voice in virtual worlds

Nothing heats up passions like voice communication in virtual worlds. Linden Labs’ recent blog post announcing that it’s bringing integrated voice communication to Second Life generated 527 comments. The next day Terra Nova had a post entitled “The inevitability of voice.” That post has generated 132 comments. Those comments include a debate about whether more communication is better than less. Because more words don’t necessarily mean more communication, but silencing a person is sure to suppress communication, I’m happy to be able to choose not to discuss that debate.

Voice communication has obvious value over text for coordinating rapid manual action in a group. Parties on quests and in combat in virtual worlds already use voice tools such as Roger Wilco, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo.

Dmitri Williams’ research on the effects of adding voice communication to communication capabilities in World of Warcraft found:

Players who use voice come to like each other more and become closer. Compared to a text-only control group, they develop higher levels of trust, liking and happiness, and lower levels of loneliness. So, with all due respect to the magic circle, it’s clearly worth breaking.

He discusses these findings with respect to the effects of self-disclosure on inter-personal relations:

In the end, those who disclose more about themselves (i.e. take that risk) get more in return, I think. They are less lonely. McKenna and Bargh found that about 5 years ago, and I think it fits the voice data as well: self disclosure leads to a deeper series of ties between people, even online. It’s more information and it’s more human and engaging, capitalizing on the sensory and interpersonal tools that we have evolved over millenia.

It’ll be really interesting to watch as people create and manage opt-in and opt-out and masking tools to mediate their levels of exposure. They’re essentially saying how much of themselves they want to reveal with their choices. And, the data from my one study and the McKenna and Bargh and others, generally suggest that those people who take the richer media and use it will probably fare the best, socially and emotionally. McKenna actually found that this effect transcended how shy people were, i.e. the shy people who took the leap of faith thrived, and the extroverts who didn’t started having losses.

In research on interpersonal relations, self-disclosure typically has been understood within an information transfer model — how much personal information you disclose to another. Both voice and text are low-cost means for disclosing age, sex, location, community of expression, and similar information.

Voice and text differ in the balance of costs for information processing when persons care about such information transfer and have different objectives with respect to it. In voice communication, obscuring or faking age, sex, or accent requires a lot of work, while much information about these attributes typically can be extracted at low cost. The opposite is true with text communication. Voice and text have significantly different default costs positions for certain types of information objectives.

Relationship-specific self-disclosure of information that makes a person vulnerable can strengthen a relationship by increasing the recognized cost of terminating the relationship. Truthful disclosure of age, sex, and location might have some relation to general aspects of personal vulnerability. But to the extent that disclosure of that information is associated with the use of voice, the disclosure isn’t relationship-specific and doesn’t effect the cost of breaking the relationship.

Most text communication in virtual worlds doesn’t seem to involve a high investment in determining the scope of information transfer:

Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (”hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.

Moreover, most virtual world participants probably don’t have conflicting objectives with respect to information transfer. Play and let be! Nonetheless, virtual world participants seem to care about biological attributes of their co-participants:

The evolutionary psych crowd seems to have it right. The functions of voice occur for humans in this order: Are they really human? What is their gender? Are they intelligent? and Do I like them? In other words, ASL [age, sex, location] isn’t too far off, and appears to be driven by biology first, then moderated by medium.

That’s not a matter of self-disclosure, understood as relationship-specific information transfer. The way persons use voice in virtual worlds seems to me to be evidence of the human nature of making sense of presence.

novel content creation and the 18th-century reading revolution

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a new form of content creation grew rapidly in Britain. The new popular content was long, realistic but fictional narratives of ordinary individuals whose lives nonetheless were put forward as significant for everyone. These works were called “novels.”

Novels were YouTube in the eighteenth century. Authors of novels included roughly equally men and women, “leisured gentlewomen, high-profile aristocrats, obscure vicars, and curates, sea captains, destitute merchants’ wives, reformed and some unreformed prostitutes, over-archieving adolescents, and pious autodidacts.” A leading novel publisher in Britain explained in 1769:

all we have hitherto published have been sent to us unsolicited from their authors, without any stipulated pay, promise of reward, or previous agreement whatsoever, either by ourselves or any other person for us.

Most authors didn’t even have their names attached to their work: about 72% of new novels published in Britain and Ireland, 1770-1799, were published anonymously.[1]

Most novelists received little monetary compensation for their works. Sometimes authors funded publication of their works, or assumed liability for losses from publication. When authors sold their copyrights, the typical payment was low but payment variance was high. For example, in 1787 a publisher bought a copyright from an obscure novelist for £5, while in 1794 the same publisher bought a copyright from a well-known novelist for £500. The median payment to British novelists among surviving copyright sales receipts, 1770-1799, was about £29. That was about the annual earnings of building craftsmen. By 1860 in the U.S., only 216 persons declared their profession to be “author.” In contrast, 3,154 persons declared their occupations to be the newer occupations of daguerreotypist and photographer.[2]

While authors of novels typically did not earn enough money to sustain themselves, novels quickly dominated popular book reading. In the late eighteenth century, purchasing books would have been a financial hardship for most persons. Social and commercial libraries, however, made books much more readily available. At the end of the eighteenth-century in Britain and in the U.S., novels comprised 40% or higher shares of titles in commercial circulating libraries. Limited evidence from circulation records suggests that the share of novels among books borrowed was probably higher than 50%.

Novels had well-recognized popular effects in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Commentators observed that a rage to read (Lesewut) was gripping the German lands. Reading the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, 1774) prompted young men to dress like the character Werther.  Reportedly about 2000 young men committed suicide in sympathy with Werther.  In France, the novel Julie, or the New Heloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, 1761) created a large body of weaping readers. American readers of the highly popular novel Charlotte Temple (1794) tended her purported grave in New York City.

The prevalence of imitations, mock sequels, and parodies among late eighteenth-century novels marked them to contemporaries as a “faddish, superficial make of literature.” Following Henry Mackenzie’s popular Man of Feeling (1771) came the anonymous and forgotten Man of Failing (1789). Only one year after Hannah More’s highly successful didactic work, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) came Coelebs in Search of a Mistress (1810), under the likely authorial pseudonym Sir George Rover. Many now-forgotten novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were hastily written, poorly crafted works.[4]

Many influential persons in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries considered novels to be wastes of time, causes of ill health, and corrupters of virtue and morals. In 1794 a London reviewer described a new novel, Widow, as “fashionably vicious.” The reviewer warned against reading such novels and implicitly proclaimed the importance of the reviewer’s own work:

O! for a warning voice to prevent those, at least, in whom age has not yet destroyed the capabilities of improvement, from dreaming away their hours in turning over publications like these.

Another author more directly warned against reading for amusement and diversion:

To read a book merely in order to kill time is an act of high treason toward humanity because one is belittling a medium that was designed for loftier purposes.

Others described reading as a cause of masturbation and other injuries to good health:

the obligatory position, the lack of all physical movement when reading, combined with the violent alternation of imaginings and feelings [create] limpness, bloatedness and constipation of the intestines, in a word hypochondria, which has a recognized effect on the genitals of both sexes, particularly of the female sex [and creates] coagulations and defects in the blood, excitation and exhaustion of the nervous system, as well as conditions of langour and weakness in the whole body.

The effect of novels on manners and morals was an acute concern. Novel reviewers in London publications in the late eighteenth century described reviewed novels as “one of these pernicious incentives to vice that are a scandal to decency”; “utterly repugnant to every idea of delicacy and honor”; and, “Written solely for the use of circulating libraries, and very proper to debauch all young women who are still undebauched.” A popular American author of conduct literature noted in 1831:

Of late years, the circulating libraries have been overrun with profligate and strongly exciting works, many of them horribly exciting. I have deep prejudice against the whole class. The greater the genius displayed, the more dangerous the effects. The necessity of fierce excitement in reading is a sort of intellectual intemperance; and like bodily intoxication, it produces weakeness and delirium….They have a most unhealthy influence upon the soul….

From a less evangelical, more republican position, novels were described as “murdering of freedom of thought and the press.” Similarly quotations from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sources could be multiplied endlessly. All the ill effects ascribed to television, video games, and the Internet in recent years apply equally well to reading novels two hundred years ago.[5]

Novels and tabloids changed persons’ relationships to printed words. Historians of the book have described a “reading revolution” (Leserrevolution) — a shift in the distribution of reading from intensive reading (reading a book, particularly the Bible, carefully and repeatedly) toward extensive reading (reading one new novel after another). More generally, the rise of empirical science shifted authority from a bounded text to an unbounded corpus of evidence. The expansion of print functioned like science in the realm of imagination and culture.

About 1854, a man who grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut recalled his youth:

Books and newspapers — which are now diffused even among the country towns, so as to be in the hands of all, young and old — were then scarce, and were read respectfully, and as if they were grave matters, demanding thought and attention. They were not toys and pastimes, taken up every day, and by everybody, in the short intervals of labor, and then hastily dismissed, like waste paper. The aged sat down when they read, and drew forth their spectacles, and put them deliberatively and reverentially on the nose. These instruments [spectacles] were not as now, little tortoise-shell hooks, attached to a ribbon, and put off and on with a jerk; but they were of silver or steel, substantially made, and calculated to hold on with a firm and steady grasp, showing the gravity of the uses to which they were devoted. Even the young approached a book with reverence, and a newspaper with awe. How the world has changed![6]

Yes, the world has changed. The world continues to change.

The history of the novel helps to provide some perspective on current media developments. Today major media companies are struggling to set up user-generated content divisions to foster production of user-generated content. At the same time, author and blogger Andrew Keen is promoting his new book entitled, “The Cult of the Amateur.” He recently changed the book’s subtitle from “How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values” to “How today’s Internet is killing our culture.” Without a whiff of amusement, a leading blogger laments, “There’s no food for thought in this book.” Even more seriously, a business intelligence company recently reported that user-generated videos “made up 47% of the total online video market.” The report proclaimed, “consumer usage exploded in 2006 but revenues will prove slow to develop. The honeymoon period for user generated content is over.”

The entertainment business is as strong as ever.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Raven, James (2000), “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age,” in The English novel, 1770-1829: a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles, gen. eds. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 1, pp. 17, 51, 42.

[2] Id. pp. 52-53, which records 51 copyright receipts. In 1757, a journalist complained that a bookseller-publisher “never paid to any author for his labour a sum equal to the wages of a journeyman taylor.” Quoted in id. pp. 50-1. Building craftmen in Southern England, 1736-1773, earned about 24 pence per day, or about £30 for a full year of work. See B.R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 165. The data on occupations is U.S. Census data, collated and discussed in Galbi, Douglas (2003), “Copyright and Creativity: Photographers and Authors.”

[3] Raven (2000) p. 85-6, 93; Winas, Robert B. (1975), “The Growth of a Novel-Reading Public in Late-Eighteenth-Century America,” Early American Literature, IX.

[4] Raven (2000) pp. 15, 34. Garside, Peter (2000), “The English Novel in the Romantic Era: Consoliation and Dispersal,” p. 58, in Garside, Raven, and Schöwerling, vol. 2.

[5] Raven (2000) p. 119; Wittmann, Reinhard (1999), “Was there a Reading Revolution?” in A history of reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press) p. 301, quoting J.A. Bergk, Die Kunst, Bücher zu lesen (1799) p. 69 and Karl G. Bauer, Über die Mittel, dem Geschlechstrieb eine unschädliche Richtung zu geben (1791) p. 190; Raven (2000) pp. 17, 114, 101; Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book (1831), Ch. VII; Wittmann (2000), quoting, original source not cited; see Dmitri Williams (2003), “The Video Game Lightening Rod: Constructions of a New Media Technology,1970-2000,” Information, Communication & Society 6:4 pp. 523–550.

[6] Goodrich, Samuel G. (1857), Recollections of Lifetime (New York: Miller, Orton & Co.) vol. 1, p. 86, quoted in David D. Hall, “The Uses of Literacy in New England, 1600-1850,” in William Joyce et al., eds, Printing and Society in Early America (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1983) p. 21.

watch a film or read a novel?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger observes that watching a film, compared to reading a novel, seems to deliver similar goods at less cost:

Given my utter inability to keep up with all the work and general interest material I’d like to read, I find it very satisfying to be able to enjoy a film in a couple of hours or so, as opposed to the many hours it would take me to read a novel.

I realize how different films and novels are, the latter usually being able to deal with characters and stories in significantly more depth than the former. But I still wonder if there is something about the visual and multimedia nature of films that permits them to tell a story in a couple of hours that would take significantly longer to read. Could it be that one of the reasons for the relative compactness of films is the fact that they are reaching our brains through a variety of channels, including the broader visual ones?

The traditional concept of sensory channels tends to obscure cross-sensory and forward stimulation effects. But this is a good example of how one sensory form can tell stories more efficiently than another sensory form.

In an analysis of a different sensory effect, I’ve estimated the ratio of personal photographs to words of telephone conversation over the past century. These estimates suggest that a picture is worth about twelve thousand words. Keep that in mind when you’re blogging!

ski 'n surf in Vermont

At the excellent Freedom to Connect 2007 conference, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas spoke about his e-state initiative. Gov. Douglas wants everyone everywhere in Vermont to have cellular and broadband coverage. Some quantitative goals are a minimum of 3 Mb symmetric bandwidth (upload and download) by 2010 and 20 Mb by 2013. This initiative, if supported and successfully implemented, will make Vermont an even nicer place for living, skiing, surfing the web, and running all kinds of great communication services.

[if you can’t see the video, try here]

Gov. Douglas proposes creating a Vermont Telecommunications Authority to lead public investment in the necessary communications infrastructure. The Telecommunications Authority will both provide access to relevant state assets and make new investments:

The state can provide the Authority with its moral obligation of up to $40 million in bonds to back projects in the first year of construction and possibly more if needed and sustainable. The initial target is to leverage more than $200 million in private sector investment with the state’s backing. Repayment of borrowing for the projects will be based on revenues generated from leasing access to the infrastructure, such as fiber optic networks and space on towers, or the revenues from services provided over the network. The value of the assets controlled or created by the Authority will also help to secure the value of any bonds.[Vermont Way Forward, p. 5]

The state can credibly commit to open access to the infrastructure and to not moving to capture profitable retail services. That institutional structure creates value that private investment cannot easily duplicate. It provides a good environment for mobile application development platforms like OpenMoko.

COB-8: the importance of editing

As part of our new program of continual innovation here at the Carnival of the Bureaucrats, we’ve tentatively established a new form for carnival post titles. Each carnival post will now begin with a Document Identification Code (DIC). The DIC Manager (DICMAN) has assigned DIC COB-8 to this carnival, the Carnival of the Bureaucrats #8. Based on the record before us, we find that DICs are easy to grasp and will readily meet important blogsphere needs.

Editing is important bureaucratic work. Apart from summarizing comments, an estimated two-thirds of bureaucratic work consists of editing edits. I remember a mentor once offered me three words of advice: “edit, edit, edit.”

Nothing can harm a promising bureaucratic career like a final document that someone reads, where that persons finds a superfluous redundant phrase in the before-mentioned document. This month, the Carnival of the Bureaucrats remembers and mourns those those bright, ambitious young bureaucrats whose careers were tragically wounded in action by non-standard use of the English language.

Many drafts of history are necessary to fully understand the enormity of the suffering of bureaucrats in battles of the sort that they encounter in every day of their lives on the job in the office. The Carnival of the Bureaucrats applauds the San Francisco Chronicle’s contribution to this important work.

Michael Rosenblum at Rosenblumtv observers that local television news all looks the same. He asks:

Why is a medium that could be so incredibly creative and innovative turns out to be so turgid, boring, banal and predictable?

But all tv news doesn’t show a guy with a box over his shoulder — check out Third Eye News. Mr. Rosenblum observes:

To improve you have to embrace failure. Which is something we don’t do in television news. We just keep repeating the same formula over and over and over for years and years.

Repeating the same formula over and over and over for years and years is what bureaucrats do well. The private sector can embrace failure. But that’s just not good enough for government work.

Steven Silvers at Scatterbox discusses a recent public outrage:

how some advertising guys created a terrorist scare in Boston after placing 38 blinking electronic signs beneath underpasses and along streets to promote a Cartoon Network show called Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The one-foot-tall signs depicted a boxy little cartoon character flipping off passing motorists.

This issue concerns a lot of different bureaucracies. Here I will merely report:

Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits the utterance of “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication.” Consistent with a subsequent statute and court case, the Commission’s rules prohibit the broadcast of indecent material during the period of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. FCC decisions also prohibit the broadcast of profane material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Blinking electronic signs typically are not considered to be radio communication. However, the definition of radio communication deserves further discussion.

veryLegal discusses What Ails Lawyers:

Lawyers complain of a lack of control, being sandwiched between judges and clients. They complain about the increasing hostility between fellow lawyers, a lack of loyalty between partners, and a diminishing public image(all those lawyer jokes don’t help). But paramount to all these, they complain about the torturous hours.

Because organizational loyalty is an important bureaucratic value, I think more bureacratization of the legal profession would help to improve this situation. With respect to tortuous hours, good lawyers should know how to deal with that.

Brad’s Bits offers conference call tips for slackers. Brad explains:

It seemed like on most projects, we would wrap up the requirements phase and be ready for design when somebody would request a new feature, thus dragging requirements on for several more weeks. This meant daily conference calls to update documents and pore over the importance of each and every word for hours.

Brad seems not to like doing this. Bureaucratic work isn’t for everyone. Some people are cut out to be slackers, and some are cut out to be bureaucrats.

Anna Farmery at the Engaging Brand blog provides a generic Dear Boss letter. She believes that “leadership is so much more than having a great office and title.” In my experience, having a window in your office is a clear indicator of high rank.

Blue Steel offers to the Carnival of the Bureaucrats a post on how to make political cartoons with a computer. Professional bureaucrats do not make political cartoons.

David Maister at Passion, People and Principles offers a post entitled We’re All Dentists. He explains:

Well, not all of us, but many of us are.

The point about dentists is that while we may need them, we never WANT them. While they do very honorable, helpful caring things for us, their patients, we patients would rather avoid them if we can.

Bureaucrats definitely aren’t dentists. Bureaucrats are here to serve the public. The public wants bureaucrats, needs bureaucrats, and pays the salary of many of them. Get to know your friendly bureaucrats, and take advantage of the services they offer you!

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the Carnival index page.

video content economics

Content is glamorous. Stars, drama, action, romance, suspense. But if you want to understand how Internet video distribution will evolve, you’ve gotta get your nose into dull facts and the dismal science.

Video content has little relevance to aggregate patterns of video consumption. Growth in discretionary (leisure) time is closely correlated with time spent watching television. From 1925 to 1995 in the U.S., discretionary time increased by 15 hours per week. Over the same period, television watching time increased from 0 to 16 hours per week.[1] Television viewing time has expanded to fill growth in leisure time.

Television watching generates common patterns of human behavior irrespective of video content choices. Compare the US to the USSR in the mid-1980s:

In the mid-1980s television programming and broadcasting in the USSR was state-owned, state-controlled, and highly centralized. Households had little opportunity to choose between programs: 68% of households received two or fewer program channels. In contrast, television in the US in the mid-1980s was privately owned and commercially driven, and television offered viewers many programming choices; 88% of households received five or more over-the-air television signals, while cable systems, with median capacity of over 30 channels, passed 76% of households.

Despite these and other sharp contrasts between the US and the USSR, the television set, the way television was watched, and time spent watching television were remarkably similar. In both the US and the USSR the average viewer sat on a couch and watched a rectangular colored screen about two meters away. In the US in 1985 television viewing times for employed men and women were 14.6 and 12.1 hours per week respectively. In Pskov, USSR in 1986, television viewing times for employed men and women were 14.5 and 10.7 hours per week respectively.[2]

The sensory form of video, much more than its content, shapes the physical characteristics of viewing and the amount of viewing time.

Channel repertoire data also indicate common behavior across different content circumstances. In Beijing, China, in 2002, households received on average 37 channels of television. Viewers watched for more than ten minutes per week on average 13.5 channels. Viewers similarly watched per day (among days that included television viewing) on average 4.5 channels.[3] For comparison, in the U.S. in 2005, households received on average 96.4 channels, and watched on average 15.4 channels per week.[4] In Mexico in 2000, viewers watched per day (among days that included television viewing) on average 4.4 channels. Whether in China, the U.S., or Mexico, viewers behave similarly in the extent to which they switch channels on the television.

Video content probably has little relevance to substitution between traditional television viewing time and viewing video available through computer screens. Television sets are ubiquitous and part of the architecture of many homes (the “TV room”). Sitting inertly, killing time in front of the television, is a deeply ingrained habit for many adults. More video choices or better quality video is unlikely to greatly affect video watching. Talk of a schism between content creation and content aggregation and distribution seems to me to miss the main point. Video content creators compete among themselves for viewers with common behavioral routines. Common behavioral routines themselves are out of the scope of persons’ boundedly rational behavioral optimization.

Changing common behavioral routines is more an issue of social change than product design. Joost describes itself thus:

Joost™ is a new way of watching TV on the internet, which uses new and established technologies to provide the best of both the internet and TV worlds. We’re in the process of making it as TV-like as we can, with programmes, channels and adverts. You can also see some things that we think will enhance the TV experience: searching for programmes and channels, for example, as well as social features like chat.

To the extent Joost is like TV, how will it motivate persons to get off the couch in front of the television? Is searching for programs and channels valued experience? Recently the web has been abuzz with Joost’s deal with Viacom. Why will users watch Viacom’s content on Joost rather than on television?

A vague report on recent research findings, which I cannot track to the source, indicates that user-generated content is “more popular” on YouTube than professionally funded content. But what makes YouTube different from television is users generating content, not the user-generated content. What makes YouTube different is users sharing content, not the content that users share. It’s about what people are doing, not what specifically they are watching.

Internet video provides a much better platform than television for creating advertising value through serving dynamic, relevant ads. As Martin Geddes insightfully observed on the value of television content:

So whilst the remote lets you adapt the primary content to your personal tastes, you’re stuck with whatever irrelevant junk they choose to insert in the ad breaks. So there’s a large and growing opportunity to fix the broken ad business. And that’s why TiVo is screwed. They fixed the wrong problem. The issue isn’t getting people to see the right programs. It’s getting them to see the right ads. They screwed up so big, they even gave you a feature to skip the ads. On their epitaph is will say “TiVo. Forgot where the money came from”.

Inferior content with high-value advertising will make superior content with low-value advertising not worth producing.

* * *

[1] See Galbi, Douglas (2001), “Some Economics of Personal Activity and Implications for the Digital Economy,” Section I.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yuan, Elaine J. and James G. Webster (2006), “Channel Repertoires: Using Peoplemeter Data in Beijing,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 50 (3) p. 532.

[4] Report based on Nielsen Media Reporting data.

organizational diversity in information infrastructure

Providing network infrastructure need not be limited to a choice between the model of public roads and the model of selling soap. The provision of public roads depends on market transactions for a variety of goods (construction worker services, trucks, asphalt, etc). Selling soap depends on a variety of public services (money supply provision, law enforcement, public right-of-ways, etc.). Whether in India, Ireland, or Silicon Valley, initiatives to provide network infrastructure are making interconnections between different organizational forms more complex. Revenue models are expanding from taxes, subscription, and advertising to include a variety of public and private sponsorships, in-kind contributions, and special benefits for anchor users.

Impurity is a traditional human concern. In some circumstances, another name for public-private partnership is bribery and corruption. Failed and wasteful network infrastructure projects that involve governmental entities undoubtedly exist. For-profit network providers, who cannot fail without serious public effects, have made dire business mistakes and squandered huge amounts of money. Government entities’ judgments about the services that users value are not likely to be better than those that for-profit network providers have made.

Table 1
Libraries Founded in the American
Colonies and U.S. Prior to 1876
Organization Founding Library Num. of
% of
non-commercial civic library
organizations (social libraries)
3296 33%
non-commercial civic non-library org.
(churches, medical societies, etc.)
2327 23%
mixed form service organizations
(e.g. colleges, hospitals, asylums)
1081 11%
governmental and quasi-governmental
organizations (public libraries)
2423 24%
commercial organizations
(inc. commercial circulating libraries)
663 7%
misc., other hybrid,
and unknown organizations
242 2%
Source: McMullen (2000), p. 59

The history of libraries in the U.S. suggests that organizational diversity can have enduring value in information infrastructure. In the American colonies and the United States prior to 1876, most organizations that founded libraries were neither government bodies nor commercial organizations. A wide variety of organizations established libraries (see Table 1). The most commonly created form of library was a social library:

a library owned by an association formed to establish and operate a library intended for its members’ use. Usually, the members subscribed for stock in order to purchase the initial collection, which was general in subject matter. Then they were assessed a smaller sum (a “tax”) each year to keep up the collection.[1]

Public libraries, meaning libraries that government bodies owned and made open to all or most citizens without a specific-purpose charge, began to grow only from the mid nineteenth-century. As late as 1900, about as many social libraries existed in the U.S. as did public libraries (see Table 2).

Table 2
Number of Functioning
Social and Public Libraries
Type Year
1850 1875 1900
social libraries 508 1154 944
public libraries 51 404 963
Source: McMullen (1985) p. 215.

Public libraries had different characteristics than social libraries. Smaller populations and more recently settled areas favored social libraries, while larger populations in cities with a longer history favored public libraries. Social libraries had typical lifespans about thirty-five years, with considerable variance.[2] Public libraries tended to be more permanent organizations that endured in organizational form through jurisdictional consolidations. Public libraries had a more secure base of funding and grew in size relatively rapidly. Across the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, public libraries came to predominate among the largest libraries (see Table 3). These historical facts are consistent with general comparative organizational characteristics: compared to social organizations, government organizations are more difficult to establish and require more developed government administrative capabilities, government organizations are more enduring, and government organizations are more favorable for organizational growth. Shifts in library organizational forms were in part a response to changing demographic and political circumstances.

Table 3
Top-1% Libraries By Size:
Social and Public Libraries
Type Year
1850 1875 1900
Number of Top-1% Libraries
social libraries 4 10 4
public libraries 0 7 14
Books in Top-1% Libraries (in 1000s)
social libraries 162 783 844
public libraries 0 716 3,229
Source: McMullen (1985) p. 215.

Different organizational forms, however, interacted significantly. Social libraries and public libraries coexisted as important forms of library organization for more than half a century. Through at least 1875 and possibly into the beginning of the twentieth century, social libraries were widely regarded as a valuable form of library organization.[3] Some public libraries evolved from the buildings and collections that social libraries established. In the 1930s, more than a sixth of all “public” libraries in cities with population 30,000 or greater were libraries for which “the library society and the town government shared control in a manner that makes it difficult to know how power was divided between the two bodies.”[4]

selling books in public library

In a long-run international historical perspective, the U.S. has had a relatively highly developed information economy. New organizational forms for book sharing, network infrastructure, and telephone service are not just necessary entrepreneurial experiments in rapidly changing technological circumstances. Diversity in the organizational forms of its information infrastructure has been an enduring characteristic of the U.S. information economy. Organizational diversity may be a key to growth of the information economy.

* * *


[1] From “Definition of Types,” American Libraries Before 1876, Davies Project.

[2] McMullen (1985) p. 214.

[3] Id. pp. 218-20.

[4] Id. p. 223.


McMullen, Haynes (1985), “The Very Slow Decline of the American Social Library,” Library Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 2, pp. 207-225.

McMullen, Haynes (2000), American Libraries Before 1876 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press).