Sharecropping the long tail

via Rough Type

To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.

The essay is a terrific one, and brings up many important questions, but I think it’s a mistake to typify these two markets as not having parity, or that it’s somehow unfair that some people get money and some “only” get attention. The reality is, there is a healthy exchange system across the two markets as effective as those that change money between two countries’ currency. Value is fungible.

The people who can monetize their output do… they host their own blogs, monetize as they see fit (typically adnsense) and they can use the SN’s as traffic generators, if they wish. Pretty good trade.

But most folks could never get traffic to their blogs, for a variety of reasons: they don’t post often enough, they don’t post well enough, they don’t post on general enough topics or simply no one knows they are there. For these folks, posting regularly (if not exclusively) on a SN is critical to building an audience that can eventually support advertising or serving an audience they will never monetize: friends and family.

Despite geek love of RSS, it’s not really made for ordinary humans. Even the much lauded Google Reader is hard to use. Period. Again: hard to use. Facebook: easy to use. Easy to post, easy to consume. So if you want to get your message about your cat’s tenth birthday out to the small group of readers who want to know, they it’s a viable way to go.

In return for all that effort, Facebook/MySpace/etc gives them room to post every inane thing that pops into their heads, play scrabble, rate friends likes and dislikes and a million other things that takes up bandwidth and doesn’t increase profits. This is barter. The Social Networks are betting that the things they can monetize will outweigh the things that cost them. Users are betting that the fun and potential fame is worth giving up some privacy. We make the same bet when we review something on amazon, rate something on Netflix or blog on Blogger. Everyone is betting that they are getting more than they are giving, or at least it’s a wash. When it gets uneven, the users leave or the company goes under.

If you have been following the latest hubbub about Facebook, you know that the scales have been tipped toward corporate yet again as Facebook tries to turn cat fanaticism into financial strategy. Moveon.org, a political organization is trying to mobilize the typically indifferent-to-exhibitionist audience to action, and many of the geekarati are telling them to get back ending the war and leave us alone.

Personally I’m always in the odd place of being in favor of two typically opposing systems: I’m for more government regulation to check corporate greed, and yet I trust our free market to sort most things out without intervention. Typically the market moves faster than government, and so government mostly can ignore matters or pass legislation after the fact (for those who cannot learn form history). But not always. My biggest fear with the free market system is irretrievable damage will be done in the name of profits before it can self-correct, such in the case of global warming. There really are things you can’t undo.

The SN privacy question falls on the edge of that question. Once your information is out there, it can’t be gotten back. We all know this first hand because of spam. You can’t un-enter your email into the wrong form, and once you’ve made a bad decision that address will forever be full of printer ink and penis enhancement offers.

So what will come first, bottom-line effects from the recent backlash or legislation protecting privacy?

Or maybe I should ask, will they come at all?