October 20, 2006 · Lessig
So there’s an important distinction developing among “user generated content” sites — the distinction between sites that permit “true sharing” and those that permit only what I’ll call “fake sharing.”
A “true sharing” site doesn’t try to exercise ultimate control over the content it serves. It permits, in other words, content to move as users choose.
A “fake sharing” site, by contrast, gives you tools to make seem as if there’s sharing, but in fact, all the tools drive traffic and control back to a single site.
In this sense, YouTube is a fake sharing site, while Flickr, (parts of) Google, blip.tv, Revver and EyeSpot are true sharing sites.
Fake Sharing Sites
YouTube gives users very cool code to either “embed” content on other sites, or to effectively send links of content to other sites. But never does the system give users an easy way to actually get the content someone else has uploaded. Of course, many have begun building hacks to suck content off of the YouTube site. (On the Mac, I’ve used TubeSock to do that). But this functionality — critical to true sharing — is not built into the YouTube system.
True Sharing Sites
By contrast, ever other major Web 2.0 company does expressly enable true sharing.
- Flickr, for example, makes it simple to download Flickr images. (See, e.g., here.)
- blip.tv explicitly offers links to download various formats of the videos it shares. (See, e.g., here.)
- EyeSpot (a fantastic new site to enable web based remixing of video and audio) permits the download of the source and product files. (See, e.g., here.)
- Revver (the site that enables an ad-bug to be added to a video so the creator gets paid when each video is played) builds its whole business model on the idea that content can flow freely on the Net. (See, e.g., here.)
- And even Google increasingly enables access to the content it creates and collects. Its fantastic Book Search project enables people to download (funnily formatted) PDFs of public domain books. (I know this link used to work, but now that I’m in Germany, Google is obviously not permitting me access to the work because it is so insanely hard to know whether it is in the public domain anywhere else.) And I am told (though I’ve not yet seen how to do it), Google Videos can be download to a machine.
This difference, I suggest, in business models should be a focus of those keen to push the values of Web 2.0. Though Tim O’Reilly’s canonical statement of those values implies this freedom is necessary, it doesn’t really expressly say so. The freedom to access the content seems, in my view, related to the Web 2.0 principle that “the service automatically gets better the more people use it.” Or at least the right to access it if the author chooses (another Web 2.0 principle: Some Rights Reserved) seems essential for this ethic to make sense. As O’Reilly puts it, “Design for ‘hackability’ and ‘remixability’” — precisely what hoarding content doesn’t do.
If YouTube is a trend, this is a depressing turn. No doubt, that amazing company has a billion things to think through (including what to do with more than a billion dollars). But one thing it really needs to keep in focus is a very important part of its success: That it was seen to respect the ethics of the web. Why post on YouTube rather Google Video? At least some did so because YouTube was “cooler.” Whether it continues to be as cool depends critically on the values it practices.
UPDATE: Joi has a fantastically thoughtful followup on this.