Are You a Digital Sharecropper?

“I strongly urge everyone reading this to err on the side of building your own brand whenever possible.”

Wiktionary: to err = To make a mistake, (intransitive) To sin,
(archaic) to stray.

Did you write the opposite of what you meant, or do I misread your sentence there?

Those sites are for people that aren’t developers. For them, they’re not losing control because they have no other way of sharing their content. We should be asking how we can participate in these communities without sacrificing control. One part of that answer is OpenID.

Phenwoods: Sharecropping has extreme negative connotations in the US because it was basically a way for landowners to have slaves after slavery was abolished. The landowners would charge for the land and seed, and take a percentage of the profit. The workers could never make enough money to pay off the debt, and were stuck in the arrangement forever.


“to err on the side of” means, that if you’re going to get it wrong, it’s better to get it wrong in this way, rather than get it wrong the other way.

“to err on the side of caution” is a common usage, and it’s saying “I wasn’t sure how much risk to take, so I’m probably not taking the right amount of risk, but I’m going to intentionally take less risk (more caution) than I think I could get away with.”

You’re driving down a road, and don’t know the speed limit. How fast do you go? You take a guess at the limit; now, do you go that limit, do you go 5 over your guessed limit, or 5 under your guessed limit? If you err on the side of caution, you’ll go 5 under.

I think you do yourself a disservice by comparing sites like stackoverflow to sharecropping. People contributing to the social web are generally not compelled by poverty and lack of opportunity.

The metaphor doesn’t work for me.

There have been people making profits on social gatherings for a long time. A restaurant will be happy to host a party for you. A bar will want you to come in and socialize. There’s nothing fundamentally new about FaceBook. Instead of paying for food or liquor, I’m having ads pop up and (if I feel like it) providing information and photos and maybe apps and whatever.

Similarly, I’ve contributed on StackOverflow (and have a rep > 10K) and Wikipedia. Answers and corrections are not something I feel I need to treasure. I can always have more ideas and write more stuff. I get a good feeling when people like what I’ve done, or benefit from it, and this is a quick and easy way to get that feeling. I’ve coded on what would have been an open source project if it didn’t have a noncommercial license. Again, I didn’t get a dime, but who cares, as long as it’s something I like doing? Nor do I feel this is like sharecropping, as there’s no obligation involved.

There are limits, of course. Like many people, I don’t want to feel ripped off, and this includes free labor to enrich others more than I like. (I believe this is one reason for the popularity of the Gnu General Public License.) I don’t want to feel like I have to do something I’m not getting paid for.

My advice would be to do as you like, and not worry overmuch about people making money off your contributions. If you feel you’re being taken advantage of, or it stops being fun, stop.

Sure, I’d write for free. I got my first job by donating time writing, translating, and taking pictures for Runner’s World. But there should be a clear expectation in the commercial space that if I contribute to your website, you had jolly well better allow me to advertise my goods (MY website, where I sell my book). And, of course, that’s sure to evoke hesitation in at least some of these public benefactors’ minds…

Ahh capitalism. That wonderful exploitative system that we all know and love.

But, as you say, the means of production are totally in the hands of the developers. If there was a significant movement towards abandoning this type of work, we’d see those companies tits up.

This doesn’t make the companies any less sleazy, though. does the same thing, but they offer 50% of the revenue to the user! now that’s smart!

"To err on the side of…" is a common phrase at least in English-English. Err on the side of your own brand would mean it’s safer to buil your own brand.
Most common is “Err on the side of caution” means if you are going to do something do the safer version

I think this just means that we are about to see banner ads all over stack overflow just like the ones on server fault.

It’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure it’s a sustainable model; nor am I entirely sure its an ethical model(actually I’m pretty sure it can be very skeevy ethically).

I participate(Q and A) in stackoverflow/superuser because they are a Net Benefit to me.

I think it’s a little dangerous to bring it all back to the individual. In a place like StackOverflow, I really think most people are contributing not for personal gain (other than popularity), but hopefully in an attempt to make the world a better place (and by extension, make their lives easier).

I’m more interested in seeing that the big sites properly respect their contributed content, than I am worried about getting a fair share of the pie. We all have hobbies we are willing to do for free, and we all want to leave behind some legacy. If that benefits someone else, it is fine so long as they take on the responsibility for safeguarding our efforts in the future (nothing is really free is it?). It’s only when they grossly exploit it, or alter history for their own purposes that I start to get frustrated. Otherwise, a gift is a gift, especially if I gave it freely.


Most people simply do not have the gumption or the drive to build their own brand but may have the skill set or interest to create good content. So, they are happy to be contributors to something larger than themselves.

Plus, some folks are just shy.


Thanks for explaining the context, that explains a alot.

But, this context just makes the whole analogy even more ridiculous (and rather offensive). In no way is someone adding to a community site comparable to a penniless ex-slave, being forced to borrow money to buy seed at an exorbitant interest rate.

Hey Jeff,

Transparent accounting goes a long way with some people, including me. A body of content like Stack Overflow may produce piles of money, or none, and it’s impossible to tell which from looking at it. But if I had an income statement to look at, I could be more confident in my decisions about whether to write content for free.

(this assumes there is no other value to me in writing content, which obviously isn’t really true for my SO example.)

Most people wouldn’t want to publish their budgets. I probably should have addressed this comment “Hey Joel” because he may be more opposed to the idea. But if you do it I’d love to see what happens.

Well, then why on Earth is anyone posting comments for this article since the comments are creative works being given away for free to the website?!? OMG, you’re inciting us to comment on the article and taking advantage of us!1!one!1!

Those so-called share cropping websites provide a service in exchange for the user’s efforts, even if it is something as basic as providing free hosting for the user’s content. I’ve uploaded song titles to CDDB because I was hoping that the next time I wanted to look up a CD, the song names and information would be there and it felt like a fair trade.

Simply put, effort does not have to be converted directly into money for an exchange to be fair.

The useful information I’ve gleaned from SO is plenty of payment for any contributions I’ve made. I’m just glad that all that content is under CC license and is indexed by Google for easy access. It’s about getting things done, right?

Facebook is pure evil!

Is your content attributed to you, or is it part of a communal pool?
What rights do you have for the content you’ve contributed?

I assume you’re being ironic urging us to ask these questions, when your own site doesn’t provide an EULA for contributors, only the CC for consumers.