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Is YouTube really a Web 2.0 site? A pointless question, you might think, especially when its founders have just sold the site for $1.65bn.

But not according to a recent blog by Lawrence Lessig, which seems to have sparked off a weird political row over sites that allow users to share content online.

His post, entitled ‘The Ethics of Web 2.0’, argues that YouTube doesn’t qualify for Web 2.0 honours because it doesn’t make it easy for users to have real control over the videos it stores on their behalf.

Oh boy. His line is thus: ‘true sharing’ sites allow users to control their content, while ‘fake sharing’ sites make you think you have control, when you actually don’t.

YouTube, he says, is a ‘faker’ because it allows you to embed videos on other sites or post links to them, but never actually allows you to bring that content under your wing.

By contrast, he says, Flickr, (parts of) Google, blip.tv, Revver and EyeSpot are examples of true-sharing sites.

I remember listening to del.icio.us founder Joshua Schachter talking about this sort of thing. As far as Joshua is concerned, customers might ultimately want to take their bookmarks and leave for good. So he made that functionality available. And users like me respect del.icio.us all the more for that, which conversely means I might end up using the service for a lot longer.

Lessig’s blog post has brought out some strong reactions from both sides of the divide, with Nick ‘growler’ Carr basically calling Lessig a pinko:

“Like Mao, Lessig and his comrades are not only on the wrong side of human nature and the wrong side of culture; they're also on the wrong side of history.

“They fooled themselves into believing that Web 2.0 was introducing a new economic system - a system of ‘social production’ - that would serve as the foundation of a democratic, utopian model of culture creation. They were wrong.”

But perhaps things aren’t that black and white. Although Lessig suggests that YouTube is on the wrong side of the faker fence, we fully expect that the API-loving Google will further open up the YouTube platform.

And this is, after all, not just about ethics but about user experience – and the whole concept of Web 2.0 is allowing users control. Which is a good thing, in our view.

Users feel more comfortable when they aren’t limited by lock-ins, and in the long term they’ll decide whose service they’ll use. Trap them and they may feel backed into a corner, planning their escape.

Joi Ito also followed up Lessig’s post with a warning that Web 2.0 “is becoming the platform for the short-term future of greedy people", and that the ‘fakers’ will lose out in the long term.

“I think in the long run, users will understand that stand-alone or closed services do not allow them the freedoms that are becoming exceedingly more common in the Web 2.0 area. I do hope that the rush to Bubble 2.0 doesn't allow companies to trample over the core principles of the Web in their drive for more ARPU.”

It takes a little nerve to have such an open business model, but your users might feel closer to your brand if you do.

Chris Lake

Published 2 November, 2006 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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