What have I been doing with myself this past week? you might ask. Well, I’ve been drafting a proposal for Harvard’s Free Culture Research Workshop 2009. Now that I finished my draft and submitted it, I figured I could give everyone else a peek.
My work on free culture to date has been broad. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the economics of public copyright licensing, specifically studying Creative Commons licenses and adoption. I was a technology intern at Creative Commons in 2008, and I continue working as a contractor furthering internal metrics work on license adoption and API usage. While at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute I started a chapter of Students for Free Culture. Currently I am a researcher with the Web Ecology Project out of Cambridge, MA, studying activity on the internet. Additionally, along with my colleague Tim Hwang and others, we are drafting a standard of best practices for ensuring fair dealings in Terms of Services, which we call FriendlyTOS.
I see free culture and the internet as fundamentally dichotomous: the internet is the most effective means of connecting people humanity has yet developed, and the culture that develops when people interact is naturally free. My perspective is that to study free culture, one must necessarily study the internet. Similarly, to understand the internet one must understand what makes for a free culture. Thus my research agenda for studying free culture begins with studying the internet.
My work on the internet has another motivation. Through my work and studies I have felt a common thread: issues of free culture must be expressed more fundamentally and approached from a more essential angle. When I first studied free culture I used the lens of economics, trying to fit issues of copyright licensing, peer production, and personal freedom into models optimizing utility and minimizing cost. We all have our own “home” fields, be they sociology, law, cultural anthropology, philosophy, or computer science. But to study free culture, or to study the internet, one needs to transcend particular fields. A multidisciplinary approach to these topics is a good first approximation. However, I have come to believe that both the internet and free culture more broadly are important enough topics of study that they deserve their own specialized field.
I, along with a group of colleagues, have begun work to chart out a new academic discipline whose focus is a study of the internet. We call this field “web ecology,” emphasizing the interconnected nature of the social and technological systems that comprise the web. I see web ecology as an attempt to do science on the internet in much the same way as environmental science studies our natural environment. Web ecology takes a holistic view of the internet, viewing users and code as associated and dependent elements. It is empirical and experimentally-driven, creating falsifiable theories and models that will be refined or rejected based on observable data.
My interest in web ecology is in building an axiomatic approach to the complex phenomena that comprise the internet and free culture thereon. The time is right for innovative theorists to develop novel, simple, quantitative models that describe activity on the internet. I look to the example the field of economics has set, as I think there is great value in its approach: by rigorously formalizing, even “oversimplifying,” the complex dynamics of markets, economics deduces profound insight from first principles. The basic models of perfect competition and consumer choice theory conveniently summarize the salient features of the objects under study, and provide a stepping stone toward more complicated analyses. I believe the same approach will prove useful in studying the internet.
Next comes the small step from the internet to free culture. Arguments for free culture are prescriptive at their core. As an economist I am wary of moving on to normative statements (“what ought to be”) before positive science (“what is”) has been well-established. Here is how I see this process evolving. First, web ecology will provide foundational science of the internet. From the knowledge and findings of web ecology, policy makers and other interested parties will design policies and incentives to ensure a freer culture. Prescriptive work, like working for a free culture, will inform the direction descriptive research should take, like studying particular classes of online platforms.
Since this conception is somewhat abstract, let me build an example. Perhaps web ecology seeks to understand content production on the internet. It develops a model for the creation of a certain type of content, say a “remix,” and begins exploring different social and technological treatments that increase or decrease the number of remixes produced by an internet platform. Through studies of existing online platforms, and experiments on the same, web ecology can make stronger and more quantitative statements. For example, perhaps web ecologists find that the proportion of anonymous users on an image board is proportional to the amount of remix that happens, and more precise metrics can be related through a measurable coefficient. Then a start-up company that wants to build a platform for the creation of remixes can use the findings of web ecology to design its platform, adding an anonymous user option and encouraging the use of anonymous accounts. Or a government policy maker may decide that remixes should be encouraged, and authors legislation to protect the right to anonymity on the internet.
The three key challenges I see arising from the work laid out above are as follows:
- Defining the principles and approach for a rigorous study of the internet.
Web ecology must define itself as a solid foundation of knowledge about the internet. This hard work will be taken up by academics and business people with an interest in actually understanding the web, rather than “experts” seeking to sell social media services based on shoddy data and methods.
- Building a standardized set of tools and models for studying the internet.
Web ecology will adopt the tools and models of other fields when appropriate, and will build its own when no suitable work exists. Many fields will no doubt have a large body of work to contribute. At the same time, web ecology will express these models in a common language and a common framework uniquely suited to study activity on the internet.
My interest is in the interface of economics and the internet, notably building better economic models of hybrid economies and open licensing. The next step for economics is moving away from studying the scarcity of goods and services to more fundamental scarcities: those of time, attention, and reputation. I see this same process occurring in other fields, which will support the work of web ecology.
- Expressing the tenets of free culture from the axioms of web ecology.
The bits and pieces which make up free culture – things like open licenses, remixes, sharing, and peer production – will be endemic to the models and methods of web ecology from the start. Having a focus on free culture inform the development of descriptive web ecology will be formative and fruitful, for both web ecology and free culture.
If we move in these directions, we will be on our way to building a first-principles approach to the study of free culture.