The promise of the internet, for many, is the opportunity to be heard, be seen, and communicate with others who share similar interests. The net facilitates this sort of thing beautifully, and a zillion so-called "communities of interest" have sprung up all over the web. In many cases, these online gathering places are indeed communities in the friendliest definition of the term. Sharing is encouraged, and through the contributions of community members, a site can become full of neighbourly cheer. Or, big business can get involved, and make things a lot less friendly. Capitalising on the geek chic of web-based chats, personal homepages, and sites fuelled by user contributions, a number of dot-com corporations are setting up communities of their own — and taking you along for a ride. Behind these "global villages," "virtual neighbourhoods," "fan sites," and other meeting places, clever corporate entities are sitting pretty while community members give away their time, their work, and sometimes even their rights.
"Design your own pages! Create your own headlines! … Get all of the digital tools you need!"
Are "your" pages and headlines really yours? Under the "user agreement" of Snowball.com, the parent site of Chickclick, and four other massive web networks, anything you place on Chickclick web pages (substitute any of the five Snowball networks) or post to Chickclick message boards is automatically licensed to Snowball.com. You might think that a license would be necessary for the site to display your content (writing, artwork, etc.), and while you’re probably right, Snowball.com’s "user agreement" goes even further: "…without the payment of any fees, the Snowball.com sites and anyone they permit may reproduce, display, distribute and create new works of authorship based on and including the content." By using the services offered on Chickclick or any other of Snowball’s five massive web networks, you are essentially working for their parent company for free. Post an article, and it might show up as next month’s featured content. Post your novel onto "your" web pages, and give Snowball the opportunity to yank the rug out from under you. Set up an art gallery, and your next illustration could show up as a t-shirt design in a Snowball.com online store. You get paid nothing while Chickclick’s "online community" continues to grow, attracted to the regularly updated content unwittingly provided by the site’s users. A growing community translates into more web traffic, which typically translates into more advertising revenue, e-commerce sales, and investment capital for the site.
Snowball is not the only example of a "grabby" online network masquerading as a community. While Snowball.com’s license doesn’t limit their use of your material to online properties (meaning they could publish your illustrations in a coffee table book), the well-known Geocities service, which touts itself as having "…the finest sense of community on the internet!" can also bastardise the content on pages you create and upload to their site. Of course, Geocities is kind enough to limit exploitation of your work to the Yahoo! network (Geocities’ parent company). Geocities will even terminate their license to your material if you terminate your membership. Which is more than can be said for the seemingly innocent Nick.com, a site for kids who watch shows on the Nickelodeon TV network. Nick’s "terms of service" state: "…By sending in your thoughts and hanging out in the chat rooms… you and your parents are telling us it's ok to repeat what you say. It's even ok to put it in an advertisement. It means we can use it in any way we want, anywhere, until the end of time. And wouldn’t it be cool if we used something you said until the end of time?" Wouldn’t it be cool, indeed.
If you’re already part of a large community network, now might be a good time to check out that fine print you probably overlooked when you signed up. If the legalese isn’t easily understood, that should be your first clue that something stinks. Pay particular attention to anything that mentions user-created content, and if it looks like you’ve already signed your life away, you just might want to terminate your membership. Nothing sucks the cool out the internet faster than money-grubbing. If you agree with me, then we’re part of the same community. And there are no Terms and Conditions.
Originally printed in Exclaim Magazine, April 2001 edition. James Keast, editor.