Archive for: June, 2009

Guru cage match: Gladwell vs. Anderson

Jun 29 2009 Published by under blogging, open access, social media, web 2.0

One fall to the finish, no count-outs, no disqualifications, for the World Heavyweight Guru Championship of the World. Two gurus locked inside a steel cage.

Malcolm "Outlier" Gladwell reviews Chris "Long Tail" Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, in the New Yorker.

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money). The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, "has so far failed to make any money for Google."

Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That's the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is "close enough to free to round down," "close enough to free" multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube's bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.

Overall, I'll give this round to Gladwell. He definitely sees the weaknesses in Anderson's arguments and is able to pick them apart fairly easily. He can easily distinguish between a case of real abundance and a case of fake abundance -- in other words, the appearance of abundance is only superficial.

The weakness, of course, is more due to Anderson's overweaning hypiness and guruhood than anything else. He wants to make his ideas on business models based on free digital content some sort of Grand Unification Theory of markets, digital and otherwise rather than honing in on cases where it actually makes sense. He has to shoe horn everything into his model.

And don't get me wrong, I think Anderson's ideas on how abundance of digital materials will transform markets, particularly for cultural production where the products have some of the aspects of commodities: most text, news, popular music. I just don't think Anderson's ideas generalize to everything: if I want to watch a good action movie, I'll probably have to pay to cover very high production costs. If I want to read a good novel, I'll probably have to make sure some of my cash gets to the author.

In the end, I think Free will be a very important book, not because he's right on every point because I doubt it will be. Rather it will be important for moving forward a conversation about business models for cultural expression that needs to happen. And I think he'll be right on enough that it's worth paying attention to.

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Scott Rosenberg on the history of blogging

Jun 29 2009 Published by under blogging, science books, social media

Simon Owens interviews Scott Rosenberg over at Bloggasm.

Lately, there has been no shortage of journalists that have announced- usually as a form of link bait -- the "death of blogging" as social news and microblogging continue to grow in market share, but Rosenberg's book is a tribute to the medium's still-immense power as we approach the end of the decade. He noted that long before Twitter existed there were bloggers that were writing Twitter-like posts, so the launch of the microblogging site merely carved out a niche for those kinds of bloggers, leaving the traditional blogging platform for more long-form writers.

Rosenberg is the author of the upcoming Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters.

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Palfrey, John and Urs Gasser. Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic, 2008. 375pp.

Digital Natives will move markets and transform industries, education, and global politics. the changes they bring about as they move into the workforce could have an immendsely positive effect on the world we live in. By and large, the digital revolution has already made this world a better place. And Digital Natives have every chance of propelling society further forward in myriad ways -- if we let them. (p. 7)

Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser is a fine and useful book. Every page is brimming with facts and analysis concerning one of the most pressing issues of the day: how are the current generation of kids raised by the web going to change absolutely everything about our culture and society. Or are they? Are all the new skillz and talents that they have for multitasking and remixing really beneficial? Are they going to pirate our culture down to nothing, leaving behind a series of drunken, half-naked pictures of themselves on Facebook?

Ok, Palfrey and Gasser don't quite answer all those questions, but the do take a fairly objective look at the net generation, willing to look at the good things and not-so-good things about the digital cultural transformation that's driving them. The quote above may seem overhyped, but in reality the authors look at each issue very calmly and without excess hype. For each issue they look at what's happening, what the upside is as well as the potential pitfalls and how the kids themselves, parents, educators and society as a whole can guide and mentor the kids along the right path.

The also are willing to concede that "born digital" isn't just a generational thing, that there are older people that are digital and younger that aren't, that there are multiple digital divides going on.

What aspects of digital native culture do they address? Each of th thirteen chapters explores the pros, cons, upsides & downsides of an issue. Some of them are: identity, online personal dossiers, privacy, safety and online threats, content creation vs. piracy, evaluating the quality of information (librarians get a shout-out here), information overload, aggressive behaviour by kids in online environments, innovation, learning styles and online activism.

As I said, the questions we have about digital natives aren't all answered, but at least they get us thinking about them and pondering what the answers might be as well as giving us the information we need to get started, and that's a very valuable thing. I recommend this book without hesitation to librarians, educators and parents. Any library that serves any of those constituencies could do worse than having this book in it's collection.

If there's any flaw, it's that the prose doesn't exactly sing. It can be a tough slog to get all the way through, but it's well worth it. In terms of attitude, comparing books I've reviewed before, this is similar in spirit to Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (Amazon) when compared to the marketingspeak and hypehypehype of Wikinomics (Amazon).

But make no mistake: We are at a crossroads. There are two possible paths before us -- one in which we destroy what is great about the Internet andabout how young people use it, and one in which we make smart choices and head towards a bright future in a digital age. The stakes of our actions today are very high. The choices that we are making now will govern how our children and grandchildren live their lives in many important ways: how they shape their identities, protect their privacy, and keep themselves safe; how they create, understand and shape the information that underlies the decision-making of their generation; an dhow the learn, innovate and takes responsibility as citizens. (p. 7)

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Friday Fun: How to know if you're reading a bad book

Jun 26 2009 Published by under friday fun

Rush on over to Feminist SF -- The Blog and read this very funny -- and thought-provoking, to boot -- post: How to know if you're reading a bad book.

Here's a couple of the short ones:

5. Does anyone lurk? If someone's lurking, you might be reading a Bad Book.

11. Does the book begin with some sort of random sex scene meant to show you how desirable / virile one of the protags is because if you don't know about his / her addictive sexuality you won't understand why they're supposed to be attractive given their lack of any other character traits of note? If so, you might be reading a Bad Book. Actually, you almost certainly are. Hopefully you didn't pay money for it. If you did, I'm sorry. ... Did you keep the receipt?

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I don't believe in colleges and universities, I believe in libraries

A thought experiment.

It all started with this Ray Bradbury quote in the New York Times:

"Libraries raised me," Mr. Bradbury said. "I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."

I've bolded the chunk that has resonated most strongly around the Internet, especially Twitter where it was widely tweeted and retweeted.

The tweeter that most piqued my interest was Tim O'Reilly, publisher of O'Reilly Books and all-round Web 2.0/Twitter Rockstar.

Now, I poked around a little on the web and on Twitter and as far as I could tell, O'Reilly has never really shown much interest in libraries or librarians before. Which is fine. Personally, I love his books, Safari is a great product for libraries and got it about digital books very early in the game. His view of publishing is very progressive and geared to an all-digital future, he's certainly at the forefront of trying to figure out a business model for technical book publishing. I buy a lot of O'Reilly books for my collection and I first got us on board with a Safari subscription for York 5 or 6 years ago. (Note to self: do this year's Safari title selections soon.)

So what drew him to Bradbury's comment, and what resonated about that comment among so many of his followers that caused them to retweet?

I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries.

I do have some thoughts on the issue and I think it revolves around having faith in content rather than institutions.

I suspect O'Reilly may have associated libraries less with their institutional nature than with our large collections of content that are freely available to our patron communities. Libraries are thought of as places where people can engage with information, knowledge and ideas, to learn independently and freely, to follow their own muses to where great books and literature take them.

Whereas colleges and universities are thought of as large, impersonal, factory-like institutions, slow to change, ivory towers that are closed to all but a few. They focus narrowly on branding and certification rather than true knowledge and learning -- sausage factories of the mind.

You learn in libraries. You are taught in colleges and universities. Active vs. passive.

Now, I don't believe either of these facile characterizations for a minute, and I could easily reverse them to make colleges & universities come out smelling like roses and libraries, not so much. But I do think that might be the dynamic that caught people's attention, and certainly someone like Tim O'Reilly sees his future bound up in making content available outside of institutional confines.

But it's an interesting way to look at things: content vs. institutions.

(It's worth noting that I definitely believe in both IHEs and libraries; I also believe in the vital role of libraries in those institutions.)

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York University's difficult year

Jun 22 2009 Published by under personal, yorku

Although I didn't blog about it at all (I did Twitter and Friendfeed about it a bit), many of you are probably aware that my work place, York University (Wikipedia) in Toronto, had a very difficulty time this past academic year with a strike, student protests and unrest as well as some disturbing on-campus violence. While trying, we did all get through it pretty well and things seem to be getting back on track. Enrollment will be down a bit in many departments come September, but the longer term prospects are very good.

York is still a very good place to work and go to school.

For those that are interested, the Globe and Mail has a chronology of the year.

They also have an very good interview with out president, Mamdouh Shoukri.

Asked to chart his progress, Dr. Shoukri offers up examples of subtle change, such as more involvement by leading researchers in the workings of the university and a new generation of faculty who are helping to shape the campus. "Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer," he says of his larger plan. The 12-week dispute with teaching assistants and contract faculty also has set the powerful union local back on its heels: It wound up settling for a three-year deal similar to the offer it had rejected three months earlier. "It was a crushing defeat," says Tyler Shipley, a graduate student who was a union spokesman during the strike and disagreed with the leadership's decision to accept the deal this spring. With labour peace - at least for the next three years - Dr. Shoukri argues York is positioned to make advances. He's just finished a reorganization of the university and put his own team in place, appointing Osgoode Hall Law School dean Patrick Monahan to the new position of provost. One of Mr. Monahan's first duties is to head a task force with a mandate to help restore civil debate. York also won big in recent federal and provincial stimulus spending, receiving $95-million for a new life-sciences building and a law-school expansion.

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Father's Day!

Jun 22 2009 Published by under personal, science books

Yesterday was Father's Day, of course, always a fun occasion for us dads. I'm generally not a huge fan of fake holidays but I usually find a way to make peace with them if they're all about presents for me.

In any case, I thought I'd share my take for this year as I think at least some of the items I received have a broader interest. It's also worth noting that in my family we usually take an attitude of enlightened self-interest for fake holiday gift giving -- in other words, the giver is allowed to give something they themselves would be interested in. We've come to calling that practice "Pulling a Daniel" after my younger son, who seems to have a particular gift for it.

Here goes:

We actually spent most of yesterday running a yard sale to get rid of a few years of accumulated junk, especially about 10 boxes of book. It went very well -- we made a few hundred bucks plus we got rid of a lot of stuff.

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Still more on social networks: Behaving yourself online!

Jun 19 2009 Published by under acad lib future, blogging, social media, web 2.0

This is the third in my informal trilogy on engaging in social media. The first two are here and here.

I left off last time with this sentiment:

It seems to me that one possibility if we want to engage these groups, is that we have to figure out where they already are and how we can fit into and improve that rather than try and build something completely new that we'll then try and entice everyone to join.

Where do we go from here? Maybe if the communities we build were more accepting, civil and inclusive, that would be a start.

Well, I like what Clay Shirky said recently about how our conception between our online life and offline life will begin to blur.

People my age tut-tut at kids, telling them that we wouldn't have put those photos up when we were young, but we're lying. We'd have done it in a heartbeat, but no one ever offered us the chance. Now that kids have these capabilities, it falls to us to keep our prurient interest in their personal lives in check. Just as Bill Clinton destroyed the idea that marijuana use was a disqualifier to serious work, the increasing volume of personal life online will come to mean that, even though there's a picture from when your head was on fire that one time, you can still get a job.

Hopefully as people's lives, personas and identities become more integrated between the two worlds, what happens in one part will stay in that part. Do I think this is going to happen any time soon? Not really, but I think we at least need to start thinking about it, talking about it and, where possible, doing something about it. Those of us in the position to make hiring decisions also need to stop confusing people's personal lives with their public lives and leave them separate.

In this way, we'll create a more humane and inclusive social media and networking environment. This will make it easier for people to decide to opt in rather than playing it safe and opting out.

But this raises the question of how should we behave in online social networks? Are there any rules or guidelines to follow, rules of thumb, a Miss Manners for the online world?

Once again, not really. It's still very much the wild west out there and there's not much we can (or probably should) do to homogenize or regularize contact and interaction online.

I do however like Aliza Sherman's 10 Golden Guidelines of Social Media. (Yes, I changed the title from Rules to Guidelines, because that's how I see her suggestions.) She's mostly concerned with business, branding and marketing on the net rather than personal and professional social networking, but I think most of what she says can apply far beyond those contexts if you just adjust the wording a bit.

I'll list the 10 and give her complete text for one of them. It's well worth reading the whole thing.

  1. Respect the Spirit of the 'Net
  2. Listen
  3. Add value
  4. Respond
  5. Do good things
  6. Share the wealth
  7. Give kudos

    Social media works when you are generous. There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, but things really take off when you give others praise or a moment in the spotlight. The rise of retweeting -- real retweeting, not spammy retweeting -- shows how far giving credit to others can go in social spaces.

  8. Don't spam
  9. Be real
  10. Collaborate

Once again, all this is easier said than done, and it's certainly easier to try and live these guidelines in my own online life rather than to try and get all the trolls out there to behave. On the other hand, if more people behave well, then the trolls will truly be marginalized and will have less of an effect on the enjoyment of others. For example, I am truly and constantly amazed how generally open and welcoming the Friendfeed experience is compared to so many others.

Building communities that reward trust and civility isn't easy but it can be done. It's what we should aim for.

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Friday Fun: The Librarian: A Twitter Story

Jun 19 2009 Published by under friday fun, librarianship

From McSweeny's, this is both very funny and very poignant. A working day's worth of tweets from a public librarian.

Boy wants book on how to make paper airplanes. I challenge him to a paper airplane contest.

about 3 hours ago from web


Ask patron not to talk on their cell phone. They explain that the cell phone designated area is too loud.

about 8 hours ago from web

These are an actual day's worth or tweets from public librarian Scott Douglas, author of Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. I've just subscribed to the Twitter feed.

(Via Rachel Walden.)

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IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, April-June 2009

Jun 18 2009 Published by under computer science, literature roundup

Some highlights from the IEEE's very fine Annals of the History of Computing, v31i2. You'll need a subscription to the magazine to access it on the IEEE's site.

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