Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Open access and the irony of normal behavior

Once upon a time you had to go to conferences. First you registered, then you bought a plane ticket, booked a hotel, packed a bag and went. And then you came back.

Now, you can not go to a conference. You stay at home/work and check a conference site or search engine such as upcoming or eventful. You login, read the program online, find the sessions you care about, logon for streaming audio/video if available, attend in SecondLife, and/or submit questions via email/skype/IM to the speakers on stage/bloggers in audience, and then you read the live blog coverage. Then you go get lunch and go back to whatever else you were doing.

Alternatively, you can stay home, wait a day, listen to podcasts, download text of speeches, watch the presentations on YouTube or Fora.TV, read all the blogs, comment and discuss, check your RSS feed of del.icio.us tags to make sure you didn't miss anything. Then go get lunch and go back to whatever else you were doing. What do you lose? Frequent flier miles.

And, in the ironic twist that is business in the networked age, the conference business is booming. The easier it becomes not to go to a conference, the more people want to go. There are lots of reasons for this, but, since this is all just a metaphor, I'll leave you to think of them.

What is the metaphor? In an age of easy access to information and networks, the more open an information source is, the more valuable it is. Opening the virtual doors to conferences doesn't keep conference goers at home, it invites more in. Opening the virtual doors to other information sources - file cabinets, source code, board meetings, think tank discussions, writing projects - should do the same thing. Obviously, not everyone agrees with this. The open access movement, open source, and creative commons folks will agree. I think its fair to say that the Recording Industry Association of America probably won't.

Regardless of the RIAA, artists and writers are getting into the open access movement anyway. Jonathem Lethem, author of one of my favorite books, Motherless Brooklyn,* announced yesterday that he was making the movie rights to his newest book available for free. He will give the rights to a filmmaker who agrees to two conditions -- 2% of the budget be paid to Lethem once a film has a distribution deal and the filmmaker must release ancillary rights to the film 5 years after it premieres. Lethem is also giving away song lyrics and selling story ideas for $1 apiece at The Promiscuous Materials Project site.

So, in my endless quest to convince foundations that they should share their research, strategy papers, evaluations, and other information that could be useful to other grantmakers, I've found a new frame for an old point: The more you give away the more its worth. We'll see if this one convinces anyone.

*Motherless Brooklyn is about a trio of bumbling orphans, one with autistic spectrum disorder. It, along with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Speed of Dark, Daniel isn't Talking, and A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, are among my favorite collection of fiction featuring autistic protagonists. Daniel Tammet's memoir, Born on a Blue Day, is an incredible autobiography by a man with autism. What does autism have to do with philanthropy? Stories about autism inevitably ask "what is normal?" What is normal? is a question that forces you to ask, "Who decides?" "Who decides?" is a fundamental part of my lifelong interest in understanding "What is public and what is private?" The question, "What is public and what is private and who decides?" is - in my mind - the fundamental question about philanthropy.

1 comment:

xb blog said...

I completely agree that radical generosity, giving stuff away fast and smart, is a competitive advantage in the world today. My friend Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer has been giving away his stories via podcast for about a year. Then they came out with a book of short stories, based on those free stories. The result: it sold out of its first printing in a few days and a second edition came out the first of this month. His brand value increased, his sales increased and his net profit increased the more he gave away.