what are you for?

My pal Hugh McGuire — you probably know him from Librivox, he swears on his blog too — wrote a post with some words to the wise: Defining What You Are For (just like porn). He explains how one of the reasons porn is so darned profitable is “[b]ecause the porn biz understands exactly what it is for” and then wonders if other institutions like newspapers and libraries really understand what they are for. It’s not primarily a post about libraries, but since Hugh is the president of the Board of Directors of the Atwater Library (a library with a drupal website and an apartment inside it, those who know me know that I hyperventilate as I type this) this is a topic near and dear to him.

But the real value a newspaper performs is not giving me good articles, it’s putting it all together. The mere provision of information is worthless now, because anyone can do it (even me).

This is why blogs – at least in the techno-intelligencia – win. Blogs are excellent selectors of information, while newspapers are pretty clunky at it – because for the past 300 years they existed in an ecosystem where information was scarce. Now information (and access to it) is abundant. So a site like BoingBoing becomes one of the most popular on the net: their craft is not providing information, it’s selecting it. And they’re good at it.

13 thoughts on “what are you for?

  1. Is porn profitable because the industry knows what it is for, or because, deep down (or not), we’re all a bit pervy? Seems like making porn is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

    There was an article about a decade ago in the New Yorker about male porn stars. A sad, moving piece, oddly. At any rate, what struck me was that almost no one in porn liked being there, but thought of it as a ticket to a better place. As librarians, do we sometimes envision the library we work in as the porn mill, which will hopefully evolve into the dream we had at some point?

  2. This is exactly right. I think of blogs in terms of environmental scanning and data aggregation for niche interests (politics, libraries, pr0n, local gossip, whatever). Users face a complex information environment that blogs simplify, helping to provide structure and narrative.

    The interesting part is that this happens within a network structure where sites play specific roles, with less popular sites doing more scanning and less aggregation and more popular sites doing the reverse (think B^2 with its short, link-centric posts and swarm of feeder sites). The neat thing about this ecosystem is that, like your local wetland, it sort of developed over time of its own accord. Maybe that’s why blogs seem to know what they’re good at: the network, which is where blogs really get their value, evolved to do what it does.

  3. DaleA: I think part of the disconnect with librarians is that we are assuming that deep down we’re all a little…research-y. I think the real reason why sites like boingboing are more successful than say a library blog that’s pointing out resources is that they don’t assume you respect their selections…they earn that respect by consistently selecting stories that interest people.

  4. @daleA: indeed it’s that we’re pervy, but the point is that porn is delivery-mechanism agnostic … they’ll use whatever means necessary to fulfill our perviness. whereas the music biz, newspapers, libraries, etc, say: we sell music, or newspapers, or we provide a place to read books.

    so the question for libraries is: if porn satisfies perviness, what is the equivalent need libraries fulfill? and what is the best way to do that? rather than getting hung up on how they have fulfilled that need in the past (eg. by lending out books), they need to keep seeking tools to answer that need (but first they have to define the need properly).

  5. DaleA: I’ve seen enough bad porn to know that it’s not fish in a barrel. Bad porn (i.e. poor lighting and angles) quickly becomes unprofitable and is either licensed to discount porn vendors or relegated to hobbyist/amateur sites.

  6. That’s right Hugh, the Adult Entertainment Industry is already looking into cell phone porn as their other distribution methods begin to dry up. They continuously scan the horizon and run way ahead of the market curve. Having only one product helps their focus immensely, and is a big advantage for them.

    So, how do we as librarians parlay this into remaining relevant? To talk like a marketer, what part of the reptilian brain does a library satisfy? It seems to me that public libraries try to be all things to all people, maybe this is our greatest weakness? We are diffuse and have limited focus… Are we books, or DVDs, or MP3s, or games, or programming, or the Internet? We are all of these things and much more.

    At their most basic level, public libraries attempt to do two things, provide answers, and entertainment. The question is how do we do this for such a wide audience that is comprised of all ages, races, and religions and do it successfully in a world where everyone can’t be pleased all the time? Maybe we should concentrate on doing a few things really well, instead of just attempting to do many things well. Of course, each library would have to decide what those things should be for their own communities…

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