pseudonymity and the commons

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky quotes Elinor Ostrom, the economics Nobelist who studies the management of shared resources:

When individuals who have high discount rates and little mutual trust act independently, without the capacity to communicate, to enter into binding agreements, and to arrange for monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, they are not likely to choose jointly beneficial strategies.

This. This is what we’ve been saying about pseudonymity — both I, and people who disagree with me.

Internet civility is a shared resource: a backdrop against which we couch our online cultures that can be easily run to tatters by selfish actors.

And that blockquote is the concern about anonymity, isn’t it? The anonymous have the ultimately high discount rate: their fragment of identity does not persist beyond the moment of the quote, so they need bear no future costs at all. There’s no reason to trust the truly anonymous and no way to communicate with them. Moderation provides monitoring and enforcement, but that’s about it. So it’s easy for true anonymity to result in social strategies which are not jointly beneficial.

So that’s what people are attacking with things like real name policies or its computational proxy, sign in with Facebook. By affixing public identity they’re decreasing the discount rate, adding back-channel communication possibilities, and increasing enforcement options.

But the thing is, it’s the lazy option. Because if you’re doing this by affixing real names without having put any time into building community norms, what you’re doing is importing wholesale the most, well, normative norms: the idea we all have in our head of how we are expected to act in the most mainstream possible version of society.

And those of us who crusade against real name policies do so, I think, because we fear the strictures of that normativity. There are lots of interactions you can’t have if you have imported that set of norms. You cannot have any conversations from Hallin’s sphere of deviance — you cannot even have any conversations which intimate that you might hold views within that sphere — even if they are not deviant within some subculture. You cannot safely interact with modes of discourse or cultural touchstones that are normal and safe in some subculture, but are not so in the mainstream.

Real name policies reaffirm the power of those already in power, and re-silence those already wary of voice, by lazily and unquestioningly handing power to a particular set of social norms in a space — the internet — where it did not inherently have such power.

The magic of the internet for some of us has lain in large part in its ability to create safe spaces for new norms. It can get better because online we can have a space where elements of our identity are no longer deviant — but only if we can wall them off from places where they are — which means: only if we can avoid using the name attached to us in those normative spaces.

Social norms are important. We can, indeed, not generally function without them, and I have common ground with the anti-pseudonymity crowd there. But there are many sets of social norms, inhering to many subcultures (online and off), and I strongly condemn the inclination to privilege only one of them in all milieus. And social norms are a brake on innovation, because precisely of Hallin’s spheres — because they circumscribe what it is allowable to say and, therefore, restrict what it is allowable to think, and make it difficult and dangerous to form communities which could advance certain lines of thought. There are social norms littered throughout human cultures which would have me be illiterate, or unable to form contracts, or subservient to my husband or my womb. I do not feel any great need to bow down to mainstream norms simply because they are, for now, mainstream.

So: pseudonyms. Real names are the lazy way to get Ostrom’s criteria because persistent pseudonymous spaces can, and do, meet those criteria. Persistent identity of any form decreases the discount rate because it creates an emotional and practical bond with the future self and thereby increases the perceived costs of punishments it may bear. Persistent identity is required (though not sufficient) for communication, agreement, and monitoring. Pseudonymity isn’t enough for productive spaces — maybe or maybe not civil, mind you, but productive — you still need community-building. (Just as you do by importing real names, in fact! You get the illusion of a functioning space by early wholesale import of norms, but it doesn’t save you the need to do work to cultivate that space.)

I believe in spaces with cultures and norms. I believe in the power of the internet to create spaces with their own norms, with unique power to welcome and inspire and innovate and challenge and unite in ways the offline world cannot. A real-names internet, an internet that imports wholesale normativity and makes it into a stick to beat away the unusual in the name of civility, is an internet that leaches away nearly everything I have found beautiful and transformative.

A more open internet will show us seamy underbellies that humanity had anyway and feared to express, yes. But it will also show us more beauty. A more open internet is the one that welcomes the disaffected and the dissident. A real-names policy is a cheap, cargo-cult imitation of Ostrom’s criteria.


Hulu, patron-driven article acquisition, academic samizdat; economic speculation

I’ve been speculating on what the academic publishing world would look like with a pay-per-article model. I wonder if we’re headed that way; cf. Eric Hellman’s thoughts on patron-driven acquisition; ebrary’s announcement of a patron-driven acquisition model for ebooks. And our remix culture is heading in that direction, anyway. We don’t consume journals or anthologies so much as we consume articles (blog posts, tweets…). We don’t necessarily encounter our articles bound, or even linked, into journal entities. If we consume at the article level, isn’t there pressure for us, eventually, to pay at the article level?

And that. Well. I can imagine a lot of economic efficiencies there, in the way that less discontinuous, more finely granular, functions always allow for efficiency to slide in. But putting on my imaginary-publisher hat…I couldn’t not start to notice which authors made me money, could I?

With articles bundled and sold in journal form, it makes sense for me as a publisher to look at the overall prestige (or profitability or what-have-you) of the journal, and leave article-level decisions to the editorial board. But if those article-level decisions become my bread and butter…what incentivizes me, as a publisher, not to guide them?

It reminds me of cable TV pricing, really. It’s obnoxious that cable subscriptions are always bundled and, as a consumer, I can’t pay for access to just the handful of channels — or, for that matter, the handful of shows — I care about.[*] But if we had that kind of granular control, would the edgy or niche channels even exist? Would the long tail rescue them, or would any sort of risky programming die before piloting?

There’s an argument to be made that academics exert a very different kind of demand than cable TV watchers, and perhaps edgy work is more rewarded in academe. But I’m skeptical. I’ve seen friend after friend in Ph.D. school get stuck within the boundaries of a discipline when their thinking crosses it, because there’s no mechanism for rewarding them for those kinds of thoughts. (Just ask the digital humanists.) Academics are hardly immune to social network effects. And even though science ought to be the pursuit of truth regardless of — indeed, especially in the face of — its conflicts with our preconceptions, scientists can be plenty dogmatic about challenges to received wisdom; just ask that guy who won the Nobel Prize for his work on ulcers, after decades of ostracism.

[*] As it is, admittedly, we no longer bother with cable, and I catch the things I want for free on Hulu, or cheaply enough on iTunes. Reminiscent of the market in academic samizdat, really. (A term I wish I’d thought of, but it’s Dorothea Salo’s.) But more advanced: Napster and LimeWire and torrents and so forth are the real samizdat; Hulu and iTunes are the legitimate channels that arose in response…what would legitimate academic samizdat channels look like?

journals + iTunes = ?

Finally got around to reading this tab I’ve had open for ages (sorry, can no longer remember whom to hat tip!) about a pessimistic take on Elsevier’s business model, and was struck by the following:

At the APE Conference in Berlin in January 2010 there were several presentations on article-level impact metrics — it is at least plausible to imagine a world in which the value of the franchise of each individual journal decreases and the value of the franchise of the individual articles increases.

This reminds me very much of the ongoing music-industry business-model freakout, some of which centers on the dissolution of the “album” as an important object in favor of more easily customized and remixed singles.[*] Surely I am far from the first person to have thought of this analogy, and there must be people who understand the business landscape for journals well enough to have thought through this analogy; anyone know where I would find them?

[*] I have to say, sometimes I feel little sorrows that the mix tapes I once spent so long making, and that were once made so carefully for me, may no longer be a meaningful genre. We put so much time into, not just the overall blend of the songs, but story arcs, and striking transitions. But this is only possible when the mix tape is a standalone object that gets played in a single order — it crashes to pieces on the shoals of iTunes.

Which is not to say I regret iTunes; I listen to more diverse music these days, and have a few really useful playlists, and I like the serendipity of shuffle. Just that — few goods are unmixed, and here’s the casualty of progress. (And how d mix tapes fit into the analogy?)

rent v. own: cultural paradigm

One of the things that I’ve been wondering (e.g. in re my last post on serials subscription economics) is how this rent v. own dichotomy for books is going to play out.

Because the fact that e-resources subscriptions are like renting, not like owning, is very salient to librarians, and was not obvious to some of my non-librarian friends — but it will be. Because we are all eBook owners now*, so people are tripping over this issue more and more. The inability to lend his electronic library really bugs my friend John, and the related DRM issues really bug another, famous John.**

This seems to me like a good thing because what we really need is not so much a set of policies as a cultural consensus — what does it mean to purchase, to access, a book? How does intellectual property interact with ownership, copying, access, all those strange things that are constrained differently when property is physical? What do, and what should, we expect in terms of our interactions with electronic resources? Those strike me as questions that can’t be answered inside institutions, can’t be answered until they’re crowdsourced, munched on by the slow machinery of culture until new paradigms emerge.

[*] In point of fact I’m not. Come back to me when there’s something with both eInk and good PDF support, including annotations. Or when you feel like giving me one for free.

[**] Sorry, John-that-I-know. When your robot army crushes the world beneath its overlordly boot, you, too, will be famous.

serials subscription economics: or, monopolies, italics, and cannibalism

So the husband and I were talking yesterday about the new EBSCO monopoly on certain periodicals, after I read Dorothea Salo’s post on the matter (now BoingBoinged). And he was wondering, so really, what’s the issue here? What’s the appeal of these database vendors? And a BoingBoing commenter wonders, “the content providers have decided to sell their content through only one vendor…is that not their right?”

Salo addresses some of this in a follow-up post, but I want to as well — a scattershot Things What Might Not Be Apparent If You Are Not A Librarian post.

* One of the intriguing aspects of getting your journal access electronically is that it’s more like renting than owning. Different vendors may have rights to different date ranges of the back issues, and you may have any number of contractual limitations on your database access, and if you stop having a contract with a vendor, then no, you might not have access to the back issues you had access to yesterday. It’s not like a print collection, where you paid to buy the physical thing — and it came with limitations, like lack of fulltext search and the need for ever-increasing shelf space to store — but you *have* the thing until it falls to pieces, anyway, even if you cancel the subscription. You stop leasing your database access, you no longer have back issues. Now, maybe you get them through another vendor — if you have contracts with multiple vendors, and publishers have contracts with multiple vendors, then you may still have access through other means, albeit not necessarily to the same range of back issues or through the same interface or with the same features.

* But maybe you don’t have access through another vendor, and that’s the issue with the current EBSCO deal. If you want to have access to certain publications, you have to deal with EBSCO. And this connects with two other issues:

1) EBSCO, as a monopoly power, can set forth whatever crazy terms it wants. (“But if they’re too crazy you can just refuse,” I hear you saying. Yes, but see below.) For instance, maybe you just want to read Time, but they will only sell you Time in a package deal containing dozens of other titles such Injury and Abdominal Imaging and The Lady’s Magazine or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex and you really, honestly, do not care about these publications (all real EBSCO titles fyi), but you have to pay for them if you want Time.

2) Now replace Time with, say, Science or Nature or whatever the incredibly critical journal is that your patrons absolutely cannot live without. The current EBSCO monopoly is over popular press magazines, and I imagine it will be incredibly irritating to public libraries who can no longer afford (see below) to stock them, but if you are a university and your library cannot afford to stock the marquee journals for your top academic programs, this goes way beyond “irritating”. So take the current EBSCO deal as a harbinger of things to come, and you see why it’s worth setting up some barricades.

* I owe you one more “see below”, and that’s cost. Serials are very expensive. People have been cancelling print subscriptions to make way for them, sure, but they’ve also been scaling back their monograph acquisitions just to keep up with serials. Serials prices have escalated enormously and library budgets, well, haven’t. MIT spends seven million a year on serials — yes, they’re big, and yes, as a nearly-all-science institution they depend unusually heavily on them — but this should give you a sense of the absurdly large chunks of change involved.

The thing that should make this — from your perspective, from a patron perspective, not just a librarian perspective — a problem, the thing that should make this more than something to brush off as businesses-doing-business — is that monopoly power over access to key periodicals takes away a major chunk of libraries’ negotiating power, when their institutional contexts may not allow them not to say no to those periodicals, and when serials budgets are already cannibalizing everything in their path. What you will see, as a patron, is non-serials acquisitions and services being cut merely to maintain the status quo of subscriptions. And if that is not something you like, librarians are going to need to know that their institutions will back them up if they need to take scorched-earth negotiating positions with vendors.

Thing-ology on the library ebook market

Thing-ology has an interesting post on the economics of ebooks in libraries. They argue, essentially, that libraries need site-licensed copies of ebooks rather than ones tied to specific physical devices; this will split the library and direct-to-consumer ebook markets and allow for runaway rental/licensing costs for library ebooks. There’s an apt comparison to runaway journal costs for academic libraries.

I think this argument has a lot of merit to it (although I do think the markets aren’t entirely split, and the existence of the consumer market puts a cap on the licensed market; your site license for 25 simultaneous uses can’t cost much more than 25 direct-to-consumer, device-linked copies before buyers start fleeing). It also reminds me of the horrible angst that is the textbook market — it points out that for many books prices are held down because used books compete with new, and this downward pressure stops holding in a rental-based model, because there is no secondary market. There is, of course, a thriving market in used textbooks, but one which publishers vigorously combat via incompatible new editions, included software, and (soon and increasingly, I’m sure) digital textbooks on a rental model — just like the ebooks picture Thing-ology paints for the library.