Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).

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A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind (republished 16.11.2017)

[ An unknown tamperer was responsible for the broken Google link to this, one of our most popular posts, first published on Valentine’s Day 2012 — for which we got a ‘Page not found’ message a few minutes ago. It is still topical and worth republishing. ]

‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat … [E]motionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs.’

Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,’

Michaeleen Doucleff,  The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2012

Digesting a grisly dissection of the bio-chemical effects of romance set to music in a financial newspaper told me that February the 14th can only become a more diabolical conspiracy between commercial and scientific calculation.

No sooner had I slogged through the neuroscientific perspective on l’amour than I found an email message from Hewlett-Packard offering me a 50 per cent discount on printer ink with the coupon code ‘HPLOVE20’. The promotion was not stingy with fake sentiment: ‘Our adoration for you is lasting – this offer is not.’

And there you have the reasons why post-gutenberg.com would rather dedicate today not to courtship or its consequences but to the perfect potential marriage of means and ends that we have in the World Wide Web — for redesigning the way companies make money from social networking.

The plan for this Alternative Valentine’s Day was inspired by reading Deborah Orr’s thoughtful anti-Facebook protest in The Guardian last week:

“While the US was extolling the virtues of neoliberal corporatism […] Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the world wide web, and gifting it to the planet, for people like Mark Zuckerberg to exploit.”

And to make sure no one had missed the significance of what she said, commenters on her piece underlined its essence:

Not sure how many will realise that what Deborah is saying amounts to this:

(i) Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a research scientist in Geneva, gave us all the World Wide Web for nothing

(ii) Facebook users are giving the world information about themselves for nothing

(iii) Mark Zuckerberg came along and used Tim’s and everyone else’s generosity to everyone else to make a pile for himself.

1 extremely remarkable member of the 1% indeed.

When will the average Facebook user catch on?

That users are beginning to grasp the dimensions of the Facebook heist – in plain sight and with the full cooperation of its victims – is clear from  newspaper articles elsewhere:

Facebook Users Ask, ‘Where’s Our Cut?

Nick Bilton

The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 11:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — By my calculation, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owes me about $50.

Without me, and the other 844,999,999 people poking, liking and sharing on the site, Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow”: bleak, desolate and really quite sad. (Or MySpace, if that is easier to imagine.) Facebook surely would never be valued at anything close to $100 billion, which it very well could be in its coming initial public offering.

So all this leaves me with a question: Where’s my cut? I helped build this thing, too. Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.

Some of Deborah Orr’s commenters – or at least one – thought the remedy for this injustice obvious:

[ lightly edited for repetition ]

[W]e need to start a movement to turn Facebook into a giant cooperative — in which the users make up the rules, and personal information is not sold to anyone.

[…]

Alternatively, …I have heard that a new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and that he is clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich — as Deborah Orr says — and that this is deeply wrong, …and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods that were hard to find anywhere else. Sometimes, those hairy hippies operated cafés where you could eat earnest, do-gooder sandwiches fringed with medicinal bean sprouts and tasting like specially aged damp sawdust.

Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise.  The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. And, as the same commenter said.

To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work on this very site.

Consider, please:

‘the scheme of social organisation which places the means of production of wealth and the distribution of that wealth into the hands of the community.’

That is a dictionary definition (Chambers) of what became a dirty word for many of us, because the idea was so corrupted in its execution. Yes, I mean, socialism.

But that was before this means of communicating and transparent  decision-making was invented.

A hybrid between socialism and capitalism is what we need as a transitional scheme, and you can download a no-holds-barred exchange on that subject here (a free download: see the comments and response to them at the end, if in a hurry): The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1532173

Well alright, I’ll admit that those comments closely echo sentiments expressed on this blog. They might even have been made by the same tiresome blogger.

Cooperatives sound embarrassingly utopian. But they are the finest examples of socialism in action that we have. An earlier entry in this spot quoted an authority on the subject saying that in the U.S., capitalism’s Mecca, 13 million American already work for these organisations.

Some people react to philosophical nudges in that direction with a silence in which you can almost hear them thinking, ‘But who are you to propose evolutionary possibilities for business?

Actually, nobody. But Albert Einstein anticipated this little difficulty. In a 1949 essay, ‘Why Socialism?’,  he reached far back into history to analyse people’s reluctance to break out of well-established patterns, noting:

The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But, as he said in his conclusion,

[W]e should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Where is it engraved in stone that Facebook has to be owned by a wealthy 1 per cent enriched by the 99 per cent sharing their private information as unquestioningly as feudal serfs?

Much ado, not by accident: Elena Ferrante has spoken frankly about exploiting the gossip mill to drive book sales — to The Financial Times

The other

The other side of silence — postgutenberg@gmail.com

Could Elena Ferrante’s WikiLeaks-ish ‘doxing’ really be a publisher’s marketing ploy and bid for a Nobel literature prize?

Somewhere between sleep and waking, last Monday — grey, damp, frigid — the possibility of a lip-smacking conspiracy began to take shape in a dozy head. What if Claudio Gatti, the financial journalist lambasted by Elena Ferrante admirers everywhere for her doxing — net-enhanced exposure through leaked documents — was actually part of an Italian publishing conspiracy concocted in the (wild) hope of creating Italy’s first Nobel literature star since the playwright Dario Fo won in 1997? A real-life wheeze that would have enchanted Umberto Eco, the colossus who strode large over literary Italy for decades before he died last winter — who scribbled Foucault’s Pendulum to show off as a conspiracy artist nonpareil?

Suggesting such a plot is no more ridiculous than the uproar over the apparent — as yet unconfirmed — revelation that the pen name Elena Ferrante has for a quarter-century been hiding the secret novel-writing habit of a respected, well-established German-to-Italian translator called Anita Raja. How can anyone doubt that the writer (or very likely, literary collaboration) behind the Ferrante phenomenon is every bit as impish as Eco, and set out to capitalise on the mystique of an avowed recluse to maximise book sales? It is odd, not to say unfathomable, that commenters on this drama who have quoted the interview with Ferrante-Raja(?) that ran in The Financial Times last December, somehow missed the unambiguous statement to this effect in the conversation, high up in the edited transcript:

Q: Could you explain why you decided to keep your identity hidden — to maintain an “absence”, as you put it, from the business of publishing and promoting your books?

A: I believe that, today, failing to protect writing by guaranteeing it an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace, is a mistake. […] Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip. Let’s restore authentic centrality to the books themselves and, if it’s appropriate, discuss the possible uses of idle gossip as promotion.

All the other answers seemed just as truthful — this one, for instance:

Q: Should we assume the story to be your story — as readers clearly do — or is that a failing of imagination on their part, a symptom of the modern trend for always looking for the author in the work?

A: The four volumes of the Neapolitan novels are my story, sure, but only in the sense that I am the one who has given it the form of a novel and to have used my life experiences to inject truth into literary invention.

If I had wanted to recount my own business, I would have established a different pact with the reader, I would have signalled I was writing an autobiography …

As her country’s most internationally acclaimed living author, and having made no secret of fomenting gossip to make more money, Ferrante-Raja(?) is a legitimate if unusual target for financial reporting. What is truly strange is the companion post for Gatti’s exposé on the blog of The New York Review of Books on Sunday. In it, he purports to excoriate Raja for failing to make her primary material the experiences of her mother, a Holocaust survivor — choosing instead her outpouring of raw, blistering, enraged, tell-it-like-it-is, feminist, seemingly autobiographical stories set on rough and impoverished Neapolitan streets. There is no logical justification for such a criticism. A writer could, entirely understandably, find it unbearable to re-live at one remove the fate of a victim of mass-murdering depravity. We know of no precedent for such an accusation involving any famous name, and Gatti’s outrage seems not merely bizarre but manufactured; also, a tasteless April Fool’s satire that somehow got its dates mixed up.

Is it any wonder that on Monday, we opened our eyes half-dreaming about the possibility that Gatti and unknown fellow-conspirators spotlighted the maternal segment of Raja’s personal history because she really is an author or co-author using ‘Elsa Ferrante’ for camouflage — and because the Holocaust adds gravitas to that story, the kind that the Swedish Academy seems prone to saluting in the biographies of its literature prize-winners? (Think of Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist serving his fourth term in prison; V. S. Naipaul, the son of indentured, alienated, peasant-labourers; Doris Lessing, born into a fractious poor white family in Rhodesia; J. M. G. Le Clézio’s triumph over the risk of cultural marginalisation, from his stubborn insistence on being as much a child of Mauritius as of France …).

Could it have occurred to someone at Ferrante-Raja(?)’s publisher, Edizioni E/O, that an anonymous writer is also a scribe without a biography — a someone who plotted and planted the Gatti revelations to fill that void? Yes, Elsa Ferrante has in the past proclaimed that she will refuse to accept prizes and awards, but her publishing managers could simply ignore her protestations. The pseudonymous scribe’s actions and words do not always match. She has explained to The Guardian that ‘[a]nonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,’, yet readily interrupts her work to give one fascinating, intelligent newspaper or literary journal interview after another — gripping in ways that renderings of her stories into English are not — behind her veil.

It seems most likely that the lead conspirator — if there is a conspiracy — works in marketing in Ferrante-Raja(?)’s publishing house. That is especially probable if Anita Raja is the mysterious author or a collaborator, since it is hard to imagine her orchestrating Gatti’s broadcast of details of her financial records to the universe.

Consider the timing of his exposé. The English version of a new book by Ferrante-Raja(?) will not be published until next month. But the Nobel awards are announced this month. This week, the site of the Nobel organisation lists announcement dates for every prize but the one for literature, offering no explanation for stating that:

According to tradition, the Swedish Academy will set the date for its announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature later.

Can this mean that the committee of judges for this garland — notoriously the most controversial, by far — continues to argue about who deserves to be garlanded all the way to the deadline? And could some people be deluded enough to imagine that they can assist pro-Ferrante committee members to make their case from outside the Swedish Academy?

Whoever wins — and we doubt that it will be Elena Ferrante — is unlikely to compete for publicity with the fuss and condemnation stirred up by Claudio Gatti’s supposedly wicked unmasking; not to mention Elena-Anita(?)’s teasing and manipulation of the gossip mill.

To that ill-informed, mad, hullabaloo, we at post-Gutenberg have now made our modest contribution.