The Sharecroppers Are Revolting

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We’re in the midst of a fundamental generational shift in the way we think about property. Those of “us” on the fuddy-duddy side of the equation have been trying to understand what Ownership and Copyright will mean as technology progresses, but we may have been asking the wrong question all along.

I’ve written recently about something I call Digital Sharecropping – building on someone else’s framework, and how it’s about as safe as building on sand. Businesses that build their entire presence on Facebook are essentially trusting a third party to not evict them, or change the rules in a way that disturbs and disrupts. Those of you with or sites are Sharecropping. and and and and and…

You get the point.

If you don’t own your site, you’re just Sharecropping.

But even those of us who “own” our URLs are really just renting them from registrars. Yes, as long as I pay the fee I can use and and for the rest of my life. I can even bequeath those domains. But it’s still rented.

So is the server I am hosted on, for that matter. And the DNS programs that point and route my traffic.

You can’t be on the internet and be completely self-sufficient. But you can “own” as much of the process as you want to, and enough to make you comfortable that you’re the master of your destiny, and won’t get booted off your patch of pixels.

The mistake we’ve made is assuming that everyone would want to.

Perpetual Renters

The New York Times recently had a brilliant piece examining how today’s college students view plagiarism.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

The piece makes a point. How respectful will people be of others words on a screen, when it’s on the same computer that was used to rip CDs and DVDs, and watch a torrent of something that was on pay-per-view?

Later, it poses the question about whether the incoming generation will even want to express themselves as individuals.

The Curse of Plenty

In some respects, renting can be low-stress living. There’s something to be said for logging in, leaving traces and walking away. No need for fancy formatting or themes, or the headache of upgrading your sites. The web pioneers with the earliest sites and blogs wouldn’t have needed them if there had been easier ways to express themselves.

Maybe we should have seen this coming before now. After all, Facebook – the poster-child for one-size-fits-all presentation – has exploded. MySpace, at the vanguard of customization and individuality, is struggling to redefine itself after nearly choking on digital glitter.

Many of us have been operating under the assumption that people would want a means of owning their work, and making a statement. And we’ve been wrong.

Maybe it’s the outgrowth of a lack of scarcity. When there is plenty for all, there’s a diminished desire to hoard. Books are tangible and take up space. Television shows were once temporal, available at a limited time that required you to synchronize. Now, everything that’s digital can live anywhere and anywhen — and when something can do that, there can be no scarcity.

“If there’s no scarcity, there’s no inherent value. So why should I pay for it?”

It’s twisted logic for me — but then again, it’s based on premises that I didn’t grow up with.

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  1. it’s not sharecropping.  it’s outsourcing.  i rent an apartment because i don’t want to be bothered with taking care of a house/yard.  i eat at restaurants because i don’t want to cook and cleanup.  i pay someone for hosting because i don’t want to manage my own servers.  you get the idea.  renting also keeps me flexible and nimble.
    i think the kids are more a reflection of growing up without the fiction of the content industries overvalued existence.  the content industry has to be one of the least efficient.  how is an ebook $10+ and i can buy the movie for $20-ish or rent it for like $4 or get it seemingly free from netflix?  the movie required a couple orders of magnitude more man hours to produce than the ebook.
    additionally, some things should be rented only so that the scarce resources can be used to their fullest extent.  2 good examples are land and domain names.  the united states government never should have given sold land property rights.  you should be paying the government rent for your land.  your rent goes to providing infrastructure and other government services for your community.  like wise, domain names should also be rented only.  as a matter of fact, much like land property taxes, domain name rental fees should be raised to get better use out of them.  domain names should be a minimum of $100/year.  this should be enough to make it uneconomical for domain squatters, much like real estate speculators.  some things shouldn’t be a store of wealth.  they belong to the community as a whole.
    that got a little longer than it should have.

    • Jason, I agree with your first parts, up until they bump up against the right of intellectual property. I’m glad you choose to rent things you don’t want to own — but the overall generational sense it that NO ONE should own those things, and therefore any claim I might have to my work is irrelevant.

      As to your notions about private property and government ownership, I believe deep down that you are dead wrong.

      Dead, dead, 100-percent wrong.

      The implications for entrepreneurism, for incentive, and for productivity are disastrous. Seriously. Your idea is very, very, very dangerous.

  2. Interesting piece…Personally, I think that years alone do not define the divide between adults that grew up without the digital world (as it is today) and those that have been raised on it. To me, it is almost a culturally relative difference. Prior to the vast ease of acquisition for information or resources, what was “sold” to us had to be competitive–today, it is a buyer’s…scratch that, a renter’s paradise. So, the level of a sense of entitlement to whatever is available seems to be the dominant element of change–from the user’s perspective. In sum, I don’t think it is as much an argument about the rights of ownership as it is a cultural restructuring of the concept itself.

    • I agree, it’s not just a matter of age. However, those who have grown up in a world where there was no reasonable expectation of “owning” your ideas will see things very differently than those who did.

      I have a lot in common with Digital Natives… but I am not one. My brain is wired differently.

  3. Put simply, I’d imagine one’s degree of comfort/discomfort with sharecropping is directly related (or perhaps should be) to the extent one’s sharecropped site is expected to produce income.

    If I want to make money, you better believe I’m owning my URL; if I’m just blogging for blogging’s sake, I’m not nearly so invested.

  4. “you should be paying the government rent for your land.”

    In most states you pay some related form of property tax and when you do not pay it, you lose or your family will lose the land sooner or later. 

    “domain names should also be rented only”

    At least in the U.S., everyone, and I mean everyone pays Network Solutions directly or indirectly an “annual fee” to maintain your domain name in the central name server. In other words true domain “ownership” is debatable.

    In other words it is all rent – if you don’t pay a recurrent eternal fee, you lose what you “own”, except for maybe the air you breath, but give it time, eventually that too we will be “renting” lol…

    Anyway I digress.

    Of related interest : ) –

    • Paying a tax on land is not tantamount to ceding ownership of it. The implications of “renting” from the government are abhorrent. For instance, it would be MUCH easier for the political flavor-of-the-day to punish rivals by booting them off their land. As it stands, we already have Eminent Domain abuse, but it’s a process that is far more protracted, and the general outcry acts as a check-and-balance.

      If you’re evicted from an apartment, few will rush to your defense, because there was never a supposition of entitlement.

      If you’re evicted from your house – by the government – the common man will empathize and rally.

  5. Without getting into a deep philosophical or sematic discussion I am just pointing out that “ownership” is not what it always seems. At times it is just an ephimeral concept if not an outright illusion. Its definition has become ever more polysemous. 

    While we discuss government doing the renting this might be of related interest : ) –
    (36 million acres for lease off the coasts of LA, MS and AL)


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    The Sharecroppers are Revolting. @ikepigott stirs it up on ownership of intellectual property on the Internet.

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