Locating Value in Spreadable Media: Executive Summary (Part 1/3)
As promised in the twitter backchannel during Futures of Entertainment 4, my most recent C3 white paper on non-monetary social economies in spreadable media is finally going public!
Enormous thank yous to the entire C3 team for their enormous brains, and to Joshua Green for his editing-fu.
A few of you caught a preview of it at our annual C3 Partner’s Retreat in May in presentation form, and I’ll be sharing those slides as well in the near future. For the time being, I’ll be posting the executive summary here in three parts, then providing the full paper in a pdf download once I do some much needed reorganizing of this blog.
In last year’s foundational white paper If It Doesn’t Spread, it’s Dead, we argued that participatory culture and the networked information society are making more visible systems of value which are not predicated on the demands of market economies and the exchange of commodities. The digital media landscape is, instead, based on principles of collaboration, collective intelligence, and social participation. Companies looking to succeed online should find ways to engage consumers and audiences that respect their practices of community building and recognize the role consumers play in the production of value online.
Building on that work, this paper provides a deeper, more nuanced and systematic account of how value is created and exchanged in socially driven systems. To do so, it compares the ways value is created in systems that privilege social exchange and those which privilege monetary exchanges. Looking at the creation and circulation of value in monetary and non-monetary systems, this paper suggests ways we might more clearly understand how media moves across and between these systems as it spreads. Understanding the way content moves between these systems provides insight into how to develop brands online, court communities, and produce successful digital media strategies that can address both the social and monetary demands of mixed economies.
Some of the most successful and innovative new media companies and projects — YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google — rely on content and data produced through collective efforts of many networked individuals and the relationships they build with one another. Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine, in discussing the work of Clay Shirky, identifies four categories of collective production, circulation and information gathering behavior online: sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism. As more companies move into spaces predicated upon and shaped by principles of sharing and collaboration, we are seeing the emergence of mixed economies and models. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Hulu, for example provide services to users at no monetary cost, and in exchange monetize attention, labor, and the data of those users through more indirect means such as advertising. These companies, however, face challenges in responding to audience practices that run counter to expectations about media use. In some cases, this may result in “diminishing the level of trust within participating parties, and perhaps even wearing away the mechanisms which insure the legitimacy of economic exchanges” (Jenkins et al. 2008).
These challenges are the result of fundamental misunderstandings between the value is created within the socially driven circulation of content by consumers and the market-driven interests of media companies and content owners. We must therefore find new ways to understand the shifting nature of meaningful and fair interactions between consumers, producers, media companies, and advertisers in the contemporary media landscape. To do so, it becomes vital to understand the nuances and principles behind how different types of social value are generated online.
Gift Economy and the Fallacy of “Free”
A striking aspect of social sharing and collective activities online is that the participants gladly contribute their labor, creative content, and time without expecting any sort of monetary payment in return. People are uploading images under Creative Commons licenses on Flickr to be shared and used by all, or contributing their expertise and time to articles on Wikipedia, or writing fanfiction and editing fan videos to be enjoyed by the community at large, free of cost.
The gift economy provides a better way to frame and understand the types of exchanges that are increasingly being labeled “free” under the currently popular discourse of the “freeconomy,” or what Wired editor Chris Anderson has called “the economics of giving it away” (Anderson 2008). To understand how media spreads online, it is especially important to understand that whether paying for a good or service, or being given one with social obligations tied, both are transactions which involve the exchange of some form of value. It is not a matter of one having a cost and while the other doesn’t; Both exact a form of “cost” in return, though what is deemed a valuable and acceptable form of “payment” in each system is different. Many systems of sharing, cooperation, and collaboration online generate value through creating mutual ties and reciprocal expectations and social “payments.” Like the offer of coffee from your neighbor, these “free” content producers and laborers actually do expect a form of (social) payment in return for their work.
To do business online, we must recognize that nothing is absolutely free, only things that operate under systems of exchange in which money is not the main or immediate form of value exchanged. Value production and exchanges online involve a complex web of different transactions, through different systems of value that are codependent. Sites like Facebook and YouTube could not generate revenue, for example, if users were not using the sites to create social worth for themselves, and in the process producing the data and attention that advertisers desire. The framework of the gift economy thus gives us a way to analyze social worth as a core value. By acknowledging that what is happening is not a “giveaway” but another form of exchange operating under a different set of standards and regulations, we can begin to examine what those standards and regulations are, and how they are formed and negotiated, and how they can be most useful.
In the next installment: a breakdown of three core dimensions of value — use-value, symbolic-value, and exchange-value — and the critical social differences between monetary and non-monetary exchanges.