Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Semantic Web Technologies Making My Life Easier Soon!

I want this. NOW. (Yes, I registered for the beta, but the site was Slashdotted two days ago and I only registered today, so I'm guessing it's going to be awhile until I get my invitation.)

More about Twine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Economics of Blogging, Continued

More and more people ponder the economics of blogging. Since they all know way more about economics than I do, I'm going to refrain from elaborating and just send you off to read them.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Link Roundup

Using captchas to proofread digitized texts. This is sheer brilliance. Everybody wins by harnessing the time that people are expending filling out captchas, which up until now had been largely wasted time, to do something productive that would be cost-prohibitive to do in any other way.

This article about re-imagining electronic publishing not just as recreating the words of the book on a screen, but also recreating the social, “coffeehouse” aspects of reading and discussing texts online, is pretty brilliant too. (Hat tip: ACRLog.) I cannot wait for publishers to take full advantage of the benefits of e-books, and even though this is a benefit that I hadn't really spent much time considering before I read this article, it might just become my favorite new feature of online books. And I bet it will work fairly well for scholarly books, where the limited number of people reading any given book (and the fact that most of those people will have professional reputations to maintain) ought to keep the quality of the comments pretty high.

Apropos my Cult of the Amateur rant: Tyler Cowen talks about the economics of blogging, and a response by FP Passport.

The down side of open information: People may use freely available online information to do evil things.

Apparently Google Book Search is now making use of Library of Congress Subject Headings data for the books it has digitized. (Hat tip: Cataloging Futures.)

Somebody else is having fun with Amazon's data.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Slashdot to the Rescue

I knew before I read Cult of the Amateur that most cases of identity theft did not involve personal information stolen off of the Internet or other computer networks, but I didn't have the time to go dig up the actual number and argue with Keen on that point, too. (Especially since, like I said, I think that his arguments about identity theft on the Internet are irrelevant to his main argument about the Cult of the Amateur). But since Slashdot so nicely sent the actual figure right to my Google Reader this morning, I'm going to pass it on: this study shows that only 20 percent of identity thefts are conducted over the Internet.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

Yes, I'm finally getting around to reviewing this book, two weeks after I finished it.

Remember how I said a couple of weeks ago that I had not been tempted to throw the book across the room while reading the first 20 pages? Well, the book-throwing impulse kicked in between pages 27 and 69, which I read while stuffed into a center airplane seat between two people who, I suspect, were not interested in hearing me rant about the book. So instead I sat there and scribbled angry things in a little notebook so I could blog them when I got back.

Surprisingly, the part of the book that aggravated me the most was that Keen just fundamentally does not understand economics. (The part that I had expected to find the most aggravating—Keen's insistence that people who are not trained journalists/columnists/critics cannot possibly produce good and useful work—ran a distant second.) Despite his protestations that he is not anti-progress, Keen is indeed a Luddite in the historical sense of that term—someone who recognizes that economic progress is about to make his job obsolete and who wishes to halt that particular aspect of economic progress. Keen recognizes, correctly, that mainstream media's old economic model isn't working in the Web 2.0 world, because the mainstream media has been undercut on price by bloggers who are willing to produce a comparable product (note that I said comparable, not equivalent) for less money (in this case, generally free). “[P]erhaps the biggest casualties of the Web 2.0 revolution are real businesses with real products, real employees, and real shareholders,” Keen writes on page 27. “Every defunct record label, or laid-off newspaper reporter, or bankrupt independent bookstore is a consequence of 'free' user-generated Internet content.” On page 62 he discusses a contest that Frity-Lay ran in which amateurs created commercials for Doritos. He calculates that this contest cost Frito-Lay $331,000 less than it would have cost them to pay for a professionally-created spot. “That's $331,000 that wasn't paid to professional filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors, and marketing companies—$331,000 sucked out of the economy.”

Except that that money wasn't sucked out of the economy. Frito-Lay did not take that money out back and burn it; they spent it on something else—something else that, in their professional judgment, was more valuable than a professionally-created advertisement. Listen carefully, because this is important: it is pretty much always and everywhere a good thing when people and corporations can meet the same needs while spending fewer resources, because that frees up resources that can be used to meet needs that weren't getting met before. One of my favorite econ blogs tipped me off to a great statistic today: There are more World of Warcraft players than farmers in the U.S. today. Something like 2% of the U.S. population today are farmers, compared to around 33% 100 years ago and 90% 200 years ago. Yes, it must have been scary to be a farmer during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, or to be an automotive assembly line worker or a journalist today—but the net result of jobs in these industries being destroyed isn't eternal suffering, it's freeing people up to do things that weren't being done before. If it still took 90% of the population just to grow the crops we needed to feed and clothe ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly enough people left over to produce all of the luxuries that we take for granted today. Anecdotally, living in Detroit, I've heard that a lot of the auto workers who are taking buyouts from the Big Three are going back to school to train for jobs in health care. Who would have wound up taking care of all of the aging baby boomers if progress hadn't made so many automotive jobs obsolete? I don't know what the journalists, columnists and critics who are being displaced by bloggers are going to wind up doing in the future, but I'm sure that somebody will come up with something more productive for them to do, and afterwards we'll wonder how we ever could have lived without having people doing that thing.

Look, nobody is holding any guns to anybody's heads anywhere in this process. I'm sure that the amateurs who submitted commercials to the Frito-Lay contest had a blast making them. People write blogs because they enjoy writing them; people read the blogs that they read because they enjoy reading them. If people want to pay Keen (or anybody else) to keep writing, nobody is saying that they can't. If newspapers can come up with a business model that allows them to bring in enough advertising revenue to continue publishing, more power to them. But if people feel that their information/entertainment needs are being met by free user-created content, then more power to them, too—I'm sure that they can find other things to spend their hard-earned money on that will bring them more utility than paying for content.

After the third chapter, the book began to suffer from the malady that is so common to popular non-fiction books: the author has enough material to write an excellent long-form essay (think a New York Times magazine cover story, or the extended pieces carried by Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker), but prefers the larger paycheck that comes with writing a book and not a magazine article. So, they pad what would have been a very excellent essay (and as much as I'm shredding some of Keen's arguments here, he is an excellent writer with some good points and I do think that there's an excellent essay to be made out of the first three chapters) with a lot of not-entirely-relevant filling to make it book-length. Identity theft (Chapter 7) and online gambling (Chapter 6) are both very bad things that have been facilitated by the Internet, but their connection to the "cult of the amateur" that Keen is decrying is awfully tenuous. Similarly the problem of music piracy (Chapters 4 and 5). Keen's cult of the amateur theory—in a nutshell, that people are turning away from traditionally produced and vetted culture in favor of unregulated dross—is actually disproved in a certain sense by the music industry. Despite the fact that there are thousands of unsigned bands running around posting their music free for the taking on MySpace, people by and large still prefer music created by professional musicians acting within the traditional label system. The fact that they prefer to steal it rather than buy it is a problem, but it's not a problem that's particularly tightly tied to the Web 2.0/Cult of the Amateur phenomenon.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Semantic Web, redefined

This is four years old and probably everyone has seen it but me . . . but it's hysterical, so it's getting linked to again. (It will also take you all of 10 seconds to read.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You know you're a librarian when...'re wandering around the world's largest Christmas store and you start to wonder, "How do they decide on their categorization system for all of these ornaments? What kind of metadata do they use in their internal tracking system? I mean, if I asked one of the clerks if they had any ornaments with skiing penguins, could she look that up in their computer by doing a Boolean keyword search on penguin AND ski*?"

Still technically on vacation. Back with real blogging (including my review of The Cult of the Amateur, which I finished on the way home from Denver) probably this weekend.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Link Roundup

Here goes—a valiant effort to clean off some of my desktop before leaving for Denver for the LITA National Forum tomorrow. I'll be blogging at the LITA Blog for the weekend, so check it out. I have no idea what sessions I'll be blogging yet (I'm going as one of the student volunteers, so I go where they send me), but I'm sure that wherever I wind up, it'll be interesting.

And now, onto the links:

Much of this study falls into the, "Well, duh," category of research. College students prefer search engines over libraries because search engines are faster, more convenient, and easier to use? I mean, it's nice to have some survey data to put with the common knowledge, but this isn't exactly groundbreaking. There are a couple of interesting points, though. Three-quarters of college students realize that, on balance, the information in libraries is more likely to be credible and accurate than information on the Web. I hope that those students aren't blindly trusting everything they read in the library and dismissing out-of-hand everything that they read on the Internet, but it's still not a bad finding. And, finally, the item that really interested me was about students' perceptions of the relative effectiveness of reference librarians versus search engines. One-third of students think that librarians are better than search engines; two-thirds think that they're the same or worse. (I'm actually surprised that these findings are as positive for reference librarians as they are.)

Terje Hillesung writes about Reading Books in the Digital Age Subsequent to Amazon, Google and the Long Tail in First Monday. (Which, apropos of nothing, is the most confusingly-named journal I know. I was a political wonk before I was a library techno-geek, and "first Monday" already has a very specific meaning in political wonkery: the new Supreme Court term starts on the first Monday of October, which is sort of like Christmas for serious wonks. As much as I love First Monday, it's going to be a long, long time until it's the first thing I think of when I hear the words "first Monday.") I haven't had time to read the whole thing yet, but from the abstract it looks like another really interesting perspective on the future economics of publishing.

Some love for librarians in Semantic Web-land, and more about the Semantic Web and libraries (Hat tip for both:

Reading this interview with Richard Ackerman (hat tip: in the midst of reading Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur is a very interesting experience, because they're talking about some of the exact same things (right down to O'Reilly's SciFoo unconference) and yet coming to totally different conclusions about them.

Yes, I've finally gotten around to starting The Cult of the Amateur. So far I don't have much to say about it. Keen writes very well, and I have not yet been tempted to throw the book across the room, but in the first 20-odd pages he really isn't saying much. As far as I can tell so far his big complaint about the Web is that it allows the hoi polloi to read what they're interested in, not what cultural gatekeepers like Keen think that they should be interested in.

I've recently discovered another great blog, called Cataloging Futures. Another librarian who's interested in the Semantic Web!


Who knows what people will do with your data when you put it out there for them to play with formatted in a way that allows for easy playing?

Some folks have created the LazyLibrary, which will let you search Amazon for books on a given topic that clock in at 200 pages or fewer.

(Dear database vendors: please take a page from the LazyLibrary folks and allow me to limit my searches in your databases to articles within a given word count range. This would make it much easier for me to find pieces are the right length to use in Greenhaven anthologies. Thank you.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Economics of Digital Publishing

Tons of pixels have been spilled recently by people trying to figure out how publishing is going to adapt its profit model to the Web. The New York Times has finally abandoned its ill-conceived plan to charge people to access its opinion columnists online; the Wall Street Journal (newly purchased by Rupert Murdoch)—pretty much the only major popular-press publication out there that's managed to succeed with a subscription-only model for online access—is also rumored to be considering putting its content online for free. Why? In both cases, because they think that there is more profit to be made in attracting more eyeballs and in charging advertisers for access to those eyeballs, than in charging the owners of the eyeballs directly for access. People in the Web age have gotten used to the idea that information is supposed to be free, and freely linkable and Googleable, so that free discussions can take place around that information. (See: most political blogs.) And information that is not freely linkable and Googleable will be ignored, as both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have discovered.

So . . . what are the implications of that for libraries? For the amount of information that will be produced by organizations resembling traditional publishers? For the ratio of information-on-the-Web (that can be searched, indexed, mashed up, Semantic-Webbed, etc.) to information-only-on-dead-trees (that can't be)? I'm not sure that anybody really knows yet. But the people who write at the following links are thinking about it.

Representatives from the California Digital Library, Google, and Microsoft discuss publication and academic libraries in the digital age.

Dani Rodrik (professor of political economy at Harvard) asks, “Why publish in a journal if you can disseminate online?”

The Ithaka Report on University Publishing in a Digital Age. (Yes, it's several months old now. But I've been a little busy of late, so it's still sitting in a Firefox tab waiting for me to find time to read it.)

How Google Killed Web Subscriptions, which links to lots of other information about the death of TimesSelect and the rumored death of the Wall Street Journal paywall.

What will AdBlock Plus do to the advertising-supported free online content model?