The Information Economy

My morning routine: wake up (about 11ish, I’m freelance, I can do that), put on glasses, pick up iPhone. From there I check and flag my emails and read through the morning’s tweets, favouriting anything of interest to look through. If anything looks particularly big I’ll grab my netbook and have a look. Then I get out of bed. This is now my equivalent of reading the morning paper. How and when we access information has changed, and this is almost entirely down to technology. The internet is built on information. The analogue world is fleshy, simultaneously both tactile and ineffable. This is why we can invent concepts like money – you can hold on to it, and it can also be represented on pieces of paper, can change in value without changing in essence. The online world, on the other hand, is built on definite points, and logic. Oh it can contain the ineffable, just as infinity can be expressed as a value, but it’s built on single points, on values. If there is an online economy, its currency is information. And if we participate in online worlds, we are investing our information, our content in that world.

So I speak to you now, as an investor. I may not be a big player, and I sit in a strange place between tech and the arts world, but I have a vested interest in online spaces that I participate in. I have a right to talk about how my share in these worlds is treated. And I want to talk to you now, about Facebook. Unless you live entirely in the analogue world, you will have heard that yesterday Facebook, after having ‘borrowed’ most of FriendFeed’s most interesting innovations, decided to finally put them on the payroll. The reaction to this from the FriendFeed community can be summed up in this video. Not good. And then today comes the news that Facebook are developing a suspiciously Twitter like ‘facebook lite’ which Mashable calls  “Very stripped down, very basic, very reminiscent of Twitter and FriendFeed”, suggesting that

Speculation says it’s a direct assault on Twitter. Facebook continues to find ways to make itself competitive with Twitter. This is why Facebook has been launching features such as public profiles, profile fans, public status updates, and realtime search. Twitter is simple, so Facebook’s fighting back with the same. Source

Now I’m going to lay my cards on the table. I seriously hate Facebook. Facebook is dull. It is flabby, and it is based on what you look like and who you know, before it’s about what you have to say. But you cannot deny that it does what it was supposed to do – it connects people who already know each other, and lets them share their lives. This, I think is some of the reason why it feels like a stale form, because it’s built to contain communities, not to develop them. However, imposing other (open) forms (like twitter) on a foundation built for a specific (closed) one will only result in poorly executed systems.

You can force a square peg through a round hole, but neither will work quite right when you’ve finished.

Facebook are clearly trying to corner the status/simplicity model of Twitter. And why shouldn’t they? Twitter is popular, their tens of millions may not seem like much to the hundreds of millions of facebook users, but it’s still significant. Facebook is operating on a traditional (analogue) business model. They are acting like a Tesco or Walmart in the online world. Microsoft are the ultimate pre-cursors of this, but the key difference is they still operate in tangible products, in a way they have to work within the parameters of RL economics. In these online spaces however, it’s different. In these worlds in which I invest my information,  I have a voice, and I am going to say No. I’ve had enough. Multinational-style models of growth are wrong. They kill innovation, and I’m not OK with that. Fuck, they don’t even work in RL, not even for the companies themselves – unrelenting growth is demonstrably not sustainable, it kills habitats – look at our environment, look at the economy, look at what the supermarkets have done to agriculture and global food supplies.

Maybe Facebook’s new twitalike appearance isn’t going to kill Twitter, but it will suffocate it – it will kill new take-up because Facebook is familiar, and already contains people’s friends.

Of course you could argue that this is not the end of the world, and that there will always be something new and innovative on the horizon, but what this represents is something much more dangerous: monetisation. Applying analogue models to digital worlds.

I shouldn’t hate words, it’s not their fault, but ‘monetise’ makes me retch. When applied to social media you are basically asking ‘how do we turn these people’s lives and words into money’. This is not how the online world(s) are geared. Profit kills them because it requires proof, it requires return, and it measures return in money, not information. The digital world(s) change so often, and so fast that no one is an expert, people are always learning, there isn’t time to measure, but it works because the open-source ethic means that things are tirelessly tested and improved by lots of people who work for the purest information, the best code; truth, not profit.

You need the truth seekers. You need the passion of the underdog. You need people who sit in their rooms and code until they feel like their eyes are bleeding. You need the Next Big Thing. Because the internet trades in ideas, in information. The more varied an environment, the more varied its output.

Groupthink is a recognised symptom of homogenous environments. If the only way for a developer starting out is to work within one form, if they are only going to produce useful work with the Facebook API, or if Facebook headhunts all of the best ideas, there won’t be room for new ones to flourish in their own terms, and this will suffocate our ideas, and it will own our information.

This finds its simplest expression in Facebook’s highly questionable and opaque privacy settings. Here’s a choice extract:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”).

We should not have to ‘opt-out’ of their owning our content. And what now becomes of the information posted to FriendFeed? Do Facebook now own it? Should there have been a new license of terms offered by FriendFeed after the take-over? This is no longer money we’re talking about, this is people’s ideas that companies are trying to monopolise.

But the thing is, we are all shareholders here, and we have a say. The internet provides us all with a platform, it allows us to amplify ourselves, and it allows us to work together in ways not possible even a few years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling online worlds utopian, they show us the worst as well as the best of us. But they show us a collective – built out of nodes – but connected. We live in a global village. Share, attribute, contribute. Group-ownership. This is the ethic of the open source movement. Together we can oppose analogue ways of operating, how? By innovating. By always thinking, by recognising tired forms, and by forever learning.

So I’m dedicating this to all start-ups, all coders, all ideas people, all early adopters, and everyone who picks things up to see how they work:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Fight.

See my post on the ‘bums on seats’ problem in the arts world for another perspective on monetisation.
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8 Responses to “The Information Economy”

  1. Ben Walker August 12, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    Yes. Yes, yes and yes.


  2. Hannah Nicklin August 12, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

    NB, I know this doesn’t address the fact that we need money to invest, cultivate and survive too, there is a bit more on that (IE that we need a new model and new measures of economic success) in the Bums on Seats post The online world now is about what you want to pull from it, not the push of old school marketing. I could go on, but I have actual work to do :) when I’m properly doing my PhD (October) I’ll have more time to write about it.

  3. Hannah Nicklin August 12, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

    Thanks for reading, Ben :-)

  4. Anonymous August 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    Interesting post, but I couldn’t agree less. The last thing we need is a Twitter preservation society: if it’s better than facebook then it will manage itself… And if there wasn’t the word monetization then google, Twitter, microsoft, computers, internal combustion engines and the wheel wouldn’t exist. People don’t programme unt their eyes bleed because they dream of utopia…

  5. Hannah Nicklin August 12, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I’m not arguing for a preservation of Twitter – I’m arguing for a preservation of innovation, which multinational style social media will kill off. Facebook is trying to corner *all* of the market – and that’s the problem, social media will and should come and go, models of perpetual growth are unsustainable. My argument just finds it form in the twitter/facebook rivalry.

    People didn’t invent the wheel to monetise it, they invented it to transport their goods more efficiently. Computers and engines do bring in money, but they’re not designed to do so, and they were invented by brilliant and insane people. Babbage and Lovelace worked for the love of maths. What I’m saying is don’t kill the love for the sake of the product, we need the ideas before we need the profit.

    Coders don’t code with the aim of utopia in mind, but they do work for the purest expression of their ideas. If we google ‘utopia’ we get “an imaginary place considered to be perfect or ideal”… Just my thoughts.

  6. Doug August 15, 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    A good post; so many thought follow, but that would be boring.

    People aren’t living in a way they want to. Freelancers like yourself are in the vanguard of a new economy based on home/local working powered by the Internet. That much is obvious at this moment. For it to become pervasive, we need better tools – micropayment systems, commercial networks along the lines of social networks for work-related activities, simpler systems, and so on. And while we’re talking about Truth and openness, we can also encourage it by opening up financial transactions (say, over $10,000) so that they become available on the Internet for public scrutiny.

    (BTW, before “monetization” there was “commercialization”, and before that there was “making a living”. Just saying.)


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