Josh Wallaert, writing at the Places Journal (at the Design Observer Group) – “the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism,” has a wonderful post about nominally public spaces on the Internet. The post, called “State of the Commons,” notes:
….Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog). An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world…..
For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world. Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.
It’s worth reading Wallaert’s full post, including the first part, for its discussion of the scarcity of re-usable public domain images and its impact on public life: “Our visual culture, and indeed our public policy, depends on the wide circulation of images that support ideas. And yet most online publications cannot afford the fees charged by wire services and many professional photographers.”
It’s fantastic that we have an open Internet (for now), open source software platforms, Creative Commons licenses, and the capacity to create our own digital commons. But it’s also clear that we need some serious venture capital and institutional leadership to move beyond “digital sharecropping” on the corporate plantation. How can we overcome our dependence on the parochial, self-interested business models of large tech corporations, and assert greater sovereignty over our own creative works and culture? How can we take free culture and digital commons to a larger, more influential scale? The bottom-up vitality is significant; the top-down support is quite limited.