The Virtuous Marketplace: Scribd, UGC and academic utility


After reading Sam’s post about UGC and getting paid for it, I’ve been thinking about sites that allow for this and who uses them. This guest post is about Scribd.com and is written by one of its users, Kris Grint. He’s a DPhil researcher at the Centre for Intellectual History, University of Sussex.

Lessons from the French

In contemplating writing an article on the usefulness of Scribd.com to my specific academic context, I could not help but appropriate the title of Victoria Thompsons’s book, The Virtuous Marketplace, as an analogy for explaining what I feel is this UGC-driven site’s modus operandi. In her 2000 book, Thompson describes the virtuous marketplace as essentially the cumulative product of free market forces impacting upon French culture.

Pont Neuf - Paris by Nicolas Guerard

In the eighteenth century, the advance of a free market was a critical tool against absolutism, because it allowed people to develop arguments against the state and distribute them without fear of reprisal. Think of this in the same terms as the potential capability of the internet to transmit ideas to those residing in autocratic regimes. By the 1830s, however, this particular freedom came to be associated with licentiousness and a distinct lack of quality control. Think of this as the same as how one finds, in the West at least, the written word on the current web. A significant portion is useful but perhaps the majority is fodder, rubbish, or static noise. How can you tell the good from the bad? Particularly when a piece isn’t found on the website of a large publishing corporation or media entity? We can place our trust in a virtuous marketplace, where markets sort the wheat from the chaff.

Scribd

This concept is behind the document hosting service Scribd. On Scribd, users (which comprise individuals, collectives, and companies) upload their documents for viewing by the public – a YouTube for writing. Other Scribd users vote, share and respond to documents depending on their quality, with higher-rated works rising to the top of charts which can be refined via genre, description or keyword search. So far, so good. The market element adds a further index to the quality of writing on offer however, and is introduced into Scribd by virtue of uploaders being able to price their documents – be they articles, magazines, or short stories – as they see fit. If users are buying certain publications – voting with their wallet – it gives a good (but not failsafe) indication that the item in question is of a certain quality, repute or usefulness.

This process, in turn, creates a revenue stream for Scribd, with profits shared between the the author (for being the wordsmith) and the company (for providing the means of delivery) in an 80:20 split.

Scribd turns a significant number of its userbase into producers, and profits accordingly from the commercial success of whatever its users choose to peddle. This selling of content on a marketplace marks a shift from typical UGC-sites, where it is not usually necessary to make a purchase to access the content generated by the site’s users, although it is certainly not a unique selling point (see, for example, the commercial technical support website Expert’s Exchange).

Academic Benefit

The specific academic benefit of Scribd springs from this arrangement, and that’s why I find it such a useful service. As a researcher, my motivations are not to make money from publishing documents, instead I need to find a reliable, non-expensive way to share large swathes of primary documents online.

Because a significant portion of Scribd’s activity is given over to a profit-making enterprise, the company can afford to offer practically unlimited, free document hosting to its users, regardless of whether they participate in the marketplace or not. In one of the most recent projects I’ve worked on, I used Scribd to make publicly available a 15,000 page manuscript archive relating to research on the English political economist T. R. Malthus, which includes several personal letters that had never been transcribed before. The applet provided by Scribd to display the documents is embeddable on my institution’s website, works with a minimum of fuss, and allows for text-searching, printing and bookmarking.

Scribd may never replace a bestsellers list as an index for establishing the most widely-read texts of our time, but its spirited attempt to create a virtuous marketplace for writing on an burgeoning and increasingly unwieldy web has a very welcome offshoot – the provision of space to host archives of material that researchers had previously found cost-prohibitive to share. That, in itself, is an incredibly virtuous offering.

REBECCA BELL

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