Thursday, April 30, 2009

Your content at risk: A credit crisis for the co-created web

There are reports that flickr may be in trouble. Well, it is owned by Yahoo, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised.

When loic le meur (he of Seesmic fame) heard this he wondered outloud (on twitter) if he should start backing up his years of images.

This is the social web's equivalent of a failing bank scenario.

We have invested our content in it and now we're fearful that we might have been better off stashing it under our mattresses. We're worried if the bank fails, our investment disappears. (Image courtesy Travis Truman)

When we contribute content that we value, in the joint creation of a site such as blogger or flickr, we not only insist on retaining ownership of our content (traditional media companies really struggle with that bit), we need confidence that this content will be stored safely and not evaporate over night. Just as we do when we hand our cash to a bank.

In both cases we hope to create a little extra interest for ourselves along the way and recognise that our service provider has to find a way of making a return on their investment (the platform or bank) in return.

If Flickr were to fail, how would that change your online generosity?

Of course, Flickr would not be the first to disappear, taking our treasured content with it. But it would be the first co-created giant of the social media age to tank.

Imagine the holes it's sudden desctruction would leave across millions of websites and blogs... there would be one on this blogpost, for a start.

Is Flickr is too big to fail? Given the interconnectivity of the web, can anything which stores and shares be allowed to fail?

Perhaps it is time for a bail out strategy - time for a global institution to guarantee our content investments are protected, the assets safely transferred and made accessible to us in the event of failure - so we can reinvest them elsewhere if we choose.

There are some regulation issues opened up by this, such as, do you have to comply with T&Cs of the bail-out guardians in order to have your web service covered? Who gets to set the rules? etc

But without some kind of guarantor does the web face a credit crunch all of its own where we as investors of our content start becoming more wary about who we will lend it to.

Let's not underplay this. These loans are the very reason businesses from twitter to facebook, wikipedia to google can exist at all.

The web has grown through peer-to-peer content creation and distribution. We contribute on the understanding we can always get it back (which at least means access it online and share it with others).

As we increasingly rely on the cloud for our storage requirements, the providers of those clouds will have to come up with protection for lenders which include exit/bail-out strategies whether lightning strikes or financial storms come.

What kind of terms and conditions would restore your confidence as a contributor? What terms and conditions would you find acceptable as a platform creator?

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  1. Interesting and worrying idea. The Flickr/banks analogy is excellent but there are some fundamental differences, I think.

    We don't have a commercial arrangement with Flickr. We don't get paid to post it up there and presumably we all read the terms and conditions in great detail when we join. Consequently we are aware that should something unfortunate happen to our content, we have no recourse in law.

    Banks, usually, are quite different and if at any point they cease to be good for the money, then a government might undertake to cover at least a part of it.

    In order to provide those reassurances, however, we understand that we need to pay the banks interest on what they lend us (usually far more than they pay out to savers) and charges for using the banks' services. We pay tax to governments to enable them to protect us.

    Because such commercial relationships do not exist between Flickr and its contributors, and Flickr absolves itself from any liability resulting from everything from insolvency to catastrophic server meltdown, we have nowhere to go.

    The other, way more contentious view, is that most shared content is of very low commercial value. It's value is derived from its sharing and the highly personal or sentimental usefulness.

    If it all disappeared tomorrow it would be a great shame. At an individual level it would even be devastating. But would most of the world care? Sadly, I think not.

  2. Good points all Martin.
    I think you do have to look at the micro level re value (ie it matters to me and my friends vs it's broadcast quality) to understand the macro value that emerges from this.

  3. ....And I appreciate there are certain T&Cs people have accepted up until now, but are there new ones required for the (potentially bitten and therefore) newly-shy in order to restore faith in lending our content to co-created sites?

    sorry - should have been part of same comment as above ;-)

  4. It'd be a loss if flickr went down to be sure David, but isn't the comparison with banks a little bit of a stretch?

    For one thing photos are data that is easy to replicate and if you're the creator of the content there is no legal restriction on you doing so. It's hardly an apt comparison with money.

    The bank analogy fails in other ways too. Is flickr a photo storage service or an easy to use publishing/sharing service? The tagline is "Share your photos", not "Safely store your photos".

    It also seems to be inappropriate to talk of 'stuffing your content under your mattress' or talk of 'generosity'. That just doesn't make any sense at all. Why would flickr failing make people have less of a desire to publish their own photos? It might mean that it's more difficult to do so for some people, but still..

    Maybe a more relevant comparison would be a bus network? It's a tool that makes socialising easier and if it failed it would have a moderate economic impact, though people could still walk, cycle, drive or use other public transport options. Is using a particular bus service an act of investment or generosity?

    The concept of a flickr bailout is entertaining. I'd hardly say that it's "too big to fail" though. Surely there simply aren't enough economic interdependencies built into the business to justify that? flickr failing might be a symptom of national economic meltdown, but would it really be a cause of it?

    I'd be interested to know if a flickr photo has an equivalent monetary value and if it does, how well does it compare to a Zimbabwean dollar?

    (@Loic doesn't already keep his personal data backed up? Isn't that a pretty worrying implication about his understanding of the fragility of both computer systems and businesses?)

  5. I think it's a very good comparison. We do have a economic relationship with Flickr, without money. Content for service. And that is how a large part of the net economy works. The trust issue is the key for the success for a service like Flickr, just as it is for a bank. The difference is that Flickr will not be saved by government fundings...but you'll never know :-)

  6. I'm loving the banking analogy.

    "All those blogs with holes in them".

    That's because they've borrowed the content, plugged it in from another source. If Flickr goes down people will scream and shout and totally blame Flickr for their loss of content and revenue forgetting that they were profiting from borrowed (or at least non self-hosted) content.

    If Flickr had taken a small fraction of a cent for every ping to it's API I'm sure they'd be much better off now.

    If we live on borrowed content then we're also living on borrowed time. Right?

  7. I wonder if we have given freely because of a belief that we can always access what we have given. We believe the contract between us and the service provider is more than that they will simply distribute for us (after all, we do the distribution in a peer to peer way), it is more that they will both provide a platform for our sharing (in a many-to-many way rather than a one-to-one way)AND the storage.
    And if that isn't the contract, does the flickr question posit that perhaps that's the contract we actually want and will increasingly demand?
    Banks made money out of our money. Social networks need to be able to make money out of our content.
    In both cases if we don't contribute the platform doesn't get to make a cent.
    I accept the comparison is far from perfect. But it does help us (well me, at least) frame some useful questions?


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?