A Keen Theory of Value

For someone who rants and raves about the evils of giving things away for free on the Internet, it is amazing how much of his stuff Andrew Keen allows to be made available for free on the Internet. In his latest rant, Keen argues that the economic downturn is going to kill YouTube, Open Source, blogs, and probably a kitten or two,

Of course not. One of the very few positive consequences of the current financial miasma will be a sharp cultural shift in our attitude toward the economic value of our labor. Mass unemployment and a deep economic recession comprise the most effective antidote to the utopian ideals of open-source radicals. The altruistic ideal of giving away one’s labor for free appeared credible in the fat summer of the Web 2.0 boom when social-media startups hung from trees, Facebook was valued at $15 billion, and VCs queued up to fund revenue-less “businesses” like Twitter. But as we contemplate the world post-bailout, when economic reality once again bites, only Silicon Valley’s wealthiest technologists can even consider the luxury of donating their labor to the latest fashionable, online, open-source project.

. . .

When, in 50 years time, the definitive histories of the Web 2.0 epoch are written, historians will look back at the open-source mania between 2000 and 2008 with a mixture of incredulity and amusement. How could tens of thousands of people have donated their knowledge to Wikipedia or the blogosphere for free? What was it about the Internet that made so many of us irrational about our economic value? It was a “mania,” these mid-21st-century historians will explain, like the Dutch Tulip mania of the 1630s or South Sea Bubble of 1720 — a mania that ended with the great crash of October 2008.

Hmmm . . . when I look at my server logs to see where folk are coming from to read stuff I’ve written, I’m surprised how often someone has referenced an article I wrote on Wikipedia. In some cases I spent a lot of time tracking down odd facts and verifying information for specific articles. And, to a large extent I write because I enjoy it.

But it is also true that I receive far more in value from the free things on the Internet than I give back. For example, I know how to do some elementary scripting, but how software that I run on my server (such as WordPress or Social Web CMS) is actually written or maintained is largely unfathomable to me. The value to me of these free software packages is literally thousands of dollars.

The free availability of those tools effectively subsidizes my own free production. If I had to spend $500 every time I wanted to install another instance of WordPress, I’d probably have fewer domains and less time to write (since I’d probably have to put in more work to afford those additional costs).

The same thing goes for the YouTubes and Wikipedia’s. As long as there are millions of people all contributing either on these sites or on their own blogs, or turning out open source code, or recording hilarious/poignant videos, it is not altruism so much as mutual benefit that motivates people to contribute.

Keen admits he doesn’t have a firm grasp on economics and that shows from his apparent belief that unless actual money is changing hands when knowledge is shared that someone is getting ripped off. Thank goodness the Internet is largely populated by creative types who do not share Keen’s clueleness and realize that they are frequently receiving in kind far more value from free content on the Internet that any one person could possibly contribute.

China Launches Another Crackdown on Internet Cafes

Toward the end of 2004, China launched another crackdown against Internet cafes in that country, closing almost 13,000 of them that were operating “illegally.”

China sets out strict guidelines for Internet cafes, limiting the types of computer games and content that can be accessed, and requiring strict identity checks and the keeping of automated logs to track the activities of people while they are accessing the Internet at one of the cafes. Those log files are then sent to China’s Public Security Bureau.

This latest crackdown was apparently motivated by concerns that children were spending time playing violent videogames rather than attending class, but it also has the added effect of furthering the Chinese governments control over its citizens access to information the government does not approve of.


China net cafe culture crackdown. The BBC, February 14, 2005.

‘Wangba’ crusade. Red Herring, February 17, 2005.