Misattributing cyber-lawyers, Wilde on twitter and a TINA turn – free culture and value

Like most memes, it’s difficult to trace the source of “if you are not the customer, you are the product”. Often linked, vaguely, to google, the earliest citable source I can find is a 15 June 2011 report of a conference at Harvard on “hyper-public spaces”. Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkmann Centre for Internet and Society is quoted as saying “If what you are getting online is for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.”. However, an earlier (23 Nov 2010) Lifehacker article cites a Metafilter user, blue_beetle, as the 26 August 2010 originator of the idea, simply stated as “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”. His real name is Andrew Lewis (@andlewis), and – wonderfully – he now sells t-shirts with his much retweeted comment on, possibly having given up on the idea that free culture colossus Zittrain would send him some money/beer/whuffie.

[of course, awesome scholars such as Brian Lamb and Jim Groom – writing in EDUCAAUSE! – have traced the source of the meme back even further, to a 30 April 2010 tweet from Steve Greenberg (greenbes)]

It’s one of those tilt-shift ideas that offers a new perspective on an old way of seeing the world, and as such has spread quickly through the twittersphere, fitting as it does neatly within 140 characters. One of the many things I love about twitter is the resurgence of the bon mot – should Oscar Wilde ever be reincarnated he would utterly kill twitter, the entire opening essay to Dorian Gray is pretty much the best tweetdeck column ever, as far as it appears to me.

Blue_beetle‘s comment began one of those long interminable metafilter threads about the redesign and adaptation of a then-popular web2.0 thing, in this case the user driven news aggregator, Digg. He got first comment too, itself pretty braggable. But fundamentally, the context was our right, as users, to complain about changes to a service that we are paying for by indirect (participation, personal data, unpaid creative labour) means rather than directly (subscriptions and such). If one user gets so annoyed that he tweets “@kevinrose way to go ruining digg, now it’s gay and ur a fagg.” (source of info about this erudite tweet: stavrosthewonderchicken), does the fact that he is not paying for the service with money mean that he doesn’t have the right to speculate about the sexuality of the site and founder?

However, as the quotation has spread across the internet, it has taken on a number of utterly polarised inferences. It can be read as a cheesily alternative hipster “corporations are, like, really terrible“, or a neo-liberal “you freetards gotta learn that you’re still paying, just in another way“. Like Wilde’s bon mots (or his US near-contemporary, Mark Twain), it is used by just about everyone, to back up just about any position concerning Stuff on Teh Internets and the Paying For It thereof.

Which brings me to @ambrouk giving “The OER Turn” a spin on the JISC InfTeam blog. For the non-believer, Open Educational Resources are an excellent microcosm of the wider debates about free and libre online, debates I’ve touched on in my attempt on the old post-scarcity warhorse.

Simply put, the idea of someone putting the byproduct of their intellectual labour online for people to do stuff with for free breaks pretty much everything we think we know about economics. Not just bends, or challenges, actually breaks. The two generalised responses to this are:

(i) the paper-over-the-cracks model where we sprain pre-frontal lobe-strings talking about the place of value within a system with the whole customer-or-product thing (or arguing that the system itself constitutes value) and start pretending advertising as a revenue model makes any sense whatsoever.
(ii) the “OK, this is something new” model where we realise how little we “get” about human motivation. And start watching. And learning.

People in the west tend towards (i), bowing to another staple un-citable “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism“. This is especially true within the OER movement, where people are acutely and uncomfortably aware that somebody somewhere, be it Hewlett, Gates or the Government, is paying for all this. Therefore, goes the rhetoric, we need to show them that the practice has impact: so we firstly skew our practice to be somehow measurable, and secondly we spend time, energy and (someone else’s) money measuring it. And if we show them impact, then they will give us more money. Apparently. This is also where the customer/product idea comes back in too – if in every interraction we are either a customer or a product then – hooray – we’ve saved capitalism for a few more months.

But if you look at, say, university funding in the UK (just to pick a topic at random 🙂 ), you’ll see that the sector has done a sterling job in demonstrating return on investment. This has not stopped lead funders (the UK government) from screwing the system up like an old fag packet and bringing in something a bit more, y’know, private sector. Funders do not listen to return on investment arguments – which is good news as it allows us to build for genuine long term change under the guise of doing whatever it is they are fleetingly interested in. But bad news for people who want to build return on investment arguments based on ideas of what funders might want to hear – especially if they are wrapped up in TINA arguments of “valourise or die”.

Polishing this off in my usual apocalyptic mode, we’ve really not got long left with this old free market stuff. If you want a tweetable from me: it’s not a recession, it’s the real end of boom and bust. I guess we’ve got to start using any resources that we have to think about alternatives, and the open availability of the knowledge and expertise that humankind has developed during this failed market experiment is an essential starting point. As Brian Lamb puts it “it is almost criminally irresponsible to hoard knowledge” – now, more than ever. Put simply, what if during our online lives we were neither customers, nor products? What if we acted like we were human beings?

This post represents my personal views and not those of my employer, or of programmes and projects I am responsible for. It is made available under a CC-BY license.

2 thoughts on “Misattributing cyber-lawyers, Wilde on twitter and a TINA turn – free culture and value”

  1. It’s an old story, but I don’t think we have learned all we need to learn from Wikipedia. This phenomenon was utterly unpredictable, and I don’t see good explanations of it anywhere. This indicates that people are consistently going with option (i), which is a poor choice in the long run. If we go for option (ii), it may be more uncomfortable in the short run, but we may learn something.

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