Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Philosophy of Pseudo Community-Ownership (PCO)

One of the many things that excites me about Brainify is the idea of community ownership. Now technically the community does not own part of Brainify. While that was my first idea, discussions with lawyers showed that to be a logistical and legal near-impossibility. So we intend to do the next best thing – and I want to discuss that here. Because I have not seen it done before (which does not mean it has not been done – only that I’ve not seen it done), I had to make up a name for this thing which is kind of, but really not ownership. So lets call it Pseudo Community Ownership (or PCO for short).

The most concise definition I can give for PCO is this: “In the event of a sale, the intent of PCO is to share sale proceeds with the community members in proportion to the contribution made by each member to that community”. There is a lot more to it – but more on that later.

This posting talks about the philosophy of PCO that brought me to experiment with it. A better definition of PCO and how we are implementing it are described in another post.

What About the Contributors?

Sites like Brainify have different kinds of users. The vast majority of users come to such sites to search, browse, and otherwise find what they are looking for. They probably join, build a bit of a profile, and make a comment or two as well. But other than that – they are not major contributors to building the site.

A small percentage of users of such sites are responsible for making the vast majority of the contributions to the site. According to Ochoa and Duval [1], depending on the site, the top 10% of users make something between 40 and 90% of the contributions. I suspect each such person has a different reason for making their contributions, but the fact is that the vast majority of the users of the site would have nothing to come to if it were not for these uber-contributors.

It has always bothered me that when a community site is sold, as they often are, the uber contributors – those whose contributions were instrumental in the success of the site and the community, received no benefit. Perhaps this is not tragic – there was no expectation of compensation going in – and for many the mere act of contributing is compensation in itself. However, everyone else does benefit. The 90%+ of users benefit from the wonderful free resource. The business owners benefit from the sale. But the large contributors are kind of left out.

What really got me thinking about this was the sale of YouTube. YouTube is a great success. There is a huge community of users who benefit in one way or another from the availability of videos. Also - at the time of the sale, the founders did very well by all accounts. But what about the people who put the videos up there? Well – they did benefit by the availability of a free and convenient forum that enabled their “voice” to be heard, but that was it. It seemed, to me, that the benefit was not in proportion to the contribution they made to the community.

What About Building the Community?

We all know that community based sites need to actually have a community before they can thrive. One of the basic requirements of building a community is that you have to have a reason for people to join. Sometimes that reason is the site itself. But more often, the reason is the other users and what they bring to the site. In this latter case, it is difficult to build a community until you already have a community. So where do you begin?

One way is to try and create an early incentive for people to join. Something that will start to build the community before the draw of the community itself takes over.

PCO Might Help Answer Those Questions

At first, when I thought about the idea of PCO, it struck me as a little crass and overtly commercial. I even felt a bit embarrassed telling people about the idea. As a former faculty member, I am very cautious about commercial influences on education. Perhaps the idea of PCO was so commercial that it would damage the “purity” (or at least the perceived purity) of a site that is meant to be all about academia. There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between commercialism and academia, and having been a faculty member for 10 years and the founder of WebCT, I have had a front row seat to a wide variety of opinions on the matter. But the simple fact is that many of the wonderful things we have that impact our daily educational activities would not exist were it not for companies developing ideas and taking risks to see those ideas realized.

The more I thought about PCO, the more I realized that it fit with my idea of what is “right” in terms of the potential to compensate community contributors. It filled in that last gap – now there is potential for all parties to benefit. It also has the potential to help bootstrap the community; there may be people out there who will view PCO as an added incentive to spend a bit of time and contribute things to the community in the early stages of its development.

I am still nervous about the idea. For me, Brainify is about education – what we get out of university and college. I do not want the idea of PCO to overshadow this focus. And since we have no precedent for PCO I worry about the mistakes we will make along the way defining it and implementing it – and how those mistakes could hurt Brainify. But at the same time, I am a fanatical believer in the potential for a site like this to be of huge benefit to students in their educational experience. As such, I want to do everything I can to see the site support a vibrant educational community and to see all members benefit. From that perspective – perhaps PCO makes sense.

Take care - Murray

[1] Quantitative Analysis of User-Generated Content on the Web, Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Understanding Web Evolution, April 22, 2008

1 comment:

晶晶 said...

Yes, I love this new idea and look forward to starting my wholy refreshed travel here with Brainify.