Nick Carr: Bebo and Digital Sharecroppers

This was an interesting article by Nick Carr that popped up in Google Reader today–it’s about the Bebo acquisition by AOL and how the founders have been rewarded handsomely, to the tune of $800 million, with diddly squat going to the artists who contributed site content.

From the article:

As for the millions of members who have happily served as sharecroppers on the Birches’ plantation, they’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that all the labor they donated to their “community” did indeed create something of tangible value. No doubt they’re thrilled that the little Bebo plantation, which they’ve tended so lovingly, is now part of the giant AOL plantation, itself part of the Time-Warner conglomerate.

The article goes on to reference a great NY Times op-ed by Billy Bragg. It’s all must-read stuff.

In the Open Source world, we deal with this all the time. People often ask how we can make money off the backs of free labor, to which I always answer: we don’t. But the question lingers, and for good reason. Being a community-centric company is a double-edged sword. After all, if you’ve successful in convincing a fair number of community members to buy into your vision, what, if anything, is your responsibility to them? Ultimately, my opinion rests on the assumption that Bebo.com is a rather different example from most Open Source community sites, because in those cases, the company gives the community items of great value, whether it’s the software, better documentation, or simply the investment into care and feeding of the community.

This is in stark contrast to a community like Bebo’s, where the vast majority of content comes from the users. Sure, web sites like my employer’s are geared towards providing conduits for community contributions and feedback, but it’s always clear in that case that the owner of the web site is the primary source of an overwhelming amount of the content. In Bebo’s case, without user-generated content, there wouldn’t be anything of value at all.

Well, at least I see a difference. What about you? What do open source companies owe their communities? What are their responsibilities?

For more John Mark Walker, see the There Is no Open Source Community blog.