Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 11: September 2006

Trends & Quick Takes

The Long Tail’s Thick Head

This may be a cautionary tale that needs repeating. Most shopping still takes place in physical stores (Amazon has said it expects online bookselling to peak at 15 to 20% of all bookselling). Most music purchases (95%) still involve shiny discs in jewel boxes. Most business transactions are simple offer:buy with no “conversation” involved. And popularity still counts for a lot.

Consider RanKing RanQueen, an odd sort of “convenience store” in Japan (described in the July 2006 Business 2.0). The shops are tiny and hold hundreds of products in more than 250 categories—CDs, magazines, novels, nose hair removers, mineral waters. They “stock only the latest goods and assign each item a ranking based on its current popularity in Japan.” The stores are all best sellers all the time in every category—and they’re doing gangbuster business. People go frequently so they can be up with the latest hot items. Thus pushing the curve farther up to the left, not down to the right.

Generation Generalizations

A few little items here, some fairly old:

     The kids are online and the old fogies aren’t, right? Not according to a study reported in the Wall Street Journal (posted at DigitalKoans by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.): the smallest group of unique web site visitors is those 18-24, traditional college age students. The largest group? Fifty and above: “Geezers rule the web.” I looked at census figures to do a crosscheck, comparing unique visitors to the size of the “generation.” By that metric, college-age students are still last but, if we assume “17 and under” means “6 to 17,” the young’uns are the most connected—but not by a lot. The major change in this metric, other than “17 and under” moving from third to first, is that people aged 35 to 49 move ahead of those aged 50 and over (65% to 61%, still higher than the “digital generation” numbers: 50% for 25-34 and 42% for 18-24). As I put it, “Us geezers are right in the middle. But there are a whole bunch of us geezers around.”

     Pegasus librarian posted “Millennials, librarians, and conferences” on June 4, 2006. Pegasus has been to “a lot of conferences in the last year” and recognized a “major faux pas when I gave my talk this week. I never once mentioned Millennials… Here’s the thing, though. I’m getting a little tired of the hue and cry. These kids are…well…kids. And just like every other generation of kids, they have needs and they have desires…” Pegasus takes Stephen Abram to task (mildly) for “speaking of kids as if they’re aliens.” Pegasus doesn’t think that’s helpful. Instead, librarians should look at the services kids use and see what’s also useful for patrons and librarians in general and remember that “there are lots and lots of kids who are not tech savvy,” and that it might make sense to spend more conference time “learning from each other about new processes, best practices, and yes, even some of my beloved theoretical underpinnings.”

     Simon Chamberlain posted three “generations” pieces at VALIS in late July 2006. In the first, after reading some of the articles about how we all must use IM to reach the “Millennials,” he notes that Pew’s studies have been misquoted. The research actually showed that 59% of teens preferred the telephone to communicate with peers, as compared to 26% for IM. (He also properly questions 2% for “in person”—“what, teens don’t like hanging out with each other now?”) He also questions the common attitude that what teens do now in social spaces will be exactly what they’ll always do in the workplace. Why might one assume change? “Because teenagers aren’t adults, and work isn’t play.” Didn’t you spend a lot more time on the phone gossiping when you were a teen than you do now? The second posts skewers the “different brain” concept. The third builds on this and specifically the “higher IQ” claim. Apparently observed IQ scores have gone up somewhat, but that raises the long-standing question of what IQ measures. As Chamberlain notes, if real intelligence was actually increasing at the rate suggested, then the average “Millennial” would have the same intelligence as a genius-level Boomer. “I’m fairly sure that we aren’t seeing anything like this in the real world.” As to generation generalizations, Chamberlain says the kids “aren’t aliens” and makes a compelling point: “The differences within human groups are far greater than the differences between groups.” Finally, “treating Millennials as if they are a completely unique and novel group, with completely new needs and skills, makes very little sense.”

     Rachel Singer Gordon isn’t willing to give up on gen-gen (August 13, 2006 post at The liminal librarian). “A lot of us view generational issues as completely irrelevant—if not downright insulting.” Gordon takes issue with that, saying it makes more sense to work from “two simple premises: 1) Our generation in one way or another affects our outlook and expectations, 2) Our generation in one way or another affects the way others view us.” She comments on both premises, generalizing from the anecdotal. I find the anecdotes a little strange—apparently her son has never dealt with either a VCR or a tape-using digicam, so can’t deal with the idea of rewinding, and never watches live TV or has had any toys that don’t have “batteries and buttons.” The second premise seems to resolve to “We and they are going to keep stereotyping based on age; deal with it,” even while admitting that it’s counterproductive to stereotype. After the discussion, Gordon argues for “the necessity to combine our diverse skills, strengths, and generations to work together productively in a 21st century library.” I still can’t see how the presumption of fundamental generational differences helps: It’s the skills, strengths and attitudes that count, and I will guarantee there are millions of technophobic “millennials” as well as millions of early-adopter and geeky “boomers.”

Good News on Patent Trolls?

This happened back in May, but it’s worth noting at this late remove. The Supreme Court rejected the notion that patent holders have a general right to injunctions against possible infringers. Four of the justices signed an opinion that sympathizes with companies that feel they are being held hostage by patent trolls—companies that have no intention of using patents, but use them to sue others.

That opinion (written by Justice Kennedy) notes the growth of a “patent industry”:

An industry has developed in which firms use patents not as a basis for producing and selling goods but, instead, primarily for obtaining licensing fees… For these firms, an injunction, and the potentially serious sanctions arising from its violation, can be employed as a bargaining tool to charge exorbitant fees to companies that seek to buy licenses to practice the patent.

The opinion also raises questions on business method patents, “which were not of much economic and legal significance in earlier times. The potential vagueness and suspect validity of some of these patents may affect the calculus under the four-factor test.”

To my mind, quite apart from the abuse of business method patents, there are two fundamentally different cases that could be called patent trolling:

     Companies and individuals that have patented processes and inventions, through their own efforts, but choose to license the processes rather than producing goods or services themselves. That’s a complex situation, certainly not inherently an abuse of patent law.

     Companies that have no business other than buying, holding, licensing, and suing claimed infringers of patents. In other words, “intellectual property” holding companies. I am naïvely inclined to believe that patent abuse is far more likely in these cases.

Economics of Conference Speaking

Dorothea Salo posted a cogent essay on this topic on May 29, 2006 at Caveat lector. She subdivides conference “speaking labor” (“and let’s not be coy, here: speaking is work”) into gratis and paid, paid into expenses-only and expenses plus honorarium, and expenses plus honorarium into levels for “those who make their living from speaking” and those who treat it as “a nice sideline.” Salo says she knows of one or two people in libraryland who do make a living from speaking. I don’t doubt her word. I agree that there can’t be many of them.

Salo subdivides freebie speakers into two stripes: “the altruist and the whuffie-ist.” (I’m not wild about ‘whuffie’: It may mean something other than “reputation,” but I’m not sure what.) And, correctly I think, she adds an extra form: “the clueless altruist,” who has enough reputation to be paid but doesn’t realize it. Some of us fall into a subdivision of paid speakers: Those who don’t getting paid nearly enough because we/they don’t understand the market.

She crosses that taxonomy with the invited speaker vs. “academic speaker” model—that is, cases where a speaker has applied to put on a program. It’s not all academic, to be sure, but that’s the tendency. I’d expect most “academic” speakers to be freebies, but Salo offers counterexamples.

This whole schema presumes face-to-face conferences where “lots of people come to a place to listen to (relatively) few people” and also presumes a “hierarchy of speaking desirability.” She suggests internet-based conferences may destabilize this system and notes the trend of speakers “taking a back seat to social interaction at conferences.” I’m not sure this is a new trend, but I do think it’s one argument for face-to-face conferences. In my experience, social interaction has always been vital to good conferences and frequently more important than the nominal speakers.

Salo’s long post raises quite a few points I’m not discussing here (go read it!). She believes very large conferences may have lower-quality speeches than small ones. She’s interested in the online-conference model and has the good sense to suggest such conferences “will supplement rather than supplant typical conferences.” She notes one significant item for both online conferences and face-to-face conferences: In an era of easy conference archiving, “it’s going to be a lot harder for paid speakers on the library conference circuit to reuse material going forward, I think.”

Quicker Takes

Here’s a trend of sorts: Improving moderately-priced equipment through technology. This time, it’s a new suite of five audio functions from Audistry (a Dolby subsidiary), designed to be built into MP3 players, TVs, and the like. One expands the stereo space; another modifies headphone sound so it’s more like speakers; another tries to boost bass while avoiding overloads; and another is yet another try to simulate “stereo” from mono. The most interesting from my perspective is “Intelligent Volume Control”—a way to reduce the dynamic range of music when circumstances require that. If you’re on the road, or listening late at night, or even watching a DVD action movie and not wanting to blast your ears, dynamic range reduction can be beneficial—as long as it’s defeatable.

     There’s another way to improve MP3 players and similar devices, particularly some iPod models: Add better headphones or plug them in to stereo systems. Leander Kahney had a “cult of Macintosh” item about this at Wired News (May 16, 2006), noting a Stereophile review of an iPod. The internal electronics are quite good (in some models, not necessarily all). At least one person quoted in the story goes off the deep end: “From a practical standpoint, iPod is revolutionary because the vinyl and CD mediums are now gone.” [Emphasis added.] That’s right: despite having 95% of the market in 2005 (and being the source material for the highest-quality tunes on iPods in most cases), CD is gone…

     I’ve quoted Bowker figures for the number of book titles produced in a given year. You know the ones: 195,000 titles were produced in 2004, up 14% over 2003. Bob Nardini of YBP has a one-pager in the February 2006 Against the Grain that convincingly shows “The numbers are not wrong, I am sure. But they are not right either.” Bowker counts new ISBNs. That substantially overcounts actual new titles, given the variety of versions a book may emerge in. As one example: Bowker cites 14,484 titles from university presses—but Blackwells and YBP both report “about 10,000” new university press books. Both numbers are right, but they’re counting different things.

     An excellent post at Digitization 101 (July 21, 2006) points out one fundamental limitation of online museum exhibits: “It’s not like being there.” The combined effect of a really good exhibit beats anything you can do on the web. Jill Hurst-Wahl draws the moral: “What we digitize and make available should educate people to what is available, what they might travel to see, and teach them something that they can only learn from experiencing those materials (even if it is virtual).” The best online assets should feed real attendance at museums, libraries and archives.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 11, Whole Issue 81, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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