I recently read an article (via Dave Winer) by New York Times media columnist David Carr on one of the most curious defining characteristics of the new media—that media companies can turn a tidy profit on content that user contribute for free. Social networks and social news sites are generally free to use, but they ask something in return: the right to publish user-generated content, often accompanied by paid advertising, without paying the content authors. This seemed fair enough when the social Web was young and no one really knew what it was worth in economic terms; however, social networks are now developing into successful businesses, and commentators are beginning to question whether or not these sites should compensate their users, and how they might do so.
Consider the Huffington Post, a popular social news site which AOL just agreed to purchase for $315 million. With this sale, the nature of the game for HuffPo users has changed. It is quite no longer so easy to sell the story that the site can’t afford to pay its contributers for their content. The Huffington Post has grown tremendously, and analysts are starting to call on Arianna Huffington to give something back, if not to everyone, then at least to her site’s most prolific blogger-journalists.
Still, HuffPo editor Nico Pitney counters, despite their own successes, Facebook and Twitter don’t pay their users, to post original content; instead, people write on social networking sites because they want an open, public forum to share their views. As journalist Anna Tarkov says, no one is forced to write for free. Ultimately, not even the charismatic Arianna Huffington can make writers part with their work unless they feel they’ll receive some kind of compensation. In the HuffPo’s case, Tarkov posits, the site’s volunteer bloggers are “paid” not with money but with exposure—the free publicity that comes with having one’s work published on a widely-read news blog.
Not everyone agrees, of course. As blogger Emily Zanotti says, “In the Internet age, once you write for free, everyone expects you to continue.” While it’s easy to say that disenfranchised Huffington Post bloggers can simply stop writing, there’s no guarantee that such a choice will do anything to help their cause. While the HuffPo and other social sites exist only because of user-generated content, the sheer number of contributers at these sites ensures that they can afford to lose a significant portion of their user base without suffering any serious consequences. It does seem to set up a losing proposition for many online writers: “either write for free, or not write at all”.
Is there some legitimacy in the claim that new media Web sites are turning us into “a nation of serfs”, as Carr alleges? Or, on the contrary, are these sites committing no wrongs when they build profitable businesses on content which users have willingly given up for free? In all honesty, I don’t know. What are your thoughts on the matter?