Let's talk ownership

There’s a gentle tension underpinning sites for user-generated content.

User-generated content is kind of an archaic term now, I guess. I remember when it all started with Flickr, Digg, Delicious… (nostalgic sigh) Nowadays it’s “social media,” but the idea is still the same: websites whose purpose is to show things made by its users. Artwork on DeviantArt, photos on Instagram, blog posts on Tumblr, random thoughts on Twitter, et cetera.

Now, the user agreements very explicitly say that the sites do not own the content. That right, both legally and morally, remains with the actual author/artist. What the platform owns is the experience: who gets to see the content and under what circumstances. Sometimes users will chafe against this. Sometimes this is the value proposition; YouTube, for example, gives its creators a level of control over the advertisements and shares the resulting revenue. Patreon’s entire purpose is controlling access to content and providing a reliable experience for managing that control.

Users own the content, and platforms own the experience. As long as both parties know their roles in this dance, it can work beautifully. And when it doesn’t…

A content creator getting their own website is nothing new. (A lot of people—us?—in the indie web think it should happen more often, in fact.) It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s not rocket science. I’d even say, at this point, it’s not even computer science; you can make a good website with several different tools now, none of which involve code.

But woe upon the platform that thinks it owns the content. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evils, and we’re seeing several of them right now.

So let’s talk about Twitter and Reddit.

At first glance, Twitter and Reddit’s decisions to charge for their API seems solidly in their wheelhouse. The API is part of the experience, right? It’s all about access, right?

Except look at the attitude expressed by Elon Musk and Steve Huffman (emphasis mine):

It costs a lot of money to run an app like Reddit. We support ours through ads. And what we can’t do is subsidize other people’s businesses to run a competitive app for free. [source]

Several hundred organizations (maybe more) were scraping Twitter data extremely aggressively… [source]

The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable… But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free. [source]

You will not… use or access the Licensed Materials to create or attempt to create a substitute or similar service or product to the Twitter Applications. [source]

And this is just what I could find. Go back through the interviews with these companies, and you’ll see a particular attitude start to emerge: “This is our content.”

The answer, of course, is that it’s not their content.

Evan Hildreth @oddevan