The New Industrialists, or, Carnegie Built Libraries

26 Sep

An interesting bit of philanthropy news and a searing blog post about the state of Web 2.0 fused for me this week. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million for Newark, NJ, schools, as disaster capitalism blogger John Robb was writing about “Cognitive Slaves,” the population of hyper-active social media users that create (and are) the value for multi-billion dollar companies like Facebook that provide very few jobs in relation to their capital value.

“The distressing part is that in reality these companies actually employ hundreds of millions of people, particularly young and otherwise un or underemployed superusers,” Robb wrote. “People that work for them day in and day out for free: finding, sifting, sorting, connecting, building, etc.”

“If we awarded 4/5 ths of the value of Facebook … to its superusers, leaving the tool managers $5 billion in value, each superuser would now be worth $200,000 from their contributions to this tool alone.”

After writing his post, Robb kept up a dialogue, suggesting user-owned social networks as a response to this modern intellectual slavery. “Social networks could be platforms for societal and economic renewal,” he tweeted. “Instead, they’re only vampire squids.”

Robb’s essay focuses on Facebook as an example, but the same can be said for Google. Just as I was leaving the journalism field, way back in 2005, I bemoaned the “vampire squid” effect of the search engine during a Webzine panel. “The problem you have right now is you have people making huge amounts of profit off of other people’s content.”

Today, Google, Zynga, Facebook and other large (in market value) corporations continue to profit heavily from the social and intellectual contributions of their millions of users. Some, like Google, “give” back with useful free services, though there is no altruism in both Facebook and Google coaxing their co-creators to use more and more services and to share more and more information. Advertisers pay well for access to more and more accurate profiles of the psyche.

So now, Zuckerberg is starting early on a path of major philanthropy. But I can’t help but draw a comparison to Andrew Carnegie, the great builder of libraries whose hands were covered in the blood of steelworkers who demanded a fair share of the profits of their labors. Facebook and Google co-creators, though, are a more passive bunch. The loose credit of modern society hides the true poverty of the masses, and we lionize the new titans of industry just as we’ve done their forefathers.

Robb struck a pragmatically hopeful note in his thoughts on the digital future, tweeting a suggestion that massive multi-player online games might serve as a vehicle for building a user-centric busines ecosystem, and that a Wikipedia-like model could create financial security for the builders of public goods: “It’s that hyper-revolutionary?”

It is, Mr. Robb. It is.

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