The reputation economy: Chris Anderson

I enjoyed reading Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s books, Free, and The Long Tail. Anyone who loves to blog or spend time online will find them highly informative.

Here, in The Long Tail, Anderson is writing about the “reputation economy”. As a blogger himself, he understands why people blog and create websites, whether they expect to make any money and why many of them are not interested in copyright protection.

It’s a long extract, but fascinating.

The Reputation Economy

Why do they do it? Why does anyone create something of value (from an encyclopaedia entry to an astronomical observation) without a business plan or even the prospect of a paycheck? The question is a key one to understanding the Long Tail… The motives to create are not the same in the head as they are in the tail. One economic model doesn’t fit all. You can think of the Long Tail starting as a traditional monetary economy at the head and ending in a non-monetary economy in the tail. In between the two, it’s a mixture of both.

Up at the head, where products benefit from the powerful, but expensive, channels of mass-market distribution, business considerations rule. It’s the domain of professionals, and as much as they might like to do what they do, it’s a job, too. The costs of production and distribution are too high to let economics take a backseat to creativity. Money drives the process.

Down in the tail, where distribution and production costs are low (thanks to the digital technologies), business considerations are often secondary. Instead, people create for a variety of other reasons — expression, fun, experimentation, and so on. The reason one might call it an economy at all is that there is a coin of the realm that can be every bit as motivating as money: reputation. Measured by the amount of attention a product attracts, reputation can be converted into other things of value: tenure, audiences, and lucrative offers of all sorts.

Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, calls this the “exposure culture”. Using blogs as an example, he writes:

The exposure culture reflects the philosophy of the Web, in which getting noticed is everything. Web authors link to each other, quote liberally, and sometimes annotate entire articles. E-mailing links to favourite articles and jokes has become as much a part of American work culture as the water cooler. The big sin in exposure culture is not copying, but, instead, failure to properly attribute authorship. And at the centre of this exposure culture is the almighty search engine. If your site is easy to find on Google, you don’t sue — you celebrate.

Disney and Metallica may be doing all they can to embrace and extend copyright, but there are plenty of other (maybe more) artists and producers who see free peer to peer (“P2P”) distribution as low-cost marketing. Musicians can turn that into an audience for their live shows, indie filmmakers treat it as a viral resume, and academics treat free downloads of their papers as a way to increase their impact and audience.

Each of these perspectives changes how the creators feel about copyright. At the top of the curve, the studios, music labels and publishers defend their copyright fiercely. In the middle, the domain of independent labels and academic presses, it’s a grey area. Farther down the tail, more firmly in the non-commercial zone, an increasing number of content creators are choosing explicitly to give up some of their copyright protections. Since 2002, a nonprofit organization called Creative Commons has been issuing licences of the same name to allow for a flexible use of certain copyrighted works for the sake of the greater value (for the content creators) of free distribution, remixing, and other peer-to-peer propagation of their ideas, interests and fame. (Indeed, I’ve done that with my own blog, for all of the reasons above.)

In short, some creators care about copyright and some don’t. Yet the law doesn’t distinguish between them — copyright is automatically granted and protected unless explicitly waived. As a result, the power of “free” is obscured by fears over piracy and is often viewed with suspicion, not least because it evokes unfortunate echoes of communism and hippie sloganeering.

Regardless, it’s something we’re starting to reconsider as the power of the “gift economy” becomes clear — in everything from the blogosphere to open source. In one part of my professional life (the 650,000-circulation magazine I edit), I’m near the head of the curve, and in another (my 30,000-reader blog) I’m in the tail. My decisions on intellectual property are different in each. Someday soon, I hope, marketplace and regulation will more accurately reflect this reality.

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