I have been working on a business plan for Docuseek2. I am following a template for the plan, and one of the recurring themes is “what distinguishes you from your competitors?” In thinking about this, I keep thinking about an idea I wrote about in a previous post (“Discoverability and post-sale marketing“), where our area of distinction is the content. I wrote:

At Docuseek2, we are proud of the content that we offer in our database of streaming film (now over 400 titles). We hold on to the sense that our forest of media is made up of individual trees, each a treasure in its own right. Each title embodies a voice, an intention, a bundle of meanings and feelings. We want the films to be seen (“used”). Not because their use means renewals means more money (although that is a reality that we need to deal with), but because their use is a worthy goal in itself. We believe that viewing the films will inform and enrich and even enthuse the viewer. The world will be a better place.

A “science of qualities” is an important idea in romantic science, as opposed to conventional science identified as a “science of quantities”. Conventional science focuses on the quantifiable, the measurable, the mechanical. For Goethe, a pioneer of romantic science, the human being is the most exact scientific instrument. In a science of quantities, the human being is unreliable — the data acquired by machines is holds preference.

The counterpart in economics was highlighted by Karl Marx in his distinction between a commodity’s “use value” and its “exchange value”. The “use value” of a commodity is its ability to satisfy a need or a want. It is by definition subjective, qualitative. Set against use value is “exchange value”, a reduction of the commodity to a common metric that allows it to be compared to, and exchanged with, commodities of very different qualities. What allows for a loaf of bread (or many loaves) to be exchanged for a bicycle? Use value is necessary for a commodity to be exchanged (somebody has to want it as a precondition), but with capitalism at least, the use value becomes a mere secondary aspect to economic activity — production is primarily for exchange — things are produced not primarily because they satisfy a need or want, but because they can be exchanged (and profited by). The use value — what distinguishes the thing — is not really relevant at all, except that it needs to be there in some fashion or other.

In William Cronon’s remarkable book, Nature’s Metropolis, he describes the shift that needed to take place in thinking about wheat and corn to allow the agricultural commodity markets to develop in Chicago. Through a system of classifying and categorizing wheat and corn — quantifying the plants — the unique organisms of many unique farms could be combined and treated in an abstract way, as so many bushels of such-and-such a grade. In such a way, traders thousands of miles away could purchase and speculate on farm products without ever having to actually see the wheat or corn or whatever. This process of reducing and quantifying and abstracting not just corn or wheat, but cows and pigs and timber and butter and so on was one of the revolutionary developments in economics and agriculture.

Last year a brief discussion popped up on the videolib discussion list about training for media librarians. In one of the posts, deg farelly from Arizona State University wrote, “It is clear from our study that decision making is moving out of the hands of media librarians and increasingly into the hands of Collection Development/Acquisitions units.” I don’t want to be unfair to the collection development folks, but the shift that deg describes sounded to me a lot like a shift from librarians who appreciated film for film’s sake, the quality people, the people that would go to the National Media Market and watch the films; to people building “collections” via “databases” of thousands of titles — the quantity folks. The uniqueness of each film, its intention, the subjective, human, appreciation, is reduced to units and metatags and minutes, and licensed as a blob of film. Or that’s the danger at least.

Which brings me back to the forests and the trees. The forests of films, the massive collections of titles from Alexander Street Press (“more than 100 databases” and “over 22,400 full videos and 9,000 hours of content”) or Kanopy (“our fantastic catalog of over 20,000 videos”) represent one approach. Docuseek2, with our mighty collection of 460+ trees, represents another approach. And that is the main distinction I think between us, and the bigger companies in the academic streaming market. The “value proposition” that Bullfrog Films and Icarus Films and Collective Eye Films and the other participating distributors provide (I think) is their curation, acting as gatekeepers, as editors as it were. And so Docuseek2 reflects that selectivity. Docuseek2 is a highly-curated, premium, exclusive collection of film.

The challenge for us is preserving that special-ness as we navigate the choppy seas of commerce. In the tussle for the library collection dollar, we cannot compete on quantity, but we can, and do, compete quite well on quality.