The Role of Content Brokers in the Era of Free Content

Draft June 9, 2006; very lightly revised, October 2006

I. The problem of funding content

Ever since entering the open content arena in 2000, I have thought about, and been asked (repeatedly) about, how to pay for free content. This is a pressing problem for professional content creators, because of pressures from the Internet. It is worth rehearsing these pressures and their source, in order to contextualize a proposal I want to make.

Talk, or low-quality talk, is cheap. That's why mediocre content online is so plentiful. But, as with anything, if you put a price on talk, you increase its quality. And that's why there are (and always have been) professional communicators and artists as well as unpaid amateurs: communicators and artists produce work of different levels of quality.

The trouble about the Internet, for professional talkers, is that so many other professional-level talkers are willing to give away their talk for free. Over time, so much high-level talk is available that, as the economics of supply and demand dictate, it becomes harder and harder to pay for high-level talk. So what are the talkers supposed to do for a living?

That's the problem of funding free content. But, as I'll explain next, it's really a problem about funding content, period--of getting money into the hands of content producers, period. After all, oversupply pressures are a very real practical problem for newspapers that are laying off staff, and for reference publishers and others who are made very nervous by the availability of massive amounts of free content available from Wikipedia and other such sources.

II. The traditional publishing brokerage model under threat

I invite you to think of the economics of publishing on the model of a brokerage. A broker is an agent who arranges and settles a deal between a buyer and seller. So think of the publisher as an agent who orders and arranges content from the seller--writer, speaker, artist, or whatever--and takes money from the info consumer, or the buyer.

"Talk brokers" used to be essential to the task of publishing, because most sellers (talkers) could not afford printing presses or distribution networks. The Internet changed that: now anyone with an Internet connection can get virtually unlimited bandwidth on which to rant on, to a potentially global audience, for as long as he wants. But there was still the necessity for editorial services, because the info consumers still needed someone to edit and select credible and noteworthy information. Now that, too, is changing. Aggregation a la Google News, and community editing a la Wikipedia, are providing editorial and selection services for free.

So, while the traditional role of publishers as talk brokers may never completely go away, nearly everyone agrees that it is under an increasing threat. I and many others who think a lot about collaborative content creation believe that it is only a matter of time, moreover, before professionals, including academics, jump with both feet into collaborative content creation. The Citizendium is committed to building an expert-guided version of Wikipedia, and in other ways acting as a clearinghouse for expert-vetted free information. If it succeeds, whither the traditional talk broker role of publishers?

III. A new model of publishing brokerage

Perhaps it's sad to say, but publishers are needed less and less, not because anyone just up and said "We've had enough of them!" but because current technologies and methods have enabled people to get together and perform the same basic functions that publishers have performed. The roles publishers played as talk brokers--namely, their roles as editors, selectors, printers, distributors--are instead played by the general public, from students, to teachers, to civic-minded professional volunteers, and by the processes of collaboration and aggregation. If you are a communicator or artist, free content is (as you probably already know) in your future, like it or not. It might not all be free, but a lot more of it will be than is now the case. This will make it much harder for you, as communicator or artist, to get paid through the traditional content broker model, and harder for publishers to make money through their traditional content brokerage services. We have a new industrial revolution on our hands.

To say this is to describe and explain the problem of funding free content, not to solve it. So, in order to move us toward a solution, I would have us redefine the role of publisher-as-broker. It's not that we no longer need publishers to act as brokers, it's that the nature of the brokerage needs to change.

Let me preface this by saying that I surely can't claim originality, because it's an idea that naturally suggests itself to those who live in this problem space. Besides, there are already examples of this sort of thing in existence (such as Google Answers).

Since first drafting this essay, a promising new effort in this direction came to light: Jay Rosen's The following proposal is a slightly different and more generalized take on the same idea.

So here's the proposal: the public presents an offer for a specific sum to go to someone who will write authoritatively on such-and-such a subject; the broker selects the content creator, who creates the content; and then the broker releases the content to the public, free for all (under, for example, a Creative Commons license). The buyers are still the general public, but are expanded to include groups of people, clubs, schools, universities, organizations, governments, and other entities that pay for the work on behalf of the general public. The sellers are still communicators and artists. The brokers can still include editors, designers, and other publishing industry professionals.

I'll enlarge on how I think the ideal content brokerage system should work, but first, I should explain how this could possibly solve the economic problem posed by plentiful free content. "Suppose there is a system in place," a critic challenges me, "where people can commission works that are then released free into the public domain. Why think that this could economically support the present set of professional content creators?"

My frank answer--the only honest answer, really--is that I have no idea how things might shake out. I'm just a philosopher; I must rely on keener economic intellects than mine to make any prognostications. What I can say is that there is a constant demand for new content, and people are willing to offer money (and to pool their money) to pay for free content even as unsexy as PBS and NPR--or for that matter, as sexy as Wikipedia. So why don't we give it a try on a wider scale?

Why not give people a credible venue where the following scenarios could take place? It would be very low overhead simply to try it out.

IV. Some new content brokerage scenarios

  • A visual artist wants to use an obscure, more or less worthless old film that isn't yet in the public domain. He wants a way to pay for the film to be free for everyone to use. The artist offers the money for the broker to use, and the broker approaches the copyright holder and makes a credible case that the work will always be free. The copyright holder figures he'll never make any more money from the film, and agrees.
  • Cleveland Municipal School District wants to offer $100,000 to the person or group of people who produces an 8th grade general science textbook that is (1) released under an open content license, and (2) meets Ohio and Cleveland school standards. The school district approaches the content broker, which posts a call for proposals, chooses the best proposal, gives the writers some money up front, vets the result for quality and consistency with standards, acts as an intermediary between Cleveland schools and the writers, and finally publishes the textbook online and hands the (balance of the) money to the writers. Teenagers around the world can use a new professionally-written text for free.
  • A music aficionado wants to help digitize and release some of the holdings of a major folk music archive, but the archive says that the rights still rest with the family of the musicians. The aficionado gets together with his friends, who persuade a music organization to collect a $50,000 fund for the families of the musicians. The brokerage tracks down the family members, persuades them to release the music under a Creative Commons license, some of the archive holdings are digitized and made freely available online, and everybody's happy.
  • Britney Spears' fan club wants to raise $1,000,000 for Britney to record and release a new song to the public for free. Maybe they vote on a general theme or style. The fan club goes to the broker, which approaches Britney's "people," and the deal is made. The broker then publicizes the effort, saying that your credit card won't be charged until the required amount is reached. When it is reached, 24 hours later, the song plays constantly everywhere. Variant: the same thing is done but for an already-published song. Fan club says: "Let's collect $5,000,000 for ‘Oops I did it again'!"
  • The Catholic Church wants the best possible generally-accessible essay in defense of the "right to life." It hits its members up for cash and collects an astounding $2,000,000 prize. The Church then asks a content brokerage group to manage a contest: half of the money, $1,000,000, goes to the best 25-page popular defense of the "right to life." (You can easily imagine Planned Parenthood doing something very similar.)
  • I greatly admire the work of a certain philosopher. I would love for him to write an article addressed to a specific, recondite philosophical question, but I do not want him to know that it was I who asked or paid for the essay. Suppose I set $1,000 aside and ask a content broker to approach the person and make the deal. The philosopher writes the essay and publishes it publicly, saying that it was commissioned by a generous anonymous donor.
  • A major benefactor loves the idea of free, collaboratively-developed, up-to-date information--but wants the world to have something more authoritative than Wikipedia. He puts $50,000,000 into an escrow account for an expert-authored, collaborative, free encyclopedia, and says that when others match his donation, the total will be released to fund the effort. When others do match his donation, his foundation then uses part of the money to get a stellar group of academics and professionals together to spearhead the effort.
  • A publisher who wants to try out the new style of content brokerage publicizes a new offer: "Stephen King will release a new novel under a free license if enough fans pony up the required fee. Your credit card will not be charged unless enough money is actually produced." (Back in 2000, King actually did something similar to this with his unfinished project, The Plant--but without the result being free.) The conditional pledges roll in at a breakneck speed, and when the magic number is reached, all the accounts are charged and King is then obliged to release the novel to everyone, for free.

I've only started to explore the possibilities above. In fact, let's just say I've deliberately left out some very exciting possibilities. Many different kinds of media are possible to commission; many different kinds of buyers can be organized; many different kinds of content creators can be solicited (from specific people, to indefinite collaborations, to companies, etc.); many different kinds of brokerage services, from minimal to very involved.

V. The ideal content brokerage system?

One reason, perhaps, that we as a society are not commissioning more free content (apart from Public Broadcasting and Google Answers) is that we do not have a credible, visible content brokerage system in place.

There are many permutations of the general concept of content brokerage as described in sections III and IV above. If the idea is feasible and worthwhile, there might eventually be books written about how content brokerage is best managed. But I would like to make a first, amateur attempt to articulate what the ideal content brokerage system would look like. Here are some ideas.

(1) Presumably, buyers would have some incentive to employ professional content brokers--which would require that content brokers take a percentage of the amount offered, in order to pay for such things as editors and designers. Surely, if the concept becomes popular, there will be free, commissionless (and serviceless) content brokerage websites, but they will probably not be as good as those that manage the editorial and legal aspects of the work professionally.

(2) A "full-service" content brokerage would employ people who can manage all different kinds of content requests. When mature, it should employ editors and content experts who have large networks--who can quickly and reliably put their finger on the best person for commissioned jobs.

(3) The job of publisher would no doubt change considerably. Some jobs might be eliminated; new jobs would be created. But the core competencies would probably remain the same: working with authors and artists, finding people to pursue a project, building networks, design, and so forth.

(4) Content brokers should (and indeed have a business reason to) quickly develop industry standards with regard to the licensing, archiving, accessing, search, and presentation of free content. Much work remains to be done in this direction.

(5) The original copyright holder licenses the content, not the content broker. There is no need, and questionable business ethics, behind the notion of a content broker collecting much copyright itself. Its main legal role is, rather, to ensure that the terms of the exchange (money for content released under a genuine free license) are legal.

(6) Editorial decisions as to whom to award contracts should be constrained by enforceable codes of ethics. Decisionmaking should be transparent, well-documented, and easily reviewable (although not necessarily public).

(7) Communicators and artists should not be expected to work for free, or under the threat that work they spend significant time on will not be paid for. Money for commissioned work (i.e., which has not yet been created) should be placed into an escrow account, or in some other way "frozen." Contracts should make clear exactly how and under what circumstances a buyer may ask for his money back.

Of course, people might forego brokers altogether: they might approach each others with offers of money for work delivered into the hands of the general public.

VI. Some advantages and disadvantages of the new brokerage system

The primary advantage of the new brokerage system envisioned here is that content creators and support professionals continue to get paid, even when their work is free to everyone to read and use.

One disadvantage that does not exist--though one might think at first that it does--is that there is some risk about all this. The infrastructure to manage the new style of content brokerage already exists at many publishers, Internet, and media companies. Such a company--or for that matter, a university, thinktank, or foundation--could easily circulate calls for content funding with little overhead. (O'Reilly has already done something vaguely similar with its Open Books initiative.) If no one bites, so much the worse for this idea. But I suspect that there are many school districts, philanthropists, and many others, to say nothing of the ordinary people who regularly contribute to charities, who might find the idea very compelling.

One disadvantage, and it might be a deep one, is that if this new way of publishing were to win a hegemony, it would be difficult for unknown writers and artists to gain recognition except through publishing a lot without payment. But, under this new scheme, it would become de rigeur for artists to have websites in which people can access their work and where people can pay them for work already done. It would be like tipping--and that's only polite.

The ramifications are difficult to calculate; I leave further discussion of them to others or for later. What does seem clear is that it is worth thinking seriously about doing this. If it works in general, it will work in a thousand different ways.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia" by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as "When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive".

These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.)

Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project's managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.

Let me preface this by saying that I know Wikipedia is very cool. A lot of people do not think so, but of course they are wrong. So the following must be taken in the spirit of someone who knows and supports the mission and broad policy outlines of Wikipedia very well.

First problem: lack of public perception of credibility, particularly in areas of detail. The problem I would like to point out is not that Wikipedia is unreliable. The alleged unreliability of Wikipedia is something that the above (TechCentralStation and AP) articles make much of, but that is not my point, and I am not interested in discussing that point per se.

My point is that, regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or less reliable than the average encyclopedia, it is not perceived as adequately reliable by many librarians, teachers, and academics. The reason for this is not far to seek: those librarians etc. note that anybody can contribute and that there are no traditional review processes. You might hasten to reply that it does work nonetheless, and I would agree with you to a large extent, but your assurances will not put this concern to rest.

You might maintain that people are already using Wikipedia a lot, and that that implies a great deal of trust. This is true, as far as it goes; but people use many sources that they themselves believe to be unreliable, via Google searches, for example. (I do so all the time, though perhaps I shouldn't.) Perhaps Wikipedia is better described as one of those sources regarded as unreliable which people read anyway. And in this case, one might say, there's no problem: Wikipedia is being read, and it is of minimally adequate and increasing reliability. What more could you ask? In other words, why does a perception of unreliability matter?

I am willing to grant much of this reply. I think merely that there are a great many benefits that accrue from robust credibility to the public. One benefit, but only one, is support and participation by academia. I am on the academic job market now and I felt it was necessary to explain my views about Wikipedia's credibility for potential employers. A great many of my colleagues are not at all impressed with the project; but more about that in a bit.

Another benefit accruing from robust public credibility is even more widespread use and support by teachers, schools, libraries, and the general public--precisely the people who want to use what they believe to be a credible encyclopedia. To the extent that the project is not reaching, and being supported by, these people, it is not succeeding as well as it might.

Perhaps you might also maintain that, while Wikipedia does not now have a reputation for reliability, it will eventually, once enough studies proving its reliability are done, and once people are more familiar with the concept behind the project. This is hard to argue with; but it is also hard to support, because it involves predicting the future, and the future, when it comes to public opinion, is extremely unpredictable. It would be better to do something to help guarantee a reputation for reliability.

Wikipedia has another sort of credibility problem, mentioned in passing above, and I fear that time is not a solution to this problem, the way it might be to the foregoing one. Namely, one can make a good case that, when it comes to relatively specialized topics (outside of the interests of most of the contributors), the project's credibility is very uneven. If the project was lucky enough to have a writer or two well-informed about some specialized subject, and if their work was not degraded in quality by the majority of people, whose knowledge of the subject is based on paragraphs in books and mere mentions in college classes, then there might be a good, credible article on that specialized subject. Otherwise, there will be no article at all, a very amateurish-sounding article, or an article that looks like it might once have been pretty good, but which has been hacked to bits by hoi polloi. (Am I sounding elitist enough for you yet? Just wait.) One has only to compare the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Wikipedia's Philosophy section. From the point of view of a specialist, let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work.

Second problem: the dominance of difficult people, trolls, and their enablers. I stopped participating in Wikipedia when funding for my position ran out. That does not mean that I am merely mercenary; I might have continued to participate, were it not for a certain poisonous social or political atmosphere in the project.

There are many ways to explain this problem, and I will start with just one. Far too much credence and respect accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labelled "trolls." There is a certain mindset associated with unmoderated Usenet groups and mailing lists that infects the collectively-managed Wikipedia project: if you react strongly to trolling, that reflects poorly on you, not (necessarily) on the troll. If you attempt to take trolls to task or demand that something be done about constant disruption by trollish behavior, the other listmembers will cry "censorship," attack you, and even come to the defense of the troll. This drama has played out thousands of times over the years on unmoderated Internet groups, and since about the fall of 2001 on the unmoderated Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has, to its credit, done something about the most serious trolling and other kinds of abuse: there is an Arbitration Committee that provides a process whereby the most disruptive users of Wikipedia can be ejected from the project.

But there are myriad abuses and problems that never make it to mediation, let alone arbitration. A few of the project's participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people--which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia--the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. This explains why I am gone; it also explains why many others, including some extremely knowledgeable and helpful people, have left the project.

The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem--or I, at least, regard it as a problem--which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia's first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)

I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project--beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia--were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.

Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will--at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy--be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to "work with" persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).

This lack of respect for expertise explains the first problem, because if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, they would have long since invited a board of academics and researchers to manage a culled version of Wikipedia (one that, I think, would not directly affect the way the main project is run). But because project participants have such a horror of the traditional deference to expertise, this sort of proposal has never been taken very seriously by most Wikipedians leading the project now. And so much the worse for Wikipedia and its reputation.

This lack of respect for expertise and authority also explains the second problem, because again if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, there would necessarily be very little patience for those who deliberately disrupt the project. This is perhaps not obvious, so let me explain. To attact and retain the participation of experts, there would have to be little patience for those who do not understand or agree with Wikipedia's mission, or even for those pretentious mediocrities who are not able to work with others constructively and recognize when there are holes in their knowledge (collectively, probably the most disruptive group of all). A less tolerant attitude toward disruption would make the project more polite, welcoming, and indeed open to the vast majority of intelligent, well-meaning people on the Internet. As it is, there are far fewer genuine experts involved in the project (though there are some, of course) than there could and should be.

It will probably be objected by some that, since I am not 100% committed to the most radical sort of openness, I do not understand why the project that I founded works: it works, I will be told, precisely because it is radically open--even anarchical.

I know, of course, that Wikipedia works because it is radically open. I recognized that as soon as anyone; indeed, it was part of the original plan. But I firmly disagree with the notion that that Wikipedia-fertilizing openness requires disrespect toward expertise. The project can both prize and praise its most knowledgeable contributors, and permit contribution by persons with no credentials whatsoever. That, in fact, was my original conception of the project. It is sad that the project did not go in that direction.

One thing that Wikipedia could do now, although I doubt that it is possible in the current atmosphere and with the current management, is to adopt an official policy of respect of and deference to expertise. Wikipedia's "key policies" have not changed since I was associated with the project; but if a policy of respect of and deference to expertise were adopted at that level, and if it were enforced somehow, perhaps the project would solve the problems described above.

But don't hold your breath. Unless there is the equivalent of a revolution in the ranks of Wikipedia, the project will not adopt this sort of policy and make it a "key policy"; or if it does, the policy will probably be not be enforced. I certainly do not expect Jimmy Wales to change his mind. I have known him since 1994 and he is a smart and thoughtful guy; I am sure he has thought through his support of radical openness and his (what I call) anti-elitism. I doubt he will change his mind about these things. And unless he does change his mind, the project itself will probably not change.

Nevertheless, everyone familiar with Wikipedia can now see the power of the basic Wikipedia idea and the crying need to get more experts on board and a publicly credible review process in place (so that there is a subset of "approved" articles--not a heavy-handed, complicated process, of course). The only way Wikipedia can achieve these things is to jettison its anti-elitism and to moderate its openness to trolls and fools; but it will almost certainly not do these things. Consequently, as Wikipedia increases in popularity and strength, I do not see how there can not be a more academic fork of the project in the future.

I hope that a university, academic consortium, or thinktank can be found to pursue a project to release vetted versions of Wikipedia articles, and I hope that the new project's managers will understand very well what has made Wikipedia work as well as it has, before they adopt any policies.