Open content

Future of content – part 3

Patrick McAndrew has posted part 3 of our distributed debate. It’s a personal case study based on his experience with the openlearn project. Below are my observations on it.

On the motivation for openlearn:

Some of those reasons are complex, but underneath it I think there are two principles one altruistic and one more selfish:

Altruistic reason for open content: there is more value in having the world see this resource than if we store it away or try to sell it

Selfish reason for open content: if we don’t do it someone else will, and then what are we left with

Obviously altruism is great, but ultimately I think it’s unsustainable. My arguments about content becoming free weren’t based on an altruistic, utopian view, but just on what I think will happen as a consequence of content being digital and online. So although Patrick labels it a selfish reason, it could be termed a realistic reason also – this is what is happening and we need to understand it and find alternative income streams, or ways of competing in this world before it’s too late to change. 

Deciding that content itself might not be what you should value could lead to a fresher model of how to work, and help match behaviour to suit the changing times. [At this point I should provide a wonderful analogy in terms of some past industry that changed or failed to change (such as the rat fur traders of old London Town who failed to pay attention to who was getting the blame for the Plague) but I will leave that for the world or your imagination to supply one that is not made up!]

The encyclopedia business is a good one. Britannica ignored Encarta, and almost overnight disappeared, largely because they were focused on keeping their sales employees happy, and too rooted in the tradition of their product. They were right that a complete set of Britannica is a nicer thing to own than a CD from Microsoft, but they were wrong that the motivation to buy Britannica would remain, which was usually ‘it’s for your children’. Encarta was good enough for the kids and Britannica’s model collapsed. 

This seems to be becoming the new conventionalism and social actions (nearly wrote socialism but that would not do) are seen as the be all and end all: community is king. Actually while content is not king, it is not nothing. Similarly while community is important it is not everything to everybody. I find myself here having to switch my own arguments from the need to build as little content as possible to one where the content can feed in from all directions. We are in a more connected world and the connections can be social but they can also be independent, what I believe that should not be is unnecessarily protected.

I know what Patrick means here, and readers may know I like using the ‘content may not be everything, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing’ line. While arguing that content will become free doesn’t mean that I think it is unimportant, just that it’s economic value is decreasing. And for all my admiration of Facebook et al, I’m not always social, and just going through content independently is what I want to do.

I would like to add a warning though that a free and open world is not necessarily entirely Utopian. The confusing impact of Internet economics and global sharing means we need to watch out that we do not lose things we value along the way to openness

He’s spot on here – both Ray and Patrick have termed my view utopian, but it wasn’t meant to be. If you work in a content industry it’s positively dystopian. The pay for content model is quite simple, but just how money is made in the 2.0 world is not entirely clear. It may be a more ruthless world, with no time or spare capacity for some of the luxuries we enjoy now (such as academics blogging)


  • Martin

    AJ – yes, absolutely, which is why I don’t think altruism is the sustainable policy. But if you get something from it then it is – and what you get is ‘fame’ (in a limited sense), exposure to your ideas, reputation, etc. That’s why we blog, amongst other reasons such as it helping develop your thoughts.

  • Will Woods

    I’m not sure that you get true reputation enhancement through simply giving stuff away for free. Academics have historically coveted knowledge above all else and take steps to protect their rights. I don’t think that’s going to change over night but I do think that there will be more stuff freely avialable than before. What does that mean for those that choose to stay isolated? – Will they have a choice?

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