June 17, 2004
Libertarianism, Communitarianism, and the Weblogs.com Diaspora

So the blogosphere is abuzz over Dave Winer’s recent decision to abruptly shut down his Weblogs.com free blog hosting service, which some 3,000 blogs called home until this week, when Dave pulled the plug on them without giving their owners any advance warning. Opinions on the subject are running pretty hot at the moment (as you can probably imagine), and seem pretty evenly split between two opposing points of view:

  • “It’s Dave’s server, you should consider yourself lucky he let you sit on it for free as long as he did.” and
  • “If you’re supporting users, you owe them a heads-up before you pull their services away — even for free services.”

I’m not going to wade into the argument as to which of these is right or wrong (it seems to me there’s been enough written on that subject already). What interests me is more what the difference in these reactions says about the worldviews of the people who are having them.

The first reaction — “Dave can do what he wants with his server, and if that inconveniences anyone, tough” — strikes me as reflective of an essentially libertarian view of the world. In this view, when Dave offered a free service to people, there was no social obligation that came along with that; he was free to essentially cast off his relationship with those people and leave them to fend for themselves. If this meant those users lost their data, the fault is their own; they should have been making backups.

The second reaction — “Dave owes it to his users to communicate with them, even if they’re not paying him” — strikes me as reflective of a very different worldview, that of communitarianism. To people of this frame of mind, Dave’s initial act of generosity (providing free hosting) was also indicative of willingness from Dave that he was willing to shoulder some of the responsibilities inherent in providing services to a community. These responsibilities include certain unwritten obligations that we might, if we were living in gentler times, call “etiquette”, and among these would be the obligation to let that community know if the services were going to be turned off so that they could make alternate arrangements. His failure to live up to these obligations makes the communitarian-minded feel betrayed.

(Note that I’m referring to small-L “libertarianism” and small-C “communitarianism” here, rather than the respective formal Libertarian and Communitarian movements.)

It is this clash of expectations — this collision between people who see the world as a place where random acts of generosity don’t change the fact that you’re essentially on your own, and people who see the world as a place where informal social ties are both easily generated and essential to the smooth functioning of society — that explains much of the vitriol surrounding Winer’s decision. (That, and people are pissed at losing their blogs, of course.)

Personally, I can see the merit in both perspectives. I host a few people’s blogs for free myself, though not anywhere near 3,000. All I have to do is look at my hosting bill to understand Winer and the libertarians when they say “it’s my box, I can do what I want with it”. And yet, it’s probably indicative of the general tilt of my personality that I don’t think I could just turn the lights out on my non-paying users like that; I try to keep them posted on things like service outages, software updates, and so on, and I would certainly feel like I would need to give them a couple of weeks’ notice to migrate off before I shut down their blog altogether.

Do they get the same level of contact and customer service from me that they would get from a for-pay vendor? Probably not; but I do feel that by offering my resources to them, I have also committed a certain amount of my time as part of the bargain, so I take the time to send the occasional e-mail, and if it ever became too much to handle I’d ask them either to pay or help them migrate to a different host, rather than just bouncing them out. It’s just part of the bargain I made when I volunteered the resources.

Does that make me better than Dave in some way? Not particularly (though I do think that more communication is better than less in these circumstances, and Dave has definitely been erring on the side of too little communication, unfortunately). It just means I see the world, and the way I fit into it, differently than he does. How do you see it? Does the idea of an act of generosity growing into a burden of responsibility depress you, or do you see it as an inevitable cost of being tied into the social fabric? I have a feeling your answer to that question will correllate pretty closely to your feelings on the weblogs.com issue.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at June 17, 2004

The first couple of comments in this thread may interest you, as they are on this "dichotomy":


I use quotes around the term because I'm with Tim Cavanaugh on this one: there's no real contradiction with simultaneously holding those two points of view.

It is a part of the libertarian Catechism that you have the right to do pretty much whatever you like with your private property. But that being said, freedom of speech means that other people can criticize you...and part of what I like about libertarianism (small-l) is that it recognizes that there are informal norms and rules of behavior that evolve and exist without coercion. So it's fine to say "Hey, Dave, you're being a jerk. You should really give people a chance to get off your machine. Sure, you have the right to do it, but you really shouldn't be such an ass about it."

So while a libertarian society would have few government-enforced laws, there would likely be lots of informal rules reinforced by peer pressure--and they'd vary from community to community, both in geographic and virtual senses.

So you could be a communitarian libertarian, as long as you maintained that communities should be voluntary and not coercive in nature. This would probably lead to some ugly things like racially segregated communities, but those communities probably wouldn't be as prosperous or as popular as more integrated communities, since they'd be artificially shutting themselves off from the best talent they can find.

Where a libertarian would object to the second position you list would be if someone with a gun *forced* Dave Winer to host the blogs until people had migrated off. It might not be the worst thing in the world this time, but who knows what they might force people to do the next time? Once that precedent is set, it's very hard to get people to not use that tool. That would probably cut down on the number of people willing to provide free hosting of any type, as at any point someone with a gun could come and dictate terms to them.

So a libertarian position could be (and mine is): it's better for society if Dave Winer is allowed to be an ass, but it might be better still if Dave Winer would NOT act like an ass, even though he has the right to.

Posted by: Sandy on June 18, 2004 11:44 AM
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Ant's Eye View is edited by Jason Lefkowitz, a consultant and Web developer in Alexandria, Virginia. Got a question, comment, or concern? Let me hear it!

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