We’ve been a bit content-crazy lately, but with good reason. Content is king, after all. But more importantly? As Google becomes more discerning with their search algorithms and backlinks from high-authority websites become an increasingly valued currency, the premium on actually owning your content will grow.

Sure in the pastures of affiliate marketing, content is kind of a black sheep–there isn’t an ROI attached to sharp observations and brilliant word play, just on pageviews and backlinks–but a feature in the The New York Times picks apart the conundrum of using social media venues like Tumblr, WordPress, Facebook, et al as your primary content providers. One media observant calls it “digital feudalism” while David Carr, for The Times, says that it creates “a nation of serfs.”

Social media companies are basically cleaning up these days. Billions of dollars have been pumped into Twitter, Facebook, Google, and millions into less recognized up-starts. They have minimal overhead though: All are staffed with engineers and programmers who work together to create portals so alluring that the user will find himself drawn in and needing to collaborate.

For example, Tumblr has become a niche favorite for many bloggers because of its intuitive and easy-to-use tools–as well as its passionate community. And when it’s not suffering an outage, Tumblr becomes a great example of digital feudalism. That is, an outlet where users curate photography, videos, and writing for no pay. In exchange for setting up shop on Tumblr’s land, the platform itself can repurpose its users content however they see fit, although since their inception about four years ago, they’ve done good by users.

On the other end of the spectrum is Facebook, who makes no secret about wanting to monetize for themselves their users’ content.

Since the economic cratering of the media industry in 2008, shrinking edit budgets have commanded smaller stipends for writers, to the point of none at all. For brand-name outlets, this has proved to be a lucrative trade-off that has kept production expenses low and profit margins high–it’s a model that worked for The Huffington Post. But staking out free territory on someone else’s land knowing they could repossess your proverbial house at anytime: Good idea or bad idea?

Carr writes:

Perhaps content will remain bifurcated into professional and amateur streams, but as social networks eat away at media mindshare and the advertising base, I’m not so sure. If it happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Last time I checked, I had written or shared over 11, 000 items on Twitter. It’s a nice collection of short-form work, and I’ve been rewarded with lot of followers…and exactly no money. If and when the folks at Twitter cash out, some tiny fraction of that value will have been created by me.

The digital feudalism metaphor falls away when you remember that there are numerous social media outlets and by diversifying our brands in multiple outlets, a user can prevent a company from becoming a behemoth like Facebook–which, being the first major social media outlet to stick around, is a cautionary tale.

We’re not exactly helpless in our lack of rev share in any of these booming social media companies. When we Like or retweet, we’re providing more content that can be monetized. Every Like or retweet ups the valuation of its respective platform. Our past-times have become highly monetized and marketed. But maybe what we can do as consumers caught in a bind is to keep the valuation competitive on a smaller scale.

For example, while Facebook has its own photo gallery and video recording capabilities, it makes the most sense to diversify. The idea is that if valuation remains competitive across a wide number of social media destinations, it’ll force those sites to play fair–something which Facebook has already forgone at least once.

If you use LinkedIn to keep in touch with colleagues, Facebook to keep in touch with only friends, publish family photos on Flickr, and post hilarious YouTube video links via Twitter; even if you set these feeds to import to Facebook, social media activity across different outlets may, at least hypothetically, keep things competitive and prevent an entity like Facebook from becoming an even bigger behemoth.

After all, in the age of social media, we’re all brands and if users end up cogs part of a social media destination’s marketing mechanics, they might as well find a way to have it benefit them directly as well.

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