There is something messy about the relationship between users and corporations. (Petersen, 2008:1)
This spring, together with a colleague, I’ll be running a class on “Audio-visual and digital media as communication tools” for our 6th semester communication students. My perspective will be on the changed conditions for marketing, production, and consumption in relation to new media, and as part of this, I’ll be using a paper by Søren Mørk Petersen entitled “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation” (2008). In this paper, Petersen offers a critical perspective on the pros and cons of user generated innovation and content creation, and his main point is summarized in the abstract:
For many years the Internet was considered an apt technology for subversion of capitalism by the Italian post–Marxists. What we have witnessed, however, is that the Internet functions as a double–edged sword; the infrastructure does foster democracy, participation, joy, creativity and sometimes creates zones of piracy. But, at the same time, it has become evident how this same infrastructure also enables companies easily to piggyback on user generated content. (Petersen, 2008:1)
What puzzles Petersen is how at the same time new, so-called participatory media enabling user generated content can cause both very positive and very negative user experiences, and Petersen finds some explanation in combining basic principles behind the technologies in question with the logic of capitalism. The paper is good in explaining how we, the users actually pay when using “free” services, technologies, media – something that always seems to surprise the majority of students.
In preparation for this course, I’ve collected case examples from different types of SNSs, external corporate blogging etc. such as Google and Facebook, who – involuntarily – keep feeding into these kinds of discussions. Sometimes I actually appreciate talking about other media than SL, and I had not planned to include it. However, then on February 7th Linden Lab (LL) posted a call for bloggers. The call spurred quite a controversy in the SL related Twitter- and blogsphere, and I think it’ll make a perfect example of the “messy relationship between users and corporations”. So, let’s first have a look on the call:
Basically, LL invites bloggers to submit original posts with “exposure” as only the only payment. This marketing approach isn’t unusual in the Web 2.0 economy, but it soon resulted in some vey negative tweets among some of the SL users I follow, and if you take a look at the comments, people were not impressed by this initiative. Lack of payment was, however not the only reason why some SL users reacted so strongly. The guidelines for submission (depicted below) also caused concerns, and I also think that the history between LL and its users had an important impact on the (negative) reactions.
Before returning to my own take on this, let me just mention some of the reactions that quickly came about in parts of the SL blogsphere. Besides these authors’ interesting and very different perspectives on this issue, the comments are equally worth reading. One of the first reactions, I noticed was actually a comment made by Crap Mariner on the call – LL decided to delete! the comment, but prior to this, he managed to photo document it. As you can tell, this was a prickly, but satirical comment as was this one posted by Botgirl Questi, which also was deleted! Evidently, any site owner has the prerogative to moderate and even delete comments, but there are better ways of handling the process, and I’ll return to that. Inara Pey’s post “LL calls on bloggers, bloggers call out LL” fits in the more negative category, as does Chestnut Rau’s “ LL says “Calling all bloggers“, and Hamlet Au’s “SL bloggers wonder about blogging for SL on an unpaid basis“. Prokofy Neva’s “What, the Lindens do an open call for bloggers instead of a closed fic thing and you’re bitching?!” was one of the first posts I read in favor of LL’s approach, and Gwyneth Llewelyn’s “Working for free for Linden Lab’s blog” was also quite positive. Though not wanting to contribute herself, Tateru Nino also applauds the initiative in “A good effort“, and even though I don’t agree completely, I agree that the idea was good, but very, very badly executed. As an academic, I’m not used to being payed (at least not directly) for writing, and I do “love to write about Second Life”, but I will not be contributing, and this mainly has to do with the guidelines and LL’s general approach to its users.
In terms of payment, I’m not so dismayed as other SL users. From a strictly economical point of view, I think the “exposure payment” is defensible, given that for some SL users, this could actually be of great interest. When Hamlet Au contacted LL for a comment on the lack of payment, the answer confirmed that LL thought such an arrangement would be “appealing” to some of its users. However, from a PR point of view, I do think LL (again) is out of touch with some of the more critical SL users and that paying even a small sum would have bought LL a priceless amount of good will.
As an academic, I’m used to “submission guidelines”, but when reading LL’s Community Participation Guidelines, there’s a lack of transparence in terms of by whom and based on what criteria, potential submissions would be assessed. Even though this blog mainly is a manifestation of my personal views, I do try to follow general academic practice, and furthermore I try to maintain my academic integrity. Part of being an academic means providing a critical perspective on given phenomena, and I would seriously doubt that LL would accept posts pointing to some of the more critical issues concerning the use of SL. Since, the LL initiative clearly is a marketing effort, and that LL, in my opinion, suffers from a rather severe “fear of critique”, as they so clearly demonstrated by deleting Crap and Botgirl’s comments, my concern would be that LL would only want “Hollywood pretty painting pictures” – just as their marketing material in general. The great irony being that if LL admitted to certain critical issues, new users of SL probably would be better prepared for the SL experience and maybe wouldn’t leave so quickly due to unmet expectations. LL rightfully reserves the right to review and edit, and that is normal procedure when you pay somebody, however since LL doesn’t, a more sympathetic approach would be to do this in collaboration with the author(s), and an additional benefit would be that LL actually could learn something from this experience by connecting with its users.
Sadly, I’m no longer convinced that LL really wants to connect with its users, and what really sickens me is the way LL has handled this affair. Moderating posts is ok, but deleting posts that have already “aired”, and ignoring criticism only gets the opposite effect of what was wanted. It exposes a company afraid of critique and in desperate need of a PR person, and in general it adds to a very unprofessional image. I’ve been in SL for almost five years now, because despite all its shortcomings, I still consider it to be an amazing platform for all sorts of purposes. Nonetheless, I’m still surprised when LL repeatedly fails to communicate and connect with its users. LL really needs to hire someone to come and clean up this “mess” to avoid further feelings of exploitation – someone who’d genuinely appreciate the beauty and potentials of user generated innovation and content creation!
Despite officially being on vacation, I’ve been trying out some of the tech’s on my “to-explore-list”, most notably Google’s G+ service. I signed in to G+ on July 13th, but two weeks later, I decided to close my account. Since some of the people I had in my circles are also people I know from Facebook, I decided to post a short notice on Facebook just to let them know that I’d left the G+ service. When asked why, these were some of my immediate reasons:
I disagree on the terms of service, especially the part that excludes people in need of pseudonyms, and I’m shocked by the way, Google treats its customers. I had hoped G+ could replace FB/Twitter, but a service that excludes a large part of Internet users, incl. my personal network (and not only avatars), is of no use to me. G+ has been an eye-opener for me in terms intellectual property and cloud computing, and I’ll write a post about it since I think it has implications in an educational and democratic perspective …
Now, Internet law, ToS, intellectual property, etc. are not topics I normally deal with, so this post is simply an account of my personal experience as a “regular” user/customer of Google services. As so many other tech-oriented educators, I enjoy exploring new technologies in terms of educational potential, and this professional interest was if fact my initial reason to start on G+. I was especially excited about the possibility to “circle” connections allowing me to control communication, the prospect of being able to create synchronous “hangouts”, create “sparks”, and the integration with other Google services seemed like a very convenient solution. Despite my current hesitation towards G+, I still believe it is a service with huge educational potential – this doc explores some of these potentials.
Having done research in Second Life (SL) since March 2007, I’ve come to know and respect SL users as tech-savvy, early adopters and so of course my SL connections were some of the first people I added to my circles. In hindsight, it is no surprise that it was through my SL connections, my avatar friends that I first came to hear about the pseudonymity controversy. Not until recently has it been possible to sign up for SL by using your own name, consequently all SL users are used to using pseudonyms, many (myself included) use these pseudonyms in other Internet services, and in fact many SL users are only known by their pseudonym/avatar names. However, Google decided for a non-pseudonym (albeit unclear) policy, and shortly after I entered G+, I started noticing reports of SL/pseudonym-users being excluded from the service. From my research in virtual worlds, I’m fully aware that the mere idea of having a “virtual identity” that somehow differs form a “real identity” is something that provokes the ignorant and often causes controversy, and I honestly don’t think this non-pseudonym problem had gained much attention had it not affected many other users besides avatars. But it did/it does, and soon the controversy hit other media and G+ itself. I’m not going to repeat the controversy, but will link to this excellent post by Kee Hinckley, who elaborates on the issue, the pros and cons, and links to some of the articles written on the subject.
As stated in my own quote above, I was shocked by the way, Google treats its customers. I don’t usually use words like “shocked” when reflecting on professional matters, but it is the truth. I admit that up until now I’ve been incredibly naïve about ToS and intellectual property, I also admit that I often have not taken the time to thoroughly read ToS (not only on Google), but simply have accepted these in a “well, what else can I do” (stupid, stupid!) manner. And so, I was shocked reading Thomas Monopoly’s story. Followed by a brief automated statement by Google saying that it had “perceived a violation”, Google decided to close all of Monopoly’s services with Google. As it later turned out, Monopoly (as he explains here) had in fact violated the Google ToS unintentionally by posting a series of pictures on The Evolution of Sex (as part of an art project) in which one was flagged as child pornography by Google’s automated systems. It is not for me to question the violation, and it is of course Google’s right to enforce its policy. I am, however, questioning Google’s procedure. The Monopoly case had nothing to do with the pseudonymity controversy, but it revealed how Google handles its business and its customers. The “guilty, until proven innocent” approach, is also the way Google handles pseudonymity issues – e.g. this, this, and this case. The last case is especially grotesque since this G+ user actually used his real names. Again, I’m not questioning Google’s legal rights, but from a moral point of view, I do find its way of enforcing its rules and regulations very dubious – Jyri Engeström has written an excellent comment on this – in G+ !
Here I’m only referring to a few examples in the Google controversy, but to sum up seeing part of my network being excluded combined with an unclear and sometimes unwarranted procedure, I decided to close my account. I did not use my pseudonym in G+, and I did not intend to violate Google’s ToS. But I lost my confidence in Google. Up until now, I’ve been a satisfied user of several of Google’s services, but now I’ve started to export my content to other providers – not that I have any immediate intentions of leaving my other Google services, I like them and I am a creature of habit, but just in case … and this leads me to the educational perspective on all of this.
For the last couple of years, Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)/Networks (PLNs) have been concepts explored by many tech-oriented educators who have a wish to try and tear down the walls of education and especially traditional Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)/Learning Management Systems (LMS’) in order to open up education to the rest of the world, and Cloud Computing has been a central concept in this work. I entered G+ thinking that maybe here Google had come up with an interesting solution that could supplement our efforts in this area. However, the returning problem of using (free) hosted services is that of property, and ever so often, I hear system administrators express reluctance towards moving our activities into the “Cloud”. In this Google controversy, I’ve seen the “well, what did you expect – it is a free service” argument in several comments. Well, frankly I do expect even a free service provider to treat its customers right. I would also argue that the term “free” is debatable; we the customers “pay” with our content/our behavior. If the free service providers didn’t make any money on us, they wouldn’t be doing it. Again, this is not my area of expertise, I just call it as I see it, but I must admit that this Google experience has made me very conscious of the pitfalls of moving our content and practices out of our safe, but closed and proprietary VLE. Sadly in this way, I also think the Google controversy can be a set-back in terms of loosening up the traditional educational boarders, and this will not only affect Google’s own services, but also those of other providers.
My final reflection on this combines the educational perspective with that of democratization. Some months ago, I wrote a post in relation to the “Purpose of Education” (Purpos/ed) initiative. In this post I referred to the Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to education, and in my perspective this must include rights to information and the freedom of expression. Incidentally, the UN Human Rights Committee, only this week released a general comment stating that the right to freedom of expression outweighs all other rights.
Previously, and probably naively, I’ve always considered Google to be an important player in the democratization of information, but based on my current experience with G+, I’m wondering what role Google actually sees itself playing, I’m honestly surprised by Google, and I admit, I expected a different approach, when first we heard of Google wanting to launch an alternative to Facebook. Even though my faith in Google has been shattered, I’ve not completely given up (not that I think it cares, but maybe it should), and I do recognize that G+ has been in beta. However, being in beta does not mean “do evil, and sort it out afterwards” – it means “do no evil, to begin with”. I’m truly hoping Google will listen to its customers, and learn. If nothing else, I hope Google recognizes that the controversy and the many reactions by and large reflect that people care – care about Google, and more importantly care about people.