Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Published Literature versus Webfiction

Classfellow Shawn sends along this thoughtful write-up of his comment in class today, which gets to the heart of one of the most significant consequences for literature from the Internet. We will discuss the issues specifically raised in Monday seminar time, set up by a clip of mine from The Beatles' Anthology to illustrate the point at hand. basic point is that the difference between publishing through traditional means and publishing online is that the enforcement of standards shifts from being enforced by a select few (in anticipation of a wider audience) to being enacted and enforced by the audience themselves as a collective. The struggle of the Internet as a publishing medium is to find ways to express these standards in ways that allow users to effectively filter content. When a work is published in print form by an established publisher it is assumed to have successfully pass the standards subjectively set by an individual publishing house. Publishers establish a basic reputation for what they typically publish, be it chick lit, pulp sci-fi or avant-garde poetry. So works gain a certain credibility by simply being published and then credibility within a genre by virtue of the publisher’s existing track record. A work enters the market place with a level of status conferred by its meeting of basic publishing standards which are enforced by a small select number of people. These criteria are often a balance between artistic or scholarly merit combined with what will turn a profit or at least cover the basic costs of publishing. The publishing system is the first major filter works must pass through but it isn’t the only one. Oprah, book critics, canonization within the university system and sales statistics all serve as filters, each with varying degrees of cultural capital. Works published on the Internet bypass this initial filter allowing for interesting experiments with self-publishing. There is the requirement that a work is in the right format and can be actually transmitted in binary code and there has to be an actual forum for it to be published within not to mention the basic requirement of having access to the necessary technology. One of the things that makes the Internet interesting but also bursting at the seams with [bad] content is that there is not established gatekeepers (If you don’t count censorship by internet ‘publishers’ such as Facebook) once these basic requirements are met. But works published on the internet are subject to standards and what essentially amount to filters functioning in the same way as publishing houses and Oprah. Works published on the Internet still exist within a form of market place and are subject to the standards enforced by the general collective of users. The challenge of the Internet is how it expresses these standards and connects individuals to works that meet these standards. Right now standards are often express on a sort of best sellers list mode blended with word of mouth and various rating schemes. Sites such as Youtube operate on a blending of these strategies.While the audience doesn’t have to ability to prevent the initial publishing of a work, content will sink to the bottom of the pile quite quickly through lack of views or negative reviews. So the audience has the ability to manipulate and enact basic standards and to influence what gets viewed. Youtube is also shaping what gets viewed through sections such as "featured videos" or "promoted videos". Such web applications perform the same function as publishers do as gatekeepers though they don't actually prevent the works initial publishing. Some sites do this better than others, would be an example in my mind of a site where there isn’t a clear and concise way for standards to be expressed and content to be filtered be it by the collective user base or by the sites moderators. I think we are still in the early days of direct filtering by the audience and of standards being established by the audience themselves but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already happening.

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