Home » Blog » The Uses of Free Culture

The Uses of Free Culture

Creative CommonsTonight I had the pleasure to attend one of Fred Benenson‘s Creative Commons salons at the office of my old employer in the West Village. It was a treat of ingenuity, pizza, and beer, somehow paid for by “free culture.”

The idea we’re supposed to take home with us is that great things can be done when creative content is freely available. True enough. Then I spent most of the reception talking with an elder copyright lawyer. After telling me magical stories about a rabbi from his childhood in Queens, he said his worries about all this: how are creative people gonna support families if they’re giving stuff away?

One of the presentations came from the folks making Miro, an open source video platform. Another was Meerkat Media, an art collective making some nice movies with local color. The one that really caught my eye, though, was Rachel Sterne of Ground Report. It’s a site that collects citizen journalism from around the world, combined with a Wikipedia-like editing process. Not only that—they generate revenue from ads and pay their writers based on how much their articles earn. Not much yet, it sounds like, but something. And they’re trying to make a profit in the process.

This model is something I thought about implementing for my friend’s nonprofit, the Center for the Study of Social Structures. The idea was to create a truly public think tank. Anyone would be able to contribute ideas for making the world a better place, and then the discussion would go from there. People would be paid according to the attention their ideas generate—either with money or status in the community or both. Hopefully, as is the dream of any web startup, the thing would effortlessly “go viral,” make heroes of its creators, and be home to a truly valuable resource for innovative ideas. Policymakers would turn to it. Thinkers could make a living on it. Everything would be awesome. (If anyone’s interested in partnering up to build it, let me know.)

Well before all this could happen, I had to stop work on CSSS in order to focus on graduate school, which was paying my bills and promised to in the future.

There’s this wonderful hope that internet apps in particular offer. They are capable of changing the world. Just think of the giants—Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube—who have given us so much to do while spending most of our lives hunched over computer screens. They encourage the great temptation to think that all the world needs is the right algorithm, or that making more information more accessible can only be good (even to the point of surveillance). But Google gets scarier every day, and it has bought YouTube. Wikipedia’s still good, but it will never be anything but a mess. Nevertheless, the answer to every problem seems to be: start a website. Nothing is real unless it has got one.

Such utopianism is particularly evident at the illustrious NY Tech Meetup (a revved-up version of a CC salon), where web entrepreneurs show off their plans for saving the world and getting rich to an audience of peers, investors, and head hunters. The sense of possibility in that room (designed by Frank Gehry, incidentally) is palpable. Like every utopia, this one has its beauty, and it has its traces of idolatrous heresy.

I’d like to preach about models for free culture to be profitable, or about a vision for Web 3.0 that returns to the offline world, or about a think tank by the people and for the people. But enough. I’ve got to get away from this computer.