Supposedly, newspapers, magazines and books are in their death throes. Advertising is shifting to other media, increasingly online. Want-ads are all going to Craig’s List. More and more people are reading e-readers, iPads and laptops rather than paper media. Those people, that is, who still bother to read, as opposed to tracking Facebook and Twitter and surfing the Web. A growing portion of the populace doesn’t trust the mainstream media that produces newspapers and magazines. Many people have neither the time nor the desire to read long-form publications of any kind.

This is all true.

And yet, to reference Mark Twain, reports of the death of mainstream content creators have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, the businesses of for-pay, “long-form” content, such as newspapers, magazines and books will morph and almost undoubtedly shrink. However, they will coexist in a temporarily messy but ultimately vibrant media marketplace with content from “free” and generally amateur sources, including social networks, Blogs, YouTube, and other services we can’t even yet imagine. The “personal media mix” of most people will blend information and functionality from these sources, and large, traditional content creators will be among the most important.

Here are some reasons why.

First, consider the complementary strengths and weaknesses of two broad categories of media content creation and functionality. I’m tempted to call them “professional” and “amateur” content creators and editors, but these terms seem inadequate, since the distinction in some cases is minor. Think of skilled Bloggers, who earn money, and many of whom were or are professional journalists and function that way. So let’s conceive the two classes of media content creation differently.

I’m going to borrow terminology from the technologist Nick Bilton, author of the book, “I Live in the Future and Here’s What It Looks Like,” and a researcher at and advisor to the New York Times. He advocates the transforming power of social networks. He envisions that highly personalized and refined ones will serve as an individual’s, “anchor communities,” and provide all of the gatekeeping and content-creation services anybody might want. I consider these anchor communities one of the two broad sources of online content.

Via these personal networks, built through Facebook, Twitter, and other services, we gain and contribute information and insight not simply about mundane personal topics but about our jobs, events, and other areas of expertise and interest. Within our anchor communities, we are not “paying” someone to gather or create content, but benefit from the collective information sharing.

The other broad source of content I’ll call, “anchor sources.” These are usually large creators of content we trust and value sufficiently that, whether or not we do pay money for them, we would be willing to pay for them, whether by subscription or a la carte purchase. We would pay for this “premium” content, despite the vast amount of “free” information available, because the quality, authoritativeness, and credibility are significantly better than what we can get for free.

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The explosion of Internet usage and the rise of electronic devices such as the Kindle and iPad fundamentally alter some, but not all, types of reading. As a matter of fact, the way in which we increasingly interact with electronic information isn’t “reading,” at all. It’s a different mode altogether, and we should treat it as such.

Many commentators on this subject, such as Kevin Kelly and Nicholas Carr, do not sufficiently distinguish between different types of reading, and thus misstate to either extreme the effect these electronic devices have on an act that has and will continue to define how we think about ourselves and our world. As I noted in my last Blog post, we can differentiate by a person’s intention three types of reading: Extractive, Pedagogic, and Immersive (credit Evan Schnittman at Bloomsbury Publishing for this). The interactive multimedia encouraged by most electronic devices transforms the way people acquire information for reference and research (Extractive reading) and how they learn many skills and building-block concepts (Pedagogic reading). Think Lexis-Nexis, Wikipedia, and online training courses.

However, the third style of reading, Immersive (as in cognitive and/or narrative reading), will resist such transformation because its goals, benefits and nature are completely at odds with electronic interaction. As we continue to embrace screen-based information devices, we will ultimately read “Immersively” less than we have, but it’s not going away, precisely because it complements, whether for pleasure or purpose, the other ways in which we gain and create information.

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I’ll be posting periodically about a favorite topic of mine – electronic reading devices, electronic books, and how they are fundamentally altering publishing and writing. Many major aspects of this topic, including e-reading devices and technologies and the business implications, already are thoroughly covered in many publications. I’ll focus on how e-reading might change the act and character of writing, especially on what we can term “immersive” writing (narrative prose, either fiction or non-fiction). I’ll speculate more than a bit, since the technology and products are so new, but think I can make some initial conclusions and project a little bit into the future.

We are in a transitional stage. Today, e-reading technologies and e-readers (the people, not the devices) will benefit from, or even require, format-specific writing composition. However, as readers continue to migrate to electronic platforms and technology evolves, I foresee the evolution of an, “E-Reader Manual of Style.” Every other writing format, print or electronic, develops its own style and usage standards. Why shouldn’t prose written for e-readers?

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When I write, I am often inspired by the Trickster, that ancient archetypal mischief-maker. In whatever form he takes, the Trickster clowns and thieves, but he as often crosses boundaries, breaks rules, disrupts the status-quo, and challenges gods and powers and beliefs. The Trickster’s misdeeds are rarely crimes but rather acts of playfully intelligent trouble. We humans have always created and been drawn to Trickster figures because we also are compulsive rule- and boundary-makers. We endlessly categorize the world – and ourselves – by race, sex, beliefs, behavior, geography, and thousands of other criteria. And yet the more we define ourselves and our lives by rules and forces and classifications, the more we need the relief of figures who mash-up categories, traverse the borders, and confuse our careful distinctions.

Thus, paraphrasing the immortal Gordon Gekko, mischief is good. And mischief is fun.

Now, I’m no anarchist and far from radical. Hobbes had it right in saying that without communal laws and agreements, our state of existence would be really wretched. Further, beliefs seem to me like air for our souls. However, even the best rules and beliefs need questioning, and some need outright defiance. Rules and beliefs are ultimately creations of humanity, and thus will often be as imperfect as we are. A lot of them need to be challenged in our institutions or in the streets, but I’ve frankly never been a very effective Trickster in either. They’re also really tough venues for storytelling. But in realm of the imagination, well, here I can clown, challenge and explore the sacred and accepted, entertain, and, just maybe, change some minds. Here I can make some mischief.

So welcome to my little outpost on that ever-fluid horizon between art and trash, known and unknown, assumed and proven and imagined, and the sacred and profane.


Posted: September 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

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