Carrots and Sticks

Not too long ago, I was at a conference hotel, getting some work done in the lobby between sessions. A friend dropped by to chat, and I showed him an app that I use for productivity and good habits. It's a role-playing game called Habitica. As you knock to-dos off your list, and check off when you've performed a habit you want to encourage in yourself, you get rewards. It's a positive reinforcement virtuous cycle.

He laughed and said, "You're all carrot and no stick."

It's true. I happily admit it. I function best when incentivized with rewards rather than threats. I might check off more to-dos in a threatening environment, but I'm happier in a rewarding one - which means I do a better job at the things I put my mind to.

Unfortunately, standards adoption doesn't work that way.

There are a great many standards that are created to solve specific problems, but get very slow adoption in the industry. Or none. At least in the US book industry, it seems, there has to be a stick. Carrots don't get the job done.

The stick, in most cases, is that someone has to make the first move in requiring a standard. That was how the ISBN caught on - bookstores began requiring it. That was how ONIX (and the ONIX code-lists) caught on - Amazon began requiring it from the larger publishers. In our portion of the industry, that's what it takes. "Nice to haves" are lovely, but by and large, the book industry doesn't invest in "nice to haves" unless there's a distinct competitive advantage. Which, itself, is at least the threat of a stick.

Other industries have more sticks, it's true. The music industry is a thicket of threats and competition. The video industry is as well. And with our adoption of ISBN (and, to some degree, ISSN) and ONIX, we're regarded as being "ahead" by those industries. But both music and video companies are scrambling with discoverability issues, rights and royalties issues. They're looking closely at, for example, ISNI as a way of solving these problems. They're looking at linked data functionality, so they get attention from Google's Knowledge Panel.

And it may be that, as an industry, we're extremely comfortable with what's already on our plates. But I would argue that, in many ways, we're competing with other types of media for customers - and that competition isn't going so well for us these days. And if those media are looking at standards that we haven't even implemented as potential solutions to their problems...that gap might well become more pronounced.

Treat yourself, maybe. Think about a carrot.

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