I really like Stack Overflow. I’m fascinated by their success at encouraging experts to share high-quality knowledge and even individualized tutoring for free.
Why do people do this?
I suspect that it has something to do with social capital. Maybe it’s prestige or the need to feel useful. Maybe it’s altruistic satisfaction at serving a neighbor in need. Obviously they get something out of it, because these folks posted 4.6 million answers to 3.7 million questions on the Stack Exchange network last year.
The internet also makes it easy to share. I didn’t pay postage to publish this post. I could quite feasibly create and post a new HD video every day of my life if I wanted to. And my potential audience would be counted in billions.
In such a situation, a bit of bewilderment is understandable. Typical human behavior doesn’t always map well onto a gargantuan global network. In fact, failures to calibrate to a web-sized world can bring serious fallout, from lost job opportunities to distributed mobs engulfed in social media witch hunts.
Still, this trend hasn’t emerged without warning. Think about radio—with its advent, a single person could suddenly transmit her voice to thousands of people who would all hear the same words as if from her own mouth. Talk about power!
Talk about problems. Broadcast broke the tie to the tangible world, and its mapping to the human market. Books are things, and you pay to possess them. But how do you handle paying for goods you can’t handle? How do you prevent them from being stolen*?
(*Ask David Wiley (@opencontent) sometime about whether you can “steal” ideas. Go ahead, I dare you.)
This conundrum accelerated the evolution of intellectual property law, which has since developed various incongruous appendages in the face of recording and distribution technology. As media have grown more accessible, the rift between what we can do technologically and what we’re permitted to do legally has widened even further.
Hence the distinction between free content and open content. Radio is free, but I’m not free to rig up an antenna and bounce a home-brewed Spanish translation of NPR around my neighborhood. By contrast, I can use this open calculus textbook as the libretto for an opera, immortalize it in a stone tablet, or mail a thousand print copies to North Korea—as long as I attribute the original authors.
This is great news for those of us who who gravitate toward the kind of non-competitive, snuggly collaboration that brought us much of the internet. As the gold standard for global sharing, Creative Commons licenses allow authors to share their content openly by deliberately granting specific permissions to the world—to say it’s OK (legally) to share, to remix, or even to commercialize their work. And they’re machine-readable, so you can filter web searches by license type.
Honestly, you probably like helping. And your ideas could use probably some help, too. So next time you put something awesome in the world, slap a CC on there. It just might become the next Spanish-Korean rock opera.