defining what you are for (just like porn)

by Hugh

All sorts of institutions are in big trouble because of the internet, and they’re scared as hell. Newspapers can’t figure out how they’ll keep making money; the music business is terrified that its business model is evaporating. Britannica has faded to irrelevance for anyone with an internet connection. I think that’s the tip of things, and anyone who has anything to do with information (schools, governments, book publishers, television, public broadcasters, among others) are all going to see their apple carts upset with fruit rolling all over the place in the next decade.

I’ve been thinking about this particularly in my role as President of the Board of Directors of the Atwater Library, where we are struggling (as many libraries do) to try to articulate why we are important, why we should get funding.

The big problem, I think, is that institutions tend to be wrong about what they are actually for.

That is, they have defined their existence by various functions they perform within a given ecosystem. In the context here, these institutions grew up in an ecosystem where information was scarce, and information distribution limited. The ecosystem has changed (info distribution & access is abundant), and institutions are having a hard time adapting. So: music labels think they sell CDs to people; newspapers think they get writers to make news articles, and get people to read them; libraries think they give people access to books and computers; universities think they provide a place for people to learn and do research; governments think they try to improve society by implementing policies wanted by the people … etc. But I think they are all wrong.

All those kinds of definitions get you tied up in the functional stuff you do, and they don’t really get to the core of what’s important, what the real thing is that you are doing. I don’t have answers, but any business/institution that thinks like this is going to get creamed in the next ten years, unless they take a look at what they are really for.

It seems to me the porn business, one of the most profitable businesses in the Universe, gets this in a way no one else does. Because the porn biz understands exactly what it is for:

Pornographers don’t sell pornography; they provide orgasms.

Looking at it that way, they don’t seem to care much about how they do it – they’ll just find ways to give people the orgasms however people want them given. Dirty postcards, magazines, prono theatres, VHS and Betamax, phone sex, online photos, online videos, chat lines, webcams, cybersex and God knows what else. You don’t hear the porn business whingeing about Intellectual Property and illegal downloads, and consumers as thieves, because they don’t have time: they’re too busy trying to give the world what it seems to want, more orgasms.

So, stepping out of the peepshow and back to the respectable world, why are newspapers, for instance, having such a hard time? I think it’s because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what they do.

The value of a newspaper is not that it gives me information; the value of a newspaper is how it selects information – what it puts in and what it leaves out.

So: Newspapers are not for providing information; newspapers are for selecting what information I should get. (And maybe: for helping me make decisions? – not sure about that one).

And the problem is that newspapers, for the most part, are in a tizzy because they ask: how can we compete as information providers in a world where there is unlimited information available on the web? And the answer, I think, is that they should stop competing as information providers, and start focusing on their real skills and usefulness, which is information selection. Note, by the way, that this does not mean that newspapers should stop providing information, but rather that that task might necessary in order to do a good job of selecting information.

I keep coming back again and again to something I heard Joi Ito say a couple of years ago on some podcast or other:

mp3s are just metadata associated with a musician.

That’s pretty big, pretty heavy. I don’t think I quite have it fixed in my brain yet, but the idea is that a thing’s value is defined by how well people know it, and how highly they consider it. Mp3s are meta data that allow people to “find” an artist, and allow them to determine how much they value that artist. (What that means for the music biz I’m not sure, but we’ll find out in the next ten years).

For newspapers, you might say the same thing: news articles and columns are just metadata associated with the newspaper. But the real value a newspaper performs is not giving me good articles, it’s putting it all together. The mere provision of information is worthless now, because anyone can do it (even me).

This is why blogs – at least in the techno-intelligencia – win. Blogs are excellent selectors of information, while newspapers are pretty clunky at it – because for the past 300 years they existed in an ecosystem where information was scarce. Now information (and access to it) is abundant. So a site like BoingBoing becomes one of the most popular on the net: their craft is not providing information, it’s selecting it. And they’re good at it.

And given the huge overabundance of information on the web, we need all the help we can get in selecting. So newspapers need to work harder at providing that service, bringing that core skill (which they have always had – the Editor is the God of the newspaper) to bear on the web. Have a flip thru the Gazette, or, God help you, visit their web site, and is it any wonder they’re having a hard time? Half of it is the same generic wire-service information that’s in any other paper or news site on the web. That’s not giving me much value. It’s lazy selection and boring, and lazy and boring are a dime a dozen these days. So work harder at finding and selecting interesting content (from the web, there’s tons of it), take down you stupid registration system down, put up a decent navigable web site designed by someone who understands the Internet, and get on with things and stop whingeing.

This was the idea behind earideas: that what’s missing is not good audio out there, but a really good way to find and hear the good audio. (I hope we’re succeeding … anyone have any comments on earideas? Have you checked it out yet? Do you like it?).

There is lots of work to do, and I guess you and I and many other people will be busy for the next few years figuring this all out.

Oh, and any ideas about what a library is truly for? Some help would be much appreciated in deciding that – I’ve got some suggestions, but it hasn’t quite crystalized in the old brain yet.

UPDATE: Interesting proposition about wordpress and learning, that suggests a way education might start changing. [via blogsavvy; via bentrem twitter]

UPDATE II: Stemming from a debate about the value of political groups on Facebook, Mat’s started thinking about political platforms on the web.