Clay Shirky's latest essay, Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing is right about a lot of things. It's right in that "duh" way, though necessarily, because there are people who think that these electronic scrawls ought to have more pecuniary value. My argument about money and weblogs, (which goes something like this: "But, uh, that's not really the point"), lacks intellectual rigor, which Professor Shirky has seen to provide.
Still and all, one service that weblogs perform is that of World's Biggest Peer Review, and I feel the need to call out the Good Professor on some points that I don't agree with.
Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.
For some reason, Clay chooses to use "book publishing" as his example throughout this essay, which I find odd, since of all the types of print publishing out there, weblogs perhaps resemble book publishing the least. Clay acknowledges that the form of a book imbues a certain notion of quality, since people who are paid to worry about this sort of thing have gone through the trouble of publishing it. What he neglects is that books are currently (and will be for quite a while) the best publishing vehicles for any form of extended thought. Weblogs, and The Web in general, are clumsy and undesirable media for providing readers with any kind of lengthy thesis. Related to this is that weblogs are essentially free to publish because their content is typically worthless to *produce*. But in our happy market economy, for an author to spend the necessary time researching, analyzing, ruminating, and writing anything of significant substance, it's reasonable to expect he would do so in a system that provided remuneration.
(And Clay himself kind of makes this argument at the end of his essay: "And then there's print. Right now, the people who have profited most from weblogs are the people who've written books about weblogging. As long as ink on paper enjoys advantages over the screen, and as long as the economics make it possible to get readers to pay, the webloggers will be a de facto farm team for the publishers of books and magazines." Which undercuts his statements earlier.)
Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price. Prior to the web, people paid for most of the words they read. Now, for a large and growing number of us, most of the words we read cost us nothing.
I'm going to make a couple of niggling academic points, but I think they're worth making since, frankly, Clay's essay is pretty niggling and academic. For starters, oxygen isn't free. While I've never paid for the air, I have paid for keeping it clean enough to breathe. I probably haven't paid a whole lot, but still, in our society, we pay for *every resource*, directly or otherwise.
And, maybe Clay gets free internet access and free computers from his employers, but, well, even though I might not pay Ray to read his weblog, the statements I get every month from SBC, along with the price of my hardware, suggests that reading his musings has definitely cost me.
Again, the basic gist of Clay's piece is right on, and worth following for those who care. (Which, I suspect, is about, oh, maybe 100-200 of us.)
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And I'd be remiss if I didn't point to JJG's comments in a metafilter thread on this topic, where takes issue with different aspects of Clay's piece:
Posted by peterme @ 10/07/2002 12:44 AM PST [link to this comment]
To Clay's point about weblogs competing with books:
In my experience, weblogs and other websites are wonderfully complementary with books -- I read a book and go to the web for related information about people and topics mentioned in the book. Anybody else read this way? It feels strange now to read on an airplane and not to be able to look up side topics.
Weblogs and books don't do the same thing. Books provide extended,comprehensive thought-through treatment of a topic. Weblogs, like articles
in newspapers and magazines, satisfy for one's appetite for shorter bits of interesting, diverse, informative, funny, wierd stuff.
So weblogs compete for the same bit of attention as journalism. Which is not to take a stand on the genre argument (which Clay isn't talking about, thank goodness) -- arguing about whether blogs are better than newspapers feels to
me like arguing about whether mysteries are better than sci-fi novels.
Posted by Adina Levin @ 10/07/2002 10:23 AM PST [link to this comment]
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