Thursday January 10, 2013
Benefit is a two-way street
By NIKI CHEONG
Companies and users have a responsibility to ensure that we keep on contributing to the amazing pool of information that is the Internet.
JUST a few days before the new year, app tracker AppData set traditional media and social networks abuzz with news that users of photo-sharing application Instagram were ditching it because of the controversy regarding its terms and service.
That week, I wrote about how Instagram had upset many of its users following its new policy announcement which indicated that the company could use and share information and photos belonging to users (that policy has since been chucked out).
AppData was quoted by several media outlets, including the New York Post, as saying that it was “pretty sure the decline in Instagram users was due to the terms of service announcement”.
Instagram denied this, and technology writer Mark Rogowsky wrote for Forbes, arguing against AppData’s analysis by suggesting that the lower usage numbers could be attributed more to user behaviour during the holiday period than an exodus of users from the service.
For a few days after the policy announcement, though, many Instagram users had threatened to leave. Many had even started trying out different options and it has been suggested that Yahoo!’s Flickr had benefitted from this.
Still, most users stayed on. One reason could be because of the numbers game. Over the past few years, users of social networks have become so reliant on numbers – not just in terms of friends or followers, but also how many comments or Likes one’s posts receive – that is it hard to just pack up and move on.
Another factor might be the closed platform set-up of many social networks where the provider or operator has control over applications and content. There is no simple way to download your history and take it along with you.
With Instagram, for example, you may be able to download your photos using a service like Instaport (http://web2.instaport.me), but you lose any data that may be attached to it such as comments and Likes; and the quality of the pictures may be compromised as well.
Then, and related to the second reason, there is also the realisation that at the end of the day, all these sites are the same. They may go by different names and have different features but essentially, they all encourage users to be social beings, to share content or data with one another and put out a lot of information on the Internet.
This habit of being social, sharing and putting our resources together is not new. People have been engaging in such activities well before the emergence of the trend to digitise everything. It is the pervasiveness of social networks that has caused such interaction to be discussed a lot of late.
Even from a digital perspective, it is not really new. Back in 2006, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler, in his seminal book The Wealth Of Networks, talks about what he terms as “commons-based peer production” – or social production, as it is sometimes referred to – which refers to the sharing of information based on collaboration.
Benkler speaks of this concept from an economic perspective and relates it to the knowledge and information economy. He cites examples like open-source software – that is, software released with its code available to anyone to view and modify, among other things – serving as an alternative to products from corporations such as Microsoft; as well as Wikipedia as an alternative to encyclopedias.
If you strip away the economy factor and look beyond how this is affecting industries and their profits, the phenomenon reflects a trend of collaboration and sharing of resources which goes back many years. One example cited is peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, where files are downloaded from multiple computers connected together.
In the age of social networking, users are essentially doing the same thing. We may move from network to network – like how we’ve abandoned Friendster and MySpace and embraced Facebook and Twitter – but at the core of it, we are contributing to this amazing source of information that the Internet holds.
Every tweet we send out or blog entry we write, each picture we upload or update we post, is us pooling our resources and collaborating. Just look at how news and information is shared and consumed so easily and effectively during crisis situations – whether it is the revolutions in the Middle East or an earthquake in Japan.
This collaborative state also requires each of us to make a decision: whether or not to be a responsible Internet user and join in. We are already taking advantage of this; each time we read something on the World Wide Web, or perform an online search, we are reaping the benefits of this “social production”.
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with the individual; organisations share it too. The onus may not be heavier on digital-based companies than on other types – after all, everyone benefits – but the expectation is that such organisations should understand this responsibility. This could also explain the backlash over Instagram for introducing a policy that went against this collaborative culture which has existed through good faith.
After all, other than our devices and Internet access, we don’t actually pay to use any of these services. While it is easy for these organisations to look at users as products that can be sold to advertisers (among other people), it would be unfortunate if they don’t realise that it is also their users’ contributions that benefit them.
Niki is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him at http://blog.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong. Suggest topics and issues on digital culture, or pose questions, via email or on Twitter using the #Star2reWired hashtag.