The cost of sharing

I've mentioned Scott's Planning to share, versus just sharing post in passing, but here is a slightly more considered response.

Scott sets out his frustration with top down, planned approaches to sharing:

"I have been asked to participate in many projects over the years that
start once a bunch of departments, institutions or organizations notice
that they have a lot in common with others and decide that it would be
a good idea to collaborate, to share “best practices” or “data” or

But inevitably, with a very few exceptions, these projects spend an
enormous amount of time defining what is to be shared, figuring out how
to share it, setting up the mechanisms to share it, and then…not really
sharing much."

Compared with the bottom-up social sharing that happens every day in the blogosphere, via Twitter, YouTube, Slideshare, etc

"Now I contrast that with the learning networks which I inhabit, and in
which every single day I share my learning and have knowledge and
learning shared back with me. I know it works."

He then sets out a series of good reasons why this is so, including "We develop multiple (informal) channels while they focus on a single official mechanism".

For me, the key difference is this: The 'cost' of sharing has collapsed, but institutions don't know this. This means they behave in perfectly logical ways if sharing was still a costly activity. I am using the term cost here to refer to both a financial price and also the effort required by individuals.

Clay Shirky argues that the cost of organisation has disappeared, and I believe this is because sharing is easy, frictionless. If I come across something I share it via Google shared items, Twitter, my blog, etc. If I want to share I stick it up on Slideshare, my blog, YouTube. There is a small cost in terms of effort to me to do the sharing, and zero cost in anyone wanting to know what I share. Sharing is just an RSS feed away.

But institutions don't believe this, or know it. It used to take consortium agreements to share, conferences, best practice guides, incentives, metrics. How can all that be replaced by an RSS icon? Obviously it must be something different they reason, so for our needs we have to invent a system. Except it isn't.

Just as the record industry thought this online stuff was something different, it couldn't possibly relate to their chain of record shops, their carefully maintained back catalog, their army or A & R professional, their logistically beautiful distribution chain, the sophisticated marketing campaigns. All of this had to be different to this online stuff, it just didn't make sense for all of these carefully constructed elements to be replaced by the same, messy uncontrolled online world. Except that, oh yes it did.

The moral here is that just because something used to be expensive, time consuming and complex doesn't mean it will always be.


  1. Brian says:

    Wow, Martin… I can’t think of what to say but that yet again you sum up a seemingly incomprehensible dilemma with a lucid and sensible formulation.
    I gave a presentation today to a small but very progressive group here at the UOC in Barcelona, and the discussion turned toward the institutional attitudes regarding a more open, distributed discourse… and I wish I had read this post before then… it would have been a perfect interjection.
    So, my thoughts turn toward how we can make the new realities concerning the costs of sharing understood more widely. Other than by making asses of ourselves – because I’ve tried that approach and it doesn’t work.

  2. AJ Cann says:

    I’m not so sure that institutions are bothered by the cost. It’s more about perceived competitive advantage.

  3. Scott Leslie says:

    Martin, nicely done. Should have got you to write the original post for me (or at least edit down my 1000 ramble into something short and coherent like this).
    “The moral here is that just because something used to be expensive, time consuming and complex doesn’t mean it will always be.” The flipside of this, or maybe another way of saying it, might be “Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it can’t work or produce complex results.” I know I had to get over my own chauvinism around RSS, blogs and wikis – “sure,” I thought, “nice for our ‘informal’ learning but how could they possibly cope with the complexity of the online class. Clearly, we need IMS, LOM, etc.” Ha! It is way too easy when one is stuck into a certain existing paradigm to forget the initial assumptions you made that may no longer hold true (or which seem to “naturally” lead to some rather unnatural solutions).

  4. Scott Leslie says:

    Here’s something that just came across my aggregator that seemed to resonate with this as well (via –, Gall’s Law, “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” ( Seems pretty plausible to me.

Leave a Reply