MITX and the need for some new thinking

I’ve been so busy with my other blogs lately that I haven’t been writing here as much as I ought to – now that the 2008 events are underway I expect that to change.

I went out last night to MITX. The panel was moderated by Larry Weber and featured Tom Arrix of Facebook, Pauline Ores of IBM, Juan Santos or StudioCom, Suzanne Skop of MySpace and Jeff Taylor of Eons. The event drew a good crowd, probably 250 people. It was less the hip social media scene people and more folks that I think were looking for ways to understand what’s happening. (I will say that most of the people in the room raised their hands when asked if they were using Facebook or Myspace.)

In terms of content, I didn’t come away with anything especially new or revealing. It was what has become a fairly familiar conversation – the way people want to receive content is changing so the way marketers communicate with them needs to change as well. Yep, got it.

What made this panel perhaps more interesting was the quality of the panelists – or at least of the companies for whom they worked. This gave me an opportunity to raise an issue that’s been bothering me lately. Let me explain the issue and then get into the panel’s response.

I’m reading, “The Ball is Round – A Global History of Soccer.” It’s a pretty good book and has been a good introduction to the game. One of the things that surprised me is that in the early days, “amateurism” was the spirit of the day. What this meant was that players weren’t paid. So the club owners would invest in building stadiums (often just a few wood stands or even raised earth mounds for spectators) and charge a gate. At the time though, the players saw NONE of the money and that, of course, suited the owners just fine.

Fast forward a hundred or so odd years and replace stadiums with social networking sites, replace the fans with visitors and the players with content creators (who might also be visitors). There’s typically no admission fee but there’s a ton of money flowing into the pockets of the companies that build and maintain the sites. The value of these sites is the content and interaction provided by the members. But the people creating the value are seeing NONE of the revenue.

It seems like a pretty exploitative model to me and one – over time – that’s bound to change in time as people recognize that this is the same old economic model that unions were created to deal with wrapped in newer and friendlier fabric. So I can pay Linden Labs for the privilege of creating value for Linden Labs . . . hmmmm. What’s wrong with this picture?

So I asked the panel what they though. Whether they’re respective companies would ever think of a model that recognized and compensated people for the value they bring to the community. Guess what? The short answer is no. I was told that this was a naïve question, that people are already rewarded with intangible things like recognition and kudos.

Those early soccer players were also rewarded by the cheers of the fans but sooner or later they recognized that cheers don’t buy a whole hell of a lot.

One of the big ideas of this whole social media thing is the democratization of content creation and distribution and that’s awesome. But the result can’t be a concentration of money and control in the hands of the few built on the work of the many. That just isn’t going to be sustainable forever.

Is it time to form a content creators union? Is it time to organize the unrecognized social media workforce? Is it at least time to take a step back and ask these kinds of questions?
Let me know what you think.

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9 thoughts on “MITX and the need for some new thinking

  1. Pingback: Soccer History
  2. Thanks for coming to our event last night! I agree, there wasn’t any new jaw dropping revelations but the important reinforcement of questions, concerns, ideas that we all have running through our heads. Your question was a good one (and definitely not naive). In theory it makes sense. In practice I say no dice. Call me idealistic (and alas probably very naive), but I don’t want people to get paid. Couldn’t they then become the stewards of brands, companies, god knows what? Isn’t the beauty of this that we write (hopefully) out of sheer interests and passions?

  3. Interesting take. I was at the event as well and, although valid, I agree with the panel that we aren’t ready for a compensation model. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think we will ever have one. People get involved in these communities and generate content because they are passionate about the topic. Some will use these platforms as a method to make money or gain recognition as we’ve seen with YouTube personalities, but in today’s world, the social recognition is just as valuable to the average person as the cash. One could say that those looking to “cash in” on social media buy creating content are today’s equivalent to the Reality TV “star” of yesterday.

    For most people, creating content around a topic shows passion and establishes a thought leader position. I would argue that most people looking for fame and fortune in communities understand that gaining recognition around a topic online can result in success offline.

    Additionally, YouTube already has a partner network where popular personalities are supposed to be compensated for their involvement. However, many of these “partners” have yet to see a check.

    The content is created because there are people willing to consume it. Establish a reputation in the free media channels and acquire a large enough following and you have the opportunity to take that audience with you to another destination that’s purely yours.

    Social Networks and communities create the opportunity for success and relationship building. Some could even say that the content creators should be paying the social networks for providing a platform to showcase skills, talent, etc.

  4. @ Kiki – people are already paid to be the stewards of brands (at least as a PR guy that’s one role I see myself in for my clients). But I think that technology has opened new possibilities for creativity and expression. As people find and take advantage of these things there will certainly be a period when the passion is payment itself. But at a certain point, when the dollars associated with the channels get big enough (which they are) and the content becomes popular enough (which some has) there’s going to be a change in the balance.

    I see a risk in people’s creativity being co-opted by brands if there is no way for them to see benefit from the value the create in the communities where they function. You see that happen as cult content becomes commercial content. I’d like to think that there is enough pie to give everyone a taste – but that’s not really the way things work I guess . . .

    @Kevin – I think we have to accept that models can change quickly and unpredictably; so that fact that you are hard pressed today to imagine a compensation model doesn’t mean much. Going back to the football analogy – I suspect that the 19th century club owners never imagine paying their players either. In fact, as professionalism began creeping into the game compensation was grounds for a player being banned from the game. That model has changed.

    If you think about the current writer’s strike you see the pressure point between models. In this case professional writers are creating valuable content for which they are not being compensated. How is the value of that content assessed? By the desire of advertisers to have access to the consumers it attracts. I think the writers are right to ask for recognition and compensation.

    The same service is being provided by legions of people who are experiment with content creation themselves and the value of their content also ought to be recognized and compensated. I do much of what I do online because it is the only place I can – but as what I do is valued and results in commercial value for others, I think it’s reasonable to say, “hey, wait a minute.”

    I can understand the panel’s point of view though. They’ve built the pitch and the turnstiles are spinning. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it . . .

  5. Good post Greg.

    I was thinking the problem is the design of a blog, if we could make a blog that acts more like a social network, then people would pay for their own blog, and social network, and connect using the blog. I think social networks will probably always be able to attract people by offering them services for free they cannot get elsewhere. The marketplace has value. But that if we can get around the design issue with blogs, and enable them to build a better social network, you might have part of your answer, people will abandon the social networks for their own websites. I’d much rather create and control my own content on my own site, rather than worry about helping Facebook or Myspace.

  6. @ John Cass – Thanks John. I think that blogs looking, feeling and behaving more like social networks would be a great thing. I would love it if there were a way to break the “I don’t read blogs” mentality that exists. Part of that might simply be to stop referring to them as blogs and begin thinking about them more as sites. Another thing might be to make it easier for people to embed and share richer content across blogs. This is something social networking sites to pretty well but most blogs do not.

    I have some content that I want to charge people for (not on this blog) and other content that is interested to people that I would like to support through some other means. In either case, I do think that the model for content compensation is going to change.

    @ John Johansen – Have you been trying and having trouble posting?

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