You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything


How does commentary affect the world around us?

Can Online Communities Prevent Disaster? Deal with It Successfully?

Iran recently followed in China’s footsteps and blocked online communication tools like Twitter and Facebook in the aftermath of its disputed presidential election. China blocked these tools to suppress the memorialization of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, while Iran is taking this step in an environment that some speculate may escalate to Tianenmen proportions.

These countries’ dual blocking of important communication tools suggest that such tools may have become crucial to fostering a democratic society. Amartya Sen‘s famous theorization that democracies do not experience famine presents an interesting correlation here. Does online communication foster democratic tendencies, and thus threaten authoritarian regimes? Is our ability to communicate easily, for (nearly) free, on a regular (perhaps even too frequent) basis what keeps our society functional?

Though Cass Sunstein worries that the internet is too polarizing, allowing people to focus solely on sites that promote or support their own political opinions, it’s clear that the internet is also a tool for obtaining and exchanging new information. If online communities only fostered what people already thought (or were forced to think), would governments be so scared of them?


Filed under: Uncategorized

Is The Economist a Blog?

A new article by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic seems to be theorizing that The Economist, as a collection of ruminations on previously-reported information, constitutes a blog. Its blogginess, Hirschorn seems to be saying, is what distinguishes The Economist and its success from struggling newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek:

By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting—much like this magazine, it’s worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins—the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about. (Tellingly, the very lo-fi digest The Week, which has copped The Economist’s attitude without any real reporting or analysis at all, is thriving as well.)

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, Hirschorn goes on to posit that the very magazine that “covers absolutely everything” is simultaneously a niche publication, while Time and Newsweek are not:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

There seem to be a number of problematic points in the article, perhaps the main being the tension between digest/blog and niche. Doesn’t a digest, by definition, contain a broad body of information? How, then, is that reconciled with the alternative presentation of The Economist as “niche”? Perhaps it’s not the contents themselves that are niche, but their target audience–but then, again, the point of the article is to present the magazine as popular, not limited in scope. A conundrum.

The other interesting part of the problem has to do with The Economist as blog. I’d counter that The Economist (its print version, at least) lacks two important features of blogs: links and commentary. But of course, The Economist has a web site with its share of blogs. How does the web site differ in popularity and purpose from the magazine? What sets apart the print version from the interactive online community? I’ll look at some commentary tomorrow to find out!

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Commentary Gets Flickr User in Trouble

Photosharing site Flickr recently erased the entire account of one user based on a comment he made on a White House photo thread. Business Week quotes the deletion victim as saying, “I thought it would be an appropriate place to start a discussion about politics. There’s this kind of gray area – is it owned by the White House vis-à-vis the American people and the taxpayers, or is it owned by Flickr?”

Free speech is protected by the Constitution, but not necessarily by individual websites. Can a site reserve the right to take entire accounts–not just comments–down based on users’ speech? Further complicating the issue is the fact that the account in question was deleted not necessarily for speech, but for graphic images–of torture victims–posted in his commentary. The pictures certainly added strength to the argument (the commentary was opposed to Barack Obama’s decision to allow the censorship of torture photos). But were they too offensive? Perhaps the real question at the heart of the matter is, do we truly “own” our online “communities” (or commentary, or photos) as long as they’re taking place on sites owned by corporations?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Why Should You Buy Caleb Crain’s Book? He Doesn’t Even Know!

Caleb Crain has “self-published” (though he doesn’t like that word, preferring to call it a “chapbook”) a collection of writings from his blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. He poses the question, “All of the posts and essays included in The Wreck of the Henry Clay are available free already on this blog, so why should you buy it?” And answers, “I have no idea!”

What a refreshing response! It’s the honest answer that most booksellers should probably give when asked why anyone should buy their books. Why should you buy anything on the NYT Best Seller List, when you could borrow it from a friend? And unless you like mysteries, Stephanie Meyer, or being trendy by reading stuff by the Fight Club dude, there’s not a whole lot of compelling stuff on the list.

Maybe that’s the problem with publishing these days: there’s nothing compelling enough to buy. I, personally, am more interested in buying Caleb Crain’s book (not that I necessarily will, sadly) than anything on the NYT list. Why? Because his book is different. It’s something I haven’t seen or read before (unless I’ve read his blog, which I haven’t, so I’m all set!). It’s not a formulaic thriller. It’s not a rehashing of Twilight. It’s not a rehashing of Fight Club. It is–or I’m expecting it to be–something different. Something I want to read.

Maybe that’s what publishing should be offering, instead of more of the same–or more of what they “think” you want to read?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Could Daily Me Become a Daily We?

Cass Sunstein’s Republic 2.0 discusses ways to make the internet a forum for engaged discussion. But it begins with a critique of the Daily Me, or an independently created newspaper that could be customized to an individual’s preferences (sort of like Time’s new Mine, which some people actually like). Sunstein worries that, when people select what views they’re exposed to, they’ll choose only or mostly sites that reinforce their views: a liberal might subscribe to DailyKos and Mother Jones, while a conservative might stick to LGF and the National Review. In so doing, Sunstein posits, folks ensure that they’ll only hear (see) viewpoints that reinforce their own, leading to further polarization of such viewpoints, and an increased sense of being “right.” After all, if everyone you read agrees with you, how can you be wrong?

As Sunstein says in his book, “it is precisely the people most likely to filter out opposing views who most need to hear such views” (p. 63). True–but what better place for them to hear (see) such views than online? Indeed, already offers a DailyWe section, featuring the most-read news on the site. Google Reader allows you to view items shared by your Gmail contacts–often just hilarious links to lolcats, but sometimes more substantive content. The internet is the ultimate forum for interaction, and it is not necessarily guaranteed to be polarized. Additionally, Sunstein laments that, according to a study of online commentary, “only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion” (149). But this doesn’t mean that substantive discussion is not generated within posts of a specific ideology, or that readers of alternate ideologies haven’t been urged into new forms of thinking by mere contact with differing opinions.

Often it’s difficult to truly engage with new ideas right away, but even just being exposed to them is a worthwhile outcome. The internet makes that more possible than almost any technology. Rather than lament the internet’s existence, it should be exploited as an opportunity for cross-pollination. Google Reader sharing is one way to do that. Twitter–not yet big when Sunstein wrote Republic 2.0–is another. You may disagree with a link posted on Twitter or shared on your Google Reader, but at least you’ve been exposed to it–something that seems much less likely in an internet-free world. So while the internet has the potential to increase polarization, it also has the potential to be a tool to combat it, through sharing tools other than direct commentary. I’ll be looking for some more examples of this over the summer!

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Twitter

It’s the (e)Content, Stupid

“I’m not in the business of selling books. I sell writing,” Irvine Welsh told the Times online, adding, “The screen might not even be with us in 20 years’ time–but writing will.” Welsh’s comment gets at the heart of a common conundrum–“what will become of books?”–and reveals its irrelevance. Books were never the point; they were just the most convenient vehicle for content for a long, long time. Perhaps they still are. But technology has created infinitely more platforms for content, for customizable ways to display writing (not books) on screens, phones, and other devices that didn’t exist just a few years ago. We don’t need books, necessarily—we don’t even need writing, if you get right down to it. Just so happens that we do need information, and the written word has traditionally been one of the most efficient ways to communicate it.

The decreased need for books, or at least the greater feasibility of alternatives to books, has sent the publishing industry into a panic. What will be the next book? How can we make money from ebooks? Latching on to the notion of books, even ebooks, may be a mistake, as it allows publishers to attempt to translate a traditional book publishing business model to online content.

I recently ran across a random post on a random blog that makes an interesting argument about music, one I think that may translate to books (italic emphasis original; bold emphasis added):

…there is no new business model for music. It doesn’t matter whether you fight the new technology or embrace it or try to appease it; there’s no new business model for music because there was never really an old business model for music, either. There was a business model for record companies once, maybe, and there are new ones for celebrity persona-management and soundtrack-placement or something, but these are not business models for music. They are not models for how any particular person who makes music can afford to not hold other employment, and they are not models for how any particular person who loves music can express that love as effective economic catalyst or responsive reward. There is no economic system for maximizing expressive opportunity or artistic greatness. There are not even really business systems for expressive subsistence or artistic sufficiency. Mostly we have music because we are human, and one of the things humans do is sing. Periodically we hold lotteries you enter by singing, like we sometimes hold lotteries you enter by playing basketball or by lying to people en masse. But these are not businesses. Or, more accurately, they are precisely businesses, but businesses for selling dreams, and for selling tools for dreaming, and for selling memorabilia from having once dreamed.

Likewise, I think, it can be argued that there is no business model for content: there many be business models for different types of content, in different situations, but none that works for all types of content, in all cases. Perhaps this means publishers should specialize in business content, or sports content, or literary content; this type of specialization is often the case, anyway. But publishers can no longer just focus on turning existing books into ebooks, or signing up authors and turning their work into PDFs. It’s now a requirement to consider the best format for presenting information: a traditional book? An ebook? A YouTube video? Not every topic calls for 250 pages of print, even if that’s what best fits signature requirements.

But it’s not only the content, e or otherwise. It’s also our responses to it, which technology has also opened up many more forums for: emails, blog comments, YouTube video responses, replies on Twitter. Publishers must consider not only how best they can best utilize content, but also how they can best open it up for discussion.

Filed under: Business Models, Content

BEA 2009: Did We Learn Anything?

Judging from the tweets, Book Expo America 2009 was more about building relationships than exploring meaningful issues: Ooh, look, book lovers can tweetup too! Wow! Meaningful relationships within publishing are important, but so is actual progress. And that doesn’t just mean talking about how no one knows what things will be like in the future, or lamenting a lack of galleys rather than celebrating a presence of, say, NetGalley (a system for viewing galleys online), or Eidelweiss (an online catalog system). Even Wiley wrapped up with a mere social media – mostly twitter – and will we be here next year. Well, okay, but what about social media and Twitter? Did publishers do anything at BEA other than finally admit that this social media stuff can’t be ignored?

According to the LAT, “Brian Murray reminded the group that sales of e-books make up just 2% of HarperCollins’ revenue, so they’re not a huge priority. When e-book sales revenue hits 20%, he promised to be more interested.” Except, um, book sales revenue is probably not going to hit 20% unless you work to make it happen! This goes along with Richard Nash’s observation that “The CEOs [of publishing companies] seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.” Nash goes on to say that, with the exception of Perseus, “the CEOs seemed more inclined to observe that all these bad things are happening to us, and it’s not really fair, and let’s focus on how to stop people [from] reading our books for free.” The commentary on Nash’s article is also smart, demonstrating the valuable symbiosis of original article and reader knowledge that results from the best forms of commentary.

It’s sad that publishers are only now, after a drastic economic decline that’s led to significant job losses in their industry and elsewhere, realizing that publishing is in trouble. But it’s even sadder that publishers don’t seem to want to evolve, but to move back to the way things used to be (and can never be again). Publishers have to start making smart choices, start making things happen rather than having things happen to them. O’Reilly is a great forward-thinking example for other publishers, opening up its work for commentary and hosting an annual conference focused on improving publishing rather than looking to the past. But everyone in publishing will be at the Hamptons all summer, anyway (right?), so there’s no hope for progress to be made in publishing anytime soon, is there? Oh, wait–Google’s taking over already; traditional publishers might as well tan the summer away.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary, Conferences

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June 2009
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