The iCommons harvest

Felix Cohen
25 June 2007

Tony Curzon Price's article "The reinvention of scarcity" (13 June 2007) identifies a tension between Creative Commons's instant abundance and transferability of information and its capacity to act as the foundation for building progressive communities of knowledge.

The article has sparked lively debate, both at the iCommons summit in Dubrovnik on 15-17 June 2007 and around the blogosphere. Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose own article introduced Creative Commons (CC) licensing at openDemocracy in June 2005, commends Tony's "solid and well-constructed argument" which "deserves a full and thoughtful response" - and then passes the baton to Tarleton Gillespie.

Tarleton's own extended reflection regards Tony's concerns as "unwarranted because they are too stark" and goes on to emphasise online communities' "need to grow and remain vital" by "expanding their reach, finding new members while also serving the old, connecting to other conversations and deepening them."

This is the fourth of a series of articles around the annual iCommons summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on 15-17 June 2007:

"This year, the (summit) brings together pioneers of the free Internet to make sure that, at its crossroads, we guide the world along a path that will enable the kind of free culture and decentralized innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet."

introduction to our project in relation to iCommons, and to the workshop we hosted at the Dubrovnik summit, is here

Also published in the week of the summit:

Tom Chance, "Free culture: tumble down the walls"
(11 June 2007)

John Buckman, "The Magnatune revolution"
(12 June 2007)

Tony Curzon Price, "The reinvention of scarcity"
(13 June 2007)This posting in turn provoked a lively debate in which questions of community, attribution and duplication in the commons are discussed positively. At the heart of this debate are the questions of how the internet economies have developed, and what really drives success online. I'm an advocate for the cohesive power of a free digital commons, even if - like Tony - I feel a twinge of regret when ISN's Creative-Commons-syndicated openDemocracy articles arrive as Google alerts in my inbox. Unlike Tony, however, I see this as proof positive of the success of openDemocracy's editorial quality, openness and active community, not a dilution of what openDemocracy is trying to achieve.

The reputation market

Tony Curzon Price's argument echoes the core theme of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital: the essential costlessness of transmitting bits as opposed to atoms. The reproducibility and editability of electronic texts extend this even further, with the added advantage in the digital over the "dead tree" publishing of the ability to discover when someone has used your content.

But this only emphasises the key thing about the digital commons: precisely because bits are free to copy, content is king. Mediocre writers are difficult to discover in the commons, for the digital tools the commons provides and enables ensure that higher quality content is easier to access. Almost everything on the internet obeys Zipf's Law, according to which the most popular item in a list (originally word frequency in documents) is twice as popular as the next, which is twice as frequent as the third most popular, and so on. This holds for most popular articles, visitor frequencies and all the other metrics that have become the key performance indicators of the web. Tools such as Digg, Google, Technorati and Techmeme owe their success to the emergence of great content out of the reputation market.

In this light, openDemocracy and its writers have great currency online not for standing on the shoulders of giants, but rather for balancing atop a mountain of ants. This acts both as an asset and a restraint. If openDemocracy were ever to adopt a "remix" as opposed to an "advertising" license, there would be a danger both of devaluing our reputation for editorial quality and violating the integrity of our authors' work (music and movie are media that invite and grow through being remixed, whereas text is an individual's expression, and should not necessarily be open to anything other than the widest possible dissemination).

The advantage of digital commons, then, is to spread reputation and allow it to find its valid weight in other domains. Cory Doctorow coined the term "'whuffie" to describe the cumulative, established reputation of individuals in his "post-scarcity" Bitchun society. The "whuffie" is what matters, and the process can have benign effects for all concerned. For example, I email Cory's work to my friends, because the author has endorsed this - and a number of my friends have bought Cory's books as a result. Less apocryphally, the O'Reilly Radar recently published a report on how free downloads affected sales of their book, and found that there was certainly no net decline in sales. In fact, as Tim O'Reilly points out in another article, obscurity is a far greater threat to any artist or organisation than unfettered copying of their work.

Felix Cohen is Operations manager of openDemocracy

Also by Felix Cohen:

"Free software's Faustian moment"
(21 November 2006) - with Becky HoggeThe internet spend

Tony Curzon Price (like Tim Berners-Lee before him) notes that the "currency" of the internet is often attention, which resembles cash in that it aids utility by getting us to content and then allowing us to consume it. Clearly, the average internet browser seeks to spend as little of his or her "attention-dollars" as possible in finding content, in order to ensure they have plenty left over to assimilate what they arrive at. This reinforces the point that better content, which is reproduced everywhere, is findable; whereas tedious blog rants are essentially hidden, unless they focus on niche markets at the far end of the long tail.

The low-level human activity of the web, especially when making links between content online, has made it at least possible for the right information to be easily and quickly accessible. In order to avoid choice paralysis, internet users are savvy to the value of search engines, recommendations and links from reputable sources. This is how they access their content, and it is very difficult to have content appear better and more reputable this way; reputation, as always, is earned, not given. The argument for the digital commons is ultimately not just that content is king but that the evaluation of this content is in the hands of an open community of democratic sharers, and this extended community assesses and confers value to openDemocracy, rather than detracting from us.

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