Siva Vaidhyanathan has a puzzling article up at MSNBC complaining about–well, I’m not actually sure what he’s complaining about:
Google, for instance, only makes money because it harvests, copies, aggregates, and ranks billions of Web contributions by millions of authors who unknowingly grant Google the right to capitalize, or “free ride,” on their work. Who are you to Google? To Amazon? Do “you” really deserve an award for allowing yourself to be rendered so flatly and cravenly? Do you deserve an award because media mogul Rupert Murdoch can make money capturing your creativity via his new toy, MySpace?
The important movement online is not about “you.” It’s about “us.” It’s about our profound need to connect and share. It’s about our remarkable ability to create among circles– each person contributing a little bit to a poem, a song, a quilt, or a conversation.
So it’s not about your reviews on Amazon. It’s about how we as a community of Web users choose to exercise our collective wills and forge collective consciousnesses. So far, we have declined to do so. We have not harnessed this communicative power to force the rich and powerful to stop polluting our air and water or to stop the spread of AIDS or malaria. We have not brought down any tyrants. We have simply let a handful of new corporations aggregate and exercise their own will on us. And we have perfected online dating.
He seems to be drawing a distinction between “good” social production, which apparently has the power to cure aids and bring down dictators, and “bad” social production, which merely gives people better ways to communicate, and allows companies like Google and MySpace to profit in the process. But neither side of this dichotomy makes a lot of sense.
On the one hand, it’s not reasonable to expect a new communications technology to solve all of humanity’s problems. But I suspect that if you asked a human rights activist in a despotic nation, he’s tell you that the Internet is the best thing that’s happened in the fight against tyranny in decades. The Internet has made it virtually impossible for dictators to control the flow of information to their subjects, and it’s given resistance fighters much better tools for securely and privately communicating with one another. Similarly, I suspect that AIDS researchers would tell you that the Internet has been greatly helpful in bringing together the world community of AIDS researchers to share results, discussing problems, etc. So while MySpace hasn’t single-handedly brought down a dictator or cured a terminal illness, the Internet has certainly been helpful in both of those causes.
On the flip-side, Vaidhyanathan casts aspersions on people who “‘link’ to ‘friends’ thousands of miles away because they also appreciate the musical stylings of Coldplay” instead of spending more time with our neighbors. But scare quotes aside, what exactly is the problem here? We’re not apportioned a fixed supply of friendships. People really do make friends with people thousands of miles away, via the Internet. That doesn’t in any way prevent those same people from becoming friends with the next-door neighbor.
And online friendships can be every bit as meaningful and lasting as friendships with people we meet in person. In fact, the categories often overlap. I got my first job in public policy with the assistance of two online friends who I never met until I came to DC for my job interview at Cato. Conversely, I’ve lived in three cities in the last four years. I’ve found that the best way to keep in touch with people is via the Internet–email, instant messaging, blogs, online journals. At some point I hope those people will become real-life friends again, but in the meantime online friendships are better than nothing.
And as Ed Felten has argued, the fact that companies are making money doesn’t in any way detract from the value users get from using these tools.
So I don’t get it. Vaidhyanathan’s complaints seem to be a combination of knee-jerk leftist and old fogeyism. He seems to think that social interactions on this new-fangled Internet doesn’t count as “real” social interaction. And he hates the idea of companies making big pots of money by facilitating these interactions. I find both of those concerns baffling.