Web 2.0 smackdown

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Does information want to be free? Perhaps, but if you want full access to the World Development Indicators, you'll have to shell out $200/year for an individual subscription. Is this tenable in a world of ever-cheaper information flows (and ever-easier methods of copying and transmitting information, legally or otherwise)? I ran across two recent articles by gurus of the information age on exactly this issue. 

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, just came out with a piece arguing that when it comes to information, Waste is Good. All those seemingly pointless Cat Videos on Youtube? They're leading us to information Nirvana:

All those random videos on YouTube are just dandelion seeds in search of fertile ground on which to land. In a sense, we're "wasting video" in search of better video, exploring the potential space of what the moving picture can be. YouTube is a vast collective experiment to invent the future of television, one thoughtless, wasteful upload at a time. Sooner or later, through YouTube and other sharing sites, every video that can be made will be made, and every person who can be a filmmaker will become one. Every possible niche will be explored. If you lower the costs of exploring a space, you can be more indiscriminate in how you do it.

I'm not particularly convinced by Anderson's argument. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point, has a smart critique of Anderson's views:

When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars.

I think Gladwell is spot on. I'd go even further and point out that the line of thinking that Anderson follows contributed to the debacle of knowledge management in the 1990s, in which the prevailing philosophy could be summed up as "more is better." From the point of view of the user, more is clearly not better. Instead, more information simply leads to greater confusion. (This is a point I take from a recent presentation at the World Bank by Morton Hansen, author of Collaboration.) The trick is to figure out better ways to sort out useful information from the useless. While Web 2.0 technologies might make it cheaper to do this, it isn't ever going to be free.

Addendum: One of the temptations that comes with blogging is to push that wonderful "Publish" button before you've thought a post through. It's kind of like a mouse trained to press a button to get a pellet. I think I gave in to temptation on this post, so let me try to clarify.

First, I think Gladwell is right to point out that the cost of producing and transmitting information will remain at a more-than-nominal cost. Even though technology has greatly cut down these costs, when you multiply these small costs by millions (of videos or audio files or whatever) it adds up quickly.

Second, I wanted to make an additional and separate point from Gladwell's. The extraordinary amount of information available on the internet (or, for instance, on the intranet of many large institutions) presents a problem in that it's not easy to locate the information you are looking for. Google helps but is clearly imperfect. Twitter helps too. But all these solutions will be more-than-nominal in cost (either in monetary or labor terms, or both).

Third, neither of the two previous points bears directly on whether data like the World Development Indicators should be made available for free. (I should point out that access to part of the dataset is free.) Points one and two only remind us that producing and distributing (and interpreting) these data will not become costless. Whether access should be made free by cross-subsidizing these costs is a different question. 

Fourth (and finally), I think Anderson makes a legitimate point that something novel takes place when access to data (or platforms like Youtube) is made free. Suddenly, a much larger group of people is free to experiment with and build on this information. There is clearly some value to these novel forms (cat videos notwithstanding), and that lends greater support to the argument that access to more and more data should be thought of as a public good and subsidized. 


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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