Are You a Digital Sharecropper?

Okay, what is the difference between Wikipedia and Digg – two profitable websites that allow users to post information and share it without paying for user contributions and StackOverflow that does the same thing?

Sure, you can argue that StackOverflow is helpful to fellow developers, but I bet that 5% of the users post most of the answers. Certainly they’re not getting out what they put in! All they’re doing is sharecropping for StackOverflow!

I look at it a bit differently. StackOverflow deserves its money because it organized the information to be useful to users. Users who post most of the answers are building up reputations that can help them with their careers. Plus, by seeing what others are doing, it is helping them understand their software better.

I would say the same with Wikipedia. It’s turned into a treasure trove of useful – if not always accurate – information. What do contributors get out of spending so much time at sites like Facebook and I really can’t say. Many they’re also building reputations that helps them with their career. Maybe they’re making on line friends. But, I am not going to say that people are being used because they’re free labor for for-profit websites.

As long as you know there’s no money involved, I think it’s fine, and self-limiting,
unlike many “Free and Open Source” projects I’ve seen which look like methods to
sucker (Oops! I meant “harness”) the mom’s-basement kids into writing
business-oriented software systems for free.

Obvious ThatGuyInTheBack has no idea how Open Source Software even works. Almost 90% of the people who contribute to Linux are actually paid to work on Linux. They work for Google, IBM, Palm, and other companies that heavily depend upon Linux for their business. These companies find people who know Linux inside and out to help their company, and these people spend much of their time working on the Linux kernel itself.

Look at almost all of the big OSS projects, and you’ll see that most are actually developed by paid employees. This includes FireFox, WebKit, Subversion, KDE, Gnome, and the entire range of Apache projects. Most of the OSS packages is written by people who are paid to code those packages.

When there are college students doing extensive coding, they are either paid interns via projects like Google’s Summer of Code or are also learning and building reputations which will help them in their future career.

The idea that OSS software is built by a bunch of geeky kids in their Mom’s basement is used by companies that build proprietary software to smear their OSS competitors.

The joy of reuniting with some long lost friend with the help of social networking site is unmatched to what the business derives out of running the website.

You know Jeff, half the guys out there would be happy to give many things and a lot of effort for free, if they were allowed to be in food and rent and computers, peacefully. People in happy situations do that all the time.
The masses are by-and-large, nice folks. It’s the crooked doctored system that distorts everyone’s priority list.

What can you and I do?
Nothing yet, it seems: “Everything has a proper time.”

The point is that some of us aren’t interested in babes, cars and big homes. We love being useful. That’s when it hurts - when your efforts are 10 times normal and the system doesn’t yield 1/10th.
That’s clearly bad design. And we pay for it in many elaborate steps and schemes. And then, a few years down the line, the system calls you a deserter, to add salt to the wounds. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Complex schedules and vast plans are great only if they benefit people without serious collateral damage.

It’s either a lack of ethics in the system designers, or,
the chronic plan-and-control obsession is a sign of degradation of the supercomputer’s main systems.

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

yes. don’t contribute to sides like stackoverflow, build your own :wink:

There are really many great articles out there which explain how to make yourself wealthier in knowledge and skill (not money). I would just like to say that some of readers here might like to read this too:

Disclaimer: It is not likeable to everyone, has a strong Linux/Unix leaning, but it has real gems that you probably should read at least once in your career, early on.

Hey Jeff! That’s your choice of picture for a visual aide? Super stereotypical for 2009, don’t cha’ think? Not to say that is not true, but narrow, very narrow.

This comparison to sharecropping is totally bogus.

The essential evil of sharecropping lies in the inequaity between the landowner and the tennant. The landowner exploits that inequality by putting the tennant in debt and forcig him to keep producing to pay it off. Leaving the land was a ticket to either jail or the noose.

On the interwebs, the “tennant” can leave or stop producing at any time without any dire consequences. The worst that could happen is that you lose some content.

"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."

Don’t meant to be pedantic but I think that may be an incorrect analogy…to err on the side of caution in this example you would pick what you KNOW to be the lowest speed limit on the roads in that state or city and drive at that speed…only to find out that you were doing 30 in a 60 mile zone - then you had erred on the side of caution. Making an arbitrary guess and then driving 5 mph slower then that aribtrary guess is more likely to end up with you saying “but Officer, I erred on the side of caution! I was only doing 95 mph, how did I know it was only a 30 mph zone” :wink:

StackOverflow is nothing new.

If you have some years you will remember things called newsgroups, with nntp protocol.

Just they are in decline now because of the traffic generated and the money needed for the ISPs, now or they charge or they ban them (with the usual stupid excuses like porn, terrorism, child safety and so on).

So take a newsgroup, give it a fancy graphic layout provided by web, give it a reputation automatic system because today users are more lazy and superficial and they does not remember the nicknames of serious people contributing to a newsgroup and they do not want form their own opinions and prefer read a reputation score… you have SO.

This is exactly why I agree with the long-forgotten BSD advertisement clause. If I do some work for free and you choose to use my work… well, I want the benefit of (at least) having my name mentioned somewhere.

Coming from many generations of Southern sharecroppers, your analogy definitely caught my eye. Sharecropping was a way of survival, the most manual of unskilled labor jobs, with the goal to simply get enough food in the house to keep the children from starving. All sharecropper families had the dream of land ownership but their subsistence lifestyle never provided enough income for them to attain it. Education? Not if they had a field to work. Your photo, by the way, has some of the cleanest and well dressed sharecroppers I have seen. The few family photos we have are harrowing.

Now, “digital” sharecroppers? Exploiting a user’s enthusiasm and entertainment to generate popular content and revenue from ad placement: that sounds like a good business model. Definitely not sharecropping.

Jeff, a couple of points…

(1) While you quoted the Guardian article that contends there’s no major financial link between Wikia, Inc. and Wikipedia, I think it is still worth noting that when late last year the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund gifted the Wikimedia Foundation with over $800,000 for a Usability Initiative, one of the first damn things the Foundation did was to run a lopsided “office space search”, where – SURPRISE, SURPRISE – the winning bid (though not the lowest bid) went to… Wikia, Inc.! So Jimmy Wales sits on the Board of Trustees that oversaw the award of monthly rental checks to the new landlord – a privately-held company co-founded by Wales. Talk about self-dealing!

(2) I run a digital sharecropper site called However, every editor there is welcome to take ownership of “their” directory pages and place their own Google AdSense ads on them. So, while they are helping to build “my” site, they are also setting themselves up for a 100%-their-own revenue stream for the rest of their lives. I think this is about the most fair way to share in the growth potential of a socially-crafted website.

Some people blog and some people contribute information to sites such as Squidoo, Wikipedia, or StackOverflow. I don’t think there is necessarily problem with doing any of the above. Whether you’re branding yourself or someone else, what’s the difference if somehow your getting something in return-even if it’s just a feeling of self worth. No one is holding a gun to anyone’s head or forcing them to contribute to these sites.

I’m a freelancer and I get lots of work on my own. I’m not rich but it’s paying the bills.

Regarding the “to err on the side of” discussion, I’m surprised no one bothered to mention that Svish was right: err does mean a mistake. The phrase in question basically means that if you are going to make a mistake (and you likely will), make it in such-and-such way.


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

could be reworded to say:

In order to avoid regretting a mistake, I strongly urge everyone reading this to defer to making your own brand whenever possible.

An interesting article.
The masses act like sheep so are treated like sheep and the internet is one big sheep dog for herding them into to look at that one big billboard that is also the internet. Just who is doing the whistling?

There is nothing that stop you from developing your own brand on SO, the platform is merely a tool, what’s important is the community, you get noticed, and you notice people, so long as you use your real name or your branding name.

Also there is nothing wrong with making the user participate, as long as he is well aware of it and how you are taking advantage/giving back, let him choose if the deal satisfy him or not.

Also first comment here, very good blog and extensive linking made me discover quite a few other interesting blogs.

well, I want the benefit of (at least) having my name mentioned somewhere.

FaceBook is taking your code for itself but you still are the author. In Canada your would have to be written on your piece of code if you ask for it.

@Eli: Aha. Thanks for clearing it up!

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