I can hear the bell of the cable cars on Powell Street, but I wonâ€™t be riding one while Iâ€™m in San Francisco for the Software & Information Industry Association’s Content Summit, because on the way to the first coffee break I fell on the stairs and sprained my ankle. I am now hobbling around on crutches. Weâ€™re at the Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, a lovely location, and the meeting itself has been worthwhile. Iâ€™m not just saying that because I am now on the board (what a great way, though, to shut up a critical blogger). Itâ€™s odd, though, to have an orange board member ribbon on my name tag when this is the first Content Summit Iâ€™ve attended, and when I donâ€™t know anyone. If you happen to be here, Iâ€™m the one with her foot propped up on cushions and piled with plastic bags of iceâ€”please come and say hullo.
I was especially critical back in January of the first keynote speaker, and I thought yesterdayâ€™s would be as bad. The history of journalism by Bob Merry, the CEO of Congressional Quarterly Press. Yawn. But in fact I thought he was quite good, and I was impressed by his explanation of the practical business choices the company has been making in their online services, and their knowledge that new communications pose a challenge they will have to face. I talked to someone later who said the talk must have mystified the many young professionals in the audience. Pamphleteering–huh?
In fact I missed quite a bit yesterday, and some good panels Iâ€™m told, because I was having lunch with Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia, who has asked me to be on his advisory board for a new competing project. It was great to meet Larry and have a chance to hear about his various intriguing new activities, especially a primary text coding system that reminds me of the HRAF system David was involved with for so long, and that underlays some of our work and our taxonomies. But I have to admit that I remain mystified by his conviction that the only way to create excellent content in the long-term is to give it away, because, he explained, thatâ€™s the only way not to pay all the people who will contribute to it. He says that if the result is free, people will contribute for the greater good.
Larry is a philosopher by training, not an economist or psychologist or historian, but that doesnâ€™t quite explain a belief that seems to be counter to human history: that people are widely and powerfully motivated by altruism. I donâ€™t think altruism doesnâ€™t exist; I just donâ€™t think depending on it is a good way to build a business. In fact, I have a feeling that that kind of talk may just be marketing hype: surely the reality is that ego, status, and the chance to have a public platform of sorts is what drives the many people to comment on blogs and contribute to Wikipedia.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Jen McClure, who founded and runs the Society for New Communications Research. I loved the stories about her train-loving son who is going to be in heaven in England this summer; I had no idea that a Californian kid could somehow have the trainspotting bug that is prevalent in the UK: itâ€™s just like birdwatching. People (usually fathers and sons) go out at weekends recording their train sightings in little books. Youâ€™ll see them leaning happily over railway bridges, watching for that elusive diesel built in 1968 (or something like that). I hope Jenâ€™s husband is inclined this way, too, because I canâ€™t imagine that Jen is going to want to put a lot of time in trainspotting when sheâ€™s trying to finish her research and probably wanting to explore the byways of Oxfordshire.
Thereâ€™s a possibility that weâ€™ll be doing some publishing for the Society, which is an exciting prospect given our involvements in this area and plans for podcasting from the World History Association conference next month. What really interests me is the positive ways in which collaboration between individuals and knowledge communities can do good. But how to merge that activity with commercial enterprise is more complicated, I think, than what believers in what Jen calls â€œthe blog religionâ€ yet understand.