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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tooth-fairy economics

The discussion of Open Content I joined last week has continued. In an articulate polemic Laura Quinn of Idealware lambastes what she calls the "tooth-fairy" idealism those who maintain that all content in the non-profit sector ought to be free.
I think we as a community also need to consider possible negative impacts of advocating that all content ought to be open. It’s already very difficult to pay for the effort of creating great content. If in addition we promote in people’s mind the idea that all content ought to be free, it’s hard to escape promoting the idea that no content is worth paying for. Which puts us in danger of tipping an environment in which it’s very difficult to support good content into one in which it’s downright impossible.
Let me emphasize one phrase of Laura's: It’s hard to escape promoting the idea that no content is worth paying for. In a sense it boils down to the value of content. No one is advocating that all staff of non-profits work for free, for example. A person's time has value! What one is willing to pay for something reflects the value one places on it. David Geilhufe comes out and posits this directly, in a posting in his Social Source blog. He writes:
Content is no longer a value generator... it is a consumer capturer. You need to capture the consumer with your free content and then extract value through alternate channels... ads, products, services, memberships, etc.
I've always thought the word content itself leads us in this direction. Content is just so much stuff - as in "We need a stream of content for our website." Contents may settle during shipping. When it is seen as content, it's just something you can buy by the pound. I'd like us to throw the word out!

Content economics places sharp limits on what kind of media will be created, since it makes it difficult to pay for creating media that might take weeks or months to prepare. And it eliminates, for the creator, the ability to take advantage of the economies of reselling their work to finance additional creation. This devaluation of text and media will lead inevitably to a paucity of high quality materials. And keeps the non-profit world in charity mode, supplied by creators who do not need to earn a living.

Laura's comments are important because her project has tried to create just this sort of serious media - pieces of work that are not created in in just a few days. Pieces of work that are of direct value in themselves. Laura is not creating media, as David suggests one ought, to lure you into her site. The media here IS the service. So how do we propose to pay for it?
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Comments on "Tooth-fairy economics"


Blogger Laura S. Quinn said ... (April 21, 2007 at 5:55 PM) : 

Thanks for this, Michael. My thoughts exactly!


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (April 26, 2007 at 9:37 AM) : 

I think it would be worth it for you to read Yochai Benkler's book, which talks in details about how network effects mitigate the quality issue. (Wikipedia being a great example.)

IBM, Novell, Red Hat, and many other companies are making lots of money on what some people might call the "tooth fairy economics" of open source software. No, I'm not sure that that model completely works either with content, or within the nonprofit sector, but those models are worth looking at, and not dismissing out of hand.

And, as I've said before, I do think people in this sector value what is free, and I think it does them a disservice to suggest that they might not be willing to think creatively about how to make that free and open content keep flowing.


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