Creating Technology for Social Change

Gratitude, Credit, and Exchange Online: Flickr Selling CC Images Is About More than The Money

Last week, Yahoo! announced that Flickr would start selling prints of Creative Commons licensed photos, and that they would only pay some of the photographers. Some commentators, like Jeffrey Zeldman, see it as a breach of good will. Mike Masnick at Techdirt argues that this is a victory for open licensing, which “is about giving up control so that other people can benefit.” Ben Werdmuller, co-founder of Indieweb social platform Known, argues that users don’t understand the license, and that we need to give creators more clear controls. I think there’s something deeper going on, something signaled by Zing Tsjeng at Dazed when he complains that “the only credit they’ll [photographers] get is a small sticker at the bottom of the print bearing their name.”

In this post, I’ll explain why I think this is about more than money, offer a design suggestion to Yahoo!, and propose a study we could run to find out how to reconcile the values of open licensing with the discomfort people are feeling.

Computers Can’t Give Credit

In 2011, Andrés Monroy Hernández, Mako Hill, and colleagues published “Computers can’t Give Credit,” comparing automated acknowledgment (like that sticker on your photo print) to personal messages of attribution. Andrés and Mako were wondering why so many young people on the creativity platform Scratch were upset when other students remixed their game or story into something new– even if they were also remixing projects by other learners. After many complaints, the Scratch team decided to introduce an automatic label that showed whose project a remix is based on. The designers of Scratch noticed that even after adding this feature, many young people were unsatisfied, and some learners continued to expect others to write a note specifically acknowledging them. Creators kept leaving messages on each others’ projects like “you need to give me… credit for this wonderful game that I mostly pretty much kinda totally made this whole entire game … and that you need to give me some credit for it.”

Andrés and Mako went on to interview Scratch creators, asking them to evaluate different scenarios of attribution and credit. They found that “automatic attribution was generally seen as incinsere and insufficient.” You can read more about the study in my blog post on Designing for Remix.

How Yahoo! Can Improve Their Print On Demand Service

I wonder if one way to explain the discomfort people feel is to think of these photos as a remix from a digital image to a physical one. Yahoo could invite all purchasers of photographs to send a note of acknowledgment or appreciation to the photographer. This could happen in concert with other policy changes, like offering micropayments or micro-reductions in Flickr Pro fees for Flickr users whose photographs are printed. Here’s what it might look like:

PROPOSED thanks feature for Flickr's ordering system. MODIFIED SCREENSHOT

When Norms of Exchange Collide in Sharing Networks

In conversations with colleagues, it’s clear that several things are entangled. It’s important to offer people reasonable explanations of licenses and tools to manage those licenses over time. We should also acknowledge the power that large companies have to leverage the platforms they build to make money, and the responsibility they have to treat their users with respect. Other colleagues are framing the conversation in terms of alienation or exploitation of labor. Like them, I worry that most of the discussions of this issue are treating it as a legal or economic question rather than a social one.

I suggest that the feeling of surprise and unease partly comes from the relative unfamiliarity many of us have with generalized exchange: a kind of pay-it-forward reciprocity that happens in groups or networks. This is a question taken up by Airi Lampinen in a fascinating paper that explores the unease and sense of indebtedness that prevents some people from participating in peer-sharing systems in local communities. Lampinen outlines several kinds of exchange that we commonly see online:

  • Negotiated exchange tends to include economic exchanges such as bargaining, trades, and purchases”
  • Reciprocal exchange includes direct reciprocity such as gifts or favors that are sometimes repayed, but lack any terms or agreements”
  • Generalized exchange describes acts of indirect reciprocity in the form of collective goods, or networks of indirect gifts and favors (e.g. stranded motorists helping one another on the highway)”

Lampinen argues that Commons based sites invite us to participate in Group Generalized Exchange, where we contribute to a common good attached to a group like Wikipedia, a church, or even a nation. She argues that sites like Craigslist, Freecycle, Couchsurfing, and time banks, where people are helping each other directly involve Network Generalized Exchange, since the platform supports many individual exchanges rather than a common pool.

In her research, Lampinen found that some people with a strong sense of reciprocity find it very hard to participate in peer sharing networks of Network Generalized Exchange. When someone helps them, they feel indebted to that person, rather than feeling that they can pay it forward to someone else in the network. Receivers of help also often can’t believe that the giver feels good about helping them. This strong sense of reciprocity can keep people from asking for or accepting help in the first place. Lampinen observed that these feelings get more strong the greater the imbalance of power between the giver and receiver; people don’t want to feel indebted to people they don’t think they can help in return.

Lampinen set out to find ways to help more people participate in network exchange without guilt. She interviewed users of one local exchange system and found that expressions of gratitude and small gifts were two ways that users reduced the deep unease and sense of indebtedness they experienced when participating in networked exchange. Lampinen also suggests better messaging about the value of pay-it-forward networks. Improved messaging could also highlight the benefits that givers experience when helping others. Finally, Lampinen suggests that sharing sites might even match people by class or economic status. If platforms promote sharing among people of similar means, more people might accept things from others. For more detail, read Airi’s blog post about the study.

Flickr and a Clash of Reciprocity Expectations

I think the Flickr story might be another clash of reciprocity expectations. When Zeldman complains about Yahoo!’s decision, he says that he’s okay with small publications and businesses using photos commercially, but not Yahoo!, who is a large company. In addition to the power imbalance, it’s also a clash of two kinds of exchange. By publishing his photos Creative Commons, Zeldman imagined himself to be participating in generalized exchange with other small creators and businesses. Now that Yahoo! is selling his photos, the generalized exchange with peers looks more like a negotiated exchange with a corporation, where he isn’t included in the negotiation, something that’s much less comfortable.

Maybe the cognitive dissonance lies elsewhere. Seen another way, Flickr is providing a remix service that allows people who love your photography to get access to your photos in whatever format they like best. But unless Yahoo! changes the user experience to remind everyone of the generosity in that relationship, it will continue to feel exploitative.

Will People Bother to Thank Creators?

Colleagues have questioned if people who order prints will bother to thank image creators. It takes time and effort to write a thank-you note in a form, and some people will skip the thank-you note. If automated messages aren’t meaningful, can a social technology generate enough gratitude to make a difference? That’s an open question that I’m studying on Wikipedia, together with Emily Harbug and Erhardt Graeff. You can read more about our study of thanks versus Wikilove in “Researching Love and Thanks on Wikipedia.” If you’re interested in my wider research on gratitude online, read my post on Gratitude and its Dangers in Social Technologies.”

How Can We Answer These Questions? A Study Proposal

Yahoo! has an opportunity to turn around the backlash and contribute to our knowledge of human behavior on social technology at the same time. Over the next few weeks, they could ask a randomly-selected group of picture-buyers to express thanks to a randomly-selected group of image creators. Yahoo! could then examine the effect of gratitude on the licenses chosen in the future by those creators, as well as the volume of material they put on the site. They could also survey & interview creators and purchasers to find out who they think they’re buying the image from, and how they feel about the transaction, across a variety of languages and cultures. In addition to helping Yahoo! better support its customers, the answers could help us understand more about the new forms of social relations that develop on the Internet when the Commons and Markets collide across different expectations of reciprocity.