I am wondering, in agreement with Paul Ford’s clever ftrain post, how the web could be “not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium” that has gulped down television, radio, and print media with its monster mouth. Paul adds the proper accent: the web tries to EMULATE preceding media. Yes, digital convergence is real and complete, but it can only achieve this via emulation, the imperfect simulacrum of publishing and broadcasting. It isn’t quite the same thing.
For Paul, the essence of the web is consulting: the expert (genuine and pseudo) weighing in as virtual communitarian — commenting, thumbs upping and downing, reblogging, retweeting, re-articulating, sharing. He calls this the customer service model: “create a service experience around what you publish and sell. Whatever ‘customer service’ means when it comes to books and authors, figure it out and do it. Do it in partnership with your readers. Turn your readers into members…. “Don’t just consult them…give them the tools to consult amongst themselves.”
My Latin professor in college liked to draw a distinction between class “members,” the students with a keen interest in the subject, and “subscribers,” the warm bodies filling empty desk space, swelling the class enrollment to ensure the survival of a perennially threatened classics program. The members invested themselves in the class and shared a sense of community. The subscribers merely showed up. The members mattered, the subscribers didn’t.
What should we call publishing in its webified form? For convenience, let’s call it weblishing. Weblishers need to understand how the web operates as a phenomenon. The lived experience of the web is all about the stream flowing in time. The web is a river, a journey, not a vacation destination. You need to get into the flow and give members opportunities to join it with their lifestream. And you need to stop worrying about the subscribers.
Stop thinking monolithically and encasing your content in virtual bound volumes and jewel cases. For example, take your garden variety indie literature magazine. They have fleeting lifespans as it is. One reason they flame out is because they misread the proper way to publish work online. Stuffing 48 pages worth of stories and poems in a digital bin, announcing it to the requisite outlets, and waiting for readers to discover it, is not a winning formula. Why not enter the daily lifeblood of web experience, instead? Weblish the journal using blog software, maybe a poem a day. Every day, one work is fully featured, given the spotlight. After the fact, you can collect and archive into issues and anthologies. You have multiplied the opportunities for exposure from one to 48. Don’t forget the news feed links, feedback boxes and commenting/sharing widgets. Remember, it’s a cultural service you’re performing. If it can work for bloggers, it can work for stories and poems. I have been experimenting with this model at the journal I edit, Turk’s Head Review. The site is hosted at tumblr.com, which builds in some of the consulting features so important to web membership. It could just as easily have gone up at any number of sites like blogger.com or wordpress.com.
Re-presenting a site like this as blog/feed/comment friendly is no guarantee of success, however. Any weblisher will quickly experience a wave of nihilistic nausea: the oceans of other contenders for audiences’ attention. How do you get the eyeballs? Most of us in the indie world can’t afford to advertise. Options are limited. Futility, vertigo seems likely. Without the capital behind us, we’re gnats in the summer air. The whole world could be watching, yet nobody shows up. What’s the use?
How do we make our experiences of the web more meaningful? The traditional models of publishing and broadcasting have failed us. They are inaccessible, irrelevant, even poisonous. We pay them mind because we are addicted to them, habituated to the old ways. Our addiction to them can be overcome, however. They will not go away, but they are withering. The gatekeepers of journalism, elite culture, and popular culture are losing ground as arbiters of cultural norms. In the void, we have a dizzying span of choices — namely, everything that’s ever been printed, recorded, painted, photographed, filmed, or broadcast. What to do? Where to start? Who will lead the way? Who is going to pay attention to me?
I have an answer. First, break the bad habits. Remember, the web is not the same as the old media distribution models. It really is different; admit it. Indie weblishers have to come at the problem from a completely different angle. We are not in the business of selling tangible products to masses. We offer experiences to members. We offer valuable moments, something remarkable to see, read, or hear as we float downstream. We offer relationships, community. Although the web exposes our work to the universe at large, it really is about small towns and villages. The village of you and your social networks, which overlap with others’ social villages.
Here’s a simple idea for replacing them and their influence. Why not depend on people you actually know? Friends, family, coworkers, members of your communities — real and virtual? Think local. Cultivate the intimate ties, and work your way out from there. Support the real people you really know and the real things they are doing online. They have more value than any mass marketed media property could, if you give them the chance and recalibrate your expectations of value. Yes, your cousin’s band may not have the sonic polish of an R.E.M. or Taylor Swift, but there might be one song on their new album that touches you in a unique way. You then share this song with your social network. A couple people catch onto it. They pass it along, and the circles of influence expand. We will know we are getting someplace new and exciting when the cousin’s band stops trying to sound like R.E.M., and develops their own artistic identity. It will be a new standard.
In this shared world of social creativity (which is obviously already well underway) we will create art for the people we know, first and foremost. As technology continues to enhance our ability to share and find associated content, along with the ability and ease of monetary “tipping,” the future looks strange and exciting, where it will be easier to let go of the old habits, the hand wringing, the sweaty, knitted brows. The system can only work if the lines are reciprocal: mutual participation and feedback. To be on the web, going back to its earliest days, means to link. To link and be linked to. It could be as simple as that.
What areas of online culture do you see social weblishing in action? Where is this all headed?