Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of Web 2.0?

Wow. It’s been a crazy couple of days in the Blogosphere.

It all began innocently enough, with a post on Lawrence Lessig’s blog: The Ethics of Web 2.0: YouTube vs. Flickr, Revver, Eyespot,, and even Google, in which he tried to make a distinction between “fake sharing” and “true sharing.”

The basic concept was that “true sharing” sites permit “content to move as users choose” – letting users download content whole, not just view it in the context of the host site. “Fake sharing” sites, of which YouTube was the example, don’t actually enable you to download the content, only to view it. (Yes, there are firefox extensions, and greasemonkey scripts to get around it, but YouTube themselves don’t make it easy to actually download videos).

(Updated 11/17/06 – The Cease and Desist letter YouTube’s law firm sent to TechCrunch adds an interesting twist here as it puts YouTube in the position of trying to work against the widely available methods for downloading YouTube movies and retaining local, offline copies. Best way to locate alternatives? Google, which of course now owns YouTube. Will Google send itself a cease & desist letter for linking to pages of directions on how to do this?)

Reading this, Nick Carr, in a post on Rough Type: Web 2.0lier than thou, links Lessig to “digital maoism” (via Jaron Lanier) and argues:

Lawrence Lessig . . . suggests that some Web 2.0 companies are not fit to wear the Web 2.0 label. There are real Web 2.0 companies, and there are sham Web 2.0 companies. There are those that maintain their ethical purity, that obey the Code, and there are the transgressors, the ones that have fallen from the shining path.

Carr goes on to say that Lessig paints YouTube as a “villain” and a “counterrevolutionary force that threatens the web’s emergent communalist state.” Further, Lessig’s goal is to “promote . . . the ideology of digital communalism in which private property becomes common property and the individual interest is subsumed into the public interest.”

In case the references to the “shining path,” “digital Maoism,” and “counterrevolutionary force[s]” weren’t making the connections clear enough, Carr – in the context of discussing Joi Ito’s commentary on Lessig’s post, finds it “hard not to hear the echo of Mao patiently explaining how the masses will make the transition from China 1.0 to China 2.0.”

In response, Lessig, in Stuck in the 20th Century (or the latest to effectively call me a communist, while technically calling me a communalist), points out Carr’s language “dripping with references to the evils of communism” and suggests that we would all be better off “if we left the red-baiting to the 20th century.”

To which Carr responds, in the comments on that post, “This isn’t about ‘red-baiting’ (or about red-baiter baiting, for that matter); it’s about taking a critical look at the cultural utopianism espoused by a segment of the internet intelligentsia and how it promotes a distorted view not only of culture but of what’s actually going on on the web.”

Finally (at least as final as anything gets in blog discussions), Lessig posts on “removing blocks,” recognizing that one has to be extremely careful about using a word like “ethics,” with its baggage of morality and “right behavior.” In distinguishing between true and false sharing, he was taken to be distinguishing between True and False behaviour, or Right and Wrong behavior. Add in a dash of “the C word,” (as Carr did) especially with a US audience, and all bets are off.

Remember Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows larger, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Is it time for a new version of Godwin’s law in which Communism or Stalin (or Mao?) replace the Nazis and Hitler?

(Note: One could accuse me of similar rhetorical pandering in the title of this post, which allusively associates Carr with Senator McCarthy. To be clear, I don’t think Carr really means to imply that Lessig’s a communist. I think he’s just jumping on the opportunity to deflate what he sees as Web 2.0 optimism about shared content and user contributed content – a recurring theme on Carr’s blog – and got carried away in the rhetoric.)

More importantly, all of this discussion distracts from the real point Lessig was trying to make.

Lessig’s real point (dare I say his True message?), is that what he had labeled “true sharing” is ultimately a better business strategy that what he had labeled “false sharing.” That is, his “argument is not ‘do X because it is good'” – his argument is “‘do X to keep and spread the success you’ve had.'”

Carr’s counter-argument is that there is no evidence that “true sharing” leads to more success (including commercial, financial success) than “false sharing.”

Lessig would argue that success will be found through reduced restrictions, and by giving users real access to user contributed content, including enabling them to download that content.

Carr would argue (I think) that success is more likely to be found in selling ads associated with that content, and requiring end users to come to the site to view it. (In this case Carr mostly focuses on explaining why “Lessig and his comrades are not only on the wrong side of human nature and the wrong side of culture; they’re also on the wrong side of history” rather than explaining what he thinks leads to success).
Ultimately, I think Lessig’s right, but YouTube is a bad example. Or, rather, YouTube is a great example of why sharing is better than not sharing, but a bad example of “false sharing.”

Enabling users to share videos is exactly what made YouTube successful. The fact that the sharing is via embed rather than download is just an implementation detail. (Users savvy enough to be interested in having an offline copy of the video, or using it in some other context, were also presumably savvy enough to install a firefox extension).

The great majority of YouTube users only want to watch the video (and generally only once), not have a copy of it. What YouTube did not try to do was restrict where people could share videos – they explicitly enabled users to embed videos anywhere they wanted, on the web. You did not have to go to YouTube’s page to view videos, the player was directly embedded.

YouTube’s success, then, isn’t an example of the counter-revolutionaries winning (as Carr would have it) but yet another example of how enabling content sharing leads to success.

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