Signal to Noise

Far From Home by user Robert82 on

One of these days, we'll figure out where we're going.

I’m just going to free associate on some ideas that have been bumping around in my head lately.

I had a conversation with my husband the other day about the increasing irrelevance of the Recording Industry to the lives of artists*.  It used to be that the big labels were the ones who had access to the incredibly expensive recording equipment that made the manufacture of albums, then casettes, then CDs.  Studio time was expensive and the labels could afford to front the costs for studios to lay down hours and hours of tracks to produce an album.

However, over time, that recording equipment became less expensive and professionals and hobbyists alike would be able to acquire multi-channel mixers and multi-track recording equipment.  My dad had a four-track tape recording system in the barn where his band practiced. It was one of the most awesome things I had seen with four tapes rolling in sync with each other.  Nowadays, with a few thousand dollars you could have a studio rig to rival the semi-professional studio spaces you can find in droves in every major city.

Pressing records is another thing that has also turned into a boutique niche for record companies.  In 2008 digital downloads surpassed record sales, and it never turned back.  And I’m using “record” here loosely to mean a physical object that you put into a listening device.  More people download their music through iTunes or AmazonMP3 than go to record stores.

But now we have people who through the use of their home recording studios and the ubiquity of digital download services are increasing the volume of music that’s being produced and the volume of music that end user sees just increases and increases.

So, the one valuable thing that the Recording Industry has a hold of is the Filter that says “This is hot. This is not.”  But even that is changing.  Spotify this week announced that they were opening their API to allow for app development.  Now, some people, like myself, said “an app for your app?”  But think about this for a moment.  By opening their API to outside development, individual users, like you and I, could create our own filter for the music that we appreciate and like and want to share with our friends, and the world.

And that’s a valuable development, that kind of mirrors where the internet is taking society, moving content curation out of the hands of “experts” and people who have a financial interest in the product, and putting it in the hands of users who enjoy that content.

But what does this mean for the library?

As an institution we have always been a place that has had a certain level of cache that we have maintained for centuries: the place to find what you’re looking for.  While the library has never been a place that has been able to hold the entire spectrum of human knowledge, it has always been a place that one could expect a level of expertise in selecting works that would be of value to a community.  Whether that be a community of scholars or a village of farmers.  Out of all of the mass of human literature, the library has selected, cataloged and made available a particular collection.  Every library is unique, and their collection policies help develop that vision of each unique place.

So, as we move into a digital future, where printed books become luxury items (like vinyl is for music afficionados today), and eBooks explode into stratospheric proportions (which we’re already seeing via Amazon and Barnes & Noble circumventing traditional publishing models), the question of what becomes of the library still stands.  And I believe that content curation is going to remain extremely valuable.  However, as we see with Spotify, user driven filters to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio will also start to arise.

Then the primary concern becomes one of access to resources.  If the eBook market still prices works at an inaccessible rate for the average consumer, and especially the poor consumer, then providing access to users via a shared system, such as the library is the only way to make that happen.

Among the people on the Digital Public Library of America initiative there has been a lot of back and forth about being able to acquire current works and make them available via DPLA.  In our current state of publishing, this is extremely challenging.  Publishers barely want to provide access to their works to libraries at all.  Many of the major publishers have been pulling out of consortium vendors like Overdrive, even though there are very rigid DRM practices in place.  However, if through a service like DPLA, libraries would be able to provide access to a very broad body of freely available contemporary works, or at least eBook editions of works that are available via their physical collections, then we’re talking about a future for digital libraries.  By participating in a national level consortium effort for eBooks libraries could reap an extremely high benefit. The library then becomes an API, enhancing user experiences in navigating the world’s aggregated content.  The Library as a space becomes useful in other ways, as a collaboration zone, content creation space, a place to explore new technologies in a hands-on way, and a place to read when you don’t have access to read on your own, or get a physical copy on demand if you need one.

I guess the road that I’ve been walking down here is one that we cover as librarians all the time, i.e. what is the difference between a collection and an aggregation.  If you think about The Internet, all of it, it’s incomprehensible to imagine that anyone would ever be able to cull out of its vastness an island of reliable sources and valuable sites.  But search engines have developed massive algorithms to analyze this major body of work and help items float to the top.  The Internet is an aggregation of content.  The top 10 hits you get from a search engine (provided you phrased your query well) are the collection that the algorithm has selected for you.  Out of all of the body of literature in the world, the aggregate body of human works, a Library makes a careful selection based on a number of factors, to craft a collection.  The recording industry is in the business of boosting the signal against the noise, promoting those artists who they believed to be a cut above the rest to give them national or global exposure.  The Library is also in the business of boosting signal against the noise, promoting those books that they believe to be more relevant to a community than others.  As we think about the future of the library we’re going to have to ask bigger questions about content curation, participation across cities, states and national boundaries, and about what libraries as physical spaces mean to local communities in the context of these much bigger endeavors.

Edited to Add:

I’m just going to go ahead and update this as I woke up thinking about it.  Nearly the entirety of the piece above ignores the entire lesson learned from the Recording Industry.  That innovations that respect the consumers and the creators will continue to flatten out the hierarchical systems that we’ve built over time.  If we’ve learned anything from Wikipedia it’s that with a few simple rules everyone in the world can create an up-to-date, encyclopedia.  Though experts participate, this product is one that is curated by everyone collectively.  Different people, with different bodies of knowledge contribute collectively and it all gets sorted out by everyone together.

I’ve been drinking my own Kool-Aid.

In continuing this exploration though I want to consider the possibility that not everyone is as web savvy as everyone else.  That children who grow up in poverty, may not be versed in the ways of the Internet.  That educators and intercessors to help people will always be necessary.  Innovations keep coming rapidly and we should be able to respond to them in the moment of need.  Adults, who are no longer in school, may need a venue to explore and learn new things from other human beings.  Exploration space, as I mentioned in the preceding article, is more than likely what we’ll need to be.  Attempting to boost signal against noise is a noble goal, but may not be our primary selling point.  Service and human interaction may be the rule of tomorrow.



* Yes, this is the kind of conversation that I have with my husband.  We didn’t get married for nothing!  Okay, it was the insurance, but excellent conversations are really high up there in the reasons.


Piracy Is The Symptom, Not The Problem

Icon for Germany's Piratenpartei*

There have been several stories in the news lately that have been hammering away at the concept of internet piracy. The primary concern in the US being the two pieces of legislation currently winding their way through the House and the Senate, the former being known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the second the PROTECT IP Act (and yes, all the letters in “protect” are acronymic).  SOPA being the craziest of the two, in that it would lead to blocking websites via a US Firewall, not unlike China. As I mentioned in my post on this blog a few days ago, it’s easy to contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that you don’t want this to go through.

But all of this legal wrangling doesn’t get to the root of why there is a glut of internet piracy.  It follows the same train of logic that has been trotted out time and again, that people are stealing these things because they don’t want to pay for them. So Congress must combat these thieves so that publishers, record companies and film studios can protect their supply chain.

So, why do people pirate content online?  It isn’t just because they can.  And it isn’t just because free and they don’t want to pay for it.  People pirate electronic media because they love the content, and they want to get it in a digital format as fast as possible.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Cory Doctorow wrote about why people turn to internet piracy, specifically here for films.  In a study conducted by the UK Open Rights Group they found that:

though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn’t available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).

That’s a pretty bleak statistic.  But similar or even bleaker statistics could be said of any other type of digital content online.

Ultimately, the problem is supply restrictions, which are a result of the rights holder bottlenecking the product in an effort to attempt to drive up sales. The thing is, if the items that the users actually wanted to have were available via digital download the people who are currently pirating these files are 10 times more likely to purchase them.  In 2008, for the first time ever, mp3 sales outpaced CD sales.  Since 2006 US digital music revenues has increased nearly a billion dollars a year.  Worldwide it’s been increasing 2-3 billion dollars a year.  BILLION.  Also, when provided with a service that allows users to stream content over the internet, piracy tends to decline.  In Sweden piracy dropped 25% thanks to services like Spotify which allows users to access a vast library of music files and listen to music from friends for free.  The larger the collection being accessed, the less necessary it becomes to go seeking alternate means of acquiring the object of one’s desire.

When presented with a venue where people can access the content they want they will flock there.  They will even pay a fee, within reason to access that content.  Netflix is a prime example of how it can work, and how it can fail.  Netflix provides digital streaming access to movies for a nominal, per month fee (about $8.00).  They were able to get a great big bunch of content through a partnership with the Starz cable network.  However, in September Starz and Netflix announced that they were going to part ways, and that means that the Netflix catalog is going to drastically drop in scope.  Now, the Atlantic ran an article back in July, before the Starz deal breaker was announced.  In it they claimed that content was not in fact king, and that it was the service that people wanted from a highly trusted brand.  Well, when you squander your brand capital on splitting your services (then not doing so) and then you lose a bunch of content… Well, that’s going to lead users down the road to search for other methods to meet their demands.  When a distribution channel like that dries up, it leaves people in the lurch.

The same thing that’s happening to Netflix with movies is happening to libraries with eBooks.

Recently library land has been all up in arms about eBooks, and how publishers are looking to crack down even further on what libraries are allowed to have in eBooks, and continually scaling back what they’re willing to give.  The first big fiasco was Harper-Collins, who decided to put in a a DRM bomb that would make their ebooks automatically delete from the library’s collection after 26 uses.  Most recently Penguin has decided to pull its content out of Overdrive, a library ebook lending service, because of a dispute that they’re having with Amazon.  This decision was reversed yesterday, thank goodness, but this illustrates the kind of bottlenecking that I’m talking about.  These are two separate parties, whose dispute led to having the content, which is legitimately purchased by libraries, to be removed without warning.  Libraries no longer actually own the materials that we purchase, it’s just access, subject to termination at will.  And that’s an environment that content users, who want to get materials, and try new things out, are not going to be willing to tolerate for very long.  eBooks are in an infancy period, and with usage growing, problems like this can and will probably lead to pirating of digital books.

Pirated comic books have been a major problem for a while, but again they’re a problem of timeliness in the distribution chain.  Specifically there have arisen a number of fan translation sites, where they scan Japanese manga and translate the text into English before the publisher releases an English edition.  This process with the publisher takes a long time, because they want to do it well.  The fans however are willing to take right now over done right.  A friend of mine who just attended an anime convention was complaining about folks who had just watched something that they had torrented online.  Something not yet available in English, and not available in Japanese with official subtitles.  These kids saw the film with a fan subtitle, just because everyone they know had been talking about online and anticipating the release.

In today’s culture, media of every type can be delivered instantly.  When a publisher tells a consumer that they have to wait, or they have to buy the DVD, or the need to go through this complicated series of applications to download the legitimate version of a thing it just stonewalls the consumer.  Piracy is a symptom of a failure of industry to meet consumer demands for online access to content.  So, rather than legislating to crack down on piracy, which is directly attacking the consumer who desperately wants a product, we need to instead invest in changing the culture of the suppliers.

And now for some unsolicited advice to publishers.  Here are some handy guideposts to how a company could change their practices for online content distribution, that would be positive for users, positive for business, and create a better culture on the internet.

  • Stop attacking your consumers

Nothing turns people off from buying your products like a million dollar lawsuit.  Stop suing people for ridiculous sums of money because you already have billions of dollars.  Clearly, you can afford an army of lawyers and these people often cannot.  Its greedy and creates a poor image of industry.  Stop pursuing further methods of legal action to crack down on piracy, because you are the one who isn’t adapting.

  • Provide services where users can demo an item, sample it, and then choose to purchase it or not.

This is what happens with Spotify.  You can listen to an unlimited amount of music, and chances are, you’ll buy some of it if you like it.  And then you’ll listen to it again, and again. Sample chapters of an ebook may lead to reading the whole book or purchasing a copy of the physical book.  It’s called browsing.  People do it every day.

  • Create timely distribution of content online, simultaneous with physical releases.

One of the major reasons why things get pirated is that the legitimate distribution services have a delay from the time of broadcast or release dates.  A user can watch something on television, but it takes a day for it to hit Hulu.  There’s no need for that.  It shouldn’t matter if you’re watching it on TV or online, it’s a broadcast.  If a DVD drops, there should be streaming and downloadable copies on the same day.  No question about it.

  • Global releases should be simultaneous.

Another reason why things get pirated is that they may be released in one country first, and then users in another country have to wait from a day, a week, or up to months before it could ever see the light of day somewhere else.  The internet as a distribution channel means that everyone is waiting for that comic to hit the shelf, or that television show to air.  Consumers, and rabid fans especially, are savvy to time zones.  People will wait up to 4:00 a.m to watch a television show in a foreign country.  World Cup anyone?

  • Once it’s out, it’s out.  Make your complete backlist fully available.

As it was in the British Film example, people go looking for what they can’t find through normal distribution channels.  Many of those things are older titles and things that have gone “out of print.”  There is no longer such a thing as “out of print.”  Once something has been published, it is made a part of a permanent body of human work.  You can’t stifle the movement of that item, nor should you.  Take advantage of people’s desire for hard to find items and make your entire body of work available digitally.  If there is a legitimate means to acquire it, people will do so.

  • Simplify the access method

Make the item readable or viewable through software that comports to generally accepted industry standards.  You don’t need to slap a ton of DRM on something, or use some unique proprietary software when you’re making it as widely available and purchasable as possible.  Let your audience buy your product through as many different venues as possible, and on any device they want.  Also, if at all possible to make that content available in multiple devices at once all the better.

  • Set reasonable price points

Users are willing to pay, but not extortionate prices.  Reasonable cost for the product in a timely fashion will lead to sales.  Overly high prices will push users away.  You’re in business, you should know that already.

  • Encourage distribution partners

Don’t quash partnerships that close off distribution channels.  When you pull service from a place it makes the consumers angry.  Instead find multiple venues to promote and sell your product and people will buy it where they go normally.

  • Let your items go

With movies, music and books end this practice of licensing content for use.  It’s a product, people buy it, or they don’t.  It’s not an ongoing service. Once a consumer has purchased an item, the producer/publisher needs to get out of the picture.  Your continual involvement in the product is more than an annoyance, and has crossed over into the realm of mind games.  Will it still be around? Will I know if its deleted?  Do I have to buy it again and again?  Just stop that.  It’s like psychological torture.  Let a person buy a book, and move on with life.  My purchase doesn’t need to be the focus of your life to follow what happens with these items.  It’s intrusive and disingenuous.  A sale of goods is a finite transaction.  Let it be.

  • Allow and promote sharing

People are social creatures, and we like to share things.  Not usually with the whole world at once, but often times with friends that we know in our daily lives.  When you make sharing easier, it spreads word of mouth about your products.  And that’s the strongest link to creating brand awareness, having a trusted friend recommend something.  I like sharing books with friends and I should be able to do that electronically as well as with a printed book.  It’s no different, and shouldn’t be treated as different.

* In Europe a major response to political involvement in digital content has arisen in the form of the Pirate Parties.  Their entire platform revolves around restructuring copyright and patent law.

Enhanced eBooks.

In the last day I think I’ve read a solid half dozen articles about the future of enhanced ebook technology, and what this means for publishing. I think there are some good things happening in this multimedia book future, and there are some other details that still need to be worked out if these are not going to be just blips on the radar screen but rather viable new media environments.

While not the first enhanced thing ever, perhaps the one that actually poked at my brain for a minute was the iPad “app” The Final Hours of Portal 2.  I put “app” in quotes because this isn’t really an “application.”  It’s a kickass piece of writing with some videos and gorgeous full screen pics, but it’s not really an application.  It looks like it could have come straight out of the pages of Wired.  Now, I have only had the iPad for about 3 weeks and I haven’t downloaded this yet.  Part of my reluctance has been, well the iPad isn’t mine.  It actually belongs to the Library, so paying for some kind of awesome content and then having to wipe it if I have to transfer to another location or something is not a great prospect. But I have to say that as a fan of Portal this kind of long form article with special features looks kind of nifty.

I don’t know who told me about Vooks.  Probably I heard about it on Gweek when they were talking about the Portal article mentioned above.  After poking around the Vook website I have come to the conclusion that they are fancy coffee table books.  I don’t buy coffee table books.  Personally I think they’re cheap and often useless.  If I’m buying something to read, I actually want to read it.  Not just look at it cause it’s pretty.

Substance is why I’m actually really turned on to TouchPress and their enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land*.  This is a notoriously difficult poem to understand, as its cobbled together from pop culture things from the dawn of the 20th century, ancient Greek and Latin epigrams, context shifts from scene to scene in mind-bending ways. It’s pretty damn cerebral.  Hence why having tons of enhanced notes and about four different performances of the piece from different actors and poets makes this an incredibly enticing concept.  Not to mention that this kind of textual enhancement would be really fantastic in an educational setting.  My only trip up is that it seems kind of cost prohibitive to hire all these people and sell this app for something like $14.00.  I don’t think of Eliot as a loss leader, but hey, whatever works for Touch Press.

In a very similar vein there is Melville House and their hybrid books with Illuminations.  Here they include supplementary information on the art of dueling to an entire series of novellas about duels embedded in the eBook.  The variation here is that even if you purchase the print editions of the books the publisher provide the link to the additional content available via QR code. It would be interesting to know if the additional enhanced content would be available if library’s purchased the text and people download the additional material in excess of the original purchase. Would the publisher balk at that?  Curious to find out.

Then there was this article in The Atlantic about books with soundtracks.  Now, I’ve seen novels that revolve around music in the text.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Love is a Mix Tape are probably the most obvious. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  This is like writing an entire score for a novel.  That, to me, sounds incredibly awesome.  I mean, could you imagine the Star Wars series of novels with a score by John Williams!  I would totally read the hell out of that.  This reminds me of an issue of McSweeney’s that I found once with an entire interplaying soundtrack by They Might Be Giants.  I can’t think of two more worthy mutants blending together in glorious weirdness.  I probably still have it laying around the house somewhere.  I remember how mind warping it was listening to that CD.  Brilliant.  My big concern is not being able to read fast enough for the music to flow at a pace that I actually read at.  I’m kind of a slow reader, moving at the pace of speaking.  It makes me wonder if the music would be too greatly distorted by slow or fast readers.  That seems like a minor concern for something so awesome, but it’s kind of legit.  With a movie there’s a timestamp that the conductor has to follow.  There’s no such thing for a book, but it seems these Booktrack people have somewhat remedied that.

Now all of this sounds incredibly awesome.  But I’ve got a few of questions.

OS Portability

Lack of portability of many of these enhanced products worries me in general.  What if I decide to go with an Android tablet, or invest in the dead WebOS HP TouchPad? I mean, iPads are the leader now, but they got there mostly from primacy of place.  There’s nothing saying that another more fabulous hardware could overtake it.  Will these be able to be ported over easily to another OS, or do you have to keep that iPad laying around for later?

Media Conversion

If we suddenly develop an amazing new audio and video format will this stuff still be readable?  Will we be able to upgrade our fancy hyperbook to new versions?

Library Editions & DLC

I’m always thinking about library editions, and I mentioned one of my main concerns above.  When the book and the downloadable content are separate, how will the publisher negotiate user access to the DLC?  Is it going to be resalable to a second hand market?

Tablet vs. eReader

Given that the majority of these are designed for the iPad, its clear that the publishers are leaning toward a future where tablet reading is the way to go.  But I think eBook reader technology is going to be on an upswing over the next year or so, and we’ll start to see color e-ink readers coming around with video capabilities to rival the iPad. Will these kinds of technologies be able to integrate themselves into these new environments.  I don’t think the eBook reader is dead, not by a longshot.  Some of these companies ought to keep that in mind.

Even with all these questions I think this stuff is pretty damn cool.  I’m going to try and test drive a few of them sometime soon and may report back about them.

* Incidentally I wrote my college entrance essay on Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” He’s been a favorite of mine for a LONG time now. I’m actually incredibly intrigued to look at this app.