Love, Internet Style

This is a pretty good talk by Clay Shirky from 2007, about the power of the internet to enable and even promote community action which is spurred by something other than the desire to make money. He calls the alternative motive “love”. I think that’s way too simple and optimistic—there are lots of other motives, some of them dark ones, and many of them about profiting in some currency other than cash money. But I also think Shirky is right that the internet has enabled a level of community collaboration previously unseen, and that remarkable things have resulted.

In the 90s this discussion was mostly restricted to computer programmers, and mostly about open source projects. Non-programming users of the internet were strictly passive consumers. Back then I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Shirky’s point. Amazing collaborations were happening in the software world, and the results of a lot of hard, sophisticated were being made freely available.

Then other segments of the online world went from producing to consuming and collaborating, and the results are at best mixed—important questions should be asked about why these other folks collaborate and who ends up profiting from their work. This expanded conception of the internet was created by people who not only saw an opportunity to make money from the activity of people they didn’t employ, but lured them into participating with a promise that they too would end up profiting. Looking at the entire picture, it’s reasonable to ask how anyone could have been so naive as to think that the internet would promote altruism.

And yet, there is still the shining example of open source software. A cynic would have predicted that the movement would have withered on the vine after the initial flush of idealism. Instead it has flourished, creating not only an astonishing range of quality computer software but establishing a community ethic that stands apart from commercial activity. Many participants wear two hats, one in the open source community and one in the for-profit community—but they really are distinct hats.

I don’t think Shirky is right to call the fundamental motive “love”. But it isn’t money, or even currency of some other kind. Instead, it is something akin to the Golden Rule.

Wait, is that love?

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