New Media Impact for Future Professors

It seems really impolite to disagree with someone on the source of their own fame, and more than a little presumptuous. Probably a bit foolish as well. But the recent story in the Chronicle can’t be allowed to go unanswered. The story so far: in Chris Anderson’s Free, there is a pull–out box which says this about Professor Richard A. Muller’s OCW “Physics for Future Presidents”:

To date, one of Muller’s lectures has garnered 200,000 views. That’s three times the capacity of the football stadium at UC Berkeley. After becoming a web celeb of sorts, Muller secured a book deal to write a popular hardback version of the textbook he penned for his class. Released in the summer of 2008, Physics for Future Presidents was widely reviewed in the mainstream press. Months later, it remained atop one of Amazon’s best-seller lists. It’s easy to see how good free has been to Professor Muller.

This is where the Chronicle comes in. In their classic fight-picking style, they play Muller off of Anderson, asking Muller, a physicist, how he believes the success of his book came about:

“I have been personally contacted by about 1,000 people who saw my Webcasts,”
said the professor. “When the book came out, I arranged to e-mail all of them (using Norton’s account) to let them know that a book was now available. I then watched the sales very carefully. (I actually have a computer that downloads the ranking every hour from Google.) Although I had seen huge jumps in my sales when I was interviewed on NPR (3 times) or had a book review in The Boston Globe, and a few other things, the massive e-mailing to my Web fans produced no discernible increase in sales. My conclusion: Web viewers don’t buy many hardcover books.”

This represents a relatively naive view of how new media impact works.  Here’s a couple questions I would have asked about his best-selling book, which has been widely reviewed in the mainstream press, and the subject of no less than three NPR interviews.

1. How many of his previous books were widely reviewed in the mainstream press?

This is hard to answer. But doing basic media mention searches over at newslibrary.com I can see the following:

  • Richard Muller “Nemesis: The Death Star”: 1 brief, incidental mention.
  • Richard Muller “The Three Big Bangs”: 5 mentions (incl reviews in Rocky Mountain News, Tampa Tribune, and SF Chronicle)
  • Richard Muller “Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes”: 2 mentions, mainly incidental mentions by global warming skeptics attempting to use his book as backing for their beliefs.
  • Richard Muller “The Sins of Jesus”: No mentions.
  • Richard Muller “Physics for Future Presidents”: 80 mentions, although it’s hard to disaggregate mentions of the course from the book. One notable fact is that there are a number of AP stories covering his book in the mix. Since a lot of AP content is not archived under the newspapers that run it, the likely reach of that story is far greater. There are also reviews in nationally distributed papers

(I should note that because electronic archives are a bit spotty through the eighties and early nineties, the first book’s impact may be off by a bit).

Correllation is not causation. Absolutely. But citing the four books Muller had published before as an indication that the OCW had nothing to do with Muller’s popularity (b/c he was already an established author) appears to be even less substantial, at least based on a preliminary check of mainstream media mentions.

2. How much of the favorable press coverage came as a result of the course being open?

Dealing with that press coverage, let’s look at the titles of the early coverage of the course:

  • World listens in online when Cal professor teaches physics (San Francisco Chronicle (CA) – November 6, 2006)
  • UC Berkeley expands events and academic content streamed online in new YouTube agreement (Associated Press Archive – October 3, 2007)
  • CLICKS: Berkeley puts up full courses on YouTube channel (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA) – October 7, 2007)
  • HOW TO TAKE A COURSE AT MIT FREE — AT HOME: (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) – November 18, 2007)
  • Professors find new audience of students through iTunes (Wenatchee World, The (WA) – December 4, 2007)

There’s also this TV News segment from ABC-7 News in San Franscisco. Aired in May of 2007, the title is Top Universities Offer Free Lectures Online, and the lead interview is with Dr. Muller about his course.

This is really just the early coverage, but you get the point. The early coverage produces later coverage. The people booking the NPR shows that spiked up book sales did what bookers always do — they looked for something that had already been vetted by the press as a significant story.  They kept their eye out for news in the local and national press that might make a good segment. Was Muller’s book newsworthy? Was it of interest to people generally? Well, yes, looking at the wide variety of citations in the media, from every corner of the country, it was.

And those initial citations are, as far as I can tell, a direct result of the OCW.

Could they see whether this person would be an engaging speaker?

Yep, it’s right there on YouTube.

As an analogy, I could point out that I served as an analyst once on NYC’s WCBS radio. They wanted someone to parse what the Iowa caucus results meant for New Hampshire. Had I had a book to sell that day, I probably could have sold quite a few.

But how did I come to be booked on that show? Two reasons. First, my free political writing on my blog had recieved national coverage, which would have been seen by the people booking guests in NYC. Second, for the person interested in booking me there existed an easy archive of material they could scan quickly (both to weed out kooks and dullards).

Had I had a book to pitch, my sales would have jumped from that WCBS show more than from anything done with my blog. But it would be ridiculous to say that the blog wasn’t primarily responsible for those sales. That is what Anderson means by the indirect nature of this. Each situation is different in how one comes to make a living from free, but the forces are the same.

I really want to stress that this is in no way an attack on Muller — it’s more an attack on the simplicity of this model the Chronicle presents where people watching the videos run out and buy the book, each and every one, directly and immediately. That’s not what Anderson is proposing, and the Chronicle shouldn’t be engaged in such straw man theatrics.  And Muller’s response to that may be as much a product of the false frame presented to him as anything else.

But I am reminded of a story Muller opens one of his NPR interviews with. He mentions a student told him about a dinner party where a physicist had scoffed at solar energy, saying you’d have to cover the entire state of California with cells to supply enough power for the state. The former student of his, who had no background in physics sans his course, did have one fact she was armed with– she replied that there’s a gigawatt of power in a square kilometer of sunlight, and that’s not that much bigger an area than a nuclear power plant takes up. The physicist, to his credit, thought about that, and replied he’d have to go back to the numbers and maybe rethink some of his assumptions.

As the paid-media lynch mob out to sink Free continues their crusade, I hope Dr. Muller will rethink some of his own assumptions, far outside the frame that the Chronicle provides.

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