Yahoo just purchased Associated Content – one of the leading article farms – for a cool $100 million.

For just a moment, I wondered how much of that payout is headed for the folks who actually populated the AC’s site with content.

And then I smiled.

Silly me. The answer, of course, is zilch.

As Nicholas Carr of Rough Type has pointed out, content creators have become the sharecroppers of the digital age, and those who create for the “greater good of the community” are likely to discover their community’s about to be sold for the “greater good of the owner.”

Obviously, benefits can accrue to those working in organized online communities.

Yet those benefits need to be balanced against the unhappy negatives.

Handing over control of content – which means investing time, money, and energy into someone else’s proprietary “community” – is only smart if you already have a plan to turn the largely intangible benefits of social media into tangible ones.

For example, do you “own” your 5,000 Facebook fans?

If Facebook killed your presence today, how many of those fans could you contact?

And if Facebook crumbled in the face of a sexier, less-predatory replacement, would you simply move on – leaving your massive time investment to crumble with it?

Could you reclaim your data (and your hard work)?

Open, My Ass

In what some are calling a new era of openness, it’s ironic that we’re seeing the resurrection of closed, proprietary platforms.

They’re very good at converting the work of the “community” into sky-high paydays for their owners.

Yet to do that, they aggregate the work product of many – often delivering only low-quality relationships in return.

Which is why I recommend implementing email programs before starting social media programs. (And integrating e-newsletters with blogs, and WordPress over Blogger, and open over closed…)

Are you converting social media “currency” into real dollars for your business?

Or are you simply chasing useless stats – feeding your ego, but not your bank account?

Are you turning followers into horrifyingly old-school email addresses? Fans into conversions?

Or are you simply sharecropping?