October 12, 2006

The Ongoing Struggle of Free vs. Fee

So, how to make "kids today" recognize that some information is worth paying for rather than being happy to find just anything "good enough" on the free web?

Over at Search Engine Watch, a two part special report from the ASIDIC Fall Meeting. Part two here.

Some of the questions the articles ask:

Does information really want to be free? If so, how can traditional information publishers and aggregators deal with shifting value propositions and revenue models of premium content and survive in the era of free web content?...How can traditional information industry companies survive in the world of free web content? How can they appeal to "digital natives" who question the value of paying for information?
Some very important questions. Let's see some more of the articles. I'm going to exerpt a good chunk of each article here, but really the whole thing is very much worth reading as it has a lot of implications for the scholarly world.
Over the course of the two-day conference, an attendee mentioned that they thought the fear of change in the industry came from Stewart Brand's often-quoted statement "information wants to be free." Understandably, such a statement would be intimidating to a long established industry that has based its entire existence on the model of selling information.

This fear isn't paranoid: New business and revenue models based on new distribution methodology are arising almost daily. The value proposition has been shifted from information itself to the organization, credibility and trust of information. Information itself may want to be free—but an overabundance of free information is causing a shift in the value proposition associated with content. Content is king, but it seems that everyone is now a newly crowned monarch. It is no longer valuable to be a king—value now comes from organizing, and reviewing which content is most credible, has the least bias, and offers the most value to its' specifically targeted user segment. These fundamentals will be critical to the new monetization of content.


One of the other very heavily discussed topics of the conference was the idea of digital natives and digital emigrants presented by Matthew Hong of Thomson Gale publishing, expanding on ideas originally developed by visionary/futurist Mark Prensky.

According to Hong, digital immigrant are individuals who were not born into the digital world, but have emigrated to it. Digital natives, by contrast, were born into technology. These groups of people, including "Generation Y," "Millennials," and the "MyPod Generation" are individuals born between 1978 and 1998, and number approximately 76 million in the U.S.

The discussion of transitioning between the two age demographics of digital immigrants vs. natives seemed to be a key component to the strategies of these large publishing companies will use that will ultimately determine whether they will survive or not.

The key takeaway here is that there is a rapidly growing disconnect between traditional information solutions, which tend to cater to digital immigrants, and user behavior of digital natives. While digital immigrants are willing to purchase traditional information services, the internet is clearly the primary research tool of digital natives. Over 71% of students reported using the internet as the major source of information for recent school projects, with 73% reporting using the Internet more frequently than the library.


Content may be king, but accessibility to that content and finding new models for the monetization of information will be the only things that keep it from being free. Some content (how to bandage a wound) needs only to be "good enough", where other content (how to perform open heart surgery) must be very precise. Expertise, credibility, and organization is what separates "good enough" from premium content.

The prevalence of "good enough" information has shaken the premium content industry to its core, but also serves t increase the overall value of expert information and reducing the overall noise level. There is a fundamental need for traditional information providers to shift to more creative revenue models embodied by the new distribution channel of the web as it reaches mass adoption.

The articles also discuss the implications of the "long tail," federated & metasearching and other topics. Stimulating reading, stuff that's been floating around in all our heads for a while but this is a very good summary & discussion of the main issues.

In the scholarly world, for-fee information may be better than for-free information, but if nobody cares enough to cough up the cash, does it really matter? Or more precisely, if we build expensive collections of for-fee information that will be less and less used over time, are we allocating our limited resources properly?

Does fee-based information have a future? In the short and medium term future, sure, no question. In the long term, looking 10+ years into the future, I'm not so sure. The challenge to really add value to something comparable that is free will keep on getting harder and harder. The kids that are late-teens/early 20s right now will be the gatekeepers of scholarly information in 20-30 years -- will they continue to place the importance on scholarly, subscription-based, peer-reviewed journals and databases that their predecessors did? I doubt it. I think that they already are chomping at the bit, unable to understand why Wikipedia and Google aren't better than good enough. The explanations we give in our IL classes will only get more and more strained as time goes by. We can't make them care about the same things we do. How about the millions we pay in acquisition and licensing fees for our content? If usage steadily declines over the next decades, will we just loose that money or will we just reorganize our priorities? What does this mean for scholarly societies and publishers? Evolution.

1 comment:

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, BfP, it's worth checking out.