Tag Archives: Jaron Lanier

Free Content and Creative Commons

After a few weeks of our online course and thinking about open learning, it has become clear that nobody is advocating for completely free platforms and content anymore. We now know that free platforms always come with some kind of cost. As a rule, if a platform (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.) is free, the user is the product. Our data is piped into algorithms that try to modify our behavior in very clever ways. We have been told that ads make it possible to give these platforms to users for free, but a lot of us have become very aware of the fact that these ads are not like traditional ads we may see on television or magazines. Everything is tailored to the single user and the manipulation is very aggressive.

In his book Free Culture (2004), the founder of Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig says  that his inspiration for the work came from the Free Software Foundation and free software advocate Richard Stallman. The book is an argument for the reduction of the scope of copyright laws. When I first read it, I was very much into free software and perfectly willing to challenge copyright laws. Now, things have changed.

Nine years after Free Culture was published, Jaron Lanier published in Who Owns the Future? (2013) In it, he wrote about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram (who had only thirteen employees at the time) for a billion dollars: “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those thirteen employees are extraordinary. Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.” Why aren’t the people who make Instagram worth a billion dollars getting compensated for their efforts? This is just a single example, but it suggests that there is a whole other set of questions we have to address now that social media has really taken off.  Wealth is concentrated and distributed between a few central operators. Most of the work is done for free. The platform you use not only takes your labor, but it also bombards you with algorithms aimed at modifying your behavior. While all this is taking place, your brain gets used to addictive behaviors and makes you miserable. But, hey, it’s free!

It’s safe to say that most of our idealism about free software and free content has disappeared. There are many problems that follow the business models that base their revenue on the digital enslavement of their users. Many of us actually would like to and do pay for the media we consume in order to avoid the negative aspects of free media platforms. For example, I am happy to pay for my news services and do subscribe to some I like. I pay them money, they in turn don’t inundate me with ads and pointless junk, and of course they deliver high-quality content.

Nevertheless, I sometimes need materials for teaching purposes where I don’t need to worry about copyright or pay too much to use them. This is where the Creative Commons license comes in. It may have begun from an idealistic pursuit of free culture for all, but it is now a parallel system covering shareable content. There may be a lot of rhetoric about how our culture is now a “remix” culture, but real life tends to be more complicated than buzzwords. In Free Culture, Lessig writes about the way wealthy corporations have been able to extend copyright and keep their products out of the public domain almost indefinitely, and it’s easy to agree with him on why this is not beneficial to society as a whole. Reduction of copyright laws as a whole may still be the goal, but a second system like the Creative Commons license has created a practical option for all who want to share their stuff with others.

I think I still want to support both ideas. But my support now comes with a number of ifs and buts.

Do You Need a Personal Policy on Online Sharing?

Most of us have an online presence of some kind. Most of us also know a person who refuses to use certain online platforms or social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Google, etc. Whether you use none or several of these platforms, you have more likely than not thought about what you should and should not share online. You probably already have what we might call a personal policy on online sharing.

Today it is obvious that you should not share everything online on your professional or personal accounts. You should also be aware that different platforms provide different levels of access to whatever you share: some social media networks are fairly closed and others public. (Sometimes these networks are hacked and the users’ personal information is downloaded by people looking to exploit it.) If you decide to opt out completely, your data will be safe. But few of us do opt out, because social media has many benefits that enrich our daily lives.

Several books and studies that examine how people behave on social media have been published recently. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017) looks at online culture from a perspective that highlights the snarky, mean, cynical, clever and juvenile rhetoric that used to thrive on Internet forums. This attitude still prevails among the 4chan-crowd and their ilk, and the fear of being bullied by anonymous creeps is justified. Such groups have the power to oust anyone they choose from social media and they are often flippant enough to do so.

One of the most famous cases of massive online shaming happened in 2013 when Justine Sacco posted a joke on Twitter. The joke was in very poor taste and was retweeted numerous times while Sacco was logged out of her social media. When she logged back in the damage was already done and she had become infamous in just a few short hours. Jon Ronson writes of the case in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) and laments the fact that those shaming Sacco were not from the slimy underbelly of the Internet, but regular Twitter users. Ronson’s point seemed to be that many of us are just one step away from becoming vicious people who will not think twice about shaming someone online.

Dr Molly Crockett from Yale’s Crockett Labs is a neuroscientist who has studied the way we experience moral outrage online. In her article, Moral Outrage in the Digital Age (2017), Crockett points out that expressing moral outrage does have potential social benefits, but that digital media limits these benefits in many ways: online communities create echo chambers, they make it difficult to distinguish between truly heinous and merely disagreeable content, and they make the morally outraged less likely to do anything about real social issues. The problem is that expressing moral outrage is rewarding in itself and new tools like social media make this kind of self-gratification easier than ever. In an online lecture, Crockett speaks of “pure destructive retribution” and “outrage porn” that have no other function but to feed our need for the neurocandy produced by our own moral outrage.

We have probably experienced this ourselves at some point. In his book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), the author Jaron Lanier’s third argument is: “Argument 3: Social media is turning you into an asshole. […] Please take the possibility seriously.” And we should take it seriously by, at the very least, taking a look at our own behavior online. When you do, you notice that there is a lot to be anxious about on social media. You will probably also notice that you will be happier if you are able to detach yourself from it from time to time. It is a public forum, after all, where people are watching what you do and where everything you do will leave a trace. You are also watching people watching you and may even attach your self-worth to the way faceless strangers judge you online. This is unhealthy and incredibly stressful since you are giving people you don’t know enormous power over you.

How, then, should all this feed into your own personal policy on online sharing? You should draw your own conclusions, of course, but here are a few of mine. One, don’t assume social media is something it’s not. It’s a tool for communication, for teaching, publishing and a way of creating online communities. Use it as a tool or a means for something else. Two, the fear of online shaming should be considered very real. It’s like a fear of infection and shaming behavior makes very little sense when it does happen, but we think it is based on our brain chemistry — on second thought, it’s more like a fear of a zombie outbreak. It’s a risk we have to take online. Luckily, most people never have to go through online shaming and we are working on ways of mending it. (Those of you who read Finnish may want to read my interview with Dr Molly Crockett in the next issue of niin & näin. I will ask the journal if I can share some of her insights here as well.) Third, find your own community online. Knowing where you are sharing and with whom helps alleviate anxiety. When you share something within a closed or private community, your stuff may still leak out, but at least the risk is smaller when you know the community and its people.

Any thoughts? Please leave them in the comments.