Jan 222011
 

2011 is the year The New York Times will finally erect its much discussed paywall.  The Times will charge “less than $20 a month” for full access to its site; non-paying users will have access to an unspecified number of articles outside the paywall.ProPublica

As a heavy reader of the Times – exclusively online – I am not looking forward to this.  I don’t plan, as of now, to purchase an online subscription, for reasons I’ve laid out before:

1) As much as I like the Times, I don’t need it. And I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.

2) If I am going to pay money to support good journalism, I want to know that my money is going directly to that cause.

Which brings me to an idea:

The Times should offer free online subscriptions to anyone who donates a certain amount to ProPublica.

I’d get to keep reading the Times while directly supporting quality investigative journalism.  Not only is ProPublica exclusively focused on investigative journalism with “moral force”, it’s also a nonprofit so it fits well with my preference for charitable support over payment.

You might wonder why the Times would consider giving away subscriptions in exchange for donating to another organization.  It might seem odd, but I can think of a few reasons why they might consider it:

1) To retain power users they might otherwise lose with the paywall. I’m not going to pay for the Times, for reasons I’ve laid out.  Either they lose me as a heavy reader or they find some way to let me keep reading without paying them.  Of course, the Times could care less about me, but I’d hazard a guess that the kind of user who is firmly anti-paywall and pro-ProPublica tends to be more engaged and influential than the median user.  This demo isn’t very big, but I’d imagine it’s still valuable.  It’s full of web-savvy power users who consistently share content through their networks.  There is value in keeping these users, especially in light of (2).

2) It doesn’t cost the Times anything. Offering a few hundred free subscriptions costs the Times nothing, if you assume your target group wouldn’t purchase an online subscription anyway.  (I’m imagining that this isn’t marketed but just exists as a loophole for future-of-news geeks who otherwise wouldn’t pay.)

3) To curry favor with the anti-paywall crowd. Whether or not the Times cares much about the demographic I made up for (1) to describe people like me, they certainly care about their perception in the industry.  And with the paywall going up, they risk being dismissed by new media gurus who see their move as ill-advised or backward.  Why not demonstrate a commitment to experimenting with all sorts of new journalistic models?  Sure, we’re trying a paywall, they’d say, but we’re also supporting ProPublica’s experiment by helping them attract donations.

4) To help a partner. The Times has partnered with ProPublica on numerous stories; ProPublica and NYT Magazine even shared a Pulitzer Prize.  So the Times benefits, if indirectly, from increased revenue for ProPublica.

I’m imagining the donation mark for a Times subscription would be roughly in line with what the Times might charge for that subscription.  So perhaps the ballpark of $200/yr?

So there’s the idea.  What say you, New York Times?

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Jan 162011
 

The Atlantic tech has a great feature for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, featuring thoughts from a number of excellent contributors, including Shirky, Benkler, Zuckerman, Rosen and more.  Check it out.

One point of interest for me was a contrast in epistemologies offered by novelist Jonathan Lethem and Clay Shirky.  Lethem:

Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikepedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity. The generation of an infinite number of bogusly ‘objective’ sentences in an English of agonizing patchwork mediocrity is no cause for celebration

Now compare that to Shirky:

A common complaint about Wikipedia during its first decade is that it is “not authoritative,” as if authority was a thing which Encyclopedia Britannica had and Wikipedia doesn’t. This view, though, hides the awful truth — authority is a social characteristic, not a brute fact.

So far, that’s basically the same critique that Lethem offers.  But unlike Lethem, Shirky offers a pragmatic version of epistemology:

Authoritativeness adheres to persons or institutions who, we jointly agree, have enough of a process for getting things right that we trust them. This bit of epistemological appraisal seems awfully abstract, but it can show up in some pretty concrete cases.DARPA, the Pentagon’s famous R&D lab, launched something in late 2009 called “The Red Balloon Challenge.” They put up ten red weather balloons around the country, and  said to contestants “If you can tell us the latitude and longitude of these balloons, within a mile of their actual positions, we’ll give you $40,000.” However, because the Earth is curved, DARPA also had to explain the Haversine forumla, which converts latitude and longitude to distance.

Now, did DARPA want to write up a long, technical description of the Haversine formula?  No, they did not; they had better things to do. So they did what you or I would have done: They pointed to Wikipedia. DARPA, in essence, told contestants “If you want to compete for this $40,000, you should understand the this formula, and if you don’t, go look at this Wikipedia article.”

Shirky’s account strikes me as the kind of pragmatism advocated by Richard Rorty, of whom I’m a big fan.  What makes something true in a post-metaphysical world?  Well, how about whether or not it helps you track down the balloons and win $40K?  Hurray, pragmatism!

I recognize all of the above is less about Wikipedia and more about philosophy…so thanks for indulging me this post. But do go read The Atlantic’s package.  Particularly Benkler’s response.  I’ll leave you with this Benkler nugget:

That, to me, is the biggest gift Wikipedia has given us; a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes.

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Jan 152011
 

Cognitive surplus is a term coined by Clay Shirky to describe the giant block of free time, once spent passively consuming one-way media or entertainment, that is starting to be used for more productive projects and collaborations.  (It’s also theGirl Talk name of Shirky’s most recent book.)  It’s a pretty simple idea, and Shirky describes it via example in an interview at Wired:

Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

For more on the idea, watch Shirky’s TED talk here.  But will we realize the potential of Shirky’s vision?  Joshua Benton wrote a post a couple weeks back at Nieman Lab titled I have found the cognitive surplus, and it hates pigs.  If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you probably haven’t gotten sucked in by the latest time waster: the mobile game Angry Birds.  Says Benton:

1.2 billion hours a year spent playing Angry Birds. Or, if Shirky’s estimate is in the right ballpark, about one Wikipedia’s worth of time every month.

This post is a plea to embrace the cognitive surplus, to not get sucked in by Angry Birds.  So here’s someone who embraced the cognitive surplus, and put his free time to good use: Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk.  Go read this (2007) interview with Gillis, about the tension between his day job and his burgeoning music career:

Gillis: I have jumped on a plane to do Friday and Saturday shows almost every weekend for the past 4 months now. It’s a little difficult to never talk about this in the work environment and to completely ignore the fact that I’m signing autographs and playing sold out shows when I’m not in my cubicle.

Months later he quit his job to be Girl Talk full time.  So would you rather be Girl Talk or on get to the next level of Angry Birds?  It’s the start of the three day weekend.  Here’s to embracing your cognitive surplus.

Note: here’s a more recent article about Girl Talk, what he does, and how he performs

Update: If you think this comparison is unfair because when you’re playing Angry Birds on your phone on the bus, say, there’s not much else you could be doing, I have one app for you: Instapaper.

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Jan 082011
 

Vanity Fair published a piece this week on a lawsuit against the Huffington Post by two Democratic political consultants “for failing to acknowledge what they claim was their critical role in the creation of the Huffington Post”. Politico reported the story about two months ago under the headline “2 Dems claim Arianna Huffington stole website idea”.winklevoss

Wait, what?  What exactly was the “idea” for the Huffingon Post?

According to VF, “[plaintiffs] Daou and Boyce say that they were the ones who conceived of ‘a Democratic equivalent of the Drudge Report’”.  If that doesn’t exactly sound like an idea you can steal, that’s because it isn’t.

The actual charge, reports Politico, is “that Huffington and partner Ken Lerer designed the website from a plan [Daou and Boyce] had presented them, and in doing so, violated a handshake agreement to work together.”

This is a strange case, and commenters are already expressing skepticism about the strength of the plaintiffs’ claim, but I’ll defer to lawyers on whether or not any contract was breached.

What disturbs me most about this case is how it’s been presented.  The idea for a liberal Drudge just is not the kind of idea that is protected by our intellectual property regime, and for good reason.  Though the case actually seems to revolve around breach of contract, you wouldn’t necessarily gather as much from how it’s presented in the media.  The Politico headline, in particular, obscures the real issue.

Why does this matter?  My fear is that in the age of constant suits over intellectual property (music, film), and high profile suits that may seem to be about intellectual property (against Facebook or Huffington), we might forget that not every idea is protected by law, and that that is a good thing! Ideas that are protected by law are rightfully the exception, not the rule.

Lawrence Lessig explains how to think about this in The Future of Ideas.  I wish everyone who read the Vanity Fair piece would also read this:

This is a hard fact for lawyers to understand (protected as they are by exclusionary rules such as the bar exam), but most of production in our society occurs without any guarantee of government protection. Starbucks didn’t get a government monopoly before it risked a great deal of capital to open coffee shops around the world. All it was assured was that people would have to pay for the coffee they sold; the idea of a high-quality coffee shop was free for others to take. Similarly, chip fabricators around the world invest billions in chip production plants, with no assurance from the government that another competitor won’t open a competing plant right next door.

In each of these cases, and in the vast majority of cases in a free economy, one person’s great idea is open for others to take. Burger King and McDonald’s; Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks; Peapod and Webvan. No doubt the first movers would like it if others couldn’t use their idea or if others wouldn’t notice their idea until long after a market is set. But it is in the nature of the limits on patent rights, and in the nature of transparency in the market, that innovators in the ordinary market can’t keep their good ideas to themselves.

Some protection for ideas, and a bit more for expression, is provided by the legal system. But this protection is incomplete or leaky. Perfect control is never its character.

Innovators nonetheless innovate. And they innovate because the return to them from deploying their new idea is high, even if others get the benefit of the new idea as well. Innovators don’t simply sit on their hands until a guaranteed return is offered; real capitalists invest and innovate with the understanding that competitors will be free to take their ideas and use them against the innovators.

Thus, rather than puzzling about why anyone would code for free systems, we might as well puzzle about why anyone would innovate without a government-granted monopoly to protect them. Indeed, history will teach that, at an earlier time, this was very much the view. Mercantilists believed that exclusive rights were needed before any investment made sense; the English monarchy at an earlier time protected many ordinary investments through a state-backed monopoly.

Free markets, however, function on a very different basis. We don’t grant every merchant a guaranteed market; we don’t reward every new marketing plan with a twenty-year monopoly; we don’t grant exclusive rights to each new way of doing business. In all these cases, because the market produces enough incentive on its own, the fact that others can free-ride doesn’t kill innovation. (The Future of Ideas, pgs 70-71)

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