The 'Pull' of Niche Communities

According to John Seely Brown, as the knowledge economy moves away from “supply-push,” open source and content become increasingly important.

If it is true that the knowledge economy is moving from the supply-push model of centrist corporations to the demand-pull of diverse, niche communities, it is also true that no one has thought more deeply about this dynamic than John Seely Brown. Brown is a widely published author, former Xerox Chief Scientist and director of Xerox PARC [Palo Alto Research Center], and now a visiting scholar at USC’s Annenberg Center. At the Open Source Summit in Scottsdale this past December, Campus Technology asked him about the roles of open source and open content in this changing environment.

Let’s start with the obvious question about the knowledge economy: What’s a good example of demand-pull versus supply-push? Demand-pull is what you see happening with blogs. Mass media is supply-push, and blogging is demand-pull. The power of the blog, to some extent, is that suddenly a whole set of bloggers intersect with each other and they move from oblivion to a powerful force that mass media then picks up. So, there’s an interesting interplay between demand-pull and supply-push; sets of synergies serendipitously happen that then force their way into consciousness, in terms of mass media.

Okay, then how do niche communities—let’s say bloggers in a scientific discipline—impact innovation, given an open source model? The open source community at large understands that ideas come from the periphery as much as from the center. And that could be from the technological periphery, or from the set of users who are using a technology for their own educational purposes.

D'es open content play a role, especially with strong participation from niche communities? To me, there is a seamless boundary between open source and open content—open source being more the infrastructure, and open content being things like the [common] Web. If you can find a way to enhance the dialog between open content and open source, that’s where the big win is going to be. And in this great transition, as we start moving more into demand-pull, the sets of ideas you want to explore become vast.

How do you predict the interaction between open content and open source is going to take place? Who is going to make that happen? I think that the open content people are going to be discovering fundamentally new things that they want to do, that current systems don’t support. And when they can begin to show why they need to do what they want to do, that attracts the attention of the rest of the community to help do it. Basically, if you are looking at the whole notion of social capital, you first will work on problems that are important to you, but next you work on problems that are important to the community. And that’s not just pipe-dreaming, but concrete examples of real needs that can open up whole new kinds of learning environments. Why wouldn’t you want to do that ?

"If you can find a way to enhance the dialog between open content and open source, that’s where the big win is going to be."

Do you think the content publishers are going to come along with that—or are they going to be a harder nut to crack? They are always going to be a hard nut to crack, though there is always a balance between supply-push—what the publishers do—and demand-pull.

Media companies have their economic model; will they resist change, in light of open content? Classical capitalism loves monopolies, so corporations will do everything possible to protect their current revenue stream and the architecture of their revenue stream. We see this playing out in the music industry. There is a huge resistance to social transformations. For example, the real reason the music industry is “down” on the Internet has very little to do with piracy; it has much more to do with their loss of control, because media hits are manufactured. Britney Spears is who she is not because she is great, but because the media industry decided to make her great—so they have huge investments in that. But the niche communities have different economics. It’s interesting, for instance, to see that Amazon makes more of its money from the vast array of niche communities than mass media d'es.

Mass media has been wrong before: Didn’t they feel threatened by VCRs? Do they really understand technology change in their own markets? No industry wants to be forced to innovate, because stability, predictability, and building on past experience make them great. So you never really find any major corporation all that anxious to engage in its own “creative destruction.” And that [innovation] comes from the edge, the periphery; it never comes from the center, by and large. So that’s what we’re now seeing, with open learning, open content, and open source—you are getting a different model of production, for education. But also, a fundamentally new kind of learning model that draws on all kinds of naturally occurring resources, such as the Web.

Will that new learning model, coupled with digital resources, counteract the “lowest common denominator” effect of mass media? That’s the whole point of niche communities. They are brilliant in their own right, offering a better way to tap into passion and unleash creativity. Instead of just building up the stock of knowledge, they are engaging in some kind of creative [activity] up front, and the community itself can be the judge. When the social plane becomes a vetting mechanism, you begin to get a different dynamic.

All these changes in the knowledge economy are happening fast. As the world becomes more digitized, and information is created and exchanged faster, will we reach a point where we can’t react quickly enough to organize or create structures to cope? It’s clear that if you are trying to maintain industrial-age models, speed is going to drive you crazy. You can’t build inventories; you can’t build stocks of knowledge; you can’t predict. So, part of this confusion with everything happening so fast is because of the clash between the supply-push model and the speed of change. But in demand-pull systems, the speed of change actually becomes a competitive weapon.

Do you see a smooth or a bumpy road ahead for higher ed IT organizations as they try to reinvent themselves in the changing knowledge economy?
Bumpy. Everybody wants to resist change, and institutions of higher learning are not very good at becoming learning institutions.

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