Who Put the “E” in Econtent?


Over get a song stuck in your head? The other day, for me, it was Barry Mann (or maybe The Viscounts, who also recorded Mann's lyrics) singing, "who put the bomp in the bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp?" Or was it the "bomp in the bomp bah bomp?" Or the "bop in the bop shu wop?" Or the "bop she bop?" You can find all these variations when you do a web search on the lyrics, not to mention some zingers about the "ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong" and "dip-de-dip-de-dip."

These aren't official lyrics; they're what people thought they heard. If you transcribed the original lyrics and put them on the web, you'd probably be in violation of copyright and might have to confront the RIAA, but that's a tune best sung another day. People hear things differently—rather like the child who sings loudly in church about vegetable warriors rather than urging the troops forward. I refer, of course, to the popular childhood variant of Onward Christian Soldiers—Onion Christian Soldiers—which has a habit of permanently replacing the correct version of the hymn in the minds of impressionable children. Who knows from whence this or any other such variation comes, but sometimes they just stick.

So who put the "e" in econtent? I'd like to meet this guy. When collections are digitized, why don't we call it "econtent"? Instead, we talk about creating a "digital library." The information industry has been busy making content digital for 30 years or so. Yet somehow the idea of turning print indexes into online databases or digitizing entire runs of scholarly journals so that they are full-text searchable just doesn't capture the public's attention. It's only when we call it "econtent" that everyone gets all interested and excited.

The stalwarts of the econtent industry—as recognized by industry professionals—remain inaccessible to the general public. Sometimes this is a price issue. Premium content from EContent 100 companies such as Reed Elsevier, Thomson, Alacra, and Springer cost money. They are designed for the professional researcher, who is assumed to have a budget. Of course, there is a manufacturing and quality control process applied to this content, which increases its value to serious researchers and helps justify the price tag.

Price isn't always the reason premium content is not readily available to the general public. Even when it's offered at a local library, awareness of its existence is low. The marketing of intangibles is always a tricky business and the subtleties of the value of premium econtent, as opposed to a general web search, are lost on most public library card holders.

So maybe the question shouldn't be who put the "e" in econtent; perhaps the better question is why people today are so enamored of econtent? I think there are two factors at work.

First, delivery mechanisms are now in alignment with econtent. One word describes the advances in delivery mechanisms—mobile. When I first went online, nothing was portable. No one carried their computer around—computers were mainframes, firmly anchored in a physical place. They belonged to companies, not individuals. They were most definitely not wearable either. Now we've gone from big heavy boxes to smaller, lighter boxes—but the future belongs to mobile technology. As mobile devices add features, they increasingly compete with laptop computers for content delivery. I once thought that no one would read long treatises on a mobile phone. Now I'm not so sure. I am sure that econtent creators must carefully consider mobile delivery when they design products.

The second factor at work is that content is now born digital; it is "e" before it is content. We're no longer talking about digitizing. Vast amounts of quality content are created electronically and exist only in the online world. No printing presses, no paper, no scanners, and—some would say—no permanent record. Native econtent is extraordinarily mutable. It can change at a moment's notice with no history of what it contained before. This has some frightening implications for serious research, legal precedent, and historical accuracy. Nevertheless, there's every possibility that econtent, born digital, will outpace digitized-from-print econtent in the near future. It's an exciting prospect, but brings with it many information management concerns that will keep econtent industry observers busy for a long time to come.

And if you're humming right now about putting the "bomp" in "the bomp bah bomp" and the "ram" in the "ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong," I apologize for putting that song in your head. But maybe you know the real lyrics, or some other valuable variation, and are posting them online right now.