Infobitt's Future, and Mine

I've just posted the following announcement to the big Infobitt mailing list.

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Friends,

I have some unfortunate news. While I don’t wish to give up on Infobitt, we have run out of money. I’ve let the programmers go, and I’m looking for a job myself. But I'll still be contributing, and I hope you will too.

Before I say anything else, let me say thank you to the investors, my advisers (especially Terrence Yang), and especially the contributors. Thanks also to Vivy Chao, who has written the daily updates very well; Tim Chambers, who provided the awesome audio editions; and Ben Rogers, our technical adviser. And, of course, the readers!

Infobitt deserves to be rescued. It’s got an active, committed community, it’s an awesome idea, it works quite well at a small scale, and I'm confident it can be made to work at a large scale. So we’re very much open to new opportunities for Infobitt. Maybe you can help? I’ll explain how below.

Contents of this mail:

• If you keep at it, so will I
• What’s the core problem?
• Why I'm still excited about Infobitt
• What does Infobitt need?
• Potential partners
• How it can happen
• If not Infobitt: gigs I’d like to consider
• Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
• Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

If you continue to support Infobitt by writing bitts, adding facts, and so on, then I will too. I do hope that in the next few weeks or months, we’ll re-emerge, re-invigorated, with a new configuration of people who can really make things happen fast.

What’s the core problem?

1. Why don’t we do a proper launch? Because the software works OK only at a small scale. It desperately needs certain features if we are to benefit from the massive traffic we’d get after a proper launch. If we launched now, we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb the new arrivals. (That’s what happened after my Reddit AMA.)

2. So why don’t we just code up the features we need? Because our outsourced software is buggy, complicated, and lacks automated tests, all of which means it’s hard to maintain, and would become more so as we add more (badly needed—see below) features.

3. So why don’t we just raise the money? Because we’re out of money, which makes fundraising very hard. Besides, we need an active, productive team to raise money, and at this point it’s just me, a sole founder.

4. So why don’t I get some co-founders? Yes, just my thinking...read on.

Why I'm still excited about Infobitt:

• Unlike every other news startup I know of, we are actively, daily creating a purely volunteer, Wikipedia-like front page news site. Infobitt works as no other crowdsourced news startup does. It's been working, in its current version, for about a year now—really working, even if our traffic numbers are still small. That can change (see below).

• People are still working on it, and not just a few, but over 25 every week, and that's on an obscure project that still hasn't been properly launched and is rarely discussed in the media. Regularly, I see old hands getting excited again and new people getting into it. We are onto something.

• I absolutely love your loyalty and I don't forget the people who have helped my projects. You are the lifeblood of Infobitt.

• I've seen evidence of deeper support for Infobitt from outside our active community. There are people waiting in the wings, waiting for the software to get better, waiting to be able to share their work, waiting for it to get easier (e.g., a browser plugin to add facts by selecting text on a page and pressing a button to add to Infobitt), etc.

• When I work more on it, you do. If I were enabled to work full time just on growing the community—if I had the time to write 10 bitts per day, comment and add facts, do more tweeting and blogging, and especially if we were launched and I could do interviews about it, then the community would grow like gangbusters.

What does Infobitt need? So...why aren't we there yet?

• We need a better API. (Our automatically-created Python/Django API lacks many features, although it works.)
• Then we need apps (which use the API). (But a high school kid has actually made one based on our existing API, but it’s not released yet.)
• We need to add some insanely obvious features:

• Fact editing!
• View counts!
• Choose a bitt's rank from within the bitt!
• Social sharing!
• FB/Twitter login.
• Email notices.
• Automatic newsletters.
• Tags/categories.
• Browser plugin to start/expand bitts quickly.
• We've also got serious bugs to fix.
• Any one of these would inject new life into the project. All of them would make this a popular and growing website, I think.

• Then, we need to be properly launched.
• We've got to make the software faster and more resilient for when high traffic arrives.
• I’ve got to start doing interviews. But first we need to be positioned to benefit.

To be brutally honest, I never should have tried to start a startup as a sole founder. I need others on board as partners, who are passionately committed to our mission and to making it a success. I'm doing too many jobs at once, when my forte, what I need to be focused on, is community and project development.

Potential partners. I assume that many of Infobitt’s best potential partners will be reading this, or will know people who are reading this—and you can forward this mail to them. Here is what we need:

• Awesome engineers: Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL. Solid sysadmin type skills, including experience on AWS, would be most welcome. Somebody who can improve our API so people can make full-featured apps around our (open content) data. Maybe more exciting would be somebody who is inspired (and, of course, positioned) to write Infobitt from scratch, in a more reliable form.

• Designers. (But we need engineers on board first, to be able to use design work.)

• Maybe eventually one or two community people to help me.

How it can happen. Here are some categories of people or organizations who might be interested in joining me and helping to turn Infobitt around:

• Remarkable individuals, especially those are free to work for equity or who might want to buy into the company. Especially awesome engineers who are on top of Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL, sysadmin, AWS.

• Existing startups, or idle startup teams, that want to pivot to Infobitt, who are interested in working with me. Again, free to work for equity or who want to buy into the company.

• Big nonprofits or fast-moving universities (ha ha). Theoretically, we could become nonprofit, open source, and open content. This would probably make it easier for Infobitt to succeed, assuming the project funding were adequate, but Infobitt's investors obviously would like to make money.

• An investor that wants to buy Infobitt, build a team, and will hire me (with significant equity) and assign me to work on it.

Such people (or entities) would have to buy a major stake in the company and, presumably, hire me as an employee. I’m cool with that.

As far as I'm concerned, everything is on the table. I’ll be interested in anything that has a reasonable chance of making Infobitt a success.

Other gigs I’d like to consider

If nobody bites on Infobitt, here are some opportunities that would intrigue me:

• Full-time worker on somebody else’s startup. Community leader, project manager, or you tell me. I’d prefer to work from home most of the time.

• Adviser. For the right sort of project, I can help a lot. I’m an endless fount of ideas and very useful critical feedback.

• Writer/analyst/advocate. About education, homeschooling, very early reading, the Internet, rescuing the Enlightenment, philosophy, etc. (from a libertarian, rationalist perspective, if relevant). I’m also a practiced public speaker. I’m interested in working for a nonprofit advocacy group.

I'd be excited to execute either of a couple ideas I've had:

Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
I started writing an intro to philosophy for elementary students, a chapter book, back in 2012. Here’s the first chapter. I’d love to finish it quickly, and use the text to make the world’s first complete set of videos about philosophy for kids approximately 5-10 years old. Here’s the first video. It would take about three months for me to finish if I work on it full time.

Thing is, to support this project, I need at least $17,500. I’d love to do this and make the next generation a bit more hip to the liberal arts and the Enlightenment. I started designing a Kickstarter about this, but I haven't finished it.

Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool
Are you a philanthropist? Want a high-impact way to support online education for kids everywhere? Pay me me to make 2-3 videos per day like these. Most of those 24 videos got over 10,000 views after a few years, and my top ten have over 50,000 views apiece (with one at 750K). They’re easy for me to make, I’m good at it, and I love to do it. Also, my 4-year-old will beta-test for free! I envision a library of thousands of videos like these...think of it as an awesome free online preschool. By the way, if you want to pay me per video, to make sure I don’t waste your money, let’s do it!

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry


4 Reasons the World Needs Infobitt

This week, Infobitt will welcome thousands of new members (people waitlisted following my Reddit AMA). So, in the coming days, I'll be sharing a different reason why the world desperately needs Infobitt.

Reason #1. We have a right to edit the news. We have a voice in government—we also deserve a role in the Fourth Estate, one we don't currently enjoy. We desperately need a way to make our voices heard about how the news is prioritized and presented.

There's no reason for journalists to be the sole or primary deciders of what we all should know.

Journalists—and I say this with respect for my several friends who are journalists—are experts at some important functions:

• Knowing where and how to find the most important stories of the day.
• Writing quickly and yet readably.
• Forming trusting relationships with newsmakers.
• Summing up the basic facts about a complex situation fairly accurately from scratch (this looks easy but is extremely difficult, and journalists are a whole lot better at it than most of us would be, if we tried).

Journalists serve a crucial and deservedly respected function in society. But they're not any better than other reasonably intelligent, well-informed people at:

• Forming a wise judgment about what the most important stories of the day are.
• Understanding what the hell is going on (there are great reporters who are experts in some things, but most of them aren't anything like experts on what they normally report about).
• Telling you what to think about the news.
• Avoiding bias and corruption in articulating the news.

As reporters of basic and important news, journalists serve an absolutely crucial role in society. But as news presenters and editors, journalists enjoy certain roles that also properly belong to us—to "we, the people."

Simply having reported on some parts of the news doesn't give a journalist an expert perspective on the whole of the news. There's no such thing as an expert perspective on something so vast—"the whole of the news." NBC anchor Brian Williams (just for example) is no better a picker of the top stories than any reasonably intelligent, well-informed person presented with the same breadth of stories. And the idiosyncratic judgment of Mr. Williams and his producers is certainly not better than the average of all of our choices.

Deciding which stories matter and deserve to be placed first is a deeply political one. That decision does not deserve to be made by elites handing down the truth to us lowly plebeians. Top journalists in particular are very powerful: they shape how society thinks about what's going on. They can drive political agendas, boost politicians, make and break reputations, foster revolutions, affect economies, even change our personal habits. And they have important relationships with some of the most powerful people, governments, and corporations on earth.

Only a few journalists are the big decision-makers who determine which stories to highlight and which to tank, of course. But rank-and-file journalists also make important decisions, too—about what facts deserve to be placed in the headline and first paragraph of a story, and which deserve to be buried or ignored altogether.

Before the Internet, it was simply impossible to give us all a seat at the table when it came to ranking news stories and facts within stories. But now it is possible. Infobitt gives you precisely that ability: to rank stories and to rank facts within stories. We're empowering people with editorial functions that they have never had before. The result is a readable, interesting, genuine, and a really useful summary of the news.

Just think: what happens when many thousands, or even millions, of us go to work on it?

So that's one reason to get busy on Infobitt. You're both exercising your own right to occupy the Fourth Estate and supporting the rights of others to do the same.

What do you think? Do "we, the people" have a right to occupy the Fourth Estate? Should we help determine what order stories appear in, how the facts are represented, and what order facts should go in?

Or should we leave these crucial functions to the professionals?

Please return tomorrow for reason #2. For more blogging about the project, please see the manifesto.


An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.


What Strong Collaboration Means for Scholarly Publishing

Keynote delivered at the Annual Meeting, Society for Scholarly Publishing, "Imagining the Future: Scholarly Communication 2.0," San Francisco, California, June 7, 2007.

When I was asked to speak to you, the Society for Scholarly Publishing, I have to admit that I found this puzzling, because I don’t know anything about scholarly publishing. Why should someone who knows so little about scholarly publishing be asked to give a speech to the Society for Scholarly Publishing? That’s a paradox.

I found a similar paradox in an article by John Thompson in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2005. Thompson wrote: “academic publishers can survive today only if they become something other than academic publishers” (June 17, 2005).

The quote actually explains why I’m here. I’m here because I can tell you about a way to become something other than academic publishers. I suppose this is a little absurd, but as a philosopher, I am trained to take joy in life’s little absurdities.

So I’m going to try to make the case that scholarly publishers should start expert Web 2.0 projects. Here’s my plan for the talk.

  • I’m going to begin by painting a picture, a vision of what information online could look like in ten or twenty years. In short, I’m going to build a castle in the air. But then I will try to put a foundation underneath it.
  • I’ll go over a number of examples of free encyclopedia projects from which we can learn.
  • Then I’ll draw out some general principles.
  • I’ll consider various business models for projects started by scholarly publishers.
  • Finally, I’ll give you some ideas for projects you might start.

Here’s the question I want to answer first: what might the world of free vetted, reliable, edited information online look like in ten years? What sort of free resources might we see? Suppose it’s the year 2017, and we’re looking at the best-case scenario.

In the best-case scenario, the Encyclopedia of Life would be an enormous success—it was recently announced, by the way, with a commitment of $100 million in grants. It has articles on the 1.8 million named and known species on Earth, with a detailed article, pictures, video where available, links to news articles, and various other resources. Basically, if you want to know about a species, you know where to go.

Next, consider the Citizendium, which you can think of as Wikipedia with editors and real names. In the best-case scenario, it would have added millions of articles in hundreds of languages, but unlike Wikipedia itself, the articles have undergone a process of continual improvement, and there are now hundreds of thousands of expert-approved articles—and much other supporting information as well.

In 2007, you can find some information about virtually any topic you like, on Wikipedia—but you’re not sure if you can trust it. In 2017, you can find information on those same topics, but information that you know has been checked by actual experts, on Citizendium.

So much for general encyclopedias. What about other kinds of information? By 2017, the library digitization projects have gone brilliantly. The entire contents of major libraries—millions of volumes of both books and journals—have been digitized. Most copyrighted books still aren’t available for free viewing, except at some libraries, but they make research much easier. And it is possible for an individual to buy a subscription to services that give you full-text searching of nearly every book and periodical you could possibly want.

The advantages of digitization have finally come home to archives, in 2017. It is a rare archive that has not digitized its entire stock, and made at least part of it available for free. So there are now enormous vetted and well-tagged and ‑organized sets of free photographs, video, and audio, which put Flickr and YouTube to shame.

Meanwhile, scholarly publishers have spearheaded countless fascinating new scholarly projects, creating certain kinds of reference and academic work for the first time ever—made possible by the scale and dynamism of global collaboration.

I could go on, but I suspect you’ve heard it all before. Sure, it’s exciting.

But one gets tired of all the “vision.” I do, anyway. Let’s come back to Earth. I want to ask two practical questions.

  • First, how can humanity possibly get from here to there?
  • And second, what role might scholarly publishers play in getting us from here to there?

It’s important, I think, to look at where you’ve been, if you want to know how to get where you want to go. So, let’s look at a series of free Internet encyclopedia projects, in roughly chronological order.

First, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is one of my favorite reference works. It lives online. Its articles are excellent, high-level introductions to all sorts of philosophical topics. They’re written and updated by experts and the whole production is edited by a veritable who’s who of contemporary philosophers.

It’s a thing of beauty.  And it's free to read.

The problem with SEP, however, is that it got started in 1995 and, after a dozen years, still numbers its articles in the hundreds, not the thousands. This is probably a function of the fact that there just aren’t that many top experts on the topics that SEP wants articles about.

They won’t assign an article to just anybody.

Back in 2000, a peer-reviewed general encyclopedia project got started, called Nupedia. I was its editor-in-chief and organizer.

Unlike SEP, Nupedia allowed anyone to volunteer to write an article, but articles still had to be assigned by an editor. We had a tiny budget and did manage to produce a few dozen articles within a year or so, and the articles were very high-quality. After a few years, particularly after I had to resign due to lack of funding, the project withered away.

The problem was the same as with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: slow pace of production. Here the problem was that not enough people wanted to go through Nupedia’s extremely rigorous, seven-step editorial process.

It was when I was trying to think of a way to improve upon Nupedia’s slow process that a friend told me about wikis—websites that allow anybody to edit any page instantly. Without even having seen a wiki, I saw that this could be the tool we were looking for, to make a simpler and more open method of content development.

I guess many of you know what happened then. Wikipedia took off, and it never added any credible method of approving or certifying articles. In fact, without the influence of Nupedia, Wikipedia became actually contemptuous of expertise. Moreover, they didn’t require the use of real names, and they never developed any effective ways of reining in abusive behavior.

As a result, while Wikipedia is an amazingly huge and useful resource, it remains of questionable reliability, and, as a community, it is off-putting to many people online who might be willing to contribute to a project like it.

Next in our catalog of projects is the Encyclopedia of Earth(EoE). This one got its start in the fall of 2005; I actually wrote some of the original project plans and policy documents for it. It’s a wiki encyclopedia devoted to everything concerning the Earth’s environment.

But it differs from Wikipedia in several important ways. While articles are not assigned by editors, a byline is given to what authors happen to show up; a person has to be an expert on some aspect of environmental studies in order to contribute; and you can’t “watch the sausage being made,” that is, non-contributors can’t see page histories or the wiki-wide “recent changes” page.

As a result, there isn’t much actual collabortion going on on the Encyclopedia of Earth. There is some, and they’re steadily growing, but largely because they’re aggregating content, by hand, from a number of different credible sources.

The Scholarpedia got its start in early 2006. I won’t say too much about this because it’s somewhat similar to SEP and EoE. It’s a specialized encyclopedia, concerning (at present) certain topics within neuroscience, mathematics, and computer science.

It differs from EoE, and from Wikipedia, in that the articles are not open content; still, they are free to read.

Articles are written by some really excellent experts, and reviewed by experts; as a result, however, like the philosophy articles in SEP, the articles are not really accessible to non-experts.

Also, it uses a wiki, but there is very little actual collaboration going on. And as a result, there are only a few hundred articles developed, though I’m sure they’re quite excellent articles.

Next, imagine a free, specialized encyclopedia “strictly by the experts,” like SEP, EoE, and Scholarpedia. But imagine that it had $100 million to spend. Then you’d have the recently-announced Encyclopedia of Life—the encyclopedia project aiming to list 1.8 million species. It’s hard to say exactly how it will work, but their FAQ says, “Unlike conventional encyclopedias, where an editorial team sits down and writes the entries, the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (‘mashing up’) content from a wide variety of sources. This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information.”

I have no critical remarks about the Encyclopedia of Life to make, because it doesn’t exist yet, and if you throw $100 million at a publishing problem, there’s a good chance you’ll solve it. It’s very exciting in any case.

The last example is one that started getting organized most recently: the Citizendium,a project I first announced last September, and which launched in a public beta version last March. Think of it as Wikipedia with editors and real names.

As such, it occupies a unique niche.

It’s a general encyclopedia, and makes full use of the wiki software and development model. Unlike several other examples given so far, articles really are developed collaboratively.

But, like them, it makes a special place for experts. We call them “editors.” Our editors have two primary functions at present. First, they can review and approve articles; second, they can make decisions about questions of controversy, as necessary. But they can and do also play the role of author. A good part of our day-to-day authoring work on the wiki is done by editors.

Nevertheless, we also invite contributions from the general public, who work as authors, shoulder-to-shoulder with the editors. You might think this would be a recipe for expert/amateur conflict, but so far we’ve seen little of that.

The wiki has been under development for about seven months. In that time, we have added

  • about 1700 authors
  • about 240 editors
  • about 2000 articles

If we continue to grow—I mean, to increase our rate of growth—as we have been, we should have hundreds of thousands of articles within a few years. We have a similar amount of content to what Wikipedia had after seven months—fewer actual articles, but our articles are longer, on average. We’ll also be expanding the number of approved articles we have, which right now is just over 20.

What, then, can we learn from these projects? Before I draw a few lessons, I want to make a few stipulations.

I’m going to stipulate, first, that an encyclopedia is better the larger it is and the more reliable it is: both quantity and quality.

Second, I also want to stipulate that the community that creates the encyclopedia is also important; and the community is better if it is not constantly engaged in acrimonious controversy.

Few of the encyclopedia projects we reviewed have grown very rapidly. Wikipedia and Citizendium have done pretty well so far, on that score. But the other projects grew slowly for various different reasons.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Scholarpedia have grown slowly, I think, mainly due to the fact that they are so exclusive. They insist that article authors be not merely competent and knowledgeable scholars, but actually distinguished in their fields.

If they were to expand the set of possible contributors, they would of course have more contributors. My view is that it is only genuine good old-fashioned elitism that can justify the exclusion of competent scholars. I think this explains in part, by the way, why the Citizendium has done rather better, in terms of numbers of articles created, than the other expert-driven projects.

So I advance this principle: expand your base of contributors as widely as is reasonable.

Nupedia grew too slowly primarily due to a complex workflow. I’ve discovered time and time again that, when presented with a problem, scholars tend to want to create a new process, a new workflow, a new committee, to deal with it. This might solve the problem, but it also slows down production.

The lesson here is: radically simplify your workflow. A wiki is an example, but only one example, of a tool that encourages a simple workflow.

Next, consider those relatively recent projects that use wikis, but which don’t really operate as wikis—here I think especially of the Encyclopedia of Earth and Scholarpedia. They could, I think, grow much more quickly, if they really were collaborative—that is, if they had a relatively energized collaborative community.

Well, how do you energize a collaborative community? Several ways.

  • First, don’t sign articles. Leave them unsigned. The reason is that, if you do sign articles, a few things happen that make collaboration difficult and unlikely. The author will discourage and resent input from others. And others will avoid collaborating on articles, because they don’t want to offend the author.
  • Second, for the same reason, actively discourage the idea of exclusive personal control over articles. Even if the project’s articles aren’t signed, some people will act as if an article he started really is his own, and discourage others from contributing. So you have to actually tell those people, “You may have written a draft of this article, but it isn’t yours.”
  • Third, positively encourage people to edit everyone else’s submissions. There are various ways to do this. You can put it in policy and help documents. You can have your most active and distinguished authors ask for help with articles they’ve started. Editors can ask one author to help another author. And so forth. Eventually, I think people will get the idea.
  • Fourth and finally, something that the Encyclopedia of Earth does, but which Scholarpedia does not do, is to use an open content license. This also helps to build a more dynamic community, because such a license is a guarantee to contributors that their collective work will always be free; it won’t disappear when the managing organization disappears. I think you might be surprised at how important this is to some people.

It would be a huge mistake to think that experts and scholars are unable to collaborate, Wikipedia-style. The Citizendium project has demonstrated that the articles that result from such collaborations can be truly wonderful.

Next, there is the problem of the lack of reliability, which I think is a problem mainly with Wikipedia. Here, the solution I recommend has made me a heretic in the Web 2.0 world, but it’s the obvious old-fashioned one for everyone else: if you want to be sure that some content is reliable, then you get experts to review your content. So, find a place for experts.

The last problem I see is another problem of Wikipedia’s. Namely, it has an off-putting community, due to its immaturity and failure to enforce its own rules. Here, again, I recommend some heretical yet old-fashioned solutions: have contributors identify themselves with their real names, not pseudonyms, and, also, empower and require moderators to enforce rules consistently.

So here is a run-down of the lessons learned from the free encyclopedia projects listed above:

1.     Expand your base of contributors as widely as is reasonable.

2.     Radically simplify your workflow.

3.     Don’t sign articles.

4.     Moreover, actively discourage the idea of personal ownership of articles.

5.     Positively encourage people to edit everyone else’s submissions.

6.     Use an open content license.

7.     Have contributors identify themselves with their real names, not pseudonyms.

8.     Require moderators to enforce rules consistently.

The only project that actually follows all of these principles is the Citizendium. I guess that’s not surprising since I’m the editor of the Citizendium and I wrote these principles. But I do practice what I preach, in this case.

So, I know this is going to sound terribly immodest, but I guess what I’m recommending is that you start projects like the Citizendium.

I can’t expect you to take this recommendation very seriously, partly because the Citizendium is free, and you, as publishers, are in business to make money.

But, you know, people do make money by publishing free stuff online. I don’t, but other people do. Personally—and I know this must sound bizarre—but I’m really not in it for the money myself. The Citizendium is a non-profit, and I don’t expect to get rich, at least, not off of this. Still, other people do get rich by publishing free stuff online. Just think of the founders of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and MySpace.

Their business model, of course, is advertising. As you must know, online advertising is increasingly lucrative. As to the ethics of the thing, newspapers have been supported for years by advertising, and only radicals have complained about the ethics of their advertising. So, in principle, I personally don’t have a problem about supporting a project with advertising.

Still, you might wonder why Wikipedia, Citizendium, and virtually all other of the encyclopedia projects I listed—except for Scholarpedia—don’t use advertising. I think the main reason is that their organizers and/or contributors hold the view that advertising equals corporate bias and corporate control. I don’t personally hold this view, but I respect it, and if it means I can’t have as many contributors, I will not run advertisements.

Another business model, one that seems particularly viable in the world of scholarly publishing, is the “pay-to-play” model. The idea here is that if a university department wants to participate in some scholarly project to produce free information, organized by a publisher, then the department pays the publisher, and then the faculty and grad students can participate. This basically is the “open access” model, expropriated from journal publishing, and applied to collaborative content production.

Another business model involves selling “premium content” to subscribers—for scholarly publishers, this again is not a stretch. I assume I don’t need to elaborate on this one, because it’s something you already do as a matter of course.

Finally, a business model that is worth a try, though few people have actually tried it, is a sort of patronage program. The idea is that, as a publisher, you are hooked in to a large network of scholars. Suppose you were to invite people to pay for free content, created by your network?

In other words, you, as publishers, solicit donations—from individuals and from institutions—and the donors can specify a few details about what they want. For example, suppose they want to support the creation of an anthology of important popular writings about global warming. Then they approach you with the money, and if it seems to be enough for the job, then you tap into your network, wrangle the content, and publish a collection of essays. The essays are free online; the funders get credit as patrons.

I don’t know whether this is a viable model, but it seems like an interesting way to pay for free, expert-produced content. I think it’s worth a try. Eventually, perhaps very soon, the Citizendium will give it a try, by the way. I’ve written an essay developing the idea. It’s linked from larrysanger.org, and it’s called “The Role of Content Brokers in the Era of Free Content.”

Finally, I promised you some ideas for projects. There are countless interestingly different ideas for expert-led collaborations; I’ll give you just two.

So, you’re an academic publishing house. Let me assume that you think the collaboration train is leaving the station, and you want on. What can you do to develop your firm’s expertise in this area, and explore new business models? What sort of project should you start?

Here an idea: a literature review. But not just any old literature review. A really thorough, comprehensive, and balanced review of every part of the literature of a field. In other words, a comprehensive account of the latest advances in the last, say, year.

It is very labor-intensive for just one person to create this sort of overview of the literature even about some very narrow topic within a given field.

But, of course, experts together know the literature of their fields far better than any one of them knows it individually. Furthermore, if they are writing summaries of the latest research, their summaries will be far better if they can correct each others’ mistakes.

And bear in mind, also, that anyone who is a real expert in a field has to keep up with the latest advances—they all have to go over a lot of the same material, so they’re all doing the same thing. So a collaboratively-written, comprehensive summary of the literature of a field makes sense.

I would absolutely love to see such reviews of the literature about my own interests of philosophy, the Internet, and Irish traditional music. I think it is only a matter of time before people start very regularly producing literature reviews collaboratively. It could be done using a wiki, and so wouldn’t be technically difficult to set up.

And, perhaps for obvious reasons, scholarly publishers are the perfect organizations to spearhead (or help spearhead) such an effort.

For the next idea, let me give a little background.

There are many different ideas about collaboratively creating supplementary research material related to classic, public domain texts. Just think of the conjunction of three facts.

Fact one: most of the important classic texts in all fields have already been digitized—and digitizing new versions of classic texts has been automated and made cost-effective.

Fact two: access to these texts—and to a single version of a text—can be virtually universal among scholars, since they’re virtually all on the Internet.

Fact three: in recent years, scholars in large numbers have finally begun to “get” the idea of strong, wiki-style collaboration.

What follows from these three facts is that it is possible for scholars to work together in huge numbers on supplementary study materials for classic, public domain texts. In itself, digital study aids for classic and public domain texts are nothing new. The wonderful Perseus Project is one prominent example. But the Perseus Project isn’t really very strongly collaborative.

So here’s an idea that I have developed on the textop.org domain.

Imagine a scholar working through a digital copy of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, dividing it into chunks of approximately one paragraph in length. Imagine the scholar labelling the chunks by function, summarizing them, and placing them into a single outline, reordered, beginning with the most abstract topics, like Metaphysics, and working down to applied topics, such as Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law.

Imagine the scholar repeating this process, summarizing and as it were filing away paragraphs of text for, say, the fifty most influential works of philosophy, with all the chunks of texts summarized and collated into the same outline. This would require a scholar on the order of 5-10 years, depending on diligence. But if many scholars were to work on the project together, the amount of time required would be a fraction.

Next imagine doing this sort of text collation for other fields beyond philosophy, and texts in languages other than English. The result would be an unprecedented, highly interesting, and fantastically useful resource.

But, obviously, this would require a massive collaborative effort. It seems to me that this is the sort of collaborative project that scholarly publishers could take on. Now, if you want to use this particular idea, I want in, because I absolutely love this idea, and eventually I plan to do it myself. I’ve actually prototyped it.

I hope you have found this useful. I’ve covered a lot of topics very quickly and roughly. I briefly painted a picture of what scholarly collaboration might produce by the year 2017. Then I reported on a series of free online encyclopedia projects, and from them I drew a series of principles about how to organize a successful collaborative project. I offered a few business model ideas that a publisher might use to fund collaborative projects. And, finally, I gave you a couple of what I think are fairly intriguing ideas about what scholars can do together.

Maybe they are just waiting for you to bring them together to collaborate online.


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 NewAssignment.net. 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.