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May 24, 2007

What are we going to say about "Cult of the Amateur"?

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Posted by Clay Shirky

A month or so ago, Micah Sifry offered me a chance to respond to Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming Cult of the Amateur, at a panel at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum (PdF). The book is a polemic against the current expansion of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. Also on the panel were Craig Newmark and Robert Scoble, so I was in good company; my role would, I thought, be easy — be pro-amateur production, pro-distributed creation, pro-collective action, and so on, things that come naturally to me.

What I did not expect was what happened — I ended up defending Keen, and key points from Cult of the Amateur, against a panel of my peers.

I won’t review CotA here, except to say that the book is going to get a harsh reception from the blogosphere. It is, as Keen himself says, largely anecdotal, which makes it more a list of ‘bad things that have happened where the internet is somewhere in the story’ than an account of cause and effect; as a result, internet gambling and click fraud are lumped together with the problems with DRM and epistemological questions about peer-produced material. In addition to this structural weakness, it is both aggressive enough and reckless enough to make people spitting mad. Dan Gillmor was furious about the inaccuracies, including his erroneous (and since corrected) description in the book, Yochai Benkler asked me why I was even deigning to engage Andrew in conversation, and so on. I don’t think I talked to anyone who wasn’t dismissive of the work.

But even if we stipulate that the book doesn’t do much to separate cause from effect, and has the problems of presentation that often accompany polemic, the core point remains: Keen’s sub-title, “How today’s internet is destroying our culture”, has more than a grain of truth to it, and the only thing those of us who care about the network could do wrong would be to dismiss Keen out of hand.

Which is exactly what people were gearing up to do last week. Because Keen is a master of the dismissive phrase — bloggers are monkeys, only people who get paid do good work, and so on — he will engender a reaction from our side that assumes that everything he says in the book is therefore wrong. This is a bad (but probably inevitable) reaction, but I want to do my bit to try to stave it off, both because fairness dictates it — Keen is at least in part right, and we need to admit that — and because a book-burning accompanied by a hanging-in-effigy will be fun for us, but will weaken the pro-freedom position, not strengthen it.

The Panel

The panel at PdF started with Andrew speaking, in some generality, about ways in which amateurs were discomfiting people who actually know what they are doing, while producing sub-standard work on their own.

My response started by acknowledging that many of the negative effects Keen talked about were real, but that the source of these effect was an increase in the freedom of people to say what they want, when they want to, on a global stage; that the advantages of this freedom outweigh the disadvantages; that many of the disadvantages are localized to professions based on pre-internet inefficiencies; and that the effort required to take expressive power away from citizens was not compatible with a free society.

This was, I thought, a pretty harsh critique of the book. I was wrong; I didn’t know from harsh.

Scoble was simply contemptuous. He had circled offending passages which he would read, and then offer an aphoristic riposte that was more scorn than critique. For instance, in taking on Andrew’s point that talent is unevenly distributed, Scoble’s only comment was, roughly, “Yeah, Britney must be talented…”

Now you know and I know what Scoble meant — traditional media gives outsize rewards to people on characteristics other than pure talent. This is true, but because he was so dismissive of Keen, it’s not the point that Scoble actually got across. Instead, he seemed to be denying either that talent is unevenly distributed, or that Britney is talented.

But Britney is talented. She’s not Yo-Yo Ma, and you don’t have to like her music (back when she made music rather than just headlines), but what she does is hard, and she does it well. Furthermore, deriding the music business’s concern with looks isn’t much of a criticism. It escaped no one’s notice that Amanda Congdon and lonelygirl15 were easy on the eyes, and that that was part of their appeal. So cheap shots at mainstream talent or presumptions of the internet’s high-mindedness are both non-starters.

More importantly, talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age (c.f. Google.) Whatever we think of Keen or CotA, it would be insane to deny that.

Similarly, Scoble scoffed at the idea that there is a war on copyright, but there is a war on copyright, at least as it is currently practiced. As new capabilities go, infinite perfect copyability is a lulu, and it breaks a lot of previously stable systems. In the transition from encoding on atoms to encoding with bits, information goes from having the characteristics of chattel to those of a public good. For the pro-freedom camp to deny that there is a war on copyright puts Keen in the position of truth-teller, and makes us look like employees of the Ministry of Doublespeak.

It will be objected that engaging Keen and discussing a flawed book will give him attention he neither needs nor deserves. This is fantasy. CotA will get an enthusiastic reception no matter what, and whatever we think of it or him, we will be called to account for the issues he raises. This is not right, fair, or just, but it is inevitable, and if we dismiss the book based on its errors or a-causal attributions, we will not be regarded as people who have high standards, but rather as defensive cult members who don’t like to explain ourselves to outsiders.

What We Should Say

Here’s my response to the core of Keen’s argument.

Keen is correct in seeing that the internet is not an improvement to modern society; it is a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible, or, put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are significantly important, and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.

The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is epochal. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without radical alteration.

This change will create three kinds of loss.

First, people whose jobs relied on solving a hard problem will lose those jobs when the hard problems disappear. Creating is hard, filtering is hard, but the basic fact of making acceptable copies of information, previously the basis of the aforementioned music and newspaper industries, is a solved problem, and we should regard with suspicion anyone who tries to return copying to its previously difficult state.

Similarly, Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees. Its possible to regard this as a hardship for the ad guys, but its also possible to wonder whether they were really worth the $300K in the first place if an amateur, working in their spare time with consumer-grade equipment, can create something the client is satisfied with. This loss is real, but it is not general. Video tools are sad for ad guys in the same way movable type was sad for scribes, but as they say in show biz, the world doesn’t owe you a living.

The second kind of loss will come from institutional structures that we like as a society, but which are becoming unsupportable. Online ads offer better value for money, but as a result, they are not going to generate enough cash to stand up the equivalent of the NY Times’ 15-person Baghdad bureau. Josh Wolf has argued that journalistic privilege should be extended to bloggers, but the irony is that Wolf’s very position as a videoblogger makes that view untenable — journalistic privilege is a special exemption to a general requirement for citizens to aid the police. We can’t have a general exception to that case.

The old model of defining a journalist by tying their professional identity to employment by people who own a media outlet is broken. Wolf himself has helped transform journalism from a profession to an activity; now we need a litmus test for when to offer source confidentiality for acts of journalism. This will in some ways be a worse compromise than the one we have now, not least because it will take a long time to unfold, but we can’t have mass amateurization of journalism and keep the social mechanisms that regard journalists as a special minority.

The third kind of loss is the serious kind. Some of these Andrew mentions in his book: the rise of spam, the dramatically enlarged market for identity theft. Other examples he doesn’t: terrorist organizations being more resilient as a result of better communications tools, pro-anorexic girls forming self-help groups to help them remain anorexic. These things are not side-effects of the current increase in freedom, they are effects of that increase. Spam is not just a plague in open, low-entry-cost systems; it is a result of those systems. We can no longer limit things like who gets to form self-help groups through social controls (the church will rent its basement to AA but not to the pro-ana kids), because no one needs help or permission to form such a group anymore.

The hard question contained in Cult of the Amateur is “What are we going to do about the negative effects of freedom?” Our side has generally advocated having as few limits as possible (when we even admit that there are downsides), but we’ve been short on particular cases. It’s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining, because the writing has been on the wall since Brad Templeton founded Clarinet. It’s harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks.

Those cases are going to shift us from prevention to reaction (a shift that parallels the current model of publishing first, then filtering later), but so much of the conversation about the social effects of the internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe (as with the essjay crisis on Wikipedia), we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public.

What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.

We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer. The conversation about those governance models, what they look like and why we need them, is going to move out into the general public with CotA, and we should be ready for it. My fear, though, is that we will instead get a game of “Did not!”, “Did so!”, and miss the opportunity to say something much more important.

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. Geoff on May 24, 2007 12:52 PM writes...

An excellent thought provoking post - thank you

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2. Liz Wolf-Spada on May 24, 2007 8:30 PM writes...

Contrary to your definition of "journalists as a special minority", I believe we need to change that definition to be "journalists are protected, NOT because they are a 'special minority', but because the purpose of getting and reporting information to the public is mandated by the first amendment. It is created by the public's right to know, not by special priviliges by journalists.

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3. Liz Wolf-Spada on May 24, 2007 8:31 PM writes...

Contrary to your definition of "journalists as a special minority", I believe we need to change that definition to be "journalists are protected, NOT because they are a 'special minority', but because the purpose of getting and reporting information to the public is mandated by the first amendment. It is created by the public's right to know, not by special priviliges by journalists.

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4. Phil on May 25, 2007 4:02 AM writes...

We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer.

It's a nice thought, but I don't think 'we' (Clay, Scoble, Dave Sifry and David Weinberger?) are anything like that powerful. Follow the money. (Even Jimbo Wales's position ultimately rests on the power to keep the servers running.)

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5. Phil on May 25, 2007 4:15 AM writes...

PS Although Wikipedia itself does challenge my picture of a Web 2.0 landscape dominated by Big Business 2.0.

PPS Sometimes when I'm marking a student essay, I'm reading through nodding enthusiastically and muttering good point!, but I still end up devoting more space on the feedback sheet to the minor points I think they got wrong. It makes sense (they need to know why the mark wasn't even higher and how they can do better next time) but it can feel a bit ungracious. My first comment was a bit like that. For the record, this is a really interesting post which deserves fuller discussion - I'll write a followup on my blog when I get round to it. (I've got this marking that I need to get back to...)

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6. Ian Johnson, Out Now Consulting on May 26, 2007 11:06 PM writes...

This is going to be a very interesting month. I am intrigued by the democratic side of things.

I am not so sure that in the area of specialist knowledge, or even simply reliable knowledge this current trend is the future though. Most major schools no longer trust Wikipedia as a reference source for credible information, for example.

The open model is flawed if the topics being written about require at least some level of working knowledge of the topic.

The mass amateurization of journalism you mention is a dangerous thing for all where the quality of the information being presented lacks that which has been the hallmark of serious journalistic endeavour since its beginnings - credibility.

When being interviewed by journalists, I am always assessing how well they have understood our business and the targeted niche market we operate in - the gay consumer market. The ones that give me the greatest confidence are the ones that have undertaken proper research of our market to at least some extent. The ones that I get nervous about are the ones whose research is clearly minimal or based on some online falsehoods about what 'gay marketing' is about.

Personally I think the future is going to see a move into 2.0+ technologies by name brand media that the consumer can trust and rely upon. The rest will become the equivalent of the global village square. Good for a gossip, or even just like 'Speakers Corner' in olde England. Journalism grew out of such spaces and I think it will evolve to become Journalism 2.0 and adapt with the information delivery platforms.

I actually think the need for, and the functions of, professionalism journalism become stronger than ever in an information-drenched world.

We are just witnessing the pangs of a transition of change to new media systems, not the death in society of the need for a journalism that still delivers that one thing the cult of the amatuer never can - credibility. Ian Johnson. Out Now.

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7. Seth Finkelstein on May 28, 2007 3:37 AM writes...

Keen is staking out territory by being the mirror-image of "Web 2.0" boosters, hence any "debate" takes on an aspect of professional wrestling. You're not going to have a "conversation", because both parties are doing their stunts. For the A-listers, that's using marketing techniques of snark, strawmen, appeal to emotion, and perhaps personal attack. On the other side, there's derision, overgeneralization, false nostalgia, and perhaps personal attack.

I see no evidence that truth has any bearing at all.

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8. Rich Ziade on May 28, 2007 3:17 PM writes...

Great post Clay. As a 37 year old this makes me somewhat nervous. Heheh. Though I think my best years actually came later (I may be an anomaly. Who knows). I responded here:

http://www.basement.org/2007/05/situps_for_the_brain.html

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9. Lucy P on June 7, 2007 10:48 AM writes...

"In the transition from encoding on atoms to encoding with bits"

What does that mean, exactly? When did we last encode things on atoms?

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10. Adam Greenfield on June 7, 2007 5:11 PM writes...

A book or a CD isn't a text encoded in atoms, Lucy P?

Andrew Keen is a world-class ignoramus, let's be absolutely clear, but I despair to think of Robert Scoble as freedom's last bulwark. I think the issue here isn't so much that unlimited freedom of expression doesn't have drawbacks - of course it does - but that whatever damage is done is generally less onerous than the harm that would be caused by whatever putative cure is being proposed.

I know enough about Mr. Keen to be certain that whatever kind of society he advocates in his book, it's neither one that is practically achievable given the extant state of affairs, nor one I'd be terribly interested in living in.

Then again, I'm precisely the kind of amateur he rails against, so what do I know?

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11. Steve on June 20, 2007 7:28 PM writes...

I recently spent a couple of hours in the local Barnes and Noble perusing Keen's book. You are entirely too nice to the guy. There is an overriding issue which transcends the admitted validity of some of his points. It is this. This guy is simply an ass.

Now admittedly, that's a little subjective, so let me try to refine and support it. The guy is an unashamed elitist. He really believes that some people are better than others (and I have little doubt where he would place himself on that continuum and with whom he would identify.) His railing against the quality of amateur work is outrightly mean-spirited. He does not wish to acknowledge the intelligence, training, or capability of producing quality work of anyone not certified and/or employed by the gatekeeper institutions.

Now all this might be excusable if his evaluation of amateur versus professional quality was actually true. But it's not. It's a half-truth which could be more accurately encoded by saying that many but not all amateurs are incompetent, and many but not all professionals are more competent than most amateurs. Not nearly so impressive as an argument - but it has the advantage of being a truthful formulation.

The truth is that the gatekeeper institutions are broken and have been broken, to my personal knowledge, for over a generation. Certification as a media professional has become a license to censor and to lie, and in the monopolistic sector of the entertainment industry, arguably, to steal.

The way anyone can judge the truth of this is to look critically at media coverage of events they have personal knowledge of - especially if those events are related to controversial or minority social or political viewpoints, or to the lifestyles of the poor. They lie, they distort and they censor. Had that not been the case, the Internet explosion would have surely proceeded somewhat differently than it has.

Does the entertainment industry steal? You say Britney is talented, and much as it disgusts me, I must agree. But that misses the point. Consider a unit of analysis we'll call "Britney, Inc." This would include Britney in her own person, her paid entourage, and the various corporate entities who dispose of the Britney generated income stream. What does Britney Inc. provide that is worth what it gets paid, compared to lesser known but equally talented entertainers? Very little!

One could argue that we need universal or at least majority-dominant cultural icons as a centripetal force to prevent social fragmentation. And, surely Britney Inc attempts to provide that, and that is surely part of what we pay for when we patronize a Britney Inc product or service. We pay to keep the mechanisms of monopoly communication in place. But do the icons thus produced actually deliver the hypothesized benefit? Watch Britney shake her stuff on stage and ask if you would want that as a role model for your daughter, should you have one, or other young female within your sphere of caring and responsibility. Like to turn my stomach!

So, the thing to remember about this Keen character is that he's down with all this. And, to paraphrase the Jefferson Airplane, he is very proud of himself.

Now does he have some valid insights? Sure. I remember having one or two "stopped clock is right twice a day" moments as I went through the book. I think it was the insight (and I paraphrase greatly) that it's hard, if not impossible, to find the good stuff as you wade through a sea of crap. Agreed. Heck, it's hard to find the right good stuff wading through just the sea of other good stuff. And yeah, we need to seriously talk about that.

But the point isn't that he's right about some things. The point is that he's a partisan of those who want to turn back the clock and stuff the genie back in the bottle. I hope to heaven he's getting well paid - I'd hate to think of anybody being that stupid for free.

And, not only does he take the losing side of the historical question, he's even ignorant of the history of what he wants to criticize. Let me give you four names not found in his index. Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Bruce Sterling, and John Perry Barlow. I'm sure there are many more, those were the four I checked for. The man is an ass, and an ignorant ass beyond that.

The grains of insight that can be rescued from Keen's dungheap surely deserve to be showcased and discussed. Let a new book be written by someone with some brains, integrity and good-heartedness toward the common folk.

And show due respect. Give Keen a footnote. It's what he deserves.

Just a thought,
-Steve

Permalink to Comment

12. gus bjorklund on June 25, 2007 6:54 PM writes...

No, you're wrong. He doesn't deserve a footnote.

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13. mike perla on July 9, 2007 10:55 PM writes...

Clay misses a key point because he's so focused on the "freedom" that the internet provides. The point that escapes him is simply that we should have restraint and avoid exercising every "freedom" we have. Just because we're allowed to do something doesn't mean it's in our best interests or other that we do it. The discussion in the book about vanity is another contributing factor to this rampant freedom. I wholeheartely agree that bloggers and Web 2.0 junkies spend so much time feeding and eating their own content that they miss out on true learning, comprehension or deep thought. Instead they get and give topical coverage for the sake of freedom. Web 2.0 is more than just a new information delivery paradigm, it signals the delivery of "open source" information at the expense of the furtherment of professionals to flourish in their craft.

I have an exercise for anyone that doubts this. Take a subject matter that you're an expert in, whether it's botany, 17th century French literature or discrete math, and read what Wikipedia says about your subject. (after all we're all experts in something.) Feel good about the content or feel cheated? Thenh remember that most people will read the Wikipedia entry and stop. They probably won't check out a library book on ther subject, look at another source, or think about the parts of the wiki that are wrong. Wouldn't it be valuable then to read what a professional has to say?

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14. mike perls on July 9, 2007 11:03 PM writes...

"Now admittedly, that's a little subjective, so let me try to refine and support it. The guy is an unashamed elitist. He really believes that some people are better than others (and I have little doubt where he would place himself on that continuum and with whom he would identify.) His railing against the quality of amateur work is outrightly mean-spirited."

This is quite funny. Think Tiger Woods is better at golf than you? Think Alan Greenspan knows more about economics than guy bagging groceries at the Safeway? Think Steve Jobs knows more about the markets for cell phones than your manager at work? The answer to all of these questions is "Of course!" Some people simply are better than others *** at some things ***.

Your vapid post is going along way to making Keen's point.

Permalink to Comment

15. Gabe on July 11, 2007 10:25 AM writes...

I appreciate your thoughtfulness and fairmindedness in the face of bombast from both sides. You're right that there's important stuff here and that it's worth thinking about seriously.

But I wish there were a better catalyst for the discussion than Andrew Keen, whose reasoning is so specious as to distort the entire debate. Just one example. You write:

"Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees.... This loss is real, but it is not general."

You might have written: This loss is real, but it is someone else's gain. If the client spends $50k rather than $300k on advertising, the $250k doesn't just vanish into the ether; the client can invest it in his/her core business, or expand into new areas, or give the staff raises. Those things don't happen when the ad agency collects its $300k.

Keen is committing the broken window fallacy, which is described here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

Permalink to Comment

16. wai on August 2, 2007 10:47 AM writes...

"It's harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks."

Why do we need to do anything about them? What razor are you using to decide these groups need "doing about" as opposed to any other group? To the extent their activities violate applicable laws, those laws (and their enforcers) apply. To the extent their ideas are deemed "bad", they should be countered using the normal mechanisms of the marketplace: better counter arguments distributed widely enough to influence those considering joining or supporting such groups.

The same way technology facilitates the creation and maintenance of such groups, it facilitates the creation and maintenance of counter groups and it facilitates the activities of law enforcement where necessary.

The most powerful way of "doing about" is to work to maximize the effectiveness of these market forces: maximize access, minimize barriers to entry in the form of limited understanding, and ensure a level playing field by working against special tools and mechanisms in the hands of a few.

Education, education, education. Of lawmakers, parents, cops, everyone.

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17. Kate on August 17, 2007 2:00 AM writes...

"This is quite funny. Think Tiger Woods is better at golf than you? Think Alan Greenspan knows more about economics than guy bagging groceries at the Safeway? Think Steve Jobs knows more about the markets for cell phones than your manager at work? The answer to all of these questions is "Of course!" Some people simply are better than others *** at some things ***.

Your vapid post is going along way to making Keen's point."

Before anyone heard the name Tiger Woods, however, he was still a good golfer. Being paid and given recognition does not equal talent. Who is to say that the guy bagging groceries at the Safeway couldn't possibly know something worth expressing? Your point that some people are more talented than others in different areas is quite correct, but it is an unfair truth that skill and success do not always go hand in hand.

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18. Julie Hamwood on September 5, 2007 1:50 PM writes...

No doubt there's a lot of trash in all our forms of popular media.
I'm surprised, when considering Keen's points, no one has mentioned Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You take on this - that our forms of pop culture are requiring, and getting, more sophisticated types of engagement from us - it's making us smarter.
How can we determine if this is happening online?

Thanks for your writing, Clay.

Permalink to Comment

19. Nate on October 11, 2007 11:57 PM writes...

Something that occurred to me while reading your post...the internet reduces frictions to trade and enables microtrade. Instead of hiring editors and writers to focus on and complete an encyclopedia, thousands of individuals can contribute to the work in their spare time on topics they understand best. In essence, the work "hires" each contributor to do a tiny segment - an amount less than would have justified an interview, or even a conversation.

Similarly, there was a time when that producing advertisements was worth $300K. Combining increased access to human resources through the internet / reduction of trade barriers (and the common availability of the necessary equipment) with the potential for collaboration/competition/contribution from an unlimited number of individuals, what was once worth $300K is now worth much less.

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