As the Federal Communications Commission considers internet provisions to allow companies to push content through the critical “last mile” connection to users, promised scrutiny appears inadequate to guarantee freedom of speech and maintain competition. At this crucial moment in shaping internet practices, neutrality appears undermined and ethical principles seem threatened; while on the other hand idealist undertakings, like the corporation Slugbooks, offer other configurations of audience, content and income stream. Slugbooks has created a hub for purchasing textbooks by college students, an area desperately in need of reform, while producing a serious and wryly humorous animated drama Dorms distributed via YouTube and now beginning its second season.
The concerns posed for the public interest by corporate giants jockeying for better control of communication infrastructure cannot be assuaged by simple assurance of ad hoc investigations by the FCC to future challenges. But with this next step in the development of the medium of internet communication, the high pressure behind the flow through conduits threatens to obscure the message. Slugbooks reflects a notably different corporate model, with a mixture of profit-making, lobbying in the public interest for increased awareness of the hardball practices of textbook publishers, and the production of Dorms, which seems to speak honestly to the college and post-college audience. As the neutrality of the internet appears threatened by FCC plans, the ethical alternatives to one-dimensional commerce that Slugbooks offers appear provocative.
Slugbooks grew from the CEO David Miller’s experience at the coop bookstore -where he rose to the position of CFO – at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose mascot is the banana slug. Miller latched onto the idea that fair market conditions, including the sale of textbooks nationally on the internet, serves the public interest. Slugbooks describes itself as the Kayak of textbook buying, allowing searching simultaneously for the price of a given book from multiple sources.
Dorms aspires to the category of high art. Produced by Slugbooks as a substantive rather than superficial animated series, Dorms avoids clichés about campus life that have been staples in comedy from Animal House to NBC’s Community. Now in its critically acclaimed fifth season, Chevy Chase is the chief misfit in a cast of community college students whose foibles appear on the one hand just foolish and, on the other, earnestly, narcissistically and entertainingly foolish. Dorms is written and animated by top-flight animators Domix and Spastic Chuwawa; and gives primacy of place to wry humor, with enough space left for the viewer to perceive complex truths, without the narrative pressure of the next joke or bit of over-the-top action. The first installment of the second season, “Dude that Sucks” is less a statement of superficial roommate empathy than entry into more complex emotions about facing the challenges of student life, which are, no big surprise, really part of life. A character with pet leeches wanders the campus wearing his pets but draws no ridicule, but rather acceptance of strangeness as legitimate eccentricity, like the inclination to play obscure cult-like video games in marathon anti-social sessions.
So as the path of appeal of Dorms stays far from either the emotionally mawkish or the unkind culture of judgement, campus seems like a real place for complex and struggling individuals with immense character appeal. An underlying principle of Dorms is that campus is an economic environment where many students face increasing financial pressures. The first episode of the first season explicates a problem with textbooks, notably the practices of textbook publishers to maintain their huge profitability and market share, by tactics that close down the marketability of used textbooks. Publishers employ such techniques as selling books linked to a homework code, thereby making the book itself almost useless to a secondary market. By seducing well-meaning professors, sympathetic to the cost-conscious student, publishers market custom textbooks, often in paperback or coil-bound, without all of the chapters. These custom textbooks are for a particular university, and thus can only be resold to students of that university, rather than nationally, and this besides the fact that the book is incomplete.
Bruce Rogers’ recent article in Forbes suggests Slugbooks has the capacity to disrupt the textbook market. However, the issues are really larger and concern the need for reform in understanding the economic conditions of students. The U.S. federation of state public interest research groups (PIRG), documents the average student loan debt for graduates as $26,000. As textbook costs have risen at four times the rate of inflation, students pay an average of $1,100 per year. PIRG argues a direction of reform towards a less protected textbook market including open textbooks and other open educational resources.
Though Slugbooks obviously has its own economic interests, the ethical commitment of Miller to the needs of students appears compatible with issues of good policy for support of rather than exploitation of students. Marketing Slugbooks via Dorms distinguishes it as an undertaking that produces something of substance, that contributes to reflection on the public interest as reflected in the attitude towards students. As the FCC plans for internet regulation shift, and neutrality is threatened alternatives ways of thinking offered by Slugbooks are increasingly important. Dorms is genuinely reflective material, not intended to convince directly with the manipulations of flashing ads and infomercials. In an earlier era of cartoons, a product placement of, say, an Acme product in a kids cartoon, was a curious inversion. The cartoon existed to focus young eyes on ad streams for sweet and salty foods and plastic toys, grabbing the attention of those oh-so-demanding shoppers age 10 or younger, able to convey the ad message so definitively to parents. The complex Slugbooks program appears capable of building communities: networks of productive discussion where ideas are presented.
Commentary by Lawrence Shapiro