On the Deleting of Academia.edu and Other Sundry Affairs

Once again with feeling, a point that I think cannot be made often enough.

Social media created and operated by a for-profit company, no matter what it says when it starts off about the rights of content creators, will inevitably at some point be compelled to monetize some aspect of its operations that the content creators did not want to be monetized.

This is not a mistake, or a complaint about poor management practices. The only poor practices here are typically about communication from the company about the inevitable changes whenever they arrive, and perhaps about the aggressiveness or destructiveness of the particular form of monetization that they move towards.

The problem is not with the technology, either. Uber could have been an interface developed by a non-profit organization trying to help people who need rides to destinations poorly serviced by public transport. It could have been an open-source experiment that was maintained by a foundation, like Wikipedia, that managed any ongoing costs connected to the app and its use in that way. And that’s with something that was already a product, a service, a part of the pay economy.

Social media developed by entrepreneurs, backed by venture capital, will eventually have to find some revenue. And there are only three choices: they sell information about their users and content creators, even if that’s just access to the attention of the users via advertisements; they sell services to their users and content creators; they sell the content their creators gave to them, or at least take a huge cut of any such sales. That’s it.

And right now except for a precious few big operators, none of those choices really let the entrepreneurs operate a sustainable business. Which is why so many of of the newer entries are hoping to either threaten a big operator, get a payout and walk away with their wallet full (and fuck the users) or are hoping to amass such a huge amount of freely donated content that they can sell their archive and walk away with their wallet full (and fuck the users).

If the stakes are low, well, so be it. Ephemeral social conversation between people can perhaps safely be sold off, burned down and buried so that a few Stanford grads get to swagger with all the nouveau-richness they can muster. On the far other end, maybe that’s not such a great thing to happen to blood tests and medical procedures, though that’s more about the hideous offspring of the social media business model, aka “disruption”.

But nobody at this point should ever be giving away potentially valuable work that they’ve created to a profit-maker just because the service that hosts it seems to provide more attention, more connection, more ease of use, more exposure.

Open access is the greatest idea in academia today when it comes to make academia more socially just, more important and influential, more able to collaborate, and more able to realize its own cherished ideals. But open access is incompatible with for-profit social media business models. Not because the people who run academia.edu are out of touch with their customer base, or greedy, or incompetent. They don’t have any choice! Sooner or later they’ll have to move in the direction that created such alarm yesterday. They will either have amassed so much scholarship from so many people that future scholars will feel compelled to use the service–at which point they can charge for a boost to your scholarly attention and you’ll have to pay. Or they will need to monetize downloads and uses. Or monetize citations. Or charge on deposit of anything past the first article. Or collect big fees from professional associations to for services. Or they’ll claim limited property rights over work that hasn’t been claimed by authors after five years. Or charge a “legacy fee” to keep older work up. You name it. It will have to happen.

So just don’t. But also keep asking and dreaming and demanding all the affordances of academia.edu in a non-profit format supported by a massive consortia of academic institutions. It has been, is and remains perfectly possible that such a thing could exist. It is a matter of institutional leadership–but also of faculty collectively finally understanding their own best self-interest.

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2 Responses to On the Deleting of Academia.edu and Other Sundry Affairs

  1. Matt_L says:

    What is the old expression? “If the service is free, you — the user — are the product.”

  2. David Speyer says:

    “a non-profit format supported by a massive consortia of academic institutions” It seems worth mentioning that precisely this already exists in many of the sciences. http://arxiv.org/help/support

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