In many ways, blogs like this one have become the new public square. People meet in these online venues to discuss the important issues of the day. Blogs have also taken on some of the function of the press.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a great deal about the value of a free press and voluntary civic organizations in a democracy. Tocqueville believed that the village square, with its garden and rotary clubs, was the training ground for democracy on the state and national level. He argued that a vibrant and competitive press was essential to a healthy democracy. Without access to a multiplicity of views, democracy would become a creeping oligarchy.

Earlier this week, it struck me that all blogs are privately owned and operated. How does this private ownership affect the quality of speech online? As blogs become bigger and more important, is there any danger that they will be taken over by corporate interests, used to promote a narrow agenda, and limit the expression of inconvenient views? How do we prevent the development of oligarchy in the blogosphere?

On the face of it, blogs seem very democratic. It’s neither expensive nor technologically difficult to start a blog. People are free to sign up and post their views. Rating and recommendations happen by popular acclaim. The power in a blog is decentralized and shared. Only the front page is controlled by the owner.

I was online when Usenet was creaking out over uucp links, and you had to specify every machine hop your email was going to take. In those days, it was obvious that uucp worked because of the hard work of system administrators around the world. No one controlled Usenet because no one person owned it.  Like any commons, it worked as long as the people who used it believed in and followed the rules.

While Usenet was struggling to resolve the tragedy of the commons, a lot of former Usenet communities went to private mailing lists. Ownership of open Usenet communities became private, enabling them to deal with trolls and spammers. Most of these transported communities retained the Usenet ethos, valuing the concept of free speech highly.

In the private sector, however, a new problem emerged. When a person starts a private bulletin board or mailing list, she has absolute power over the community. She can ban members, censor people’s viewpoints, and control discussion. When a private owner abuses her power, members of the community have no recourse except to leave the community.

Aside from ruffled feathers and hurt feelings, online petty tyranny doesn’t pose a problem. People can go elsewhere, start their own blogs or mailing lists, and run them the way they think they ought to be run. If a petty tyrant starts to suffer delusions of grandeur, his subjects can vote with their feet.

For now, anyway. The press in the United States used to be vibrant, with small independent papers and radio stations all over the country. With media consolidation and corporate ownership, communities that used to have three or four newspapers are lucky to have one, and that one mostly runs stories from the wire services. Most radio stations broadcast syndicated shows produced by their parent corporation.

We’re standing on the final media frontier, folks. The Internet was born in cooperation and decentralization, and it’s difficult for anyone to control. If we want it to say free, though, we’re going to have to exercise our eternal vigilance.

Two important ideas to come out of the early Unix and Usenet days are the gift economy and the open source movement. The early players in Unix and Usenet were techies steeped in radicalism. The gift economy grew out of the communalism of the 1960s. Free love, free dope, free music, and free software. If you’ve got it, pass it around. If no one has it, put your shoulder to the wheel and make it.

Synergy: the soul is greater than the hum of its parts.

The open source movement was the result of watching corporations get their tentacles into the gift economy. Once corporations appropriated the work of the gift economy, free-as-in-freedom gave way to pay-per-use, hierarchically controlled products. The open source copyleft agreement is an attempt to hold on to the freedom of the gift economy.

I’ve come to see the open source movement as a major player in attempts to hang onto our freedom. If we want to grow an alternative economy to replace the corporate model, the open source economy is a good place to start. Open source can be used to protect a lot of things that ought to be in the public domain, like crop seeds.

Some of the stuff that I see on some blogs (not here) feels to me like the beginning of those corporate tentacles. Instead of seeing the gift economy as a shared, decentralized, mutually beneficial association, these blog owners think in terms of self-aggrandizement and financial success.

I don’t want to contribute to the success of petty tyrants, and I certainly don’t want to contribute to the success of those who would sell out the gift economy for personal gain. Freedom is too precious to relinquish any of it without a fight.

Booman, I want to thank you for using gift economy thinking on this site.

In order to flourish, the gift economy depends on cooperation and personal responsibility. We all need to work together to create this space. We all need to take responsibility for maintaining the commons. The gift economy doesn’t work unless we contribute to its success.

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