Publishing, Past and Present
Russell Degnan

Reading this piece by John Quiggin, it is interesting to note the uncharacteristically optimistic tone. The general impression is that we've entered a time where the unparalleled ease with which a person can now publish has allowed anybody and everybody to become a member of a permanent republic of letters in whatever field they wish.

And while I would like to believe it true, a passage from the excellent book, "The Printing Revolution in Modern Europe" by Elizabeth Eisenstein, recalls that this sort of thing is not new, but rather part of the succession of ebbs and flows that has characterised publishing since Gutenberg did his thing.

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of co-operative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

The Theatrum was ... speedily reprinted several times ... Suggestions for correction and revisions kept Ortelius and his engravers busy altering plates for new editions ... Within three years he had acquired so many new maps that he issued a supplement of 17 maps which were afterwards incorporated in the Theatrum. When Ortelius died in 1598 at least 28 editions of the atlas had been published in Latin, Dutch, German, French and Spanish ... The last edition was published by the House of Plantin in 1612.

Similar collaborative efforts on the part of amateurs can be seen throughout history, through groups such as the Royal Society or the Lunar Society, in salons, and during the Scottish Enlightenment when "University of Edinburgh chemistry professor Thomas Hope's public lectures drew more than 300 serious-minded ladies from the town." And in all cases they eventually stopped being so open to the non-expert non-professional scholar.

Earlier this year I reached my first decade of internet access, simultaneously reminding me of how old I am getting and of how much things have changed in such a short period. In the web's earliest days, the lack of reliable information meant that anybody who could produce something reliable could also garner a substantial readership. I've been following Soccernet for most of its 10 year existence including when it was being run from a 12 year-old's bedroom; similarly CricInfo who used to advertise for scorers and writers, and had all manner of odd sections before they turned professional - so to speak.

The point is that there are lots of costs involved in providing information. The cost of gathering it, of collating it, of publishing it, and of critiquing it. And all of it is dependent on the return provided. For an individual web publisher, the return is mostly through friendships, kudos, and personal development. Any voluntary project is therefore dependent on their ability to attract and hold those individual contributors, not just in the initial burst of excited contributing, but over a long period of tedious day-to-day updating. Often with expectant users hassling you about something that isn't your day-job.

For profit based companies, the costs were previously tilted in their favour, but easier communication, collaborative models, and cheaper publishing has made blogs and wikis competitive. In addition, the difficulty companies have had in finding a feasible financial model has meant their resources have often been inferior to web users. But there is no guarantee that this will remain the case. Soccernet and Cricinfo both demonstrate that websites can grow into real, non-collaborative media companies.

The appeal of online media, and the likely trends depend on their role and their alternatives. For political blogs, the quality of the competition (i.e.. journalists) is often abysmal. They are rushed and under-researched to the point where their output is no better than a well thought out blog (actually in general it is worse). For a newspaper to compete they need to be better. Full-time investigative journalists and op-ed writers will probably find their jobs changing substantially within the next decade, if not sooner.

For academic blogs, their advantage over traditional academic journals is their ability to speak in a manner the layman can understand, to be relevant to current events, and to be free of charge. But there is inevitably a tension, between true scholars, and the general readership, who may lack the requisite knowledge to participate in the discussion -- Jason Soon and Mark Bahnisch come to mind. As more academics come online, valuing the relevancy and high quality discussion, this tension will increase, and the inevitable result will be blogs that are off limits to the general reader, in kind, if not in fact. Academia will retreat to its towers again, losing relevancy in the process, but that seems to be its fate. History also suggests that it will return.

Finally, there are culture blogs, whose popularity generally depends on the quality of the writer, and of the discussion. Popular blogs here, perversely end up with unmanageable discussions. Inevitable they will eventually quit, turn professional, or move on, but others take their place. This group is probably the most likely to retain its present form. However one aspect of it that strikes me continually is the tendency to become more and more geographically focused. The end point of blogs of this type is a discussion with local residents, about local things. Usenet did it, the early web boards did it, and blogs are too. Eventually, it will just be another way of communicating and finding friends, like going to your local pub was in days gone by.

As the Wikipedia becomes more popular it increases expectations, and its running costs. Simultaneously, possibilities arise to get real revenue, and of having sufficient contributors to be selective about who should have their say. The fact that collaboration is fundamental to Wikipedia means that it is unlikely to ever be completely exclusive, but the trend is towards more organisation, and greater checking (such as through their peer review process. Needless to say, in all things, organisation begets rules, rules beget processes, and processes are anathema to collaborative projects.

We are probably at a high-point then, in terms of the freedom granted to the general public to publish and be recognised for their efforts. This doesn't mean that it is all downhill from here, and there are many aspects of society that could benefit from the sort of processes that the web can work with, but it does mean that things will become more formalised and less exciting. Though pockets will remain -- as they have before -- and they'll be easier to find, which is good.

Passing Fancy 16th July, 2005 20:50:52   [#]