YouTube and Capitalism's Role in a Community
Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 8, 2011 8:45 AM
What happens when money enters the equation? Do things get better or worse? Capitalists, myself included, believe that things generally get better. Effort gets rewarded via payment, people who want to earn more work more, prices are signals about value, the volume of trade goes up, and so on. We believe, in short, that having the opportunity to get paid for your contributions is better than not having that opportunity.
We also believe that adding money is not equivalent to subtracting volunteerism, altruism, and other non-pecuniary activities. These things still go on in a capitalist system; doing stuff for money is just another option, not an ironclad law. You don't have to believe that money and capitalism are perfect to believe that they're pretty good, and should be welcomed.
Why am I bringing up Capitalism 101? Because at least one prominent Internet pundit seems to have an issue with it. I want to highlight his worldview because I find it weird and problematic, perhaps even harmful if it gains too much acceptance.
Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science at Harvard and a founder of the University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I was a fellow a little while ago. He and I didn't cross paths much at Berkman, but I caught up with his thinking the other day by watching the video of a talk he gave at a 'Berkman West' celebration at the Computer History Museum. It's titled "Minds for Sale," and consists largely of Zittrain discussing his "worries" (his word) about various communities on the Web, particularly those with a crowdsourcing element (he repeated a lot of them at the recent SXSWi festival, where he said he was out to create 'anxiety and concern' about this trend).
As I watched it, I found myself wondering exactly when capitalism became the great threat facing the Net. Zittrain described this threat most clearly when discussing the introduction of revenue sharing on YouTube via their partnership programs (explained nicely here). He acknowledges that giving content creators the ability to make money from their work sounds great, but then goes on to say (starting at about 43:41):
"You start to wonder. People who would normally be putting videos up in more community-oriented sharing sites like blip.tv are suddenly not wanting to, because you'd be a chump. Why wouldn't you put it only in the place where there's a chance of making some revenue from it? I see this potential crowding out. There's this phenomenon that happens when you inject money into the equation."
First of all, it's not clear to me what made blip.tv more 'community-oriented' than YouTube, or why we should be rooting for people to upload their videos there. Second, the vague phenomenon Zittrain describes is called capitalism, and it's actually not mysterious at all. We've been studying it intently at least since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, so we have a pretty good idea what happens when you inject money into the equation. And as I briefly sketched above, what happens is good and heartening, both for the individual and the community/society as a whole.
And finally, the 'crowding out' anticipated by Zittrain hasn't yet occurred in video sharing sites, despite their inherent network effects. Blip.tv continues to grow and attracted new investment last year. This might be in part because they started their own revenue sharing program, and also started getting paid by brands to create original content for them. In short, they embraced competition and capitalism. I see nothing to worry about with this development
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