I was lucky enough to have my essay submission accepted to Harvard’s Free Culture Research Workshop 2009, so it looks like I’ll be in Boston on October 23rd. I revised the draft based on the comments of some very fabulous reviewers, and here is what I came up with.
Normative statements – statements of what ought to be – comprise much of the basis of the free culture movement. As an economist, I am wary of jumping to the normative before the establishment of positive science – knowledge about what is. Thus my research on free culture is in developing a foundational, quantitative, descriptive science for the field. I believe that free culture research, and free culture activism more broadly, can benefit greatly from the application of quantitative methods to understanding social systems, for example, in learning to design systems that promote a freer culture thereon. I propose that the new field of web ecology can provide a descriptive science for free culture. In the same way civil engineers design bridges with knowledge derived from physical sciences, so too could free culture engineers design social systems that promote the ends of the free culture movement with knowledge provided by web ecology.
First I will describe some current limitations I see the free culture movement facing. Then I will provide an introduction to the new field of web ecology, whose goal is to develop a foundational science of social activity on the internet. Last I discuss how a web ecology perspective can apply to free culture research.
As it stands the free culture movement knows much more about where it wants to go than about the best way to get there. Open licensing, open access, and open education are all strong, prescriptive goals. But right now the hard work is in implementing those goals. What is the best way to foster broader adoption of open licensing for artistic works? What is the most effective approach to encouraging the creation and reuse of open education resources around the world? How can we design social networks so that they encourage a read-write culture, instead of a read-only culture? To be sure, these are difficult questions. I think what is lacking is a body of quantitative research to develop more precise answers. In free culture research there is more argument about best approaches and less empirical basis for these claims.
For example, at the end of Lessig’s Free Culture, he laid out an argument for why a standardized licensing system is a good idea and would further the principles of free culture. It was not based on science, nor did it claim to be. And while the argument was undeniably strong, I think it could have been even stronger if it had a quantitative empirical basis. I believe this descriptive foundation can be provided by a new field called web ecology, which I will now describe.
A group of colleagues and I have begun work on an academic discipline whose focus is a study of activity on the internet. The name “web ecology” emphasizes 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, seeing 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 particular interest in web ecology is in its axiomatic approach to the complex phenomena that comprise the internet. There is opportunity for innovative theorists to develop novel, simple, quantitative models that will comprise a scientific basis for future free culture research and activism. I look to the example the field of economics has set, as I think there is significant value in its approach: by rigorously formalizing, even “oversimplifying,” the complexity of the market system, 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 broader social and cultural activity, especially when applied to the rich social systems and associated quantitative data available for study on the internet.
Since this conception is somewhat abstract, let me build an example. Perhaps web ecology seeks to understand the creation of content 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. A number of studies, both experimental and observational, are undertaken; researchers systematically attribute the creation of remixes to certain treatments, and are able to make quantitative statements about these relationships. For example, perhaps a group of web ecologists finds that the proportion of anonymous users on an image board is directly proportional to the amount of remixes that are created. Furthermore, they precisely measure a coefficient that relates the proportion of anonymous users to the creation of remixes, holding other things equal. Then people who want to promote free culture by encouraging remixes can leverage this descriptive knowledge to achieve their ends. Perhaps a start-up company wants to build a platform for the creation of remixes, and it uses the findings of web ecology in its design, adding an anonymous user option and encouraging the use of anonymous accounts. Or perhaps a government policy maker decides that the act of remixing 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 field of web ecology.
Web ecology must define itself as a solid foundation of knowledge for use in free culture research and activism. This hard work will be taken up by academics and business people with an interest in actually understanding the internet’s social dynamics, rather than so-called “experts” seeking to sell social media services based on shoddy data and methods.
- Building a standardized set of tools and models for web ecology.
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 that will uniquely benefit the free culture movement.
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 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.