Shift happens: how the network effect, two-sided markets, and the wisdom of crowds are impacting libraries and scholarly communication

Bruce Heterick, JSTOR, New York, USA

Abstract: This session will discuss the changing nature of library services and scholarly research in the networked world. Our affiliated group of not-for-profit digital initiatives – JSTOR, ARTstor, Portico, and Aluka – has a unique perspective on this shifting environment. There is ongoing discussion about the evolving Web (or Web 2.0): the migration of the Internet from a platform to a service; the network effect that encourages (and values) contributions and collaborations; and a shift in software and services to a participatory model. This evolution is changing libraries, publishing, and scholarship. In particular, it is fundamentally changing the paradigm of scholarly communication, and this presentation will examine this change.

I thought this was yet another good paper from the final day. Bruce knew his stuff and was an engaging and stimulating speaker. Fabulously, you can download the slides he used from this link: http://www.jstor.org/about/forum/ShiftHappens.pdf (1.1. Mb pdf file)

Bruce opened up by quoting Neil Postman “Technology doesn’t add or subtract something. It changes everything.” It does, however have a short half life. He then argued that Apples introduction of the iPod (bringing us portable media) in 2001 was as important an advance as Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web in 1989.

Next he told us of John Seely Brown’s “Four exponentials” (regarding the pace of change as it applies to working together):

  • Moore’s Law: the power of computing doubles every 18 months.
  • The Law of Fibre: the capacity of the bandwidth of fibre doubles every 9 months.
  • The Law of Storage: digital storage doubles for the same cost every 12 months.
  • The Law of Community (Metcalf’s Law): the power of the network increases with the square of the networked people interacting with it (more people = more power).

This increasing pace of change becomes unsettling for some, but he said that when things are in control, you are probably moving too slowly.

The Transition from the Information Age to the Age of Participation

  • Active, not passive
  • Multilateral, not unilateral (If your federated search has a problem, who do you call? It could be with any one of 12 repositories.)
  • Communities, not silos
  • Contribution as well as consumption.

An Environment with New Dynamics

  • The network effect. It increases in value the more people use it, eg. Open Source software (Linux, Open Office), Communication (email, SMS), Social Networking software (MySpace, Facebook), Scholarly Resources (arXiv.org, JSTOR). Its growth can be extraordinarily fast (“viral”) and without control. Eventually the power of the network moves down.
  • Two-sided markets. In Web 2.0 people can contribute as easily as they consume. These new networks have two groups that provide benefits to each other and enjoy intermediary platforms that balance their interests, eg. Flickr, eBay and OCLC’s WorldCat.
  • The “Wisdom of Crowds”. In the right circumstances groups are often smarter than the best people in them. Their decisions work best when the crowd is: diverse, decentralized, has a mechanism for summarising the answer and acts independently, eg. Wikipedia (this applies particularly to our situation and our Encyclopedia!), Google’s page ranking algorithm.

So, what does this mean for us?

  • Libraries (and we may read here “museums” or “cultural institutions” I think) have to manage access and preservation for system wide and local resources (wikis, blogs, repositories).
  • We need to take advantage of economies of scale (OMG, I think I’ve said this meself before and nobody believed me!) so that we can reduce costs by sharing core services.
  • We must reconfigure our services for the networked environment (which means they aren’t actually configured that way now).
  • We need to learn how to engage proactively with our constituents – see the OCLC report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World.
  • Free-standing publishers will need to share the commodity layers of their activities, eg. HighWire Press. There is tremendous pressure to move from print to electronic publishing.
  • Publishers that harness the network effects and which are able to build self-sustaining communities will grow faster than others, eg. arXiv.org
  • (There are also implications for the academic world, but I’m not going into those here. Sorry, call me selfish and self-centred.)

Conclusion
Libraries (and other cultural institutions) are small systems in a much larger one and we must learn to move with it! Bruce then briefly touched on the “Gorbachev Syndrome” in which change agents are swept aside by the tide of change they initiated because of their continued commitment to legacy systems/products/services. And I’m afraid that in my view, most libraries and archives that I know about are still well anchored in their old ways and processes. The world has changed around us and we need to move on. Some of our much loved standards and ways need to be left behind, not continually patched up and brought with us.

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