Read-only versus writable publishing

Russell Valentino

These are relatively new terms for me, I'll admit, which means I'm only slowly getting a sense of what they suggest conceptually.

Here is a fairly strong statement of the writable future of publishing, by Terry Jones:

And a little excerpt, in case you're glued to this screen, as is only fitting:

"Publication of information obviously includes traditional media, such as books, newspapers, magazines, music, and video. But we can generalize considerably to include blogs, tagging (e.g., Delicious, Flickr), commenting systems, Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace.

"From a biological point of view, publishing can expand to encompass all of human social signaling -- both verbal and non-verbal -- and include the myriad little acts of information production and consumption we all engage in."

And then:

"One clear long-term trend is that smaller pieces of information are being published. Considering just modern digital forms of publishing, there is a roughly chronological progression toward smaller publications: emails, Usenet postings, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, tweets, tags.

"[...] A second trend is a reduction in friction. As access to easy-to-use and inexpensive publishing technology increases, it becomes economically feasible to publish smaller and less valuable pieces of content. We have reached the point where anyone with access to the Internet can easily and cheaply publish trivial, tiny pieces of information -- even single words.

"The third trend is the rise of publishing personal information. Our inescapable sociability is driving us to shape the Internet into a mechanism for publishing information about ourselves."

And finally, a little prognosticating:

"In plainest terms, I believe the future of publishing is a writable one. One in which we step beyond the default of read-only publishing via traditional containers and APIs, to something that's both natural and empowering: a world in which data itself becomes social, and in which we can personalize arbitrarily. In other words, a world in which we always have write permission."

And that should provide a picture of the future envisioned by Jones.

Now, I'll admit to a slight misgiving whenever anyone purports to speak from a "biological" perspective, since "biologically speaking" is a lot like using the Bible to buttress one's claims: it enables you to say a lot, very often contradicting yourself in the process. People are fairly complex, biologically speaking.

But I also wonder about what comes along with the claims here. Is it good when the default is writable? I'm thinking of the un-moderated comments sections of some online newspapers and the various crackpot and often just plain mean posts that proliferate, even after serious pieces of journalism. Is that a good default?

I'm also thinking of an observation that my friend Peter Manning once made in answer to a question about the value of certain kinds of scholarship. He said that part of the pleasure of reading such texts for him derives from "following a mind in thought." Whose thought would one be following if the content of a piece were socially determined by default? Would not the claims and counter claims of contemporary moral debate become overwhelming in such forums?

In what is apparently now being referred to (disparagingly, it seems) as "read-only publishing," someone takes responsbility for the text--an author, an editor, a publisher. Would not "writable publishing" need to have such a thorough set of disclaimers that responsibility would become untraceable in the end? (I am thinking here of the advice David Hamilton once gave to one of his young readers at the Iowa Review, as she despaired at the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts she was trying to read through, line by line. He said, "You only have to take responsbility for the pieces you accept." And indeed you do.)

But I'm especially thinking of the time it takes to think about things, and the Poundean distinction between journalism of the lightest variety (like television news) and literature. There's a wonderful little essay by the French author Christian Bobin called "Evil," one of many of his essays that explore what reading and writing mean. When you watch TV news, he writes, "You sit there in your armchair or in front of your plate, and they toss a corpse at you followed by a soccer goal, and they leave you there together, the three of you, the dead man's nakedness, the soccer player's laughter, and your own life, already dark enough. They leave each of you at opposite ends of the earth, far apart because you were so brutally brought together--a dead man still dying, a soccer player still raising his arms, and you still struggling to make sense of it all, but they are off to something else, low pressure over Brittany, calm weather in Corsica."

Bobin (in Alison Anderson's translation) is asking us to take time here, not jump so fast from one thing to another in the manner that contemporary media puts pressure on us to adopt, making us seem old-fashioned if we don't admit that in fact, yes, the default should be more fragmentation, less concentration, less time spent on one thing, image, line, word, piece of punctuation. Don't these accompany the three-part trend toward "smaller pieces of information," "reduction in friction," and a rise in "publishing personal information." In my experience, they do.

"Tell me about God and your mother," writes Bobin. "You have one minute and twenty-three seconds to answer my question." If you can do it in 140 characters, more power to you.