Posted by: Yorgos | February 18, 2009

Text 36 – Something Interesting

Lately, I am more and more interested in the Internet culture. I’ve been visiting forums (or should I say fora), I’ve been reading blogs and articles, browsing funny websites and so on and so forth. The terms furries, lolcats, fads, internet meme, rule 34 and others actually mean something to me. I am not proud of it, but it has happened and I accept it.

My latest Internet “thing” is StumbleUpon. It’s basically a toolbar for the web browser, which you configure according to your interests and it lets you visit random websites that are related to your interests (or were declared by their owners as related to your interest, while in fact they have nothing to do with what you like).

Using this tool got me thinking. I could fill a whole website with things I find through it without breaking a sweat. And that’s when I realized that people are already doing that. I know of a few online columns that all they are doing is give you links to interesting websites. If I had to guess, I would say that they follow a few particular websites (like wired.com for example) and then use StumbleUpon for the rest of their content.

It seems to me that what is valuable in the age of the Internet is not the content produced but the tools to make it accessible. In this situation, it is impossible to know what is original and what is not; but in the end one thing is certain: the original content is most likely made for free by end-users like you who are reading the page. I am sure that StumbleUpon has sponsored “Stumbles” (and if it doesn’t, it will soon), which bring money to it. And while it is the user made content that make it a useful and interesting tool, it is StumbleUpon and its advertisers (who have all the uninteresting content, most likely) that make the money.

In that sense, people are getting paid to write columns, which link to things they found on StumbleUpon or a couple dozens of their favorite websites. So, we have a few web pages which actually provide new content and actually pay those who create that content, a lot of free websites around the world with remarkable content and those who use various tools to link to these websites.

I am wondering if this is illegal. I know that by writing something and leaving it to the public domain means that you don’t expect any money from it, but doesn’t it also mean that no one else can make money from your own work? I presume that if this blog is a StumbleUpon destination, it is not illegal, since by using WordPress means that I agree to the terms of use, which most probably contain a clause saying that what I write here is theirs to use and make money from. But there are thousands of independently hosted websites with content that belongs to the public domain.

So, big corporations are making money from pointing to content that is not theirs and yet the same corporations (or others of the same persuasion) are suing people for piracy and copyright infringements. All these may be legally doable, but ethically they are definitely not…

Here I am, complaining about capitalism again, while I am not even that big on anti-capitalism.

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Responses

  1. But StumbleUpon or similar sites aren’t making money off user-added content – they’re making money from selling advertising. I don’t see how other users are paying the advertisers or the platform, nor do I see how the platform could make money from user-added content. There are sponsored advertising links (http://www.stumbleupon.com/ads/) but I suspect those are tagged as sponsored ads somewhere when they come up. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing illegal going on there. And I don’t think there’s anything unethical going on either. If you have a website, a blog, etc., don’t you want people to read it? Aren’t you the one who benefits from multiple links to your site? If you don’t want your page to be public, you protect it with a password. In terms of ownership of information, every service has its own terms and users have to agree to those terms.

    I wasted a lot of hours with StumbleUpon a couple of years ago and now I barely ever use it. My new favourite online service is delicious. Social Bookmarking, what a rad idea.

  2. StumbleUpon and any other service like it were never going to make any money unless they offered all that user created content. They attract advertisers, because many people use that service, because they can get to interesting and free user created content.

    I know wordpress makes money out of our pages, but this is something I agreed to by using their service. But there are other websites, individually hosted, which do not rely on anyone. I am sure they want traffic on their pages, but the ethical thing to do was for StumbleUpon to share parts of their profits with all these websites they link to.

    Think of it like this. If someone reaches a site through StumbleUpon the statistics are going to say that he did exactly that, not through google, not by typing the address in the bar. The advertiser then will prefer advertising his/her company on StumbleUpon and not on the actual website (which makes sense for the advertiser). The website gains traffic, but loses advertising revenue.

    On the case that the website is free with no desire to gain anything from its contents (as is in most cases), then why should any service make money out of free content. Public domain is public domain. I am sure there are terms of service and so on and so forth that make it legal, but the way I see it, it isn’t ethically right.

  3. I still disagree. The way StumbleUpon operates in terms of advertising is the way many web services operate. When you do a Google Search do you think the results reveal an unethical practice? Because what you see on the results page is the result (sorry, couldn’t think of a more appropriate word) of similar practices, albeit much more complex.

    Is an advertiser really going to take their money to StumbleUpon instead of an individual site, because they see StumbleUpon was the gateway so to speak? As far as I can tell advertising on Stumble is disseminated in the form of sponsored pages directed at user interest. They would get less exposure doing that than by advertising on a busy site.

    StumbleUpon, or any similar site, is not a neutral space where internet users can just share information. Someone built the service, maintains the site, and either runs or pays for the server. They have a right to get paid for their labour and advertising is the only effective way to do that. We all know and tacitly accept that when we use it. To argue that what they are doing is unethical is to argue that the whole system of paid labour and advertising is unethical. Just because it’s online, we can’t expect it to operate differently from “real-life” services.

  4. And I still don’t see how anyone is making money off free content…

  5. Sure, it’s the free content that attracts users and therefore makes advertising on the site and attractive and viable option for businesses. But that’s the way all business works, even off the web, in some way or another.

  6. I am not saying that StumbleUpon and other such services shouldn’t make money. I am saying that they should share, because it’s other people’s content that makes them valuable and interesting. They are basically the road sign or something like that (not even that: they’re a road that leads to something unknown yet interesting).

    A hypothetical situation: I have a site that attracts 10000 visitors per month. Hardly enough to justify an advertiser, but one or two might be interested if the cost is really low. Now, there is that other guy with a website of similar interests who wants to pay as little as I charge to advertise his work. It will be better for him to advertise with StumbleUpon instead of in my page, because StumbleUpon will offer guaranteed visits to his website, in contrary of mine which will probably send him no traffic at all (who clicks those banner ads anyway?). Let us also assume that my site has been “stumbled” by a random user, so StumbleUpon is actually sending traffic towards me. So, my website improves the quality of StumbleUpon (we assume I have a really interesting website), but it is StumbleUpon who has stolen my advertisers. I find this a bit unethical; not that the guys behind StumbleUpon deserve to be in jail, but the truth is that they make money because other people have written interesting things. It is only fair that they share.

  7. We give up the right to profit off someone else’s advertising revenue when we post to the public domain. I think most internet-users accept that.

    Real-life example: A local bookstore makes most of their profits from selling boardgames, journals, and kitschy little gifts because, let’s face it, you don’t make much money now just retailing books. Patrons come into the store because authors have written interesting books – and then they buy bookmarks. The bookstore then profits indirectly from interest spurred by the author’s work. They too “make money because other people have written interesting things.” But the bookstore doesn’t share that revenue with the authors (or publishers) of the books they carry. Is that wrong? Slightly different of course because the authors are getting royalties from book sales – but the bookstore is making extra money off of their labour, which is the same principle as far as I can tell.

  8. No, when we post to the public domain, we allow our work to be free for everyone. It is (or should be) automatically assumed that nobody else will profit from that. I think it is actually part of the legislation of what publishing in the public domain means (but can’t be sure). StumbleUpon’s profits come indirectly and that makes it legal, but it is still a bit unethical. It’s piracy in reverse, only there are no big corporations behind the average user to make piracy legal.

    And the bookstore example is not the same. The seller has bought a permit to sell books and this money goes to the publishers and authors, just as a radio station has bought a permit to play songs on air. The authors then have made some money (hypothetically: in reality this money just go to the state and the publishers) and it’s up to the appeal of their own book to make even more money. If the customer ends up buying a board game, then it’s because the board game’s manufacturer did a good job. But nobody buys publishers’ catalogues (unless they are collectible and antique), even though some work has been put into these as well. Products like these are meant to be for free. Yellow pages are delivered for free (at least in Greece), because the publishers have already made money by selling advertising space in their pages.

    At the end of the day, why are you defending them so much?

  9. I don’t care to defend them much, but I just disagree with your approach to the ethics. I think that the practice you see as unethical is coded into most business and advertising practices – there are situational differences of course, but when you break down the practices they operate on the same principles. You can’t say that it’s unethical in this situation but not in all others.

    I don’t have anything to add really. Let’s just agree to disagree.

  10. Hahaha…don’t get me started on business and advertising practices…I don’t consider them ethical, but I wasn’t talking about them in this post.

    Well, I accept agreeing on disagreeing. It won’t be the first time anyway.


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