The collaboration economy

Two events of recent days underscore for me how old-media executives are not comprehending the collaboration economy: how it adds value, how it creates efficiency, how it operates under new currencies.

Add this to the other blind spots these old media powers have about the new economic reality: the imperatives of the link economy, the need and benefit of giving up control, the advantages of creating open platforms over closed systems, the value of networks, the post-scarcity economy and the art of exploiting abundance, the need to be searchable to be found, the deflation innovation brings, the value of free, the triumph of process over product…. This is what I wrote in my book about. Trying to get media to understand it is why I wrote it.

Behind each of these new laws of the new age is a set of consequences that result if you don’t at least try to understand them and continue to operate under the expired rules of the industrial economy. We online folk tend to operate under entirely new assumptions and think that our legacy colleagues see the same world we do. But they don’t. That hit me square between the eyes – once again – this week at a Paley Center debate over paid content between Steven Brill and NPR chief Vivian Schiller.

“I don’t know of any worthwhile content that’s free,” Brill said at the start of his remarks. He said it as a truism, as if we’d all assume the same. But I think most of you reading this would think that false. You may not value this very blog, but it’s free. The web is filled with free wonders. There’s plenty of wonderful content that’s free, more every day.

Later, Brill suggested we imagine going into the New York Public Library and instead of seeing many books, we see millions of pages, loose and flying about. What would we do? His stated assumption is that we would recognized the need for professional editors and journalists to make sense of it all. My response to his question was, “Go to Google.” Not for the first time, he sneered at me. But others around the table agreed that Google brings together our editing through our links and clicks; we will make order of that pile of pages, given the means to do so. Our assumption is that we value those actions and opinions, even if they are free – perhaps all the moreso because they are free.

That afternoon, I finally read AP CEO Tom Curley’s remarks in Hong Kong – before his duet with Rupert Murdoch at the Forbidden City – in which he equated control with value. That is the distilled essence of the old media model.

Listen to Curley: “The value of that content has been undervalued. It’s now at the lowest level, I think in history…. But the reality is that all of us know that our content is valuable…. We deserve to be paid, and now it becomes a matter of trying to figure out how to do that…. It’s time for us to get control of our content, and so we shall do that.”

Curley is saying that it’s up to him – not us, not the market – to set value. That is possible only if one controls distribution. That is why he wants control – or wants it back. He asserts value as a matter of entitlement, emotions, and ego over economics. But in this open economy, there is unlimited competition and value is created in many places, measured in many currencies.

Curley says that “we intend to participate in that stream, in that revenue stream.” But what about the content stream? He needs to participate in what Marissa Mayer calls the hyperpersonal news stream. He has to break out of the idea of sites and portals and go to where the people are. Yet Curley said he’d prevent his customers from redistributing his content through emails or “re-syndication” – from the stream, in short.

Here’s the nub of it: Curley says, as has been quoted often already, that “there is an oversupply, at least in the short term, of us.” That is true only if you see the world in the old, owned, controlled, closed, centralized, professionalized, scarcity economy – only if you think you can own news and access to it and thus its price. In the post-scarcity economy, he can’t bear new competitors; he call them the oversupply.

But in the collaborative economy, it’s another matter. All those “extra” people add new value and efficiency – if you see the opportunity in it and enable them to. They’re us. That’s how Google sees us, capturing our links and clicks to discover the value of those million – no, trillion – flying pages. That’s how Wikipedia and Craigslist created their value, dealing in trust and membership as a new currency. That’s how I want next-generation news organizations to look at us, as the people who will create news while the news orgs add value to it: vetting, correcting, organizing, training, promoting, selling. The news orgs and their journalists then become so much more efficient because they work collaboratively with the public. That’s how they become sustainable and profitable again. But this happens only if you trust and value the others and understand the economics of collaboration.

Curley talks, at last, about wanting to link to journalism at its source, which is important, since the AP has long cut the link to original journalism by rewriting it, by turning it into a commodity. But Curley talks about his news registry doing this among his closed circuit of members and big old companies – not the unlimited number of witnesses and citizens who will create news now. He talks about creating “our own self-referring network” (after talking nonsense about Google referring to itself nine times out of ten when Google links out to news far more than the AP ever does). He still sees a closed, controlled world where he sets the value. He, like Brill, does not respect the links and clicks and creation of people outside their walls, paid or otherwise because he can’t control it and he thinks that control is what still gives him value; the truth in the new economy is exactly the opposite: You gain value by giving up control. They do not see the value in collaboration and collaboration as a key to the creation of value and the recognition of efficiency of the new news economy.