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Why Do We Share Content Online? July 15, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I don’t mean illegally, of course – the illicit sharing of intellectual property has a pathology all its own.  I’m referring to content like this and other blogs, and in Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and even comments.  You’ll even find good content on many corporate websites.  I think this question may be one of the most salient ones we can ask and attempt to answer in our times.

As someone who has spent part of his career in publishing, the availability of free high-quality content comparable to what I used to get paid good money for (yes, like this blog) is more than a little bit frightening.  Why have we gone from a world where content itself had value to one in which content is merely the vehicle by which we communicate other messages?

The New York Times recently made the attempt to answer that question, in a survey on the “psychology of sharing.”  They presented the results of this survey at the ANA Digital & Social Media Conference this week, and offered the slides from that presentation here.

While I was bemused to discover that the NYT can believe that in-person interviews (phase 1) in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco would give them a broad spectrum of data, the actual results and their organization into categories is pretty interesting.

The overarching point the presentation makes is that sharing is a natural act, and we’ve always shared, but the availability of Internet-based tools for sharing has made that much more obvious.  That may be true, but it doesn’t fully explain the volume and range of sharing, from inane to compelling.

I think it’s in large part a demand to be heard in a world where the voices of many seemed insignificant.  The uneducated to the brilliant all have a more or less equal voice, which can be used to screech or to inform.  It turns out that Thomas Friedman was right again – the world is flat.

I can speak for myself only, and say that I blog because it helps me clarify my thoughts on certain issues, and it helps build my personal brand.  In particular, if I can’t express a particular point of view in my communications, something may well be flawed about that point of view.

Beyond those reasons, sharing content doesn’t come particularly naturally to me.  My biggest problem is that much sharing (of location and preferences, for example) is or will be used for commercial purposes.  The reason why Facebook is worth $100 billion is that its promoters see it as one big honking advertising platform.

Take a look at the survey presentation and draw your own conclusions.  It’s well worth the time.

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