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.

  • Love this, you just made me rethink an article I’m writing. I suggest changing knowledge for content in the title.

  • data > information > knowledge > wisdom … from clutched commodity (data) to free omnipresence (wisdom) …

    pick your place along the spectrum .. it is a continuum, from ego to soul … from taker to giver …

  • Seth Godin nailed it I think when he said, simply put, that ‘ideas that spread, win’. We’re in the connection economy now. Aaron, thank God for him, helped us get there.

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  • harijay

    We are in the link and reuse economy…agreed. But you could argue that all of the articles that Aaron freed were part of a similar but less democratized citation economy at a different scale. I think the issue is not the unrealized value of information silos in the internet age but more fundamental ..we the public paid for most of this information to be generated and we should insist that it be returned to us for the common good.

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  • streamfortyseven

    Putting walls around the results of research simply impedes scientific and human progress. If your university library can’t afford to subscribe to all journals relevant to your area of inquiry, chances are high that you’ll “re-invent the wheel” or lack the stepping stone to a discovery that otherwise could have been made. And for individual inventors and researchers, it closes off entire fields of innovation. What if Edison had to contend with paywalls? Where would we be now? Discovery and science are incremental in nature, they depend on the foundations laid by others, and if keystones in that foundation are missing – kept out of sight, innovation becomes difficult if not impossible.

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  • Vitiligo Treatment

    Nice Blog, I like your post.

  • You guys realize that Swartz wasn’t charged for copyright infringement, right?

    It makes a big difference in the argument you’re making.

    Also: all the authors who’s work is published by JSTOR or other outfits such as Elsevier work in a completely different economic environment than authors of music, films, fiction books, poetry, art.

    It is important that the public starts to understand that difference.

    Hardly any of the music that was created was funded by the public. And hardly any of the composers creating the music are funded by the public. They have a different economic reality from scientists and it is vital in this discussion that we recognize that difference!

  • Federico Badaloni

    What the Information Architecture taught me is that knowledge is never content, rather it is an ecosystem whose value is the total of the content added to the total of the relationships that they establish (or can establish) thanks to the people who access the same ecosystem

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  • Sasha Lenor

    i just love your website!

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