This pretty much tells it as it is.

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Gerty-z of Balanced Instability blog posed an age-old problem in post-graduate education.

I was talking to a graduate student the other day. It was a hallway interaction, she had not searched me out for advice. I have known this grad student for several years, and she is one of the superstars in a highly-ranked graduate program. By every metric, she should be graduating. Now. Turns out, her advisor has been suggesting that she stick around for another year or two.

ruh roh! Conflict of Interest raises its ugly head.
I bring this up because this is not the first time I’ve heard a similar story. In fact I’ve heard of what appears to be at least one entire department that is riddled with this tendency to prolong the graduate school interval as long as possible, seemingly only to extract more value out of productive trainees.

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Rob Knop has a series of observations up on Galactic Interactions that struck a chord with me. He’s talking about Linden Labs and the Second Life dealio, about which I know next to nothing. I barely understand all that stuff. However, he starts with this observation:

I think often the way to kill a business is to over-monetize it. I remember the 1990’s, and Web search engines. The pattern was repeated over and over again. There’d be one that was the best. They’d realize they were the best, and they’d either get sold or they’d try to monetize their business. The page would go from being relatively clean, to being a cluttered mess of ads… and the search results, being increasingly paid, would become less and less useful. So we’d all move on to another engine. That ended with Google, who had the vision not to try too soon to over-monetize their search, and who recognized when they did monetize it that they had to do it in a way that didn’t completely undermine what brought people there in the first place.

Emphasis added. Now I’m not so much afeeerd of monetizing but it appears an axiomatic truth to me that you cannot kill the function that brings people to your online site or business. That is really the key to Google’s world dominance as a search engine. I had the exact same frustration expressed by Rob with Web engines in the 1990s and I bet most of you did too. It still boggles my mind that you go to the root Google page and you get what you need- a search box and an entry button. Sans extra crap.

It really is sad that Twitter is trying as hard as they can to miss the point of Google. but I digress..

Rob has another observation about Linden that sounds hauntingly familiar:

Alas, the company as a whole didn’t realize this. What they should have been focusing on was promoting virtual worlds. Instead, they… well, to be honest, I’m not really sure what they were focusing on, but they didn’t direct substantial effort towards promoting virtual worlds in general.

I return to the Google example. I mean sure, the Internet was going to explode anyway. I get this. But by making the internet useful for people (some of us do remember the Web before search engines were so ubiquitous, fast and so damn good, you know), all people-even our grandparents- Google made themselves indispensible. This is what Rob is getting at I think. If you want to be an online entity that relies on low fractional payment from a vast audience, you need to concentrate your efforts on the audience. And when an audience doesn’t exactly exist yet, you are not trying to steal marketshare, you are trying to build up the whole dang market.

This is where I personally think that has gone a bit astray and where I routinely criticize the approach of Nature Networks. I look at it this way. I’ve been blogging for over three years now and experienced both negligible-audience privateer blogging and the heady heights of the Pharyngula driven traffic. Comments and personal communications to PhysioProf and I suggest that our focus on academic careerism for grant funded scientists is of interest even beyond biomedical disciplines. Our traffic is quite pleasing and the commentariat of decent size. But here’s the thing. If I look at the IP numbers coming in from the domains of easily identified research Universities and research institutes we still only draw one or maybe 5 repeat viewers from a given institute. That spells one heck of a lot of untapped audience to me.

The funny thing is that Sb says all the right things about engaging the broader audience. And Nature Publishing Group routinely tries to tell all scientists reading their flagship publications (and this is a good fraction of all scientists) to go online, to comment on papers and, gasp, to blog.

Their hearts are in the right place but their execution could use some re-thinking.