by J.D. Rhoades
If you've been following the publishing news site Galleycat recently, you may have read about the brouhaha that erupted at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference panel entitled "New Think for Old Publishers". There's a pretty good synopsis at Medialoper, which can be boiled down further to this: Traditional publishers, joined by social-networking guru Clay Shirky, were supposed to do a panel on the changing nature of the publishing industry. It quickly became clear that the publishers didn't have any idea how to negotiate the changes brought on by technology and accelerated by the troubled economy. Eventually , the panelists asked the crowd "well, what do y'all want?" The crowd got unhappy and occasionally downright hostile, and let the panel know it via comments. Interestingly, they also shared their disgruntlement via a special SXSW Twitter feed. Some "tweets included: "publishers have no clue how to save themselves and little interest in models readers want," and "This chance for learning has become a lean back and listen for the panel. It's audience funded brainstorming!"
The Medialoper piece summed up with "As presented, the panel was an insult to the audience and a waste of time for everyone involved."
I confess I was a little startled, not only by the reaction, but by the vehemence of it. Now, I wasn't there, so I may be totally off base (and if any of you were there, let me know, I'd love to hear your thoughts.). But from what I read, it sounds to me like these were people who apparently felt they'd been cheated because someone was asking them their opinion of which way things should go.
This was startling to me because when it comes to panels, blogs, what have you, interactivity is an article of faith with me. If moderating a panel, I like to go to Q & A as early as I can get away with it. When blogging here, I like to end up with a question or two. Sometimes, as in my last two posts here, I've spent the whole time asking you questions about what worked for you, and it seemed to go pretty well for everybody. I don't think I'd even read a blog that didn't allow comments. At least I wouldn't read it for long.
I don't just do it because I'm lazy. I mean, I AM lazy, but that's not my only motivation. But a few months ago, I saw a video essay by the aforementioned Professor Shirky, who's a professor at NYU (and who, as you can probably tell, has become a major influence on my recent thinking about media). The essay is transcribed here, and you can view it here. I definitely recommend you check out the whole essay, but one of the the main things that stuck with me was the story Shirky relates about friend of his, the friend's four year old daughter, and their DVD player:
in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What are you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.
So what I like to do, every chance I get, is hand you the mouse and let you control things for a while. It never occurred to me that asking for audience participation would actually make people angry.
Or maybe the SXSW audience was irritated because they didn't know the answers either. In the current unsettled publishing environment, if the people who are supposedly in charge don't know which way things are going to fall, then the uncertainly just gets ramped up that much higher. And fear leads to anger. And anger leads to suffering.I think Yoda said that.
But here's the thing: we are seeing a revolution. And revolutions, by their very nature, are unpredictable. No one can really say with any degree of certainty (at least if they're honest) exactly what effects things like e-publishing, Kindles, eReaders on iPhones, or even POD are going to have on traditional publishing, or even if what we've known as traditional publishing is going to survive.
In a more recent essay, Shirky describes the revolution that took place after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press:
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing.
So in this brave new publishing world, the only way to stay on top is going to be to keep our minds–and our ears–open. To keep experimenting. And to keep asking questions. Because the next great idea could come from anywhere.
BTW, I was fascinated by Pari's experiment on Monday where everyone was invited to help write a piece of the story. It really took some unexpected turns. Maybe THAT's one potential new genre: the WikiStory.
So, today's questions:
Is interactivity important to you? For example, would you keep reading this blog if it didn't allow comments? Would you rather hear from us, talk back to us, or a little of both?
What's your idea to save publishing or if you don't want to save it, what's your idea to replace it? IOW, what models do you, as readers, want?
Here's the mouse.