DIY Policymaking

I was on a panel, “Artists and Advocacy,” at the National Conference for Media Reform Conference the other week.  The other panelists focused on innovative tactics to gain visibility and influence for pushing a policy agenda.  That's an essential task, but I decided to focus on a different way to advance our interests in a way that is arguably more durable.  Why not build our own commons-based markets and commons infrastructures? 

The existing policy process is systemically corrupted by corporate money and influence, making it a Herculean task for public-interest advocates to prevail.  Just look at the fate of net neutrality to date.  And even if you do prevail, the political winds may blow the other way and erase those gains later. 

Mind you, I am not making an either/or argument, but rather a both/and argument.  We obviously still need to persevere in conventional policy advocacy, particularly on net neutrality.  But with the Internet providing a easily accessible platform for wide-open creativity and the viral amassing of audience/participants, we should find ways to bypass policy altogether and develop our own enterprises to advance our interests.  

The real value proposition of online sites is the ability to build social communities that have shared ideals and interests, and then to monetize those relations somehow.  The corporate platforms such as Facebook and Google have their own interests in how to make their services profit-friendly.  That's okay so far as it goes.  But why should commoners acquiesce to serve as unpaid participant/creators --a.k.a., “digital sharecroppers” -- in perpetuity?  Why shouldn't the commons capture the "surplus value" of user-generated content?

Arianna Huffington’s sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million is a case in point of what happens when a community fails to have equity rights in its own online platform.  Arianna built a huge online progressive community by tacking leftward (give her credit for her vision and risk-taking), but then she sold out to a brain-dead media corporation and declared that the Huffington Post is not a leftie website, but something that is “beyond left and right.”  Surprise:  HuffPo was a business, not a commons all along!

The progressive bloggers who contributed their commentary for free for years are understandably hacked off.  Jonathan Tasini, the former president of the National Writers Guild, went so far as to file a lawsuit against the Huffington Post.  Is Huffington a “slaveowner or crowdsourcing pioneer”?  asked Mathew Ingram of GigaOm

The Tasini lawsuit seems like a dubious legal case, but it does point out the risks of working on corporate platforms, however seemingly benign and well-intentioned as HuffPo.  The conversation that we need to have:  How can we build our own commons-based platforms so that no one can sabotage our community, data-mine our personal information or monetize our content without our consent? 

That’s the point that I tried to get across in my panel presentation.  The Internet is our home turf.  It's a social network before it is a market.  Instead of always being locked into a defensive crouch as we go about our policy advocacy, let’s take the offensive and build out our own technical, legal and social infrastructure in the manner of free software, Wikipedia and countless communities using Creative Commons licenses.  That's the big lesson to be learned from those commons-based innovations:  they ensure self-determination of participant-creators and protection against would-be corporate appropriators. 

Commons-based platforms can make money under certain circumstances; they just have to ensure that the community isn’t ripped off in the process.  I think of the Jamendo music-sharing platform based in Luxembourg.  It’s offers more than 400,000 music tracks in every conceivable genre, all of it licensed under CC licenses and free to download and share.  The site supports itself by licensing music for commercial purposes.

Or consider the Tecnobrega music movement in Brazil and the Sonideros music of Mexico.   Both are highly robust, socially based musical scenes that bypass the conventional music industry.  Musicians share their CDs for free, with no copyrights attached, and make money by hosting big concert performances.  Bands make more money than they would through conventional record labels.  The performers have direct, enthusiastic relations with their fans, and they are not forced by promoters or record labels to package themselves in silly ways.  So the music is more authentic and responsive to what people want.  It’s the Grateful Dead business model taken to a massive scale.

There are other examples of building commons-friendly revenue models.  In Amsterdam, the Blender Institute has pioneered open source computer animation by assembling a global community of talent.  The nonprofit has produced visually stunning short films like Big Buck Bunny whose animation quality rivals that of Pixar.

There are also a number of new vehicles for crowd-sourcing the funding for new creative projects.  Among the most notable: Kickstarter, Flattr, which enables socially driven micro-donations, and Goteo, a micro-financing project.  

Sometimes the funding for new projects comes out of nowhere because there is so much pent-up interest in a new idea.  An example is Diaspora, a privacy-friendly alternative to Facebook that a handful of NYU students began work on in 2009 (it’s still under development).    

If you want to learn more about alternative revenue models for online projects – ones that allow free sharing yet generate revenue for the artists – take a look at the how-to report released by the Free Culture Forum a few months ago.  It itemizes and explains the range of revenue models out there that can support innovative, commons-based creative projects and websites.

We’ll always have to fight the mega-corporations that try to corral us into their veal pens.  Some of those pens may even have a progressive gestalt, like HuffPo.  Which is why we should not abandon conventional policy advocacy.  But it's also time to take the longer perspective, step up to the challenge, and build our own commons-based platforms.