The two digital debate camps
by Eoin Purcell
The discussion in most debates about modern culture breaks down into two broad camps. Take the movie industry as an example. Some will decry the horrible nature of the modern business, “how many awful movies are made and indeed how many movies are made with no merit”. Others defend the medium by saying “oh but look at the quality that has been produced too” and “the opportunities are endless”. They will drag up examples of small movie makers and the excellent independent movies that have broken the large firm monopoly to generate commercial and critical success. Television has the same debate.
Books and publishing fit nicely into this paradigm as anyone who read the posts on poetbloggs (which I recommend that you do) will see.
The camp who claim that there are too many inanities and too much meritless writing emerging on the web may well have a point. Think about it. Writing used to be a labour and an expense. When it originated there was little use for non-informational writing, few could in any case read it, and the cost of writing information was so high that writing useless fiction would be an exceptional waste of time, energy and money. Over time new techniques allowed the uses of writing to expand and the volume of what in previous centuries would have been considered useless to grow. Think on the diaries and letters written and kept by generations of men and women the world over as they used cheap ink and cheap paper to send their daily inanities to husbands and wives spread distant by work and duty.
Eventually the process of printing was evolved to such a point that book publishing became considerably cheaper and books became much less of a risk for companies and individuals. That has reached something of an apogee now with Lulu and other self publishing options when the cost of publishing is effectively free or marginal. But what is also true is that (and here I reference again Robert Young’s Article on Gigaom on Social Networks) the inanities that were once confined to relatively expensive letters and journals can now be expressed digitally and in public for free or so little it may as well be free.
So yes there is much online now and much of it is inane. Point to the Skeptics.
But what of the optimists? These days they use phrases like “web democracy” and they like to present exciting cases of authors, journalists and other successful bloggers and writers who have seen their sites rise endlessly and successfully to the top of the pile. They like to point to the quality blogs and the excellent POD books and the way some authors have been picked up by traditional publishers.
Do they have a point? They sure do. The web can be a very successful place for new or established authors. The web allows the single author or a small team to redress the imbalance between large publishers and individuals and utilise the webs features to promote their book/blook or any other content. Is there quality? Well certainly there is. Finding it is the tricky part and that s where search comes in.
Search is the library/bookshop of the web. The Publishing Contrarian has a nice post (some of which I agree with some of which I disagree with) on this and its consequences.
So overall I think it’s a point to the optimists.
Both sides are right in their basic argument. It is at the edges of those arguments that their positions begin to crumble. The skeptics forget that if they don’t like the drivel or the inanity they really and truly do not have to read it. They also ignore the value the countless letters and journals of the past have been to our understanding of the future. Now for sure many of the current blogs and journals may not provide great resources for future Social Historians but the metadata that these blogs and journals generate will be useful and will certainly cast light on social structure and increasingly so as the web becomes an ever more important part of our lives.
Equally amongst the inanities the gems that the optimists praise are growing and growing and pushing through the ranks of the bland and the boring. These web giants (I say these but in all likelihood their number and makeup will change dramatically over time) will be as important in our daily lives as newspapers and television and radio are now. The process is sure to create some problems but nothing that cannot be overcome.
More importantly the skeptics are missing one point and being subjective on another. The point they miss is why people write these inanities. Where the Author writes for art or money or fame or fortune, most bloggers blog just to say it, to show it, to express themselves. The motive may be anything but it certainly does not equate tit e drive of the professional author. Yes the skeptics may not enjoy much of what is on the web but plainly many people do and in this the skeptics are being subjective, who are they to judge the interests of the web? Nobodies!
And the optimists? They are, by far, too optimistic. If search is the new bookshop then position in search queries is the new golddust. Where will we be when Google and Amazon start charging like bookstores for good positions? (To soem extent such programs already exist though paid links etc) If you think that is unlikely read this Times article which will put your doubts to rest.
Web democracy is fine so far as it goes but in truth if you do not know the tricks of building and holiday an audience online you will not be able to avail of this democracy. If you are lucky your book or blook or writings might somehow emerge from the internet slush pile through the search of Google or Yahoo or MSN, but if you are unlucky your book will simple sit online with limited appeal, limited views and limited prospects. Google Replaces the Editorial Assistant; you can see the headlines already.
So where does that leave the debate. Well both camps score goals but both also score own goals and are left looking rather bare of argument. The truth is that they are just one side of the same argument. The web offers enormous change. Change brings winners and losers. We do not yet know who will be the ultimate set of winners or the biggest losers.
A rational position on this debate is to say I look forward to the open free web that the optimistic predict but I retain a fear that the web will shift over time and give that democracy to large companies (probably search firms but possibly others) and I am prepared to deal with that. It also pays, to keep an open mind, a keen ear and always be ready to change your opinion. As Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”