby and pleasure.
Fast forward twenty years, and scholars are talking about how people should be compensated for their creative labor. The assumption is that anything that people do that creates capital for someone should be narrated as labor and monetized by all. I can’t help but feel really icky about that, not because I don’t think people should be compensated for labor but because I think that there’s a social cost to understanding every act of production as labor. Once you think of your activities in the frame of labor, the question of worth emerges. How valuable is your production compared to others? And the reality is that we don’t treat people’s contributions equitably.
I ran into this personally with my blogging. When bloggers were putting advertising on their websites, I was pressured to do so. Some of my friends were making tens of thousands of dollars per month. Yet, I made a conscious decision not to monetize my blog, even though it cost me to sustain it. I realized that I didn’t want to understand my blogging in those terms. I didn’t want to think about how many people viewed my content or how profitable my audience could be. I literally never looked at my traffic because I didn’t want that to be my frame of reference for my production. I didn’t want to see blogging as labor. I still don’t. And it pains me when people tell me that my blogging for free results is a devaluation of journalists’ production of content. But I also fully understand that my ability to make these decisions stems from my privilege of not having to try to find ways to monetize every action I take.
Henry: Critics are concerned by the exploitative nature of such arrangements – the ways that content produced for pleasure is nevertheless sold for profit. Some are worried, as danah suggests, that “free labor” will squeeze out paid labor for creative workers. Others are concerned by the core inequalities of who does and who doesn’t get paid for what they create. The term “free labor” implies that what’s exploitative about this is that people are not being paid, while companies are making money. But, much like danah and her blog, many participating in these practices do not want to see what they’ve created become commoditized; the act of paying them would pull them deeper into the commercial system, whereas what they want is to remain largely outside it.
So, should people get paid for contributing content to YouTube? Some YouTube content is professional or semi-professional in origin, and there is a strong desire for payment to minimally sustain future production. Independent media-makers are seeking support for their work and need to be paid. Film students are producing “calling card” movies in the hope of being hired to work within the media industries. There would ideally be some system whereby these people could recoup the costs of their production or perhaps earn a living based on what they create. But if you are using the platform as a personal archive to share home movies with your loved ones? Maybe not. The idea of “selling” that content is morally disgusting.
In some odd ways, the critical studies discourse about “free labor” as exploitation is simply the flip side of the industry claiming that, if we create a more open-ended system of copyright and fair use, people won’t produce if they can’t get paid for their work. They see creative expression as purely an economic activity, without understanding the underlying social and cultural reasons why people in a participatory culture might create and share media with each other. At the same time, we need to be concerned about who has the time and resources to participate in these kinds of informal, unpaid cultural exchanges. Does participation without concern for compensation represent a form of middle-class privilege? Does it continue a long tradition where women have been encouraged to contribute their creative work as a form of charity, while men have consistently sought to professionalize creative labor as part of their livelihood?
Mimi: Much of the debate fails to recognize how most cultural and knowledge production has been more social than commercial in nature. Most labor and contributions we make to society are unpaid. When we talk about labor in a capitalist society we’re talking about a very narrow band of contributions to society. The fact that these exchanges are happening on commercial platforms is what is different today, not the fact that these contributions are noncommercial in nature. One under-appreciated aspect of the growth in online labor is that the ethic of free contribution was driven forward by students, who comprised a significant proportion of the early internet population. Students in residential colleges and universities are a highly literate population who are not yet participating fully in the labor market and have the time and resources to contribute to free culture. In my research with fan subtitlers who were competing with commercial localization firms (Ito 2012b), the bulk of them were college and high-school students, and they “retired” from these kinds of activities after finishing school and entering the formal labor market. As the internet has gone more mainstream, this population is being pushed further into minority status, which may be one of the reasons why you see the free labor issue becoming more contentious.
Given this broadening demographic of net participation, it is healthy to start monetizing some of what was historically non-monetized. That’s what’s interesting about the so-called sharing economy, crowdfunding, and crowdsourced labor like Airbnb, Kickstarter, car-sharing, or time-banking. People are experimenting with new ways of raising money and exchanging goods and labor that used to happen informally, without the mediation of massive markets. The ideology that it is corrupting to monetize “labors of love” was a side effect or a resistance to the commodification of labor. We need models that can get past this polarization. Juliet Schor has been leading research on these new kinds of resource-sharing marketplaces and the emerging values surrounding them, which are often centered around community-building and alternative lifestyles (Carfagna et al. 2014; Schor and Thompson 2014). There’s a curious mix between people who use these kinds of barter and sharing systems out of economic necessity and those who see them more as a lifestyle choice.
It’s an open question whether crowdsourced and P2P marketplaces will be the latest step in dehumanizing and instrumentalizing labor. Hopefully these new markets will promote more ecological and values-driven ways of sharing goods and labor in ways that help people build relationships and communities. The devil is in the details of how these markets are organized. Some, like traditional time banks and food swaps, are tied to a set of strong community norms that build social capital. The challenge here is that these networks can be exclusionary to people who don’t share the same culture and values (DuBois, Schor, and Carfagna 2014). On the other hand, a platform such as UberX or TaskRabbit has lower barriers to participation, but it isn’t animated by the same spirit of shared culture and community that you see with the more hipster-inflected kinds of peer markets. We’re seeing a complex alchemy of people participating in more transactional versus more community and values-driven ways.
Henry: There have historically been two different ways fans related to the idea of cultural production as paid labor, both heavily coded in gender terms. Since the 1920s, almost every major science fiction writer, editor, agent, and illustrator started as a participant in the science fiction fan community. Fandom became a support system that allowed them to acquire their skills and move into the professional sphere. There was a robust system for recruiting new professionals. This is the way the system worked for many men.
For most of that period, women were totally or largely locked out of that system of professional mobility. Some did make it through this mutual support network. But women often faced a reality that they were not going to be able to go from writing Star Trek fan stories into producing, directing, or writing Star Trek episodes. Instead, for many reasons, they embraced a discourse that condemned fans who profit off other fans. This is what I mean when I describe fandom as a contemporary form of gift economy: fandom still exists in relation to commercial culture; it is never fully autonomous, insofar as it builds on shared responses to commercially produced work, but there’s a strong value placed on creating and exchanging culture among community members to enhance the collective good and not for personal gain. There was a strong feminist politics undergirding these shared ethical norms. But critics like Abigail De Kosnik (2013) argue that this prohibition also resulted in the failure to construct an infrastructure that led from amateur creativity to professional opportunities for women.
The publication of Fifty Shades of Grey may represent a substantive shift in these different regimes of value. This mass-market best-seller was revised from what had originally been the author’s Twilight fan fiction. E. L. James has been open about her origins in fandom in a way that many other women (Cassandra Claire, for example) who “went pro” sought to mask their roots, or to remove their fan fiction from the web, on the advice of their agents and publishers. For women, professionalization meant breaking with fandom, whereas men enjoyed scaffolding as they made this transition. Now that the media has picked up on the fan fiction origins of Fifty Shades, they are seeking out other fan writers. Will this burst of publicity be enough to change things? It’s too early to tell, though Amazon’s summer 2013 announcement of Content Worlds, a program which would allow fan fiction writers to sell their stories for profit online, can be seen as an indicator of things to come, one which has been met with profoundly mixed feelings within fan circles.
Some are arguing that the forms of social exchange within fandom – where people build freely on each other’s works, developing often shared interpretations of who these characters are, giving each other feedback on stories, and otherwise collaborating in the development of new material – depend heavily on the idea that no one can profit from these shared activities. The news media have focused some on the intellectual property issues: if Fifty Shades is heavily derivative from Twilight, then what does E. L. James owe to Stephanie Meyer (2008) for creating the intellectual property on which this novel was built? But these questions do not respect and reflect upon the communal mode of production, the shared creative energies on the fan side, which went into shaping this now commercialized narrative.
danah: In our society, labor is often constructed as individual work. But even creative labor that is imagined to be about the individual is almost always the product of deep collaborations and extensive support. Consider how a supposedly single-author book is made. The author’s ideas are shaped by the people with whom she interacts. While she might write the text, it’s inevitably reviewed by other people, edited by other people, formatted by other people, etc. Some of the people get credit in the form of acknowledgments, but most are recognized only under the umbrella of the publisher. Then, when the book goes from words to print, all sorts of other people are involved in getting the book in your hands: publicists, printers, deal-makers, book-sellers, postal workers, etc. This is all invisible to those who are consuming the book. The focus is on the author because the creative labor is always what matters most. I don’t see a lot of thinking about how labor operates within networks and how those networks need to be recognized and supported – and not just financially.
Mimi: In addition to fandom, the gaming industry has put forward different models of collective and “derivative” kinds of cultural production. Just as fan production has been considered “derivative,” modding used to be considered marginal and unauthorized. In the most recent generation of many PC games, though, the industry has moved to a stance of full-on embrace and actively develops assets and supports for modding communities. We even see pathways to monetization being supported by the industry in some cases.
Fandom has been playing with these boundaries for longer. In the Japanese fan comics scene, you very rarely get an individual author because of the intensive labor of drawing comics. Comics are drawn by groups known as “circles” and are sold predominantly in P2P markets where fans sell to other fans. In Japan these P2P markets are massive in scale and take over the largest convention centers in the country. The fan industry isn’t at the scale of professional circulation in terms of the quantity of revenue generated, but it is still massive. In the largest market, which runs twice a year in Tokyo, 600,000 people show up to buy and sell amateur comics. Many versions of this event run all over the country. This is a historically well-established, revenue-generating, completely P2P network of markets for derivative work. Many people have sustainable lifestyles based on creating and distributing their own work, and some of them convert to a traditional commodity market by publishing commercially. But many artists just stay completely within the peer-to-peer marketplace (Tamagawa 2012).
The fan comics scene in Japan is just one historical model where production is decoupled from a contractual labor relationship or a commodified media market. The online world has obviously made these P2P markets for both labor and goods much more accessible and more visible. We’re clearly still in the early years in the development of these new models of scaling informal and P2P markets, and we don’t know yet what kind of a challenge they will pose to existing corporate actors in most sectors.
Inside the Belly of the Beast
Henry: danah, so far in the conversation, of the three of us, you often have been the most critical of corporate actors, yet you have worked for numerous companies – Intel, Google, Yahoo!, and now Microsoft. How do you reconcile your ideological commitments with your professional life?
danah: As an idealistic but naïve teenager, I had some pretty entertaining but simplistic beliefs about different sectors. Over the years, those were quickly shattered. I believed that those in government must be brilliant because they had so much power. When I started spending time with elected officials, I was horrified to learn the darker sides of power. In college, I became a passionate activist, and I foolishly believed that those who went to work for the greater good of humanity must be saints. I was devastated to learn otherwise, particularly when I watched a group of activists try to challenge the status quo by developing a different status quo. In academic contexts, I was disappointed to find professors who believed themselves to be divorced from the oppressive systems that they critiqued while sitting in elite institutions that cost more per year than my mother made and owned more property than the Astor family.
Given my activist roots, I was prepared to hate corporations. I hadn’t put corporations – unlike government agencies, non-profits, and educational institutions – on a pedestal. And, as a result, I was actually surprised to learn that many people within corporations were very critical of the institutions they were a part of, very passionate about making institutional change, and very determined to leverage the beast they were a part of to do the right thing.
I was also surprised by just how honest companies were – about their protocols, their incentives, their limitations. To my surprise, I felt as if the fights that I had at companies were more ethical than anything I ever had in academia or with non-profits. I could point to specific protocols, highlight the unfairness or problematic nature of decisions, provide data that challenges the assumptions … and people would listen!
When I was working in non-profits, I felt as if everything always boiled down to a loyalty question. In other words, how dare I challenge a particular decision, because we were all in this together to make the world better. Nothing made me angrier than non-profits that refused to pay employees a livable wage, for example.
There’s a lot that I don’t like or trust about corporations, but I’ve come to respect their strengths and limitations. And I’m regularly surprised by how many corporate employees genuinely want to do the right thing. I think it’s easy for academics to hate corporations and reject corporate influence on participatory culture. Philosophically, I have major problems with capitalism, but I also accept that we live in a capitalist society. I don’t think it’s productive to automatically dismiss anything that is a product of capitalism just because I don’t like our economic model. But, as a result, whenever I defend a practice or product that comes from a corporation, I’m dismissed as a sell-out.
Because the three of us have not been viciously anti-corporate, we’ve often been attacked for being too friendly to commercial interests. I’m disturbed and disappointed by scholars who are unable to see nuance in their critique of capitalism and those who engage with it. Having worked inside and around corporations for the better part of a decade, I’ve come to accept that corporate interests are a part of the ecosystem and that it’s healthier to engage them than to pretend that they don’t exist. Yes, there are serious power issues at play, but it’s complicated.
Henry: What roles do you think companies could legitimately play in dealing with inequalities and access and participation?
danah: This is tricky. And it depends on what kinds of companies we’re talking about. Usually, when this notion is put forward, there is an expectation that big for-profit companies should have a societal responsibility. But, in the United States, public for-profit companies have a legal fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. Very few companies are structured around what’s called a “double bottom line,” or a measure of the social impact of the company. As a result, these companies can actually be liable to their shareholders if they do things that go against their bottom line. Even the notion of “corporate social responsibility” is often narrated through a marketing framework. With smaller companies like startups, the issue is often more about capacity. They’re just trying to figure out how to survive.
Interestingly, underneath the corporate agenda are a whole slew of individuals who often want to give back. Sometimes, they do this through personal “off-hours” work, but I often find employees who get creative in aligning social missions with their corporate goals. This is where you see true innovation emerge. And alignment of missions and mandates is one of the most successful ways of making sure that a company does the right thing. Take something like diversity, a value that many progressives have. Most of the people that I know who have pushed diversity goals within companies do so by making visible the data that show that their company performs better when they have diverse employees.
Don’t get me wrong – I think we need to critique the very foundations upon which corporations are built. American capitalism is structured predominantly around maximizing profit by any means. The changes that I think are necessary to address the inequities we’re talking about require fundamentally calling capitalism into question. I don’t see a way in which the inequities are cleanly resolvable otherwise. But I’m still excited by the innovation that comes from the constraints of a company when really good people have to work within systems or around limitations in order to do something that they feel is meaningful.
The Place of Policy
Henry: When I think of the work that I do in engaging with industry, I think about it as policy intervention. In the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, there’s a long tradition of cultural and media studies people who are involved in policy discussion, trying to shape the cultural agendas of their government. They often make a set of choices to work with governments they disagree with. They’re not going to get everything they want, but participating in the process and putting pressure on those systems to enable things they care about is part of what it means to be a cultural scholar in those countries. In the United States, cultural policy, for the most part, is not set by government – educational policy may be an important exception here. But US cultural policy, I would argue, is set by corporations. Where digital media are concerned, policy often ends up being part of the terms of service. To change that, you actually have to engage the companies. You can’t “speak truth to power” if you’re not speaking with those in power.
I never feel more political than when I’m standing in a corporate boardroom challenging assumptions about how a company treats fans and how their core policies affect young people’s lives. I don’t start from a premise that these people are evil capitalists who have no souls. I start from the premise that they’re trying to do the best they can as human beings, within an institutional context that makes it difficult for them to act in certain ways. But, the more I can convince them that they can reconcile their social agendas with what the institutional imperatives are, it becomes more possible for them to act in ways that are accountable and responsible. Having critics come in and speak their language may empower some voices within the company to make a difference in discussions that are taking place in that boardroom, with or without our presence. It gives the progressives in the boardroom moral support; it enhances the credibility of corporate players who are struggling to try and make a difference in these policies. My work with companies has never been about ensuring better, more efficient ways of making money. I’m working with companies because they have an enormous effect on our culture. And walking away from working with companies doesn’t allow you to make a difference.
Mimi: I also feel that our public culture is being defined more and more by policies set by commercial actors, and we have to engage. We haven’t talked much about policy and government. There’s a degree to which participatory culture can be grassroots and emerging, but there are also certain things that really require shared values and collective will. You want a combination of bottom-up norm-setting and smart policy direction. We’re completely lacking in the political will for that top-down conversation. danah, that’s where your efforts at mitigating some of the most misguided kinds of policy in the online space have been incredibly helpful. In education I feel as if there’s very little positive vision for participatory and internet culture in the way that Wikipedia has set generative policies for content contribution. In many ways Google has done more to provide networked learning tools to kids than our formal educational institutions have, but these offerings have not been guided by the kinds of values for learning and equity that we would hope for.
danah: My view on legal regulation is that it’s one force for change, but not the only force. I subscribe to the model Larry Lessig (2006) outlined in Code, where he argued that all social systems are regulated by four forces: market, law, architecture, and social norms. When those four forces are aligned, change can be quite powerful, but when they are in disarray or at odds, problems often emerge.
Policy in the tech arena is messy. All too often, new policies are introduced for political interests, and those who are making the decisions do not have an understanding of the ramifications of what they’re putting forward. Laws are often introduced before technical systems have stabilized and before the public has really engaged with the issues at play. As a result, we see all sorts of unintended consequences, and many regulatory moves intended to protect vulnerable populations backfire. I am often wary of policy prescriptions, not because I don’t believe that there’s a place for public policy, but because I believe that the policy should be grounded, evaluated, and iterated to keep it true to the intended goals.
Many people know that I’m deeply critical of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). A decade in, COPPA is used primarily to keep young people off major social media sites under the banner of child safety. Although few companies understand how it functions, it’s become a significant disincentive for companies to develop tools for the under-thirteen crowd. When it was first proposed, it was intended to empower parents, but many parents are teaching their children to lie about their age to circumvent age-based restrictions designed by companies whose lawyers tell them to avoid under-thirteens at all costs. This is a law where no one has won except fear-mongers.
I actually believe in the primary goals of COPPA: protect privacy, empower users, etc. But, far from actually protecting privacy, I think that legislation like COPPA creates perverse disincentives that undermine our ability actually to think through what privacy regulation should look like. All too often “protect the kids” is the rallying cry, obfuscating the much harder and more complex issues at stake. What saddens me more is that we have no easy mechanism for evaluating what does and what doesn’t work. Laws get entrenched, and it’s hard to undo something, even when it’s backfiring.
In the realm of participatory culture, we have all sorts of regulatory barriers to innovation that are meant to protect corporate interests or protect people from corporate interests. For example, I’m sure both of you can speak at length about the issues around copyright and remix. One of the challenges of the conversation around privatization and participatory culture is that it often twists the conversation to being about the market versus the law. Technologists often rally to make visible the power of technology, but my interests definitely lie in understanding how social norms shape these systems and how law, tech, and the market are also used to undermine social norms.
Henry: We might make some productive distinctions between privatization at the level of infrastructure, content, and relationships. Each layer represents a significant set of struggles between the historic practices associated with various forms of participatory culture and corporatization.
So, starting with privatization of infrastructure, who owns the space where the key conversations defining the culture get held? If our political life is moving more and more into the digital environment as currently constructed, it’s like moving the civic functions of the town square into a shopping mall. Commercial owners do not necessarily allow for collective say in governance, provide insurance of free expression, or actively encourage minority expression that might go against their business interests.
Privatization of content refers to the movement from a folk culture model, where the core stories that we use to make sense of our lives belong to the folk and can be added to freely, towards one where we are increasingly remixing content that originated in commercial culture and where copyright regimes constrain what we can do with these stories.
The issue of privatization of relationships is most visible when we look at social networking platforms. I bring my friends together through Facebook, and what we do there is a byproduct of our social interactions with each other. Yet, Facebook asserts control over that content and makes it difficult for me to export my data and move those social interactions to another networking site. When I sign the Facebook terms of service, I cede control over the most important relationships in my life to a corporate interest; I now have to tolerate all kinds of policies the company may impose at will without consultation with the participants, because it becomes so difficult to start over someplace else.
danah: When we talk about participatory culture vis-à-vis regulation and companies, we inevitably talk about the entanglement of people with each other, and yet the American regulatory regime is wholly focused on the individual. While class action suits aggregate people, individual harm and individual rights are still the dominant standards. Many of our legal constructs are not prepared to deal with a networked society. What can and should networked rights look like? Who has the right to my relationships on Facebook? Me? The other people? Facebook? The global nature of this only makes it more difficult to untangle the boundaries, both culturally and with respect to jurisdiction. Whose rights to a particular piece of content matter? What happens when content flows across boundaries? The policy issues around participatory culture are going to get more complicated, not less.
Mimi: The idea of public policy is becoming so hybrid because transnational companies like Facebook are setting policy and regulating behavior, without direct government oversight in most cases. Clearly there are points at which government policy starts impinging on what they do, but historically the governance of public infrastructures doesn’t apply to these commercialized network public spaces. That’s where we really need a new conversation in the US context.
The US is unique in having this whole layer of non-profit and philanthropic resources tied in complicated ways to political activism. Working with the MacArthur Foundation has been fascinating because its private philanthropy is values-driven but non-governmental. In the best instances it can help mediate grassroots and more elite and institutionalized forms of power. It’s fantastic what private philanthropy does in the US. It gives me hope in private individuals and organizations who invest time and resources for social good. At the same time, the burdens on this sector are too great given the needs, particularly in areas like education. Philanthropy can play an important role in providing resources, building networks, and brokering coalitions, but we absolutely have to have robust partnerships across non-profit, commercial, and government sectors to be effective in making any systemic reforms take hold. At the end of the day, I need to be hopeful that these partnerships and coalitions can further progressive agendas. I’d like to stay mindful of the risks but continue to build these connections and positive alternatives.
danah: It’s easy to dismiss commercial culture and the technologies that emerge from it because of the capitalist context in which they are embedded, but any analysis of participatory culture needs to stem from what is rather than what should be. Today’s technologies are shaped by and help shape the commercial landscape. As a result, much of what we’re seeing in participatory culture is affected, for better and for worse, by capitalism and the economic, political, and legal landscape that underpins contemporary business.