Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who owns communities?

While online communities are an important source both for innovation and also for Internet users to gain value from Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 websites, many of the rules for such communities are still up in the air.

Physical communities have a lot of rules and conventions. Certain forms of political activity are legal on private property. Newspapers like the New York Times doesn’t print every letter critical of the newspaper, but it (and its local counterparts) will normally print some critical letters of the sort it deems appropriate.

Wednesday, Yahoo’s chief marketing officer Elisa Steele proclaimed the new Yahoo! will be much more customer focused. (Frankly, I can’t tell yet whether this is a real change or just marketing hype). It pointed to the new website design as demonstrating this principle.

In response, Thomas Hawk (a hardcore Flickr user with 29,000 photos and counting) wrote a response asking whether Flickr (and thus Yahoo) planned on ending various forms of overt and covert censorship. This is part of his ongoing fight against Yahoo/Flickr censorship.

Other websites such as MSNBC and Silicon Alley Insider have remarked on examples of Flickr censorship. A few have even claimed that the photos site is helping the Obama administration in exchange for a recent government contract that also included YouTube.

At one level, I want to say “If you don’t like the terms, don’t use them.” However, with 29,000 photos uploaded, the switching costs are pretty high.

This also reinforces my observation (as noted more eloquently by others) that Web 2.0 is a lot less open than Web 1.0, if for no other reasons than the high switching costs of proprietary SaaS systems. In Web 1.0, you can upload and download HTML and JPEG files to any ISP that you want, whereas for Web 2.0 — and other SaaS — your data is often more captive than in a Microsoft Word proprietary file format.

But in the end, I think this points out the immaturity of online communities — or the arrogance of dot-com community owners — in setting the rules of community engagement. The newspapers (and usually TV and radio stations) realize that the presumption must be for openness and free speech to have any sort of credibility and legitimacy among public participants.

Some websites also recognize such a need for openness. Google provides free web hosting for blogspot, which allows me to call out Eric Schmidt’s hypocrisy, its lobbying efforts and its ongoing push for total world domination. Yes, my blog doesn’t have the Google brand but still this is a form of openness that Flickr appears unwilling to provide.

There is also the huge concern (near the bottom of Hawk’s list) that photo site users have for how reliably their content is stored. If people use a free service, then of course they get what they pay for. But if they do pay for the freemium upgrade, then users have a reason to respect a certain level of reliability that seems to be disclaimed in the Terms of Service.

Perhaps I’m just atypical, i.e. this freedom stuff is more important to me than the average Internet user. I spout off on a blog and used to spout off as a newspaper reporter and columnist. In my choice of residence, I’ve made a point of never buying (and only briefly renting) any home that has CC&Rs, Mello Roos or other HOA-type restrictions — so that I can raise a flag or hang out my laundry without fear of micromanagement by the HOA nazis.

However, I think even the average American will expect a certain amount of transparency and due process if they are to participate in a privately-controlled online community. Major companies have gradually developed real processes for DMCA takedown notices, and other issues deserve a similar balanced approach that’s more fair than, say, stockbroker arbitration.

If I were a frustrated online community member, I’d take my gripes to TRUSTe and try to convince them that they should include some sort of standards for due process in removing content from registered members, and notifying them of the reasons why and a mechanism for appeal.

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