Back in 2006, Nicholas Carr coined the term “digital sharecropping” to describe an emerging dynamic he saw in Web 2.0 companies. The basic notion is that “production” (content creation) is in the hands of the many, but “rewards” go to the hands of the few; i.e. you produce content when you upload a video to Youtube, but Youtube “owns” that content and gets the bulk of the benefits. The examples Carr specifically pointed to at the time were MySpace and Facebook, which I really like because those two platforms do a great job of explaining the current landscape.

There are two kinds of platform in 2021. The first is comprised of entities like MySpace, Vine, Digg, LiveJournal, and so on. These are, in effect, hedge funds. People pool their resources into the platform, create content on it, and chase the zeitgeist. They either become irrelevant, or survive and become the second kind of platform. Less defunct services than MySpace fall into this category as well - Medium, for example - but the point is that they are ephemeral. There is no long-term permanence to these platforms: eventually they either change, or die.

The second kind are companies like Facebook, Automattic, and Alphabet. They aren’t sharecroppers looking for producers, but digital monarchs who own far more than farmland. This is the end state of every one of these platforms that survives: the stitched together bodies of smaller “hedge fund” platforms (Wordpress, Instagram, Blogger, Youtube, Twitch, etc.). Theirs is a business fully removed from the production of content itself.

As I reflect on these kinds of platform today, the sharecropping analogy falls flat. Content producers aren’t after “crops” anymore. People don’t post on Twitter to sell ads or products, but to sell themselves. The currency of the modern internet is clout. The new reality we find ourselves in is “Post-Sharecropping”, if you will. And it lends itself to a rather different analogy.

Digital Landlords

Services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, etc. are nominally about the content you produce and the exchange of ideas and information; this is a facade. Their true purpose is personal brand. It’s who you’re friends with, the things you talk about, the values you signal. In fewer words, social capital. These services are not landowners, upon whose ground you plant “crops” (produced content): they’re landlords, from whom you rent an apartment.

Consider a Twitter user who carefully constructs an identity on the platform over the course of many years. Were Twitter to go down tomorrow, the true loss would not be years old tweets that haven’t been read since they were posted, nor what the user retweeted or liked, nor pithy threads about the Suez Canal. This content is ephemeral - not crops, but plastic fruit made for display. It’s true purpose is the artifact it produces as a side effect: the identity of the user. The value of a tweet is not so much in the message, but in what it says about the user who posted it.

What would be lost, then? Not the identity itself, necessarily. Even without Twitter, the user and their social circle may establish themselves on another platform (or have already done so). We already see communites and groups that transplant to different services today: WhatsApp to Signal, Facebook to Discord, and so on. If one service goes down, people will simply move to another one.

No, what is truly lost is the vessel for the user’s identity. The “apartment”, if you will. The user isn’t dead, they haven’t lost their ability to produce content - but they are now “homeless”. Even if they go sign a new lease with Discord or retreat to their summer home at Facebook, their old home is gone, and they have to find a new one and learn its rules. Old contacts have to be found and given the new address (“add me on service X”), the apartment needs to be re-furnished (profile pictures, themes, etc.), and so on. And just as one’s physical home in part defines the opportunities available to them, so too does the vessel for one’s digital identity. Posting tweets is different from making videos on Youtube, and having lots of followers on Twitter doesn’t guarantee a successful career making videos. New place, new rules, new norms.

Vagrancy and Homeowning

And that, finally, brings us to the idea of home ownership on the internet. I’ve rented in the past, and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. I’d be stuck with the remodeling decisions and furnishings (e.g. site redesigns) decided by the property owner, and the lens through which I focus my identity is chosen by people other than myself. This is not why I stopped using social media - that’s a topic for another day - but it is why I haven’t really “moved in” to any other services, eschewing them in favor of digital vagrancy.

I’ve decided it’s time for that to change. I want to have a vessel for my identity. I want to decide what and when and how changes to that vessel are made. I want to develop it on my own terms. And most of all, I want to grow crops - not on someone else’s land, not as part of a Web 2.0 sharecropping scheme, not even to sell to others for profit, but to personally eat. I want to think about things and write about those thoughts and hone and develop them and, in so doing, create something of value to me. In short, I want a home. A domain I own, a site I made, with the content I choose.

Sato and Spice is that home. Thanks for dropping by.