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Everyone on the Internet is a Sellout

March 4, 2011

Pictured: Brutal communist regime as meaningless capitalist product.

This post about facebook (via here) provides a refreshingly uncluttered view of facebook’s role in the world. Over the years the internet has grown to encompass everything, while also spawning a small number of absolutely enormous monopolies that control most of the traffic. While there’s a lot more easy-to-find information out there (remember how useful Microsoft Encarta ’97 was…in CD-ROM format?) the dynamics of the internet have resulted in massive traffic and money for very few winners, along with an almost infinite and invisible hobbyist-type lower level for general recreation.

A couple of ideas I read in other places: 1. Only on the internet can a company have the market share of facebook or Google without being broken up for being an anti-competitive monopoly, and 2. It’s every blogger’s secret dream to develop their blog into a bestseller. Talk of e-commerce revolutionizing the world has turned out to be not like ‘we’ might have hoped. People can make small amounts of money with blog donations, or maybe quite a bit by selling t-shirts and books if they are lucky enough to get a big following on their humour blog or webcomic. Meanwhile the real money makers are, as usual, gigantic monopolistic corporations like Apple and Google. Things have changed, but the end results aren’t much different in the end from non-internet commerce.

The old free software/”information wants to be free” decentralized utopian geek dream was wrong. The information people want for free is mostly commercial music, TV, and films, and while the media companies still seem terrified of piracy they aren’t exactly strapped for cash, and stuff like iTunes and Glee is proving that you can still make a crapton of money selling pop songs for example. While many products are now free due to pirate geeks, they are still capitalistic entertainment products in the end, hardly things that are going to reshape the basic organization of the economy.

As to real revolutions and change in the world, from the link above we have

Facebook has been credited with facilitating revolutions in the Middle East, allowing for groups to organize and communicate, but it’s possible that it only serves that role in a crisis, through a subversion of its implied intended use of multiplying commercial communication, by people who by and large don’t constitute the audience being sold to advertisers and marketers. The revolutionaries more or less freeload on the networks enabled by social media companies, with those companies possibly assuming that with greater freedom for protester/users will come greater chances for social media to harvest their activities commercially.

which seems on the money to me. Facebook has apparently helped organize revolutions against dictators who place unwanted restrictions on people’s lives. But try to imagine a ‘facebook/twitter revolution’ that overthrew facebook and twitter, putting them under the control of people who (for example) didn’t like the idea of private companies knowing everything about what they do on the internet (and, increasingly, the real world as well) and trying to make money from it. What would that consist of exactly? It simply can’t happen in the ‘virtual’ world of the internet. The internet axis of popularity (including say, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Twitter, Amazon and a few others) can only be controlled by explicit market intervention by world governments, and even then I doubt there’s much that could be done. Sure, everyone could run to a new search engine/social network, but there’s no point unless everyone else does…at which point the cycle starts again.

The internet is now a great tool for corporate domination, as millions of people make you money by spending their free time working for free to gain personal recognition on big sites, driving more hits that can be sold to advertisers. The neverending thirst of economic greed/growth to make money off everything has only been strengthened by the internet. Anti-anything groups and subcultures of all sorts can more easily form, but once they’re getting likes and facebook and hits on YouTube they’ve already been subverted into another line on the income side of the balance sheet of some besuited businessman. Having to spend vast portions of your life working for the man sucks, and as recreation increasingly moves online you’ll be working for the man even when you’re not on the clock. Infinite Jest-inspired anti-content which is so disturbing that nobody wants to consume anything that might contain it never looked so good: buy now!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2011 12:36 am

    ‘The old free software/”information wants to be free” decentralized utopian geek dream was wrong. ‘

    Fuck off. Let me write a better reply during the daytime, but seriously, I find that sentiment pretty offensive.

  2. April 13, 2011 1:18 am

    Well I’ll admit that I was being deliberately provocative with that statement, however I’d be interested to know why you find it actually offensive as opposed to just wrong somehow…

    What I was attempting to say is that I don’t see that free software and its philosophy has demonstrated much power over wider political issues such as how the internet and regular Joe Internets operate except in bastardized form as “we should be allowed to pirate because copyright is evil” or at invisible levels as in “everything runs on Apache” etc.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love free software, it just seems to me that the views of people in that community are practically ineffectual when it comes to net neutrality, international copyright agreements, etc., because the community and its products do not lead themselves to forming the giant rich lobbies that seem to be necessary to get anything done: compare the influence of the RIAA to that of the FSF on the ACTA stuff for example. For that reason I find it hard to imagine that in 20 years time (or whatever) people will see the light and not buy the iPad Version 100 because of FSF-type concerns.

    Or maybe you find it offensive that I am shorthanding all free software people as utopian geeks. I don’t read a lot of Slashdot comments and the like anymore but you can see from reading FSF and GNU ‘about’ pages that they think that telling people how bad Windows/Apple/Google are at software freedom will actually someday convince people to stop buying their stuff…whereas it seems to me that things are drifting more towards having computers/smartphones etc. being basically like cars/microwaves/whatever: “I know lots of complicated shit goes on in there, but I neither know nor care what. Does it appear to have the functions I want/look stylish? Then I will buy it.”

  3. April 17, 2011 7:50 pm

    The “rise” of the internet doesn’t seem to have had a marked impact on economic growth. As such, “the man” isn’t sucking anything more out of us than he always was: we’re just substituting the internet for old forms of information and entertainment (see the fall in television and print [both periodical and bookish] revenues). What’s interesting, though, is that there recent attempts to quantify the size of consumer surplus derived from the internet. I can’t find the article right now, but I seem to remember the author stating that the surplus was large. This suggests that it’s the consmer – us – that’s getting the better part of the deal out of this internet arrangement; the “besuited” are getting screwed!

    The man is working for us, man.

  4. April 18, 2011 2:49 am

    Well a couple of things that spring to mind:

    New dot-com bubble? ie. massive value (according to the stocks, buyout prices etc.) of YouTube, Google, facebook etc. vs. little ‘real economic growth’. Bubbles burst = everyone suffers, not just rich investors (judging by the last few crashes). Does this bubble needs to be popped!?

    If there is little gain in value from the internet/”knowledge economy” then we’re left with no real ‘paths for future growth’ other than more dairy farming and tourism (based on current government spiels).

    Also, the kind of popularity concentration effect where it seems that one search engine/video site/social networking site will dominate means that even if that company isn’t making much ‘real money’ (ie. public is getting cool stuff for free) we are still getting channeled into certain behaviours and world-views based on how the people who run those companies set up the sites. Even if facebook doesn’t exert much direct economic influence on people they have enormous effect on things like protest organization, party planning, and the distribution of news stories that become popular, marginalization of people who don’t have internet connections or facebook pages, and many other things. I think it’s reasonable to consider whether all these effects are actually a good thing for society: I don’t believe that just because it’s free and people like it means it’s optimal or even beneficial in the long-term.

  5. James permalink
    April 18, 2011 10:24 pm

    “New dot-com bubble?” Perhaps. Bubbles are notoriously difficult to pick ahead of time empirically, though (personally I’d be more worried about the possibility of a new housing bubble, particularly in China).

    Your second point is interesting, because it picks up on a worry that a few economists were having a wee while ago: we’re finding it more and more difficult to measure the value of the internet/knowledge economy. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in the internet, just that we don’t know how to assess it well. What that means is that traditional economic metrics, like GDP, are going to under-report the growth in economic value over time, and without some serious research in the area the under-reporting is likely to get worse. That kind of means that welfare is going to become increasingly detached from our measures of it. I think that’s a real problem for macroeconomic understanding and policy going forward (and I really don’t know what to do about it… looking forward to seeing some more research on the topic).

    “I don’t believe that just because it’s free and people like it means it’s optimal or even beneficial in the long-term.” For reasons relating to our backgrounds, you and I are obviously going to have serious disagreements over this :-). For one thing, all of your “concentration” and “channeled behaviour” effects can be described in terms of network economics effects, none of which (necessarily) require the positing of monopoly power or market frictions that result in sub-optimal social welfare. I’m not not interested in your view, just (justifiably, I think) sceptical.

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