One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It's a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It's only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale - on a web scale - that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it's simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.
In discussing the wealth gap in his recent post, Nick alludes to the hundreds of millions of Google dollars gained by YouTube's founders and investors based on building a better video sharing mousetrap.
Software is becoming increasingly more adept at taking over work that has traditionally required relatively high skills - or even, in YouTube's case, enabling the creation of sophisticated goods through the large-scale and automated harvesting of free labor. The next wave of "superstars" may be algorithms - and the small number of people that control them.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley mentioned coming up with a way to share the wealth with the digital sharecroppers providing the content that GooTube aggregates and serves up. Now that would be a real interesting social experiment, and a motivation for videographers to create great content. It could end up like the Web version of broadcast TV, with nothing but mini-episodoes cloning "CSI," "Law and Order" and "American Idol" topping the list to make money. And make no mistake, the Web is the new TV and Google and others will provide the distribution and the audience's collective wisdom will elect the stars.
The idea of paying for content is a belatedly good way to giving something back to those who helped the YouTubers strike in rich after a few years of paying for bandwidth and building the best video sharing site. In fact, it's inevitable that the content producer share in the bounty. But, as Nick said, the power of the algorithms, or the engines of monetization, remain in the hands of the few, just as in past eras.