Digital sharecropping is not a new term and it is just like other forms of sharecropping.
With digital sharecropping, one party owns the website or service and another party, the sharecropper, provides the content and drives traffic to the site.
The digital sharecropper usually gets free space and some of the benefit of the traffic that is generated. Under this model, the content generation or work is done by many people while the greatest rewards go to the few who own the site.
The owner has to keep everything running and gets to make the rules. Ultimately, it is the owner of the site who profits the most from the relationship, in much the same way that landowners through the ages have profited from the hard work of farmers who sharecrop.
One of the biggest problems with digital sharecropping is that the owner of the site can make changes that can disrupt a business.
What happens when a business is built around a Facebook page and Facebook changes the rules? What if Facebook decides to delete pages or disallow a Web address that a Facebook business page has been using for years? What if Facebook deletes the account?
Last week there were changes to Facebook and that caused quite a stir. I found this posting on some of my friends’ status updates:
"It’s official! Facebook users will believe anything their friends copy and paste into their status messages! Not only will Facebook start charging you tomorrow, they are also going to bill your credit card for the past three years of services.
"Luckily, each person who copies and pastes this status will receive a free unicorn in the mail tomorrow. If you don’t repost this status, Facebook code has been set up to automatically set your computer on fire and harm an innocent bunny in the forest!"
Variations of this message can be found on Facebook and other places on the Internet.
Facebook needs to change and grow to survive but there is not always a lot of advance notice about site changes. It states on the front of the site that Facebook is free and that is always will be free.
But when users sign in and realize the site suddenly looks different, people panic. Last night I practically started a riot at a social gathering by stating that I like the recent changes to Facebook. I made it worse by suggesting that Google Plus is doomed.
Those are fighting words to the people who are investing time and effort into Google Plus for business reasons. I hope they are not disappointed if Google decides to sell or shut down the service because social networking just isn’t Google’s thing.
I know a Realtor who decided to switch careers and teach other agents instead of selling real estate himself.
His entire online presence revolves around a page on his broker’s website. It is a shame that he chose to sharecrop instead of buying a domain name of his own and establishing his own separate online presence that he could take with him. He would have been able to rebrand himself.
Even his email address belongs to someone else and can be taken away at any time.
Now, as he travels and speaks to agents about technology, when they look him up they will find him as a profile on a brokerage website.
He has enjoyed a carefree life as a digital sharecropper and doesn’t want to leave after investing so much time building his presence. For years he has been directing people to the brokerage site.
Free websites and blogs have their place. Free blogs like WordPress can be attached to a domain name and they can be moved. I moved a huge site from one platform to another and no one — not even the search engines — noticed.
I don’t own the servers that it runs on but I don’t need to because I own the sites and can easily move them without hurting my business.
I like to use the free sites to drive traffic to my sites, but I take care not to drive traffic away from my sites. My Twitter accounts have links to my websites and I use Twitter to promote my blogs.
It is the same with my Posterous, blogger and Flickr accounts. I use free sites to drive traffic to the sites that I own, always taking care to make sure that I am not building business around something that can be easily moved, changed, taken away or where I can be charged so much that it will threaten my business.
We cannot own and control everything we use for business, and the social networking sites are good for business, but we should always keep in mind that in using them we are digital sharecroppers.
We should also invest time and effort in our own piece of the Internet that we control and own and can use as a hub for current and even future businesses.