What is Digital Sharecropping Anyway (Part 1)

Digital Sharecropping Part 1

Defining Digital Sharecropping (Part 1)

For this 2 part series, I thought it would be good to actually define Digital Sharecropping. This should give you some insight into this blog in general.

Although this first post may seem to paint digital sharecropping in a negative light, stay tuned for Part 2, and you’ll see it come full circle. I think this topic is quite important for anyone who is working online.

Almost all of the sources I’ve found online credit Nick Carr as originally coining the phrase back in 2006. He is a bestselling author and blogger at Rough Type who covers topics such as technology, culture, and economics.

So What is Sharecropping?

digital sharecroppingAt face value, digital sharecropping is pretty similar to actual sharecropping. According to Wikipedia, Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land.

I often see sharecropping looked at as a bad thing, since in a lot of cases the sharecroppers were poor (and possible even being taken advantage of), but I would argue that it provided access to arable land for those who were typically excluded from owning land, such as women and freed slaves. This arrangement also split the risk between both the landlord and tenant.

Side note: this practice is still alive and well today in the form of “farmer’s cooperatives” (or “Co-op”), where smaller farmers join together and become “members” of the cooperative. This gives them access to better machinery and better pricing on supplies.

How does this relate to the digital realm?

working onlineWhat this means in the digital world is that a site (landlord) allows users (tenants) to create content on their existing platform, typically at a low cost or free.

The exchange here is that the users get to create content on an established platform, while the site gets to make the rules and retain most of the value of their content.

The term “digital sharecropper” is usually aimed at people who run their online business exclusively on social media sites, but I’d like to extend it a bit further..

Are you Digital Sharecropping?

Social Media MontageLets see.. Do you:

  • Create content on social media and/or YouTube?
  • Store your data / files in the cloud?
  • Use SaaS (including email services)?
  • Practice Affiliate Marketing?
  • Rely on Google for traffic to your website?
  • Rely on iTunes for your Podcast audience?
  • Sell books on Amazon or video courses on Udemy?

Any of the above (and there are dozens of additional examples) can be considered digital sharecropping, since you are at the mercy of those sites and providers. I could even take it a step further to include internet service providers, the internet’s infrastructure (undersea cables, electricity, etc.) and so on, but I’m sure you get the point..

Why is this ‘bad’?

The danger here is that you are not fully in control of your business. Everything you’re working towards today can be undone by forces outside of your immediate control. Algorithm changes, changes in royalty percentages, the decline of a particular social media platform, etc., can completely derail your business.

So What’s the Solution?

Most of the time, the solution offered is to simply ‘own the land’ (build your own website, grow your following and email list, etc.), but that is not without its own challenges. I elaborate on this a bit more in Part 2, but suffice it to say that 

See you next week,

Patrick

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