Thursday, March 23, 2006

Open Creativity: super long post part three -- the pay off

Recap: So... in part one we established that, over time, value (which is another way of saying wealth) often moves "up the chain" from the individual to the group. And that, as systems become more complex, value begins to accrue at the group level more efficiently than at the individual level. EG, it's easier for a nation to fix interstate highway systems for everyone than it is for you to fix just the four miles you drive everyday to work.

In part deux, we talked about how "meta" activities are necessary in order for this glomming of value to take place. You need to have enough wealth (in the form of excess food) to allow "meta farmers" (planners, civil engineers, potters, builders, architects, mathmeticians... even if you call them priests) the chance to develop even better methods of developing excess food. Virtuous cycle.

We are now, I believe, in a phase of economic and intellectual history I refer to as The Age of Content. I won't go into great detail on that theory. You can read a bunch more of my thoughts on this subject in an essay I wrote if you like. It's geared mainly toward marketing, but it makes the main point that needs to be made here: right now, content is king. We've moved from real estate as the main source of wealth, to "stuff," to the transporation of stuff, to energy and communications... to... content. I'll pull one short section from the essay to define and give examples.

Content is: Information that is manipulated, arranged, categorized, crafted, and tweaked in order to provoke in participants a sense of value received from original, created meaning. Examples include:

  • News: all kinds, depending on what you value

  • Sports: both the playing of sports and the viewing and the news of it

  • Music: lyrics, songs, arrangements, covers, concerts, recordings

  • Art: all kinds; from the fine arts to industrial design to advertising to performance

  • Opinion: essays, letters to the editor

  • Spectacle: the circus, reality TV, game shows, magic, politics

  • Stories: dramatic or comedic, on film, in books and plays or on TV

  • Character: the details and actions of personalities in fiction or the public eye

  • Consultative services: doctors, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, publicists, marketers

  • Research: all sciences, hard and soft

  • New technology: the development of new products and services based on research

  • Metadata: the services that connect users to content and vice-versa

That's my own definition. And I get a lot of crap about it, but that's OK. I'm sticking to my guns. We can argue that definition some other day. For now, please just accept that content is important and that producing it is a great way to make lots of money.

If you don't believe me, take a look at a report from the Online Publishers Association that says that consumers spent $987 million for online content in the first half of 2005.  That'd be about $2 billion for the whole year. Just for online content. And that doesn't count the online content they outright didn't pay for and that had no economic intent (fun, free, fabulous blogs like this), the online content (advertising and editorial) that drove consciously drove offline purchasing behavior, the freely available online content (entertainment) that housed advertising and the freely available online content (entertainment samples) that drove offline purchase of like media.

Content is huge. Content is mind food. When less than 1% of the people are needed to feed the rest of us, what do we do with all that time and energy? And when we finally have cheap (relatively) computing and communications? When the cost of those efforts (content efforts) is dramatically less (and has fallen dramatically quicker) than costs in other areas of recreation and infrastucture improvement like transportation and packaging improvements?

Put it this way -- if you could put 10 "units of effort" into a "content solution" for raising profits for your company, or 10 of those same units into a non-content solution... which do you think would be more likely to pay higher dividends these days? Look at the list above...  Suppose you want (like many companies) to make more money. Content-related efforts might include:

  • PR: generating news and buzz; blogging

  • Marketing: new, funky campaigns; better brand strategy

  • Knowledge management: understanding your customer-supplier chain better

  • Training: Getting better at your key strengths

All of these efforts rely on the creation or consumption of content. And no matter what your product or service, they will (if done well) leverage your efforts with little regard for geographic barriers. Which is neat. Let's contrast that to non-content (more "worldly," I guess... traditional? I don't have a good word for "non-content") business improvement efforts:

  • Shave time off a business process or time-to-market

  • Buy more of something to get scale savings

  • Open additional outlets in order to reach more customers

You get the point. "Real world stuff." Yes, these things are hugely important. And, yes, you'll often need to do them. But if you have a choice... if you can beat the other guy on content... take that route 100% of the time. Why?

Because you can then leverage that benefit across any number of "real world" factors. The reverse does not necessarily hold true.

And -- content creation is often less replicable than "meat world" benefits. You can't copyright speed-to-market. You can't trademark scale savings. You can copyright and trademark your content creations.

And -- content is almost infintely replicable in scale. If an ad works well in one market, it often will in others (not always, but often). If a book sells well in print, you may be able to make a movie, a game, etc.

So... content is king. What's that got to do with Open Source?

Well, content is to our current age as corn and beef were to the time when 97% of us worked in agriculture. Those things (meta ag) which allowed all the farmers to improve crop yields brought benefits to society as a whole, and allowed for the vast improvements in wealth creation we've seen since then. They allowed intellectual capital to be freed up; moving from behind a plow to behind books, to behind computers.

Now, in the Age of Content, those efforts that move us, collectively, from behind the technology to in front of audiences will be the most valuable. From "futzers with software" to "reachers of minds." From manipulators of mice to creators of content.

And the Open Source movement enables that to happen in two very important ways that don't in more, fixed, "capitalistic" systems.

First, the creation of whatever "Open Source" stuff itself is, inherently and explicitly, more creative than doing things in a more closed environment. So the Open Source content itself (whether software, music, writing... whatever) will be more creative, by definition.

Second, Open Source allows for more participants to progress up the "value chain" of content creation at a lower cost of entry. This is the "content equivalent" of being able to use an iron plow... for free. Of being told about crop rotation. Of being given access to engineering plans for irrigation. You get it.

Now... As my friend David Leslie recently reminded me in an email on this subject --  TANSTAAFL. "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." That is, "free" software isn't really "free." Somebody pays. Obviously, the authors pay in time and effort, sometimes in money. If their choice is to release the fruits of their work for recompense other than those pecuniary... that's their choice. But they have, indeed paid.

End-users pay, too. In many cases, there are hidden costs associated with the widespread use of Open Source content that are not, at first apparent to those users. The two most often sited by opponents of Open Source are support and ongoing maintentance. That is, when you adopt an Open Source solution, how are you going to take care of it, and will it be around for the long run?

The good answer -- as in so many complex topics, there is no "right" answer -- is one of balance. This argument is very like the ones I mentioned earlier between conservatives and liberals about where to draw the line between "too much government" and  "not enough social service."

In the case of Open Source, it is a question -- I believe -- of balancing goals vs. risks. Which is, at its heart, a question that businesses (and, to a less formal extent) individuals make when choosing any solution.

For example, if you are a brain surgeon, I would not necessarily recommend an Open Source piece of software that is absolutely key for the delivery of your service at the dramatic moments of incision. That operation (pun intended) is absolutely vital (still intended) to what you do for a living and any "fuzziness" in the program could mean death for your patient, and real trouble for you in terms of excess paperwork and guilt.

On the other hand... if you're a brain surgeon, how about Open Source for your blogging software? Or for software to help you track your family tree? Or for your word processing and spreadsheeting? Or even for keeping your small practice's appointments and bills? Ask youself (Dr. Brainsurgeon), "What are the potential risks of using this Open Source solution, vs. the gains of not paying for it... "

The bigger your application, the more carefully you need to weigh the balance.

Another example from my life. I manage a team of eight designers, writers, translators and project manager type folks. For us, Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, Dreamweaver, etc. are incredibly important tools. So are (to a lesser extent) the Microsoft Office Suite of applications. I would sooner cut off my left hand than ask my crew to give up Photoshop. Photoshop is God. There are a few very decent Open Source alternatives out there (that I mentioned in the first part of this post), that are great for students, small businesses, individuals just getting started in design, etc. etc. That's their choice, on their "balance line." But for a decent sized design shop that lives and dies by the JPG... give me Photoshop or give me death.

Now... Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice 2.0? My gang is probably also the "hardest hitters" of Word and Powerpoint. We do some funkyanna hoo-hah in Word in order to make "customziable" stuff for the field. And we do lotsa lotsa Powerpoint work. But if our VP of finance told us that the comp'ny could save $XXX,XXX every year by switching to OpenOffice, and we think that we can get just as good service, and any problems will have to be taken in stride because of the savings and blah blah blah.... you know what? I could probably live with that.

But I'm not an Excel freak. And I don't know that there isn't somebody in Research or Planning or Finance itself for whom the idea of moving from Excel elicits the same kind of cold-sweat fear that the thought of losing Photoshop does for me. They might have a different balance point for their value judgement of benefit vs. risk.

But... and this is a big but.. (I like bit buts, and I cannot lie...) the huge question still remains:

Is the Open Source movement good in the aggregate, on the whole for the planet. Or is it a bad idea that happens to have some minor, granular, happy bits that sparkle and shine for folks on a limited, short-sighted, personal basis?

I say the former. It's really, really good for the planet. Because it moves the "balance point" way down the scale for many more "creatives" than otherwise would have had the chance to participate in the Age of Content. And when more people are creating, you get more and better ideas. We may think that the "Open" in "Open Source" is an adjective -- "the source code is open." But I have begun to think of it as a verb. It "Opens" up possibilities for more and more people.

We have finally (on a large, large scale) personalized and internalized (or socialized... I'm not sure what the right word) the reasons why we have public schools and libraries. It's why we have roads that aren't all private toll roads. It's why we pay taxes to fund pure medical research. We understand that "sharing is good" in many cases. No, not always. Again -- I love capitalism. It works really well for some things. Competition is good.

But for for those things that will help a vast majority of people move into areas where they can participate more fully in the competitions that create wealth for all of us -- sharing is best. Open is best.

That last sentence is the whole point of this giant, three part, god-awful-long post.

Sorry it took so long to get there, but the path to a (hopefully) good idea is sometimes strewn with... many... bloggy... rocks?

Anyway. Go share. Go compete. Do both. They're not in conflict. Really. I promise. They are brother and sister in a happy, effective economy where more people get to do more and better stuff than plow all day long.

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