Learning the true value of content from Aaron Swartz
I must confess that at first I did not understand what the pioneers of rethinking content’s value—Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito, Cory Doctorow, Aaron Swartz—had to teach me. When Lessig took to the courts—playing the net’s Quixote to battle Hollywood’s imperialistic expansion of copyright—I wondered whether his side was overreaching by implying that all creation is born of what came before.
I was in the content business. I believed in the value of content and authorship and ownership. So I posted a mock copyright notice under the content on my young blog:
It’s mine, I tell you, mine! All mine! You can’t have it because it’s mine! You can read it (please); you can quote it (thanks); but I still own it because it’s mine! I own it and you don’t. Nya-nya-nya. So there. COPYRIGHT 2001… by Jeff Jarvis.
But I soon learned. I placed a Creative Commons license on my blog. I came inevitably to see the wisdom in Lessig’s mission and the value in the tools he and Swartz and their allies created.
But I still thought I was in the content business. Well, I don’t anymore.
That lesson came in good measure from Aaron Swartz’s actions, particularly his freeing the whale from JSTOR’s tank. Even Lessig in his eloquent and powerful lament over the grave of his friend, can’t endorse what Swartz did when he downloaded countless academic articles. Alex Stamos, the expert witness who would have testified at Swartz’ trial, still calls it “inconsiderate.”
I took Swartz’ action not as a protest but instead as an object lesson in the true value of content. We from the content business think our value is encased in our content. That is why we sell it, build walls around it, protect it (and, yes, I will still happily sell you mine). Inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis, that is the only model we have known.
But the net has taught me that content gains value as it travels from person to person, just as it used to, before Gutenberg, when it wasn’t content but was just information.
Google and Facebook have taught me that content’s worth may not be intrinsic but instead may lie in its ability to generate signals about people, build relationships with them, and deliver relevance and value to them. In that, I think, is a new business model for news, one focused on value delivered over value protected, on service over content. For content is merely that which fills something—a page or a minute—while service is that which accomplishes something for someone.
Lessig and company have taught me that content’s value can lie in what it spawns and inspires. Locked away, unseen, unused, not discussed, not linked, it might as well not exist.
David Weinberger has taught me that knowledge confined in a book at a single address on a shelf is limited.
And Aaron Swartz has taught me that content must not be the end game for knowledge. Why does knowledge become an article in a journal—or that which fills a book or a publication—except for people to use it? And only when they use it does content become the tool it should be. Not using knowledge is an offense to it. If it cannot fly free beyond the confines of content, knowledge cannot reach its full value through collaboration, correction, inspiration, and use.
I’m not saying that content wants to be free. I am asking whether knowledge wants to be content.