Thursday, August 17, 2006

Alas, I Hardly Knew Ye

Over six hundred billion pages of content. That's 100 pages for every person alive. A number comparable to all the content produced between 1895 and 1995.

One blog created every second. Paired with other updates and additions to blogs, homepages and other websites, we're talking about millions of pages of content created every day.

We live in a world where "wiki" is part of our everyday vernacular. Where people who don't know the difference between C++ and an orange soda know the principle of Open Sourced Software. A world of YouTube, Myspace and Google Video. A world of user-generated information.

Now some dates:

1980. 26 years ago. Tim Berners Lee develops the first working hypertext system for sharing information. It became the backbone for the World Wide Web.

August 9, 1995. The Netscape IPO changes the world. The 'net is made mainstream. The information age has begun.

The ten years since have done more to change the world than any other decade in history. The web makes the printing press look like the hoola-hoop in terms of impact. Nothing--nothing--has had so immediate, far-reaching, and global effect.

Nearly eleven years to the day later, that world comes crashing down. The web is on its last legs, and we will all be the less. For Roger Pearse has seen JSTOR.

Okay, so this has been a bit of a tongue in cheek poke at the hyperbolic title of Roger's post. But my disagreement with his suggested demise of the user-generated information that defines the current 'net (at least for those who share "our interests," but his reasoning carries over to pretty well any academic field) is genuine, and based entirely on the information and dates provided above.

It's easy to forget how young the Web is. It's so permeated nearly every aspect of our lives that it's difficult to imagine it not being there. We don't simply benefit from it, we rely on it. That view--not seeing the web as being in the infancy stages that it certainly is--is the fundamental flaw in Roger's pessimism.

An example of this pessimism? Roger suggests that the abundance of information on Severus Sebokht found in a search in the JSTOR proves its advantage over the 'net, where Google produces relatively few results (Google, incidentally, provides 339 results, which doesn't seem that bad for an obscure 7th century bishop. I'm not sure what the JSTOR provides--I can only access it at the university, which is a heck of a drive from here, but I'd guess it's actually less than that).

Let's stop a moment and reflect on this. Google, searching predominantly user-created pages, the huge majority of which were created in the last ten years, finds less information than over a century's worth of academic journals devoted to that subject matter. So what?

The fundamental--and wholly unexpected--premise of the 'net is that consumers create the content. As time goes on, more users will create more content. It's rate is constantly accelerating. If he was so inclined and so interested, Roger could create the content on the obscure bishop in question. And if he doesn't, sooner or later, someone else will.

Roger is right in that the user-generated web and projects like the JSTOR cannot co-exist indefinitely. But open standards always win out. And in the end it will be the web, not JSTOR, that remains. The web will do what JSTOR can never do in return: render it obsolete. While I would not match Roger's prediction of a scant ten years (though at the current rate of the net's accelerating growth, it might not be out of the question), in due course it will be the web that kills projects like JSTOR, not the other way 'round.

Roger's suggestions that the fat-cat publishers are going to endeavour to drive sites like his off the 'net is unrealistic. Even if Roger doesn't recognize the futility of such a gesture, publishing houses surely do. They don't have the RIAA (who is probably going to lose their first actual trial anyway) behind them. They cannot possibly hope to control access to such information, nor to prevent users from creating and providing it.

The web is going to become more heavily integrated into our lives, more of a creative outlet, more of a source to both dispense and gain information, not less. And the presence of JSTOR isn't going to change that.

As late as February of '95, pundits in such notable publications as Time and Newsweek were issuing the same sort of negative predictions Roger is now (the 'net will never succeed commercially, users will never create enough of their own content to make it worthwhile). Like Roger, they were all wrong.

Updated to Add

Just to add a bit above, in light of further consideration of Roger's comparison to iTunes in the comments, which is, in fact, quite useful here.

iTunes, in time, will also pass. It's simply an effort to adapt to the digital age. But it's ultimately a change in method of distribution. That's all well and good, but has nothing to do with why the web succeeds as it does.

The principle behind the distribution of content--all media content--is that consumers will not create their own. And it is this that was the unexpected discovery of the web: Given the resources and the audience, people will create content in abundance. It is not the method of distribution that is challenged, it is the entire model.

The collapse of traditional media will, of course, take time. But how fundamentally altered it has already been--again, it's only been a decade--attests to the fact that it will collapse.

A useful point is provided by Tim O'Reilly (of the O'Reilly computer books), who is probably the closest thing to a prophet of the digital age on the planet. When asked what he looks for to identify what will be a successful trend (something he's able to do with alarming frequency), he asks but one question: What are they doing to harness the intelligence of their users?

JSTOR is doing nothing. It's a useful resource, to be sure. But it's one that will facillitate the content that will ultimate destroy it. People will use resources like JSTOR to create more content for the web. This is an unequivocal and observable fact--it already happens.

What they won't do is use JSTOR to replace that content. It is simply another resource for the consumer to become the provider.


Roger Pearse said...

I'm glad that my post has attracted some attention. But I think that you dismiss it too quickly, and while I would hope that you are right, I think that you are wrong.

The creation of archives of scholarly material has not been undertaken by the community. The few individuals doing it cannot hope to compete with something like JSTOR. Look at the Patrologia Latina site -- the online equivalent is, full of texts full of typos. There is really no comparison. Look at the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae -- where are the free online Greek texts?

The references to Severus Sebokht (my chosen example) on google are all more or less useless, retailing a single quote as a rule. The JSTOR material is article after article of real peer-reviewed information on late antique science.

As you suggested, I have in fact been compiling material myself, although it is incomplete, and it is available online here:

This collection is still superior to anything to be found in JSTOR. But for how long?

Already the French National Library is digitising large numbers of books (, and their printed manuscript catalogues (indispensable for studies in this particular field) are already online and available for download as PDFs. Once the other major repositories follow suit, a collection of data such as my own will be redundant, and reduced to merely a portal to the major sites.

The strength of the internet is not in the mass of ignorant opinion online. It is the presence of vast amounts of actual data, under the control of no-one. But with JSTOR available to every student -- although not to you or I! -- who will create such things?

You suggest that publishers don't have an RIAA. But the RIAA have been a success! They have driven mp3's mostly off the net, and ensured that sites like iTunes make money. Their success means that printed publishers have every incentive to organise themselves that way also, and will do the same.

As I said, I wish that it was not so. But I see no reason to doubt that this is what will happen.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Roger,

Firstly, you give the RIAA too much credit. Take a look here, for example:

Bittorrent accounts for 30% of internet bandwidth, the vast majority of that bandwidth being spent on movies and mp3s. They not only haven't been driven off, they've scarcely moved. iTunes succeeds because people will pay for content, not because they have to.

Further, look at the tens of thousands of free songs you can find on MySpace, where many bands stand a legitimate chance of being successful. Based on nothing but user content.

But even beyond this, you can't analogue journals to the RIAA. Your average publisher of an academic journal has a fraction of the RIAA's resources. They get away with bullying because few can afford to go to trial. Like the MPAA, when they're faced with actual challenges, they do nothing but backpedal.

Further, you miss the point of why the web will win. It's not because it will index more existing material, it's because it will create more new material. It already does so, at several times the rate.

And whether the references to Severus Sebokht are useful or not isn't really relevant. My point wasn't that Google had references, it was that the web is new. It is in its infancy, and has exploded like nothing before it. You're comparing a ten year old phenomenon, that is almost entirely user-generated, with over a century of academic journals. Why not compare the last ten years? The web blows it away at large. To be sure, there are still topics that more is generated in the academy. The number of those topics is dwindling. There is no reason to expect that to stop, and every reason to expect it to continue.

It's not a question of if information will become available freely online, it's a question of when. One might as well try and stop the tide by holding their hands up.

We are standing on the brink of quite probably the most important moment in human history--someday August 09 1995 will be mentioned in history books as the day the world changed. The internet consistently and continuously provides more than expected. Never less.

What we have now was on nobody's ten year plan in '96. Naysayers have consistently predicted that tide to shift. They have uniformly been wrong.

Chris Weimer said...

For all of our sakes, I hope you are right, Rick.


Rick Sumner said...

As Morpheus said on Matrix Reloaded, "I do not believe it is a matter of hope, merely a matter of time."

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