When Web Communities Become Ghost Towns

When it comes to Internet software and websites, there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the words "free" and "open."  "Free" can mean "no cost" or "politically and legally free." In using the term "free software," Richard Stallman famously distinguished between the two meanings in his immortal phrase, "free as in freedom, not free as in free beer."

So, assuming that we are using this latter definition of "free," is there a difference between "free" and "open"? Isn’t an open Internet the same as a (politically) "free" Internet?

Well, it depends. A lot of commercial ventures on the Web like to be as open as possible because it attracts more readers and viewers, which in turn boosts a website’s advertising revenue. In this scenario,open access = greater commercial prospectsl. But does openness mean that a site is (politically) free as well? Is an open website the same as a commons?

A recent article by Phoebe Connelly, Web Editor of The American Prospect, dives into this issue by looking at the demise of GeoCities, one of the earliest online communities. GeoCities, which started in 1994, was a crude version of blogging and social networking. The site made it easy for Internet users to build their own free (no-cost) websites, and it let people create their own user profiles and organize materials by topic categories. GeoCities was a community in which individuals could build their own personalized spaces.

Although it was once a hot site, GeoCities was eclipsed years ago by blogging, social networking and all sorts of other, cooler applications. What makes it of interest today is Yahoo’s shutdown of GeoCities and what it illustrates about the difference between an open platform and a commons. As Connolly writes, the shuttering of GeoCities is "a reminder that we should think critically about who owns online spaces, how they are managed, and what happens when they are razed."

Once the Internet applications got sophisticated enough to host all sorts of online social life, the question arose: Who owns the information, photos and other digital material placed on the platform? If the materials are all accessible and shareable, does that mean that the space is a commons?

No. I call such sites "faux commons." The corporate host is in business to make money, and their terms of service are typically crafted to advance that goal. If the company goes bankrupt, or if it decides that it needs to impose new terms of service on its website users to enhance revenue, what then of the community? What happens to the shared resource?

The community is subservient to the company, and the company may own the content and can dictate how the site is run. Corporate spaces come with "terms of service" agreements that lay out the rules users must abide by and what control they agree to surrender in exchange for using the product. Connolly quotes me:

“Oftentimes corporate-controlled communities are benign, functional, and perfectly OK,” Bollier says. “It’s just that the terms of services those companies have or the competitive pressures of business may compel them to take steps that are not in the interest of the community.”

Consider the case of Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University. Ludlow ran a newspaper for the virtual community The Sims Online and was kicked out of the community by the owner, Electronic Arts, for publishing accounts of theft, prostitution, and money laundering that (virtually) occurred there. Because it happened in a corporate-controlled online space, his speech wasn’t protected. As Ludlow told an interviewer, “The platform owners have responsibilities to care for those communities and see that they are not harmed.”

Bollier agrees. “At the point where the business model becomes tethered to a happy community, you have to reach an agreement about how you are going to interact. If you piss people off too much, they are just going to flee the site.” When GeoCities was purchased by Yahoo in January 1999, the new corporate overlord immediately began to clash with users. That June, Yahoo changed the terms of service for the site, claiming the right to full ownership of anything users posted to their pages. By December, Yahoo announced it would disband the popular community-leader program. The changes should sound familiar to anyone who has followed recent tempests over privately controlled social-networking sites. Facebook made a similar change to its terms of service this past February, causing uproar among users already annoyed with a redesign and a short-lived feature that broadcast users’ purchasing habits. Under pressure, Facebook reversed the decision within weeks.

Bottom line: an open platform may serve many useful purposes, but it is not the same thing as a commons, and the users may or may not be able to protect their long-term interests as a community. A real commons requires that users have control over the terms of their mutual interaction, and can own or control their software platform.

Certain types of sites that rely upon user-generated content are exercises in "digital share-cropping," says Professor Lawrence Lessig, referring to the predatory practices of landowners in the American South after the Civil War. The sharecroppers farm, the landlord takes the bulk of the benefits. Not a commons.

An open website may resemble a commons in providing general access to the resource, but it may retain important legal rights to user content; a commons is managed for the users alone. An open platform may allow a business to appropriate the community’s work; a commons usually insists upon some measure of community control.

An open platform may be a tool for a company to monetize content, whereas the members of a commons usually want their resources to be inalienable (i.e., not sold to the marketplace).

Open versus "free" is not necessarily an either/or choice. Many business-run open platforms respect an implied social contract with users. They realize that abrogating that contract (by imposing odious terms of service, for example) could destroy their business model by causing users to flee the site. So companies have an enlightened self-interest in respecting the Web communities that they host. But that long-term self-interest may easily be trumped by a company’s grubby short-term interests.

Companies do face competitive pressures, after all, and they do have a vested interest in monetizing users’ content and attention. Advertising, data-mining of personal information, licensing of content, etc., are all attractive strategies. There may be an overlap of interests on open platforms between vendors and users, but the interests are certainly not identical. And certainly there is no genuine commons governance.