By Martin Bosworth
There were two interesting stories today that involve the confluence between media, people, technology, and the ability of these three to influence each other.
First, users of Digg went on a rampage after the site banned a post containing the decryption key for HD-DVD discs. The protesters found numerous and sundry ways to get the key into posts, and caused such a storm that Digg founder Kevin Rose decided to let the posts stand and the chips to fall where they may.
Second, the owner of an unofficial Barack Obama MySpace page was essentially kicked off and replaced by professional’s from Obama’s staff, who have taken control of the site. Former controller Joe Anthony has taken his story to the larger MySpace community, and the incident is getting major play at MyDD and Daily KOS.
Now, both stories are very different and cover lots of ground–copyright protection, intellectual property, consulting and grassroots work, etc. What makes them similar is the responses. Both incidents are a result of a tension between a user constituency that has built a brand into something valuable, and the owners of that brand.
I think Kevin Rose did the right thing, and the Obama people did not. Why? Because Rose knows that it’s the users who make Digg. It’s easily gamed, easily screwed with, and hardly a reliable source for world affairs. But its viability as a means of sharing information is unarguable, and the users who spoke up did so because they wanted to maintain what they see as “purity” of purpose. No censorship, no top-down control, and community ownership of content. This is not a movie or book that essentially belongs to the creator. Digg, and sites like it, thrive from the contributions of the readers, and the readers there, at least, do so believing they can speak without hindrance, even if all they say is “LOL OH NOEZ” and the like. So good for Kevin on that front.
The Obama flap, by contrast…while I don’t think it’s necessarily fair for Joe Anthony to demand $39,000 simply for creating a MySpace page–something my tech-phobic father could do–it does seem to be the case that he was doing more and more official work for the campaign as the site got popular, and should be compensated as a consultant. I’ve done more than my share of volunteer work for groups and organizations, and I always make it clear up front that any work I do for them that takes time away from my paid gigs means that–you guessed it–I should get paid. If Anthony did so and the Obama people didn’t listen or tried to weasel out of it, shame on them. It’s not like the campaign is cash-poor.
Worse, by not handling this smartly and discretely, Obama just earned himself an unintended black eye from the progressive blogosphere, which may or may not haunt him down the line. Now, I’m sure both Markos and the MyDD people have an agenda to push here, as Obama is not their favored candidate, but surely a potential future President–one who is savvy enough with the Net to have a massive Facebook presence— would be savvy enough to realize what would happen if you don’t play fair with someone who has access to 160,000 of your supporters.
Ever since the early ’90s, when Howard Rheingold graced us with THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY, we’ve sort of trampled ourselves in the mad rush to promote and praise “community.” Well, we all need community, I guess.
But let’s not lose sight of something important. Ever read THE SCARLET LETTER? Ever hear of the Salem Witch Trials? Those were communities. And our online communities are in no way free from the dysfunctions that afflict real-world communities – in fact, in a lot of cases they’re worse.
There’s a huge overlap in ideology between the Communication of the Commons, and the Tragedy of the Commons. Just as medieval farmers could eat themselves to death (by over-grazing common fields), so people who take Communication Commons for granted run the risk of being eaten by communities they don’t actually control.