Open, closed, or ajar? Content access and interactions magazine

[This is a draft of a column I co-authored for the ACM’s interactions magazine with Mark Vanderbeeken of Experientia.  It appeared in September 2008 — interactions, ACM Press, Volume 15, Issue 5 (2008)].
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Harvard’s Law School announced it would open access to the intellectual content created by its faculty members. This means content that is produced by faculty at Harvard will be available for us all to read. A driving issue behind this turn of events is the sheer cost of academic journals. For most individuals, certainly, the costs are prohibitive. But it’s sobering to note that fewer and fewer libraries can afford to stock titles that are directly relevant to academic courses.

The university’s blog post states, “the faculty voted to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available online for free, making HLS the first law school to commit to a mandatory open access policy. Under the new policy, HLS will make articles authored by faculty members available in an online repository, whose contents would be searchable and available to other services such as Google Scholar.” Contrary to some of the negative rhetoric around openness, “open” does not necessarily mean losing control of ownership altogether; publications will be made available with copy/share-friendly licenses. The blog goes on to say “Authors can also legally distribute the articles on their own websites, and educators here and elsewhere can freely provide the articles to students, so long as the materials are not used for profit.”

Appropriately, this announcement rattled swiftly around the blogosphere. For many it represents a significant step, a step toward the vision for democratic access to information on the Internet. Commentators and open-access campaigners were articulate on what this means for individuals and for the broader intellectual community. Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College, and John Palfrey, of Harvard’s Law School (also the executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative) are both long-term open-access campaigners involved in the motion at Harvard, and both blogged the event. Writer Cory Doctorow, who has benefited from publishing novels online before moving to print, reported the event with enthusiasm on the technology and Internet “pulse” blog, BoingBoing.

Even for those not immersed in debates around open content, it is easy to see that this is an important event. From its inception, one of the founding concepts of what sociologist Patrice Fiichy refers to as the “Internet imaginaire” has been democratic access to content. Many have argued that closed knowledge bases limit innovation, stunt business potential, and reduce creative growth potential for business globally; personally, I recommend Eric von Hippel’s 2006 book, Open Innovation, and the writing of authors like Dominique Foray and Steven Weber  on open and closed innovation and the economics of knowledge.

How does all of this relate to us, the readers and writers of interactions? Well, directly. Recent debates around interactions illustrate how discussions of openness and open content are challenging traditional views of publication, content distribution and dissemination, and indeed the economics of idea circulation. This issue was foregrounded when the interactions website went live earlier this year, with a number of people expressing surprise that only the first paragraphs of articles were available for download unless one had a subscription to ACM’s digital library. Currently, two pieces in each issue are available in their entirety on the interactions site; they’re pieces that promote the magazine as a whole and the editors’ vision for the magazine. But a subscription to the magazine is required for viewing the rest of the articles.

At CHI 2008 in Florence, a discussion arose on whether or not interactions should publish more articles, and possibly the magazine in its entirety, for open download, online (acm.org/interactions). Mark Vanderbeeken, of the experience design consultancy Experientia, and I spoke on the “Interactions Magazine Comes Alive” panel. We discussed some of our personal thoughts and experiences of open content, and discussed our perspectives about making the content of interactions freely available on the Web. Some of the points we brought up there reappear here.

First and foremost, paraphrasing John Thackara, quality that is not communicated is simply not quality. To put it crudely, who cares how great the ideas are if we make barriers to hearing/reading them so high that the ideas reach only a small in-group? Closed content is restricted content, and restricted content shared among the few is likely to have limited impact.

Second, the Internet has been called a disruptive technology for the publishing industry in general. Disruptive technologies shake things up. Disruptive technologies lead to the creation of a new industry or transform an existing one. They can add value and shift market position. They can destroy existing competencies and drive/enable change in a value network. And most strategists agree that the only losers are those ossified in an outmoded business model. That said, readership of print magazines in the United States remains stable; around 85 percent of adults read consumer magazines, and this figure has not changed since 2003. So far, it looks like digital publication of articles is simply not a replacement for a carefully designed printed artifact.

Why? Well, for starters, print and digital artifacts simply have very different properties. They invite a different interaction, and the experience of the content is radically different. For example, I am a big fan of O’Reilly’s Craft magazine. I have given copies as gifts to a number of people. I like to annotate my own copies with scribbles and notes. I share my annotated copies with friends. Copies sit around the house visibly waiting – plaintively calling out – to be read. And, crucially, my magazines can be read in the bath and can get just a little soggy without catastrophic effect.

The layout of a magazine differs greatly from the layout of content on the Web. Flicking through a magazine and stopping when something catches your eye is different from browsing through windows, pointing and clicking. Tearing a page out feels different from bookmarking or printing a page. In short, the Web page and the magazine have different informational, tangible and aesthetic properties and ‘affordances’. And in my opinion, the core product, the print magazine, is not going away.

Digital artifacts should invite the reader to desire the physical artifact. And vice versa: I go online to sites like ravelry.com, to instuctables.com, and to YouTube.com to find other crafters and to see videos of how to do something—some skills, especially motor skills, just don’t get communicated as well in static print. I believe that medium matters, and we need to take seriously the careful design of a complementary relationship between the two.

Third, there are many kinds of value, aside from charging hard currency, for content. Value may be purely nonmonetary. For individuals who do not charge for their labor to produce content, the value may be personal satisfaction, or reputation and contribution to the community. For companies who produce materials, like print magazines or web sites and blogs, the value the artifact provides may come from a subscription, it may come from where the content points people to perhaps spend later. The artifact may be a link in a chain of value but not the point of monetary exchange.

Mark’s report of Experientia’s strategy on content sharing renders abstract assertions around value generation concrete. Experientia has demonstrated that the paradigm of company information as proprietary, protected at all cost, is now completely obsolete. Rather, an alternative approach is being taken there: Everything not protected by NDA or of strategic value (e.g., the markets they plan to address in the next four months), should be open to all. All important content and ideas are published on the company blog, Putting People First. The blog started out as something internal. However, it was not protected, and before long, it was getting more and external visitors. The team decided that was not such a bad thing. Many visitors now come to the blog from major international companies like Yahoo!, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, and Samsung.

The company has directly experienced several benefits of this approach:

  1. A channel—Putting People First provides an easy-to-handle communications channel (no email newsletters, no expensive advertising campaigns);
  2. An audience—usually about 6,000 professionals a day
  3. A reputation—a company that has its finger on the pulse of what is going on;
  4. A brand—substantial brand recognition for a company that is not even three years old;
  5. Loyalty—readers feel involved in the content that is given for “free” (Putting People First has become a professional research tool for many, thanks also to its categories and effective search engine), and this openness creates loyalty;
  6. Regularity—the blog is updated nearly every day, so to some extent Experientia is constantly in the minds of its readers;
  7. Relations—people contact the company regularly based on the blog; the blog offers a social nexus;
  8. Jobs—Experientia even got a few new clients, although that is not the main reason for the firm’s doing this; if anything, PPF confirms the firm’s reputation rather than landing new clients out of the blue;
  9. PR opportunities—Experientia staff is regularly invited to conferences and offered writing assignments based on their perceived qualifications;
  10. Dialogue—reactions and reflections on what is going on, either informally or publicly, either directly, or because people link and relink to the site

As the Experientia example suggests, the value-add of the open content is the ripple effect—the other things that become known, which do generate monetary reward. In the case of scholarly journals and magazines like interactions, much of the labor of content production is volunteered, not for monetary gain. But the labor fits within a system in which the rewards are very real—promotion of ideas, of products, of companies, of self, personal satisfaction, growth of future opportunities.

Printing a magazine has a price tag of course. The costs of magazine production include editing, illustrating, layout, printing, distribution, and archiving. Online distribution does not erase operating costs; funds are needed to cover platform and interface development and maintenance, promoting, and archiving. The revenue model currently in place to cover these costs is subscription, or what has been called “reader page charges.” Other models that we can start playing with are:

  • Free access after an embargo period—charge those who want content immediately, but after a while the content can become freely available; this is one of a number of possible tiered revenue models
  • Author page charges—charge authors for the content
  • Institutional, governmental, and vested agency payment—with open content in the academic domain, many argue that taxpayers have already paid for government-funded work through taxes, so the results should be freely available
  • Advertising—arguably, the model that drives much of the Internet
  • Sponsorship is another possibility—this could be issue-based sponsorship or section-based sponsorship

Mark and I argued on the panel that there is a great opportunity with interactions to generate interest and gain momentum around important sociotechnical design issues through a thoughtful, well-written, and well-edited magazine very much appreciated by the professional user-experience community. interactions provides—as named above—a great entrée point: to ideas, people, and potentially, to our funder, the ACM.

We sparked debate from the panel with ideas that simply scratch the surface on the issues involved. What are your views? Are you someone who would/do pay for the subscription, who would pay to download the articles? Do you have artful suggestions for business models not explored in this brief article? So the question is, what does open content mean for a magazine like interactions? Please share your thoughts on the interactions site.

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