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No, social media companies do NOT practice “digital feudalism”

One of my pet peeves is when people misuse pejorative words. My favorite example is the haphazard use of the word “fascist” to describe someone that someone else does not like. “George W. Bush is a fascist because he’s under the control of the oil companies.” However, in a true fascist system, the government would control business, not the other way around. (And no, that doesn’t necessarily make Ralph Nader a fascist.)

Well, another pejorative term has been bandied about. One example is this February 13, 2011 New York Times article by David Carr. Excerpts:

The Huffington Post, perhaps partly in an effort to polish the silver before going on the market, did hire a number of A-list journalists, but the site’s ecosystem of citizen bloggers and its community of commenters represent some share of its value. (How much is open to debate, as Nate Silver pointed out on the FiveThirtyEight blog.) Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Quora have been positioned as social networks, but each of them hosts timely content that can also be a backdrop for advertising, which makes them much more like a media company than, say, a phone utility.

The Huffington Post, social networks and traditional media may all seem like different animals, but as advertising, the mother’s milk of all media, flows toward social and amateur media, low-cost and no-cost content is becoming the norm.

So far so good, but then the label comes out:

Last month, Mr. [Anthony] De Rosa wrote — on Tumblr, naturally — about how audiences became publishers, essentially painting the fence for the people who own the various platforms.

“We live in a world of Digital Feudalism,” he wrote. “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.”

So now Arianna Huffington and Mark Zuckerberg and the others are evil – well, they’re evil FEUDALISTS.

Except that they’re not. The term sounds cool, but feudalism was significantly different from the practices of these social media companies. These companies provide us with free accounts, which we then populate with data that allows the companies to receive advertising revenue. But this is NOT a digital example of the classic definition of feudalism, which includes reciprocal obligations and exclusivity. First, let’s look at a statement of classic feudalism:

The classic Francois-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.

Note the reciprocal obligations here. The vassal was obliged to provide service to the lord, and the lord was obliged to provide protection to the vassal. If anything, this is more akin to a traditional employment relationship than it is to the various content generation models used by the social media companies. I am obliged to write proposals for my employer, and my employer is obliged to pay me and provide me with health care. I am not obliged to share content on Facebook, and Facebook is not obliged to protect me in any way – in fact, if I examine Facebook’s terms of service, I would not be surprised to discover that Facebook disavows any obligation to protect me from viruses or any other bad content that I acquire from Facebook’s servers.

Now I’ll grant that Facebook provides me with a platform on which to practice virtual farming, but I am not OBLIGATED to farm, and Facebook is not OBLIGATED to do much of anything for me.

But the more important difference is the difference regarding exclusivity. Because classic feudalism was based upon land – a geographic concept – it would be difficult if not impossible for a vassal to serve multiple lords at once. As long as the land situation was stable, a particular piece of land only belonged to one lord, and the vassal would therefore be obliged to serve only one lord.

In most cases, exclusivity is not a requirement in the free content generation model of social media. When I signed up for Facebook, Facebook didn’t require me to disable my MySpace account. When I signed up for a Google+ account, Facebook didn’t stop me from doing so. When I created this WordPress blog, Google (Blogger) didn’t raise a stink.

So what would “digital feudalism” REALLY look like? Again, you’d have reciprocal obligations. If I became a writer for Huffington Post, then Huffington Post would require that I provide a specific amount of content. And in return, Huffington Post would give me something. Perhaps one could argue that Huffington Post would give me “fame,” but that would be much less than what a feudal lord gave to his vassals. If Arianna Huffington wanted to become a true feudal lord, she’d have to do better than that. She’d probably have to pay me.

And then there’s the “exclusive” part. I’d be willing to bet that a number of Huffington Post writers have their own blogs, and they probably write for others. Can you imagine what would happen if Arianna Huffington loudly declared, “You can only write for me, and for no other service!” That army of writers would dry up pretty quickly.

It should be noted that even services who actually PAY their writers don’t insist on exclusivity. Some time ago, Duncan Riley sold The Inquisitr. Many of the Inquisitr’s writers continued to write for the Inquisitr after the sale. At the same time, these writers also worked on some of Duncan Riley’s newer websites. (Here are James Johnson posts at the Inquisitr and Medacity.) Both the Inquisitr and Riley and fine with this arrangement.

So, while “digital feudalism” makes a good headline, it’s not accurate. (And neither is “slavery,” since again there is no obligation to serve the social media firm.)

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