Friday, February 23, 2007

The Carr-Benkler Wager and the Gift Economy...

Yochai Benkler is a scholar whom I've come across repeatedly in my dissertation research, and Time Magazine has just run an article on him as well. He argues that the role of volunteer contributions are becoming more fundamental to the economy - creating a "gift economy" - citing that the future will more closely follow the models of Web 2.0 sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Wikipedia, which rely on volunteer "peer production" for content.

But will volunteer efforts really replace the role of paid professionals? Even if so, then to what degree?

There are many examples that support Benkler's claim. The open source movement in computer programming circles has relied almost exclusively on the efforts of volunteers in writing software, which is then given away for free and with the source code revealed. As a result, the open source movement has compiled a string of technical successes - the Linux operating system, Apache web server, Firefox web browser, and scores of others.

Nicholas Carr, however, disputes the notion that volunteers will become more integral in tomorrow's economy. Instead, he argues, the reason Web 2.0 sites are driven by the efforts of volunteers is not the result of altruism, but simply because a business model has yet to emerge in which these people are to be paid. There is evidence to support this stance as well - most bloggers run advertisements on their "volunteer" writings, including myself, and many Linux gurus "volunteer" their time to the project knowing that their expertise will lead to consulting money from Linux-using companies like IBM.

This, in essence, is what has come to be widely known in Web circles as "the Carr-Benkler wager": a bet on whether, by 2011, such websites will be driven primarily by volunteers or by professionals.

It strikes me that these sites will indeed continue to be primarily driven by volunteers, however I am less convinced that this means we are moving towards a "gift economy". If you scour through blogs on Technorati, read news stories on Digg, or review photos on Flickr, one thing becomes indisputably apparent - that this volunteer Web is an egalitarian marketplace of ideas and content. Everything and anything goes. Some of it's crappy, some of it's profound, most of it's slightly absurd. People will always get a thrill out of posting things to a global audience (just ask anyone with a MySpace page), and in that way the role of volunteers in creating content on such sites will only to continue to flourish. However, as in any true marketplace, the best ideas and products will rise to the top. Volunteer bloggers, Flickr photographers, and Wikipedia entry-writers who clearly produce works that are superior to 99% of the rest of the crap on the internet will undoubtedly find an audience - and at that point, thanks to our capitalist system, it is inevitable that the money will follow.

That's the Web 2.0 paradox: The best volunteers who drive such sites will ultimately become paid professionals. But while that's the case, the majority of volunteers who produce less interesting content will continue being no more than volunteers. There is also a disconnect here in thinking of most MySpace users as "volunteers". Most are better identified as consumers using a free product for personal use (like creating an online family photo album), rather than as lethargic-sounding "volunteer content providers". Web 2.0 sites will continue to exist, and indeed thrive, in 2011 because there's a whole lot more grandmothers posting pictures of their grandkids than there are elite wanna-be professional photo-journalists.

Ultimately, Benkler is on the right side of the wager - that these websites will continue to be driven by volunteers - however, not for the reason of altruism. For some, the reason will still be the profit motive, hoping to reap a financial reward down the line. For most everyone else, the reason is simple...

For fun.


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