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In which John reads Jennifer Burek Pierce's book Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media and thinks about who captures the value of work done by sprawling collectives in virtual places--including online communities like nerdfighteria. The book in question:
Keeping this video to four minutes meant glossing over a lot of details that I think are interesting/important relating to the assignation of value in online communities, but one that I really want to highlight is that money is not the only form of currency online. As the book explores, attention is an important and valuable resource that is extensively exchanged online. By paying attention to nerdfighteria, you essentially make it exist.

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Good Morning, Hank.

It's Tuesday. So I recently read a book that is about, um.. us.

It's called Narratives, Nerd-fighters, and New Media by Jennifer Burek Pierce. It's an academic work about online community in general and Nerdfighteria in particular, and of course I shouldn't pretend to be objective about it. I shouldn't pretend to be objective about anything, actually, but I loved it.

Anyway, one of the the things discussed in the book is how Nerdfighteria is often constructed as a place, both in the sense that there are, like, maps  of Nerdfighteria, and in the sense that there are rules and norms when you are "here" that you understand may be different from the rules and norms elsewhere.  But in this imagined place, there is lots of real activities-- social connections, art gets made, memes are memed.

This is definitely going in the background, by the way.

Anyway, reading this book, I was reminded of that Mary Ann Moore poem, where she writes that "great poetry involves the creation of imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Like, the place is imagined, but the people and the work inside of it are very real.

So there's a chapter in the book called "Connections, Commerce, and Philanthropy" that tackles some of the complex questions around these sorts of communities, including, like, "Who owns these read toads?", "What are we going to do about money?", "How will the value that's being created get captured, and who will capture it?". The easy answer is that the creator owns it, right? Like, Hank and I own Vlogbrothers videos and so whatever money they make is our money.

But even if we try to take that straightforward approach, it quickly gets complicated because like, YouTube owns the Vlogbrothers channel, and they are certainly part of the value equation. And also you make the videos more valuable by watching them, but also because your comments and your art and so on are not just responses to the videos, but also expansions of them. Like, take for example "Pizza John".

Do I own that because it's my face taken from a screenshot of my video? Or does Valerie own it because they made the design? And when Alys makes this, who owns it?

Does the person who was terrorized by Doctor Neversneezer Scrooge own part of it?  Now I think current laws are a wholly insufficient guide on this front, but to be fair, it's hard to make laws about who owns what when so much creative production is a remix of a reblog of a retweet. So instead of being governed entirely by laws when it comes to creating and capturing value, Nerdfighteria is also governed in part by norms. It is uncool, for instance, to re-post something without credit.

And it's governed in part by the terms of service of private corporations, which, you know, tend to be a little bit rigged. For instance, Google receives just over 45% of all revenue generated by Nerdfighteria within the YouTube platform, and that does seem a little bit high to me. The other 55-ish % goes to Hank and me, which also seems quite high because I don't think that money belongs to Hank and me.

I think it belongs to Nerdfighteria, which is why, in the end, half of it goes to grants for educational creators, and the other half goes to charity. As Burek Pierce puts it, "Nerdfighteria's answer to this conundrum, in part, is to recognize that money accrues from creative work from creative work and to make a gift of it to others." But of course we have to emphasize the "in part" in that sentence, right? Because Hank and I are only able to not make money from Vlogbrothers and DFTBA because we make money from other ways; me from selling books and Hank from having 12 million jobs.

And all of that work is, to varying degrees, bound up in Nerdfighteria. Like, yes, I wrote books before I made vlogbrothers videos, but I have certainly talked about my books on vlogbrothers, and they have reached a larger audience as a result and I have kept a lot of that book royalty money. So where's the line, and where should the line be?

Those aren't rhetorical questions, by the way, and I would love your thoughts on them.  This book helped me understand why I struggle with those questions, and also how, over the years, our viewers have pushed us toward considering issues around value and ownership more carefully. But reading it, I was also reminded of something else. Even if Nerdfighteria has generated tens of millions of dollars for efforts aimed at social good, money is nowhere near the most important thing that Nerdfighteria makes.

It makes joy, it makes connection, and it makes opportunities for me to better understand the universe and my place in it. And I wouldn't want to put a price on any of that.  Hank, I'll see you on Friday.