14 September 2010

Traditonal Publishers Still Hidebound

"The idea that something that appeared in print is automatically worth paying for is nonsense." says Mark Coatney in Evaluating Time Magazine's New Online Pay Wall

This is an example of thinking from the traditional publishing world, where if something made it into print or was "published" it meant the content with through a lengthy process of adding value and checking quality, through the editorial, fact-checking and proofreading process. This was thought in the olden days to mean something. Yes, it did, but not always. That editors and fact-checkers were available or that they had a hand in content did not necessarily mean puff-pieces, fabricated stories, falsehoods, mistakes, typos never made it into that published content polished to shine like your grandmother's counter tops.

Publishing was a measure of trust and quality from the pre-network world. The network has a new set of criteria and indicators of trust and quality.

I find that often writers who do not get paid, who are passionate about a subject or cause and write on their own, are more timely, accurate and effective than authors working for a magazine. There is something about how writers are hired, directed and influenced within the publishing world that biases, distorted, subverts them and their content. Its not always money, or being paid to ghostwrite or pander or a puff-piece or just being paid to write a certain kind of article that the editor wants. Its something inherent in the process. It may be a consequence of the time it takes to polish a piece to perfection. It may be the idea that a piece needs to be polished. These requirements place their own burdens and biases on writing. Of course, it seems rational that a more polished piece is better, but that is not always true. Sometimes diamonds are more useful and beautiful in the rough than cut and polished.

Often published print authors come across as hired-guns, slick, indifferent, arrogant. They often know so much, they know too much, and become arrogant, infusing their writing with their opinions and indifference to reader's and other's views on the subject. The very act of being a "filter" means possibly useful information may be omitted. What if the filter is wrong? What if an author is giving advice, carefully researched and polished, so it looks good, but has become obsolete by the time it is published, has drawn the wrong conclusions, used the wrong sources of information, yet, speaks with an authoritative voice? This goes on without much accountability in the slow moving print world.

My own idea for payment, which I proposed back in the late 90's, was to adopt the "PBS model" of threatening to "take Big Bird away" or in other words, remove content after a certain time if not enough people viewing it online paid for it. The page would display the number of days remaining until the content is pulled, and the number of people paying for it, with the threshold, like one of those donation thermometers. Perhaps the pledgemusic model would work for publishing content as well as it does for music. Authors could offer additional items, such as autographed books, handwritten manuscripts or donations to charity for payment.

02 September 2010

Angry Diggers and the Death of the Author

Veteran users of Digg are upset with changes to the site aimed at reducing their influence. They have begun gaming the "voting" system

What is interesting about this is:

When I first encountered and thought about sites using voting systems to surface desirable information, I understood that all algorithms for voting can be gamed.

That to deter gaming, very sophisticated and arcane algorithms were required. That these discourage contribution because contributors never know where their work will rank nor why it ranks low or high (this is similar to authors puzzling over Amazon's ranking system).

I was surprised when sites based on user voting systems began to succeed by simplifying their voting to the thumbs up/down basic counts or other simple and easily gamed voting systems.

I believe that when users are satisfied with outcome of their vote, which for Digg means, contributors get their links or comments surfaced and readers feel that the surfaced content is useful, there is no reason to game the system. A little childish game playing might go on, but as long as Digg was a useful tool to most of its contributors and readers (perhaps the same individual, but I would guess the standard 2% participate as contributors and the rest are readers), the system was in equilibrium, running on "social balance."

Only a minority of pranksters might want to game the voting system. Until the contributors become dissatisfied.

I think it shows that simple voting systems can work, which was something I believed was unrealistic when I first encountered them. But through good social engineering, strict controls are not required, sophisticated and opaque voting algorithms are not necessary and the "helpful/unhelpful," "interesting/uninteresting," "thumbs up/thumbs dn" type of voting system is transparent and intuitive, and robust as long as users are happy with the results.

The controversy also reveals the differences in "publishing" model. Digg operated as kind of newspaper edited by a small group of contributors, who were opinion makers or controlled mindshare of an audience, gatekeepers, more like traditional media. It may appear democratic, but in reality was a traditional publishing model where a small number of contributors and editors create a filtered flow of content, like publishing or broadcast media.

The opposing model is the "grapevine" or social model, in which information flows organically, laterally, potentially exponentially, through social connections.

Authors do not like readers having a "custom experience" because it reduces the influence of authors. It makes their work pointless. I would not describe a customized information flow, such as provided by software agents or through user personalization, the same as a social information flow. Social media may reduce the influence of gatekeepers, authors, editors, publishers and broadcasters, but that is probably beneficial. I would not call that customized, but social. The social flow does reduce the influence of authors, but also makes everyone an author and the more influential authors will build social audiences, as they already do with followers on Twitter or through posts to pages on Facebook.

Authors won't go away, because they put time and effort into understanding something others don't have the time for or are unwilling, unable to put in the effort to learn. Authors generally notice things going on, and have something to say about events. Writers like Michael Pollan, for example, are not going to vanish because your Facebook friend told you all you need to know about humanity's divorce from nature and how important local food is at restoring your connection to the natural world. That friend probably isn't noticing, isn't thinking about things going on in the world in a careful way, that's what authors do for a living. And they often become evangelists for their point of view, something few people are going to become.

That's all I've got to say for now, readers.

01 September 2010

How I got started writing haiku

When I was about five years old I began having experiences of things that stuck in my mind. I would see something, encounter something, and I would freeze for a moment. When I think of it now, I realize this was "noticing" the whatever-it-was, but very intensely, compared to other things, for a moment.

I noticed the freshly washed sheets my grandmother had hung on the clothesline to dry, billowing in the breeze. I saw this from my vantage point sitting in the sandbox. It was memorable for some reason I did not consciously think about then.

I was never bored riding in the car on family trips because I was constantly entertained by noticing all the details of everything along the road, there were always things that raised interesting questions in my mind, drew out my curiosity, such as the light on the window in a shop in a strip mall, or the neon lights at night, the stars reflected in the window, the hum of the tires on the highway.

On one of my first trips to the beach, I ran down the big dune at Delaware Seashore towards the ocean, as I got closer to the water, I spotted something in the sand and came to an abrupt halt. It was a jellyfish half buried in the sand. For some reason this first encounter with death and fear of treading on it and being stung, stuck with me.

Over the years, I tried to write poems about my experiences or even make them into lyrics, but nothing ever worked out right. It never felt right. I always had to add something to the experience to make it a poem or song. In 2008, I was reintroduced to haiku by reading Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior while recovering from illness.

I was familiar with haiku from my school English classes, but never took it seriously. Even though I enjoyed haiku. I got the not so subtle message that haiku is a trivial form, not valued in Western poetry. For some reason, when I think of making something I feel the gaze or regard of this invisible audience.

For example. When get the urge to make a guitar because it would be rewarding in of itself without any external reward, I think immediately, yeah, by the time you build one, guitars will be going out of favor and no one will care, you'll be stuck building obsolete stuff no one cares about during a period of decline in respect and interest for the instrument (ironically, this did not happen, but the opposite happened in the last decade). I thought I would be throwing away any effort on a poetic form that was not even recognized as poetry (I have an irrational need for fame, not celebrity).

It didn't take long after reading Oku for me to realize that I'd been barking up the wrong tree all those years. I'd wasted twenty years trying to fit my experiences into forms that didn't fit. I started translating my experiences and unfinished poems into haiku similar to Basho's. It worked. The haiku was perfectly suited to capturing and conveying the kind of experiences I've had since childhood.

I said to myself at the time, I don't know if my haiku are haiku, or if they are really good haiku, but I was happy to have found a form for expressing my experiences in a satisfying way. This was more important than fame. It would have been wasteful for my experiences to have never seen the light of day, and they just kept bugging me to write them down.

I was given a book on haiku writing. This is when I first learned that what is central to haiku is not form, but experience. That my childhood experiences had a name, they are called "haiku moments" in the community of writers.

I always say I don't write haiku. I get asked sometimes by people to "write a haiku" and I can't. A haiku starts with an experience and if I don't have the experience (or can't borrow one), I have nothing to go on. So I don't get haiku contests or challenges. Art is an expression, its not a craft, although it may involve craft. I am sometimes inspired by other people's lives, so I steal their experiences for my haiku, when I've none of my own at the moment worth writing about. But to write a haiku to fit a description or theme provided by a contest seems to undermine what haiku is about, experience.

I've learned through this. I learned that I sometimes you have to wait for the right form to come along for your expression. Western poetry didn't cut it. I've learned that expression had to come from myself. I've learned that I can only do what I love and enjoy otherwise it will never amount to anything. I suppose the other thing is that there was some element of obsession and I had to recognize that, whatever it was there had to be some creative impulse that was driving me, even
perhaps against my will, to make these things.

I am always fascinated by Minnie Evans who began to draw after a voice said to her in a dream, "Why don't you draw or die?" I wish I could draw like Minnie Evans, but I am held back by my scientific nature. I could never see elephants dancing around the moon and if I did I would keep it secret lest people think I'm crazy. I find in writing haiku a way of expressing the mysterious nature of life in concrete terms, hiding the mysteries in juxtapositions, which must be unraveled in the mind of the reader.