The road to Web serfdom: Huffington’s free-as-in-beer posts vs. the free-as-in-speech Web

When you post to Facebook, are you a “serf”? When you write a blog post for a site that doesn’t pay you, are you a “galley slave”?

These are terms that journalists at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have recently applied to the content users contribute to various Web sites and services.

The LA Times’ Tim Rutten writes of the business model of the Huffington Post, “You need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

In the New York Times, David Carr’s column headlined “At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs” chronicles a Web of companies worth millions and billions — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Quora, Tumblr and, again, Huffington — and notes, “The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.”

I resisted the urge to jump on Carr’s column because, though its confused thinking induced much head-scratching, it also contained a lot of sense. Having heard Carr reinforce some of the confusion in a brief NPR Morning Edition spot today, I think I better just say this:

As we talk about the plight of journalists trying to earn a living in a rapidly evolving digital marketplace that has devalued each individual contribution and untied the product bundle that till recently paid the media bills, we need to distinguish between the plight of the journalist in a glutted market and the concerns of the citizen seeking a free voice.

Publishing a blog post at Huffington Post for no pay is nothing like being a galley slave. No whips! No chains! It’s voluntary (as Anna Tarkov argues). You get to sit at home and type out your ideas and get a bunch of people to read them. You may well feel shafted when you realize that Huffington & co. just walked off with $300 million in AOL cash and you didn’t get a cent, but nobody made you give Arianna your words for nothing. Presumably, you gave them because you thought her site was a good place to spread your ideas or your reputation, sell your books or bring some visitors to your own site. (Stowe Boyd looks at the non-financial incentives.)

Maybe you’ll rethink that bargain now. If large numbers of people do, then Huffington and her investors may have just played AOL’s Tim Armstrong for a sucker. (Although, by Nate Silver’s calculations, most of the value and traffic on HuffPo derives from the content produced by paid staffers.) Maybe it would have been smart for Huffington to share some of her plunder with her unpaid contributors (as Dan Gillmor and others have urged); it would have been fair, certainly. But my hunch is the HuffPo bloggers aren’t going to stop writing for free. Most of them like the bargain.

There is a reasonable argument to be made about “serfdom” online, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Huffington’s paycheck-less bloggers. It has even less to do with Google’s search engine, which draws its intelligence from the links we all embed in our Web pages. One problem with Carr’s column is that he conflates all these different services and — like so many content-obsessed journalists — ignores the contributions of the platform-builders and their technology. At Google, as at many of the companies Carr lists, there’s enormous value created by paid employees — but they’re writing code instead of copy.

The aspect of the idea of digital “serfdom” that makes sense has little to do with getting a paycheck for your writing; it’s about control of the platform that delivers your writing and ownership of any (typically meager) fruits from that labor. It’s why many people, like me, choose to buy their own domain name and run their own blog software rather than use one of the free-but-corporate-owned alternatives. It doesn’t take much to have your own fief these days.

Interestingly, this is the point made by the writer from whom Carr borrows the feudal analogy — Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa:

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have any of these platforms. In a perfect world everyone would have their own piece of the web that they own entirely. … Those tech savvy enough to rent out rackspace, install their own web server and plop down their virtual piece of land on the web control and capitalize on all of the content that they deliver there.

However for most of the people on the web today, this isn’t the case. We live in a world of Digital Feudalism. The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.

(I would just add that to emancipate yourself, you don’t need to rent out rackspace and manage your own server; all you need to do is know how to FTP and pay a few bucks a month to an ISP and a domain registrar.)

The argument about “digital labor” is real and valuable and has been unfolding for some time now in the academic wing of the new-media studies world. It’s what Dave Winer has recently been writing a lot about, as he urges us to find an alternative to Twitter and Facebook that we own ourselves.

Professional journalists worried about their salaries in a world awash in posts and “content” have one set of problems; the much larger population of social-media users who ought to be thinking hard about who controls their contributions have a different one. I wish Carr had done a better job of distinguishing between these different realms rather than lumping them together in one big morass of “people working for free.”

As they say in open-source land, there’s free as in “beer” and free as in “speech” — “gratis” versus “libre.” People aren’t going to stop writing “gratis” for Huffington and her ilk, and that will continue to lower the market price of all but the most specialized and rarefied kinds of old-fashioned journalism. Of course this doesn’t make me happy as a writer, but I’m not going to pretend it will stop. For that very reason, those of us who care about our words will need to pay greater attention to the “libre” side of the freedom ledger, and pitch our posts on ground that we own or control.

There are other good posts on this theme from Michele McLellan at the Knight Digital Media Center:

Fretting about unpaid contributors is just another way of grieving journalism’s past. They’re here. They’re on social media. They’re talking. They’re writing. Get over it, journalists, and use the energy to figure out innovative ways to add the unique value of the journalist to the mix.

And Mathew Ingram at GigaOm:

The funny thing about online content, as former eHow owner Josh Hannah noted in contrasting Demand Media’s paid content-farm model with that of free sites like WikiHow, is that you often get better quality content when people write for nothing than you do when you pay them tiny sums of money, as Demand does. In other words, some people are more than willing to write for the recognition and reputation value and sheer passion (or other intangibles) rather than for money. And there will always be media entities like The Huffington Post that take advantage of that.