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Information Entrepreneurs | Sep 06, 2005 08:39

RUSSELL BROWN, National Library, Sept 2, 2005

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The following is the text of a paper presented to the Research, Libraries, Collections, Creating Knowledge conference at the National Library, Wellington, on September 2, 2005. A recording of the address, with a few more jokes in it, is available at


The handful of men who decreed the terms of what we now know as the Internet were benevolent dictators.

They made decisions on the basis of what was, in engineering terms, no more or no less than good taste. They weren't averse to using more than moral suasion. They controlled a good deal of research funding, and they made it clear that universities that did not heed their instructions on crucial issues could expect to see the money dry up.

But at the same time, they established a process that allowed their decisions to be tested: the Request for Comment, or RFC. In comparison to the procedures of institutional standards bodies, RFCs are remarkably informal. Their distribution is typically unlimited. In principle, anyone in the world can respond to one. Joke RFCs are published every April 1st. RFC 2486, published in 1998, is not a technical document, but a remembrance of the first RFC editor, Jon Postel, the "Father of the Internet".

And yet, it is arguably the most effective development of practice in modern history. The standards and protocols that emerged from it facilitate every move we make on the Internet today. Competing network standards from some of the most powerful companies in the world have come and gone, as did one anointed by the United Nations.

The Internet's benevolent dictators did not simply win their technical argument. To the extent that environment determines culture, they set in place not only the engineering principles of the Internet, but its cultural template. By their own example, they established a pattern that occurs time and again on the Internet: a pattern of motivated individuals and mobilised communities.

This is the pattern we see now in the blogosphere; sometimes to spectacular effect.

During last year's US election campaign, CBS News' 60 Minutes programme ran a controversial story on President Bush's military service, based on a hitherto unknown memo from his commanding officer. The conservative blog Power Line was annointed "weblog of the year" by Time magazine for its work in showing that the memo was forged, but in fact Power Line's authors did little more than ask the question: the real legwork was done by a horde of readers, some of whom displayed a zeal and expertise that put professional journalists to shame.

More recently, blogs on the other side of the divide used a similar division of labour to demonstrate that a mysterious conservative journalist given press accreditation to the White House was working under an assumed name, that the news organisation he worked for was nothing of the kind, and that his services as a gay prostitute were being advertised - explicitly - on the Internet. In that case the labour of investigation was explcitly allotted to willing readers; volunteer investigators.

This is the modern phenomenon of the "blog swarm"; something as dizzying and angry as its name suggests. It has encouraged some commentators to hold forth - generally in their own interest - on "the power of the blogs". This power is so great, it is held, that the millions of individuals with their online journals will supplant the mainstream media.

But bloggers would soon run out of things to say were there not a steady flow of professional journalism from which to feed. With this in mind, the professionals - again, with their own interests to the fore - like to depict the blog hordes as no more than unprincipled amateurs.

In reality, good bloggers are neither the slayers of the mainstream or mere news parasites. They are Information Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurialism is the novel combination of resources that results in an increase in wealth. And just as we depend on financial entrepreneurs to increase society's overall wealth, to take us forward, so we depend on "information entrepreneurs" to make the connections that increase our wealth of knowledge.

It is not a matter of "power", it is a matter of the usefulness of individual voices - and that is a story as old as the Internet itself. Linux, the open-source operating system that powers much of the Internet, was the brainchild of one man - the Finn Linus Torvalds. But it is the work of thousands, who cleave to the collaborative, sharing process overseen by Torvalds. Any work created by one Linux developer can be used by any other.

There are many other examples, including some which speak directly to the issues at this conference. We all know about Google; fewer of us understand why Google rose from almost nowhere to command its industry. When its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began to shop around their ideas in 1998, search engines worked badly. The big companies behind them had compromised their integrity by selling results; none seemed interested in fixing the problem. One CEO memorably told Page and Brin that "our users don't really care about search."

We did, of course. And Google embodied a simple, brilliant idea. It was, effectively, to ask us what we thought was important. If a website had many links to it, or its key people were namechecked elsewhere, it was considered to be a trusted part of a community, and its ranking reflected that. In doing a Google search, we could draw on the knowledge, experience and good taste of everyone else.

In the same year that Page and Brin began to seek support for their ideas, an older Internet venture underwent a rite of passage: the Internet Movie Database was acquired by, as the technology bubble expanded.

IMDB emerged in 1990 as an undifferentiated mess of information about movies. Its founder, Col Needham, was simply a film fan, as were the people who started to send him cast lists and biographies. But as a Unix computer programmer he had access to an engineering heritage that helped it steadily develop into a resource without parallel.

IMDB now attracts 18 million visits a month, but the multi-million dollar deal has done little to change its essence. Its greatest resource is still its community: the 100,000 individuals who feed it information. Seventy per cent of its staff resources are devoted to ordering this information. Created and nurtured outside the screen industry, IMDB is now that industry's primary information resource.

These riches of community content extend, of course, far beyond IMDB. There are volunteer resources for stars, franchises, TV shows - even websites dedicated to individual episodes of TV series - and in many cases the phrase "fan site" does not do them justice. There are episode guides, histories - all the things that the owners of the original content did not think or did not bother to provide.

After a false start, Peter Jackson realised that it was better to hold close the creators of, rather than serve them with trespass orders. And TVNZ should be grateful to Regan and Rachel Cunliffe, the creators of Idolblog, for providing the New Zealand Idol franchise with a persistence and sense of community it would otherwise have lacked.

A similar principle is at the heart of a far more ambitious venture, launched four years ago: Wikipedia, "the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit." You may be familiar with the standard criticisms of Wikipedia: that it is fed by amateurs with agendas, that it cannot be trusted.

A sign that Wikipedia's great strength is also its great weakness came recently when it emerged that one of its newer entries - on British pop star Jamie Kane - was fictional. Kane was a character in an online game launched by the BBC; his "biography" had been added by a staff member in a misguided attempt at viral marketing. The entry was swiftly corrected - without deleting the original - in line with the Wikipedia process, but it appears it may not have been the only stunt of its kind. So there is still a place in the world for authority.

But consider this: many of you will be familiar with Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Online. Nearly as many of you may be surprised to discover that it does not contain a biography of the late David Lange. More surprisingly, neither does its online sibling, the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, which does not trifle with the living, nor, apparently, rush to judgement on the departed. They are not alone: two weeks after Mr Lange's passing, the Encylopaedia Britannica - online, but not up to date - had still not noticed his loss.

So where might a New Zealand schoolchild turn to discover what all the fuss was about? A Google search on Mr Lange's name would render as its first result the Wikipedia entry for David Lange. It correctly identified him as deceased within a couple of hours of the news being made public, and in the days after his passing it blossomed.

I understand that when Te Ara was conceived, the idea of user-generated content was specifically rejected. This was a mistake. If there is one part of the site that grieves me, it is the section on New Zealand music. The last 15 years have seen an emergence of national identity in our popular music that is as significant as the arrival of a characteristically New Zealand literature in the 1930s.

And yet the New Zealand music entry in Te Ara is little more than a brochure. I would love to be able help build a deep and broad resource here, and I'm not alone. We have knowledge and skill. But there is no way in for us.

As I noted, not everyone sees user participation this way. In a rather spiteful essay this year, Robert McHenry, the editor in chief of Britannica, dubbed Wikipedia the "faith-based encyclopedia" and compared it to a public restroom where the visitor "does not know who has used the facilities before him."

In fact, the reverse might be argued. On any Wikipedia page you can click a tab to see its editing history: who added what, when, and every previous instance of the page. Effectively, you know not only who has used the restroom, but exactly what they did in it.

There is a parallel here with the Internet engineering process, and its RFCs. No RFC can ever be unpublished, even if it is obsolete. The argument must be forever apparent.

Bloggers often embrace this principle without even realising it. If a post later proves to be wrong or intemperate, the ethical thing for the author to do is generally not to delete it, but to make another post, or annotate the original.

This relates to an expectation of actuality in the Internet age - an expectation to which libraries and archive organisations must respond. People today do not want simply to hear of a thing, or have a thing explained to them, they want to confront the thing themselves.

We have seen, to quite revolutionary effect, a shift of this order in political life. Ten years ago, access to official reports and draft laws was the preserve of a select few, mostly in Wellington. Now, most of that is online. Similarly, we no longer have to settle for reading about party and lobby group press statements via the media. They are all posted to, the national noticeboard of political life.

But members of the public can not only view these things from anywhere on the Internet, they can direct others to them. A good political blog post might draw together a moment from Hansard, a ministry report, an old story from the Herald, today's party political press release and, of course, a comment from another blog to make an argument. That is what being an Information Entrepreneur means.

We saw an even more striking change in the relationship between the community and the media with last year's Indian Ocean tsunami and this year's terrorist bombings in London. Personal accounts of the tsunami - in blogs and emails - formed such an important part of the coverage that the British National Library moved to harvest and preserve them.

In London on July 7, the major London newspapers appealed for eyewitness accounts as soon as the news broke, and published them on receipt. To a remarkable degree, people seemed to know what was required of them: their accounts were concise and relevant.

Blog traffic worldwide was estimated to have jumped 30% on July 7. As it had done in the wake of the tsunami, Wikipedia spawned a page for the bombings as the news broke. That page became a resource of breadth and depth - and, most remarkably, it probably kept abreast of events better than any single media organisation. That is how much things have changed: an encyclopaedia does breaking new better than the news media.

By the end of that day, the BBC had received 30 mobile phone videos of events and more than 300 digital images from the public. Its head of news talked of a "gear shift" in the broadcaster's relationship with its audience.

The BBC, which I think is leading the way now, just as it exemplified the vision of Lord Reith in another era, has acknowledged that relationship in another way: BBC Backstage. This is a part of its website, where the BBC says: perhaps you know a better way to harness our information than we do.

Programmers are given full access to the BBC site's feeds to use in new ways. Among the most useful hacks have been blends of the news feed and the equally open geographical mapping service provided by Google. (Those without programming skills are invited to simply contribute ideas for things they' like to see.)

Similarly, in drawing up a schedule for release of material under its Creative Archive policy, the BBC asked the public what they would like to see first. It turned out to be nature and science programmes.

And further, the first release under the Creative Archive project is explicitly intended for derivative use: a series of clips for VJs who mix live video images to accompany music.

Can libraries accommodate this kind of shift? They have, many times. When libraries as we know them first appeared in classical Greece, only a select few could see the books, and they were never allowed to wander among the stacks. The Romans established libraries as public facilities. But for many centuries, books were far too expensive to be actually allowed out the door. They were literally chained to the shelves.

As Robin Hyde noted in 'The Singers of Loneliness', her lyrical observation of an emerging culture, in the 1930s, many New Zealand libraries did not permit the copying of manuscripts - by anyone. This would seem indefensible now.

At this point, I should declare an interest: the group blog site I run, Public Address, attracts between five and six thousand visits a day. I think our authors all make a useful contribution to the national conversation, and that some of what is said there will become part of our cultural history.

Last year, I introduced a new feature to Public Address: a "historical blog" called Great New Zealand Argument. I had become aware that there was great writing of argument that had direct relevance to the kinds of contemporary issues debated daily on our website. I wanted that writing to be seen.

Our first post was the transcript of David Lange's 1985 Oxford Union debate speech. It turned out to be the first published transcript of this iconic speech. It was read 10,000 times in its first week and a half online. It took only three days for it to rise to the top of Google rankings for the relevant search strings. No one had to make that so: it happened because that is how Google works.

The second work posted was Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' - an essay accorded great significance in the study of New Zealand literature, but out of print and unavailable to the public. Five thousand people read that in a week: more than had accessed it via the Turnbull Library in a decade.

This year, that historical blog became a book: 'Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves'. Just before I travelled to Wellington, we - I formed a publishing company too - agreed that it should go into a second printing, meaning it has covered its costs. I should note that the book has sold well despite nearly everything in it having already been made available on the Internet.

I have been able to offer compensation in cash or kind to those who took the original leap of faith and let me put their work online. Indeed, perhaps the nicest thing about the project was being able to buy old Bob Gormack a good bottle of whisky for a poem even he had forgotten he had written! The book has also afforded me the pleasure of meeting one of its contributors: the former head of the Turnbull, Jim Traue. It has also been a delight to make the acquaintance of the Turnbull's Philip Rainer.

I am not an expert on New Zealand literature, or any literature. I am an ignoramus. But I know what I like and I am motivated, and there is value in that. As, effectively, a modern pamphleteer, I am excited by the knowledge that the original Turnbull bequest includes more than 6000 pamphlets.

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