The Problem with Corporate Platforms for Sharing

Josh Wallaert, writing at the Places Journal (at the Design Observer Group) – “the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism,” has a wonderful post about nominally public spaces on the Internet.  The post, called “State of the Commons,” notes:

….Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog).  An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world…..Canton Public Library, 1903, Canton, Ohio; entry in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest. [Photo by Bgottsab], from

For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world.  Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.

Imagine a Roosevelt Administration in 2012 making massive investments in public information (words, images, data) as a form of infrastructure. What more would Roosevelt do with Imagine Open Street Map supported jointly by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Imagine the Federal Writers Project dedicated to expanding stub articles on Wikipedia. Imagine the photographers of the Farm Security Administration — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott — uploading their work directly to Wikimedia Commons. Many federal agencies do in fact have Flickr profiles where they release images into the public domain; Flickr has even created a special license (“United States Government Work”) for the White House photostream. But imagine the federal government financially supporting a socially-networked photo-sharing site as it does the Library of Congress and giving it the resources to survive Facebook’s walled-garden challenge. It’s easy to marvel at the powerful new tools the Internet has given us. But let’s not forget how much better, how much more public they could be.

It’s worth reading Wallaert’s full post, including the first part, for its discussion of the scarcity of re-usable public domain images and its impact on public life:  “Our visual culture, and indeed our public policy, depends on the wide circulation of images that support ideas. And yet most online publications cannot afford the fees charged by wire services and many professional photographers.” 

It’s fantastic that we have an open Internet (for now), open source software platforms, Creative Commons licenses, and the capacity to create our own digital commons.  But it’s also clear that we need some serious venture capital and institutional leadership to move beyond “digital sharecropping” on the corporate plantation.  How can we overcome our dependence on the parochial, self-interested business models of large tech corporations, and assert greater sovereignty over our own creative works and culture?  How can we take free culture and digital commons to a larger, more influential scale?  The bottom-up vitality is significant; the top-down support is quite limited.


Teach Everyone to Build

I closed my Facebook account over a year ago. I had a handful of reasons, but the one of interest here is I saw the infrastructure as a huge apartment complex, and each personal profile was a unit with the exact same layout. The only difference was the pictures hung on the walls and the content on the shelves.

I decided I wanted to design the layout of my own online presense. So I built my own website.

How can we overcome our dependence on the parochial, self-interested business models of large tech corporations, and assert greater sovereignty over our own creative works and culture? 

We need to begin by teaching everyone how to build their own online presense. The strength of the Commons comes from the diversity and strength of the ideas of individuals in the network.

Individuals need to be taught how to grow in the wild, not in an indoor pot owned by a corporation.

 How can we take free culture and digital commons to a larger, more influential scale?

In other words, where should the plot of land be in which these wild individuals grow? Once the plot is populated, doesn't it eventually become another Flickr or Google? Or do we need to look to the National Park system for guidance?

I wonder if there should there even be one plot of land?