Writers and Readers of the New Digital Economy, Unite!

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Imagine this scenario: The Tweetosphere suddenly goes silent. The New York Times reports that erstwhile tweeters have declared a universal boycott of the social network. Jobs are disappearing, courtesy of technologies like theirs, while revenues soar. But Twitter isn’t sharing that windfall with its content creators, who argue that they are at the heart of its success. Sure, the network dangles the potential for social capital, which can be very nice, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Perhaps they’ve read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future (2013) (the provocative book that inspired this thought experiment) and have realized that, if things continue as they are, it sure won’t be them. The only topic trending now is mute outrage, and it’s earsplitting. There’s just the lone tweet of a Twitter employee as she’s handed her pink slip: “WTF?! #We’reAllF*cked”

What is Twitter without tweeters? The same as any network without content: Useless. Bankrupt. (The irony that a universal boycott of Twitter could not be tweeted and would thereby render a universal boycott of Twitter nigh impossible is not lost on me. But stay with this….)

Now imagine that Twitter isn’t the only target of the boycotters’ wrath. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr are next. Soon all who participate in online “conversations” demand pay for their contributions—videos, music, comments, reviews, blog entries—and for the time spent creating them. The whole Internet, that great network and aggregator of networks, is on trial, and save for the bots who continue to generate derivative filler, and the odd contribution from employees of Amazon, Google, and their ilk, the whole thing goes static.

Network contributors, nay workers, are as mad as hell, and they’re not gonna…well, you know. They’re fed up with going hungry as the networks they feed employ alarmingly fewer people and grow ever more fat. At the core of their gripe is that these “free” online services are not boons for users, as they assure users, so much as they are boons for themselves. And it’s not only user content that’s free for them—it’s also user data, a commodity far more precious.

With so much money flowing toward those closest to these “Siren Servers” as Lanier calls them, and away from the middle class, something must give. For a digital economy to be viable and sustainable, a new paradigm is needed. In the above scenario, content creators are hellbent on being a the center of it. This is no socialist revolution. It’s an intensely capitalist one. Participants make networks valuable. Why, then, don’t they get paid?

The fact is Twitter is not “free.” Neither is Facebook or any other social network—or, for that matter, any online experience in which we, the participants, freely offer content and invaluable information about ourselves for others to use or sell as they will. Sure, it may seem that we’re the beneficiaries of largesse, and many wax utopian about the virtues of a world in which free content means cheaper living and return to a universal barter system, which means we won’t need much money at all. (I’ve spoken to a number of well-educated millennials aligned with the Free Culture Movement who actually believe this. I love their idealism but question what’s in their water.)

Others opine about the social capital made possible by networks like Twitter and how that can be parlayed into wealth. “I’ll plug my wares for free on social networks for free, millions will buy, and I’ll soon be rich.” And still others, followers of The Singularity with Mosaic tablets bearing Moore’s Law, proclaim that the exponential progress of technology will create unlimited wealth by the 2040s, so that in a few decades, we’ll all be rich (not to mention immortal)!

As Lanier keenly observes, we need a reality check. In a digital economy, “free” means participating blithely, thinking how lucky we are to live in such an age, as the Siren Servers, and those closest to them, co-opt our economic future.

But back to our thought experiment: What might it imply for the economy of writing and reading future books in a digitized world? A tweet is, after all, a byte-sized text generated by an author (or authors) who seeks an audience for her “work.” And followers of tweeters are readers who seek out these texts, engage with them and comment, carrying the conversation forward. Will future “books,” no matter what they look like or what what they’re called, really be so much different?

We talk about the “works” of authors and sometimes the “work” associated with reading and processing a great, challenging novel. Both require a great deal of attention and are a kind of work. Does posting a book review on Amazon or engaging in a book discussion on Goodreads constitute “work”? Why not, if these networks would be nothing without such content?

We English majors dream of being paid for doing what we love, but very few of us actually live that dream, and those who do are hampered by academic pressures like securing tenure or the economic pressures of a market that treats novels more like commodities than art.

What if there were a digital, network-based ecosystem that truly supported communities of readers and writers so that the telling of stories and interactions around them could flourish without its participants going broke? Compensation could come in the form of micro-payments from the host network, a top-down approach, but assessing the value of that content would be an emergent phenomenon, based on algorithms that factor in the community’s attention to and merit-rating of each contribution.

There are plenty of scary, dystopian implications here, but it’s easy to see how such an ecosystem could spur creativity and innovation in future books. And I, for one, might just tear myself away from the printed page and give up my privacy for a chance to get paid for doing something I love.

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