I went to Vegas, and all I got was this lousy community

I did go to Las Vegas last weekend, to speak on legal issues at the “Community 2.0” conference (linked from the Future of Communities blog), but the post title is intentionally misleading.  The conference was unexpectedly challenging and stimulating and — in light of Viacom’s broadside against YouTube yesterday — timely.  I did come home with a community — but there’s nothing wrong with that.  More below the jump.

In this context, the word “community” is a bit of marketing buzz that tries to capture several models:  for profit enterprises that are built on or leverage “user-generated content” (YouTube, MySpace, other social networking technologies; amazon.com; eBay); for profit enterprises that blend customer or consumer or partner participation and feedback into product or service development and support (Proctor & Gamble’s Connect & Develop); and wiki-fied enterprises and projects, such as Wharton’s “wearesmarter” book project, and enterprises building and leveraging prediction markets and information aggregation technologies, which are trying to institutionalize collaborative content generation.  Most of the action at the conference was around for profit enterprises, though clearly there is an enormous amount of energy and activity in the nonprofit space as well, especially when “community” embraces international activities.

A few quick thoughts:

The range of interests represented at the conference surprised me:  Lots of content-related companies, lots of vendors (and potential vendors), lots of product-based companies and software developers and service providers.  But also — academic institutions interested in figuring how to support interdisciplinary research; financial services companies; trade unions; publishers (dead tree as well as electronic); travel-related companies.  Professional sports organizations.  Gaming companies.  

From a law professor’s point of view, the genuineness of concern regarding a wide range of legal and policy issues was both surprising and gratifying, at least if the folks who attended my session (co-hosted by Denise Howell) were representative of the rest (there must have 350 people at the conference as a whole).  We talked about IP issues (ownership and liability questions in copyright and trademark in particular, though patents can never be far off); other sorts of liability concerns; and what I aggregate as “governance” problems — anonymity and identity, reputation, civility, though at bottom all of this is “governance” of one sort or another.

To anyone familiar with cyberlaw debates over the last decade, governance questions in this area have a familiar ring.  Those designing and managing “communities” (and that includes legal institutions) have a robust toolkit but little guidance on how much or little to rely on a given tool given, of course, that all of these overlap considerably with one another.  There is the positive law of copyright (and trademark, and contract and tort and property and consumer protection and antitrust law), and the legal forms — licenses and contracts — that follow from that.  There is technology design (software and networks and interfaces and metaphoric implementations of objects and places).  There are standards, both technological and social.  There is the discipline of practice (social norms and “best practices”).  And there is interest:  markets and prices and non-monetized motivations of individuals and groups and firms. 

Finally, the best question I was asked:  What happens if all of these users who are kicking content into MySpace and YouTube (their own content, not content copied from Viacom) stop compensating themselves with psychic rewards and — in large numbers — start demanding money?  In other words, what if they want to renegotiate the deal that they are currently being offered?  It’s a question that raises Nick Carr’s argument about “sharecropping the long tail.” 

4 thoughts on “I went to Vegas, and all I got was this lousy community

  1. You may recall that financial incentives were an integral part of Epinions’ model on day 1. However, they are at best a mixed bag when it comes to forming a community–they can conform contributors’ behavior to set objectives, but inevitably they spark fights over who and how much. Eric.

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