This is the text of the keynote speech for the Third Hong Kong Web Symposium
The Myths and Realities of World Wide Web Publishing
by John December
I've been involved in publishing on the World Wide Web for nearly four years. In most professions, this amount of experience would still classify me as a novice, still learning the mastery of my craft. But on the Web, four solar years, particularly the years 1993-1997 mark numerous, watershed turning points in practice and technologies. It was during this time that the Web grew up, moving from a system that was largely used by academic researchers to one which has captured a great deal of attention from business, education, government, and the general public.
I am in many ways still a novice, still learning, still piecing together what communication on the Web means and how we can do it better. I've published Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine for three years, and I've learned a great deal about what Web publishing is and isn't. (See the May 1996 special issue on Web publishing at http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1996/may/). In this talk, I want to outline for you what I see as the myths and realities of Web publishing.
The main point of my talk is that it is a mistake to take the philosophical perspective that technology has an inevitable or all- encompassing power to directly change the way humans create and share knowledge. A perspective which characterizes technology as highly potent in its ability to change social practice is called technological determinism (See the CMC Magazine special issue on technological determinism, http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1996/feb/). A technologically deterministic view holds that we should as Web publishers focus only on the numerous gadgets and technical details that have emerged over the past four years in our work. Indeed, these changes, as I've alluded, have been breathtaking. But my point is that such a perspective leads to the acceptance of myths which I feel do not contribute to a Web publisher's success.
In the rest of this paper, I state and respond to five major myths about Web publishing that I feel need to be examined.
MYTH 1: Web publishing is an innovative, "cutting edge" activity.
The reality is that Web publishing has been around, in some form, for more than seven years; and the traditions of publishing on the Internet and older networked computer systems extend back several decades.
The Internet's oldest, peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, Postmodern Culture (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc/) has issues going back to 1990 on its Web site. Similar peer-reviewed publications are not uncommon on the Web. For example, as one of the first ventures of its kind, Project Muse (http://muse.jhu.edu/) provides worldwide, networked, subscription access to the full text of more than forty scholarly journals in the humanities, social sciences, and mathematics. The Scholarly Communications Project of the University Libraries of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is a project that has pioneered electronic communication of scholarly materials (http://borg.lib.vt.edu). Their site provides access to eighteen journals available to institutional subscribers.
My point is that the launching of a new peer-reviewed electronic publication in 1997 is unremarkable. There may be social reasons why an institution launching a Web journal may claim it to be an innovation. For example, funding and support often rely on proposals which rhetorically frame a project within a forward looking, technologically-utopian viewpoint. In fact, the technical aspects of the medium of the Web itself may form the bulk of such a proposal's argument for funding. Similarly, the rhetoric and publicity around the launch of such a journal may draw heavily on the cultural expectations of what a technological utopia should or ought to be. This language may be replete with metaphors such as: information superhighway, cyberspace, online publishing, and others. These buzzwords may be the primary strategy for a publishing project to gain attention, support, and possible funding.
What an emphasis on the Web as a technological utopia does is reduce the focus from the content of a proposed new journal itself. This shifts the focus of value from the content of a journal as a socially-constructed, contextual, socially-accepted form of knowledge. Such a shift may serve political ends. For example, the political arguments over which institution hosts which journal can be made even more contentious when a particular institution starts a new Web journal. Such an institution may claim their authority for starting such a journal on technological expertise alone. But again, I think such a technological basis for assigning value to a publication is a mistake. Web publishing, in and of itself, does not confer value.
MYTH 2: Web publishing dramatically reduces time and costs.
Certainly reproduction and distribution costs are different in Web publishing than in paper publishing. Instead of printing and mailing costs, there are HTML and other development costs, Internet service costs, and systems administration. These Internet and development costs could easily exceed paper, printing, and mailing costs for some journals. Many struggling journals cut corners, taking the cheapest route, hiring non-professionals to do their technical Web development. This is not an advisable alternative: what professional journal would hire an amateur to do their printing and binding? While Web development is not intrinsically an indicator of value, as I outlined in myth #1, it is an activity which requires competence and excellence—-indeed, excellent technical Web development is requisite for a Web-based publication. However, the myth that technology somehow erases production and distribution costs isn't accurate.
The truth is that the real tough part of Web publishing isn’t technical development. The even greater costs have to do with the most expensive and rare commodity on this earth: human intelligence, creativity, and passion. These factors take time--in editorial decisions, in acquisitions, in development editing, in copy editing, and even in the technical and creative side of a publication.
Online communication does help in certain kinds of information exchange. Relying on the postal service is unsatisfactory for many journal editors and contributors--but the savings in postal transit time does not erase the very difficult task of working with peer reviewers and managing the editorial process. Again, the technology does not erase these costs. Indeed, the training, equipment, time, and extra effort that may be required to manage the sometimes obscure complexities of file formats and managing the delicate sensibilities of authors in an online medium may indeed contribute to more costs over what that journal would cost if published on paper.
Where Web publishing makes cost-effective sense is in publications that do not claim to have institutional authority nor have any commercial viability as a paper publication. For example, my magazine, Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, is not an academic publication. Although I employ an editorial process that takes a rigorous approach at content acceptance and review, I make no claims that my publication is peer reviewed. I do not have the authority nor resources to take on the burden of what that label would mean socially. My publication is a commercial one, intended to (eventually) produce a modest profit while at the same time inform an audience which is a mix of academics and practitioners in an accessible, challenging, and high-quality way. I see my publication as complementary to other kinds of publications—for example I defer academic writing about my coverage area to the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which has institutional support and authority, and for which I serve on the editorial board.
For my magazine, the Web therefore is an absolute necessity. Perhaps most importantly, the level of my technical skill and editorial experience give me the chance to run my magazine with very little labor costs. My niche for distribution therefore can match the Web. As I've outlined, established academic journals may face far higher costs and burdens in publishing. My point is that the determination of whether the Web will save costs or not is not technological: it is social, and involves the editorial burdens and skill levels already within the publication's staff. If these characteristics of the publication do not "fit well" into the Web, a newly launched Web journal (or commercial publication) may face very sobering costs. The result could be that the focus of the publication as fostering a socially-constructed forum for knowledge sharing could be weakened.
MYTH 3: Web publishing should invariably reflect the technological possibilities of the medium.
The phrase, "the medium is the message" has perhaps, in my opinion, misinformed new media professionals more than any other. This catchy phrase comes right out of a technologically deterministic perspective: it claims a particularly potent ability of technology to shape human values. Instead, I hold that a medium, enabled by technology, does have a social and cultural message.
For example, the fact that I have a Web site URL on my business card tells something about me. People who would like to pose as cutting edge or trendy may have considered a URL on their business card, or at least an email address, as something very trendy a year ago. Today, the tens of millions of people who have email addresses or Web sites perhaps devalues the cultural cachet of this symbol. The result is that the medium is not the message at all--the social context of the message is.
MYTH 4: Technology and technological skills breed quality.
If you are a professional publisher, you certainly know that your most difficult job is not production and distribution of works. Instead, it is the very difficult process of identifying excellence, developing it to its best potential, and bringing it to its best audience in the best way possible.
But new Web publishers seem to forget this, or at least can give the impression that they are blinded by the medium. Web publishing has important requirements for skills in page design, layout, graphics, programming, system administration—-let me emphasize that I have no doubt about this—-I base much of my professional work on educating people about technical Web practices. But none of these skills are the toughest part of Web publishing. They are the tough part of production and distribution, but I don't think any professional publisher would say that distribution is publishing. Because the medium is not the message, mastery of the medium is not key.
MYTH 5: Online communities can be created synthetically.
I've emphasized in my other writing the importance of community online (See, for example, my speech to multimedia developers in Mexico City at http://www.december.com/present/micd96.html). Indeed, I think that an online community is perhaps the most rich kind of social structure that can develop online. But this idea of community has been taken to its most technologically-deterministic levels: for example Electric Minds (http://www.minds.com/) creates a commercial "space" where users can interact with others; Hotwired (http://www.hotwired.com/) requires a registration so that users become part of a "community." The value of these affiliations to users is very suspect: I doubt that any kind of allegiance or interest or even much value results in users who are "members" of these synthetic communities. These Web sites are formed by throwing together the technologies and tools that enable human communication, all under the strong model of a commercial brand. These examples are essentially human relationships made into commodities.
I think that these examples are synthetic communities much like the people who are in an amusement park together at any one given time form a community. There's noise and excitement, but the social significance is missing. What happens in these commodified spaces is not socially significant--in fact, that may be their allure. What happens has more to do with a constructed, "branded" experience defined from a set of tools. People may consider themselves part of a synthetic, branded community that is essentially a product, but these people should be called consumers and not community members.
Instead, I think communities online evolve out of the same difficult, messy, equivocal, and evolving events of human-to-human communication that geographical communities do. Arguments, hurt feelings, emotional content, are all part of this. For example, I would point to Usenet news itself as an example of a sprawling collection of intersecting and overlapping and very dynamic communities. I characterize these as "natural" (as opposed to Hotwired or Electric Minds) because they eschew the top-down design that both of those brands use to package a community as a product.
Mistaking technology for community tries to put too much potency in the technology itself, rather than the humans comprising the community. For academic publishing, the community is the specialists and their colleagues who are intimately concerned about the contents and progress of a field of knowledge. This community is "natural" in the sense that it is created, bottom up, by its members as they interact with each other. This community accrues value to its members as they see themselves as actors it its formation and operations. Certainly, members of this community may "consume" the contents of the publication, but they do not consider that consumption as an act without a context or socially constructed value. Again, the medium (or media interaction) is not the message. Instead, the real message is much more subtly and intricately located within the total social context of the community members.
Perhaps my talk to you today has been more of a drumbeat of pessimism and criticism about how the Web may not fulfill all of our dreams or solve all of our problems in publishing. This is not the case. My main point is that the Web is not a utopia, and its characterization, from a technologically deterministic perspective, as an end in itself, as a powerful mark of value, as a powerful community-building force, fail in reality. But the implication of my point is not bad news for Web publishers; indeed, freeing oneself from the limiting perspective of the medium as the message loosens up the true creativity of human beings to create value.
As a more practical matter, my perspectives imply these considerations for Web publishers:
These three points of advice involving audience, non-technological social influence, and non-technological community relevance--are not all that a Web developer need know. Indeed, they are still only part of the beginning of reconceptualizing Web publishing more in terms of social context and audience than medium and message.
We are, as publishers before us for thousands of years, more than just distributors of works. We are facilitators of knowledge and social mediators. We create value in how well we serve our audience and help them find expression for the knowledge they share with each other.
Copyright © 1997 by John December. All Rights Reserved.