The Currency of the Web

It is said that the currency of the web are attention and reputation. In times of so-called overwhelming information, the news and data compete for the attention of the readers. What isn’t recognized vanishes into oblivion. Residing there they tend to have no “effect”, that’s why CEOs like Eric Schmidt from Google and others try to find ways to harvest these treasure troves, trying to make them available and conneced to other pieces, and call this “creating value”. Likewise on the data curation front we find people who think that providing structured ways of access to these landfill sites of lost, forgotten, ignored, abandoned chunks of data somehow will render them as treasures with a value to sell.

Newspapers struggle to keep afloat with their online presence as ad revenues never compensate for the cost of providing the contents. But not providing them is not an option, as the readers are assumed to move ahead to other, cheaper sources. Catching the readers’ attention by all means is thought to be the main venue to somehow cash in on the contents they consume. Under the pressure of this business model most online papers cannot afford to pay their bloggers or reporters a decent wage. Similar things happen in what might be called with some irony the Grateful-Dead-Marketing for musicians and the music industry: Give away for free the content (that will catch and bind the attention of the consumer), then sell him t-shirts, live-show-events, privileged access to the star. Even as this may work for big stars and big companys, it rarely does so for the regular artist or the session musician, who instead of perfecting their skills and creating new songs will lose too much time with packaging and sending mugs to their devoted 1.000 hardcore fans who are supposed to pay 100,– USD a year to provide for their living.

The problem lies not in the absence of working revenue-models. They work fine as long as the desired content has a material form (Amazon, Ebay). It’s with content that has an electronic basis and can be copied that the industries lack an appropriate business-modell for. Most people will not pay for a “content” they may as well get somehow without charge, for “free”. If the content is available on the web, then it is available for free – or there will be ways for everybody to attain it for free. On the web nobody seems to earn money with providing or creating content, people earn money with new programs, new functionalities and gadgets, or through maintenance work. (You earn money with “form”, not with “content”.) That is the reason why industries try to change the web by aiming to cut off areas and convert them into walled gardens. Murdoch and Jobs are the most famoust eamples right now: Murdoch seemingly losing, because his paywall discourages traffic and subscriptions, and Jobs seemingly winning, as his double strategy of licensing downloads and streams while at the same time creating new access-standards to sell access-tools like iPhone and iTunes make the content unavailable for those not buying the license and not using the appropriate means of access. What Jobs did achieve (and the music as well as the media industry failed to do) was to come up with a successful way of introducing artificial scarcity of electronic content to mimic the individuality of a material object. He created walls with doors, the passages through which costs entrance fees.

Seen that way the desired access to some content in order to consume it is simply the flipside of the belief that attention is the main currency of the web. It’s about the content, the content is appreciated, and either the provider / creator is rewarded with money or with reputation, depending on whether for some economical and ideological reasons one favours or declines walls with doors. Accordingly John Perry Barlow and Steve Jobs are not really that distinct – as hippie hedonism, self-realization, and radical consumerism are not exclusive either. Content is “free”, and one cannot obtain money for it except one takes it off the web’s free access and places it into some separate walled garden.

I sketched these issues to lay the ground for a different view on the web’s situation and potential. In a nutshell it is this: The currency of the web is not attention, nor reputation, it is solidarity.

The main mistake in the prevailing conception of the web and people’s usage of it is the thought that the web is primarily about content. We think the web is a huge amount of data, information, content, that keeps growing with incredible speed (and we just talk about the web and ignore the darknet and the areas that are nearly off the reach of search engines). We think it is necessary to have an overview what’s on the web. We try to conceive it in terms of a semantic web, we look for automated data-mining information-clustering. We think the web is about the data — most of which seemingly running through our fingers. We see the web as a graveyard and we try to keep some of the data and information alive or to revive them. On the other hand we feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and content already at our disposal. (So the curious consequence is that as we desparately try to keep the content, the data, the information alive and in reach we fear that they overwhelm us. We are like people who long for a swim in the sea but are scared of it and rather build a promenade and take a stroll to watch it from safe distance.) But instead of seeing content on the web as an end of its own we might better see it as a means.

Data, information, content are the new fetish. They are stored, catalogued, connected, visualized. Permanent access are the goals both of Big Industry and Big Open. The differences between both seem to be just ones in emphasis. FLOSS and Open whatever want free-of-charge and free-of-restriction access for everybody while Big industry wants this only for those who are authorized and have paid for. But content, seen as an end in itself, independent of any usage, becomes this half-dead entitiy which has to be kept alive indiscriminately in order that it doesn’t vanish into some kind of underworld. Seen in itself, content becomes an addiction, its “curation” an excuse. 

But the web is not about content, it isn’t even about “communication” or “comunities”, it is about activities and actions. “Communication” and “comunities” may arise with certain activities and certain goals (using certain contents to achieve them) but mostly they are no ends in themselves either. They grow with the tasks at hand, as contents as means are put into usage. 

Solidarity, not attention, is the currency of the web. And that means that those sites that generate the most become the most valuable ones.

Websites are the public faces of projects. When they generate and enable solidarity, their value accrues. Seen that way sites like Wikipedia become the most valuable sites on the net. And this value is independent of any monetary value. Wikipeda has a value that cannot be cashed in, with the consequence that it cannot generate money on its own and relies on donations. People keep donating to Wikipedia, because they see a value in it. One might think that this value lies in the content it provides. But you could never obtain any money for the content either, simply because it is CC-free. Instead the value of Wikipedia lies more in the prospect that it will keep growing in size and content and that it will benefit other people. So donors give money to Wikipedia not because they love to have an encyclopaedia they won’t ever have to pay for (that may be part of the reason to give: gratitude), but they want Wikipedia to stay alive so that it may be of good use to other people. Because Wikipedia has a huge potential for facilitating solidarity, it receives donations (and the work on contents, of course). Wikipedia gets a lot of solidarity because it has this huge capacity of spreading solidarity. This, and not so much the actual content (that no-one can overlook but takes for granted on trust) constitutes Wikipedias value. A site that generates, i.e., attracts, enables, and spreads solidarity is a valuable site.

People want to do something with the contents they deal with. Astonishingly enough, there are very few possibilities on the web that an average user can put content to some usage. The most widespread are tweeting and re-tweeting, blogging, uploading and downloading on youtube, streaming, and that’s it more or less. So besides consuming the average user cannot do much with a content – even when it is “free” –, except recommending it to other people or commenting on it. We should take into account that most people would like to do much more with the contents if they could, if their were ways to do so. It is the web’s restricted possibilities and functionalities that confine people to employ contents via twitter, facebook, youtube, etc.

But the web is a web of human activities using contents. Activities can make usage of contents in different ways: they can monopolize contents to generate a profit; they can give content away for the sake of education, they can use content in endeavours that generate, enable, and foster solidarity.

Emphasizing activities that use contents for a goal, we find that the goal of an activity will act as a filter concerning the relevance of information and content. Whoever wants to use a platform like Ushahidi to monitor elections in Kenya, disaster relief in Haiti or Pakistan, or to monitor the availability of free apartments in New York City has (for the time being) no need for an inventory of the biological species of Madagascar or the art treasures of the Eremitage. The intent and the goal of the action discriminates what information becomes relevant and what can be ignored. Accordingly a semantic web or anything else that pictures (statically or dynamically) knowledge-relations seems unneccessary — the goal of the activity decides and imparts the importance of the content, and the more the project or the site presenting it enables solidarity, the more it is the rule and not the exception that the news will find me


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