Sharecropping is the act of storing personal data on 3rd party servers without owning the ability to control that data.
The term comes from the 18th and 17th century concept of wealthy landowners renting our shares of their land to former slaves or the impoverished and then extracting heavy taxes on them. A tenant farmer is an individual that farms on a piece of land that they do not own and gives a part of each crop as rent in return for the land.
Just as wealthy landowners would rent out parcels of land to poor farmers, creating an effective new form of slavery, companies like Facebook allow their users free space and social integration/capital in exchange for our pictures, marketing information, etc. Sharecroppers trust in the livelihood of a given 3rd party website, they also make their personal data available for the use of partners of the 3rd party website, such as advertisers. Facebook's users, for example, exchange their privacy and personal data for use of the free service. This understanding of 3rd party dependence lead to Douglass Rushkoff's to point out "Ask a kid what Facebook is for and they'll answer 'it's there to help me make friends'. Facebook's boardroom isn't talking about how to make Johnny more friends. It's talking about how to monetize Johnny's social graph".
The problem with 3rd party data hosting is that those who host their data on 3rd party sites are subject to the lifetime of that service. The lifetime of 3rd party services on the Internet is often short. A site may close down, stop providing a service, become merged with or acquired by another company, or may change its user interface, all leading to user disorientation or a sudden loss of data.
One example of loss of data is AOL Homesites AOL Homesites provided an easy way for the general public to create home pages without any programming ability. Pages ranged from family photos and online albums, to online memories for mourned loved ones that had passed.
On Nov 6th 2008 AOL removed user data from everyone who built a website using their service. AOL placed a brief warning about this change on the front page of the Hometown website. The post urged users to archive or backup their data in order to protect it from erasure. The notice was placed on the homepage on September 30th, 2008, giving users "4 weeks to figure out how to get their data off the servers, find a new place to send the data, get that arranged, and then do the transfer". The problem is that the overwhelming majority of AOL Homesites users had no idea how to check the front page of the site for updates, let alone understand how to archive their websites and data. Because of this, the unexpected erasure of personal websites from AOLs servers caused general public outcry and anguish. Websites about loved ones and digital memories were permanently erased without any possible chance of getting them back. No customer service or apology was offered to those affected. It marked the first sense of digital death for many casual Internet users.
The AOL Homesites disaster was one of the first examples of 3rd party data falling prey to the shutting off of a website. Since then, protective measures have been established for some communities such as Delicious, whose users and development community rushed to provide Delicious clones and alternatives when a rumored threat of shutdown leaked out of Yahoo! headquarters in late mid-December 2010
Towards the Indie Web
The Indie Web Movement is a step towards owning one's data vs. relying on the transient nature of 3rd party services. The inaugural Indie Web Camp was held in Portland, Oregon on June 25-26, 2011. Indie Web Camp was founded by Turkish-American Programmer Tantek Çelik, software architect Aaron Parecki and UX Designer Amber Case. "I’m building a solution, bit by bit", writes Çelik, about his efforts toward archiving and hosting his own data on his own personal server, "I’d rather host my data and live with such awkwardness in the open than be a sharecropper on so many beautiful social content farms".
- Oxford Dictionary Definition of Sharecropper. Oxford Dictionaries Online Definitions. Updated 2011. Accessed Oct 2011. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sharecropper
- Rushkoff, Douglass. Speech at the Hello Etsy conference. Berlin, Germany. 17 Sept 2011.
- Scott, Jason. Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse. December 21st, 2008. Accessed July 15, 2009. http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/1617
- Delicious XML Exporter Accessed Oct 2011. http://deliciousxml.com/
- Delicious Bookmark Clone Site Accessed Oct 2011. http://aaron.pk/bookmarks/about/
- Is Yahoo! Shutting Down? TechCrunch.com 16 Dec, 2010. Accessed 15 April, 2011. http://techcrunch.com/2010/12/16/is-yahoo-shutting-down-del-icio-us/
- Indie Web Camp http://indiewebcamp.com/
- Çelik, Tantek. On Owning Your Data: Follow-up to @Zeldman and the #indieweb. Tantek.com Published 01 Jan 2011. Accessed 28 Dec 2011. http://tantek.com/2011/010/b1/owning-your-data