Open publishing – Cory Doctorow

It’s virtually impossible to talk about open publishing without mentioning Cory Doctorow. As one of the most vocal supporters and active users of the open publishing model, Cory is frequently cited as proof positive that open publishing works. I’m not sure that Cory’s success means that every person who publishes their work online under a Creative Commons licence is thus certain to also be successful – success relies on a lot more than availability. But what we can say is that releasing his material free online has helped him to build up a loyal fanbase of readers and a significant profile which helps him earn money both directly and indirectly from his writing.

Of course, writing is not all that Cory does – he’s also a renowned digital rights advocate with a formidable reputation as an expert and activist who worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He also blogs at BoingBoing, one of the world’s most successful blogs, and now he holds the Fulbright Chair at the University of Southern California. But this activity also helps raise his profile, bringing him to the attention of more people who might download or buy his book.

(I must admit that I’d known Cory quite a while before I first read any of his novels. I downloaded Eastern Standard Tribe, liked the first chapter, but before I could get round to buying it, I was given a paper copy by a friend. I don’t think I would have heard of Cory at all if it weren’t for his work at the EFF, and I wouldn’t have come to know him personally if we hadn’t then shared an office for a while because of my work with the Open Rights Group. But then, the world is full of these strange conditionals.)

In January 2003, Cory published his first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, through the world’s biggest science fiction publisher, Tor. At the same time, he posted the text online under a Creative Commons licence and let anyone who wanted to download and redistribute it. Within a day there had been 30,000 downloads, and by December 2006 there had been over 700,000 downloads.

Just as happened later to Lawrence Lessig‘s Free Culture, Cory found that people immediately started to play with his book. At first, it was different file formats – people took the ASCII text and reformatted it into HTML, PDF, PalmOS PDB, Apple Newton PKG, and many others. Then there’s a PDF file that when printed folds neatly into a booklet, the entire text as a printable poster depicting the cover art, audio versions and translations.

But it didn’t stop at reformatting – people got far more inventive than that. There was the Sausage and Mash Remix, where every word beginning with S is replaced by the word Sausage, and every word beginning with M becomes Mash; the Capipa Remix which reorders all the words in alphabetical order; and the More and Bloodier Wars Remix, where the original is run back and forth through machine translator Babelfish. (All are mentioned on Cory’s blog, but don’t seem to be available anymore).

Today, there are 29 different versions available for download from Cory’s site and the book itself – his first novel remember – has been reprinted six times.

Cory’s second book, Eastern Standard Tribe, was released the same way in January 2004. Again came the HTML version, the PDF, files for all sorts of different ebook readers, GameBoy Advance files – anything you could possibly want. Other remixes included a speed reader version that flashes the book up on your screen one word at a time, and a (frankly freaky) partial audio version using computer software to record and remix.

None of this creativity would be possible under traditional ‘all rights reserved’ copyright, but it’s not just about enriching the commons. It’s also about making a living. In a December 2006 Forbes article, Cory wrote “I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.”

That seems to tick the box nicely.

The Forbes piece is well worth reading the whole way through, as Cory talk about open publishing in depth. He puts together more pieces of the puzzle as to how and why this works for him, one of which is to do with the genre in which he writes:

[S]cience fiction’s early adopters defined the social character of the Internet itself. Given the high correlation between technical employment and science fiction reading, it was inevitable that the first nontechnical discussion on the Internet would be about science fiction. The online norms of idle chatter, fannish organizing, publishing and leisure are descended from SF fandom, and if any literature has a natural home in cyberspace, it’s science fiction, the literature that coined the very word “cyberspace.”

Indeed, science fiction was the first form of widely pirated literature online, through “bookwarez” channels that contained books that had been hand-scanned, a page at a time, converted to digital text and proof-read. Even today, the mostly widely pirated literature online is SF.

Which does make me wonder, would books outside of the science fiction genre do so well? I’ll come to that in another post.

If there is a posterboy for open publishing, it’s Cory. He has the amazing enthusiasm and drive of the pioneer, and I can’t imagine he’d be happy anywhere else but out front, where the experimentation happens, where the risks are unknown, and where he can carve his own path.

But not everyone coming on behind is going to meet with the same success as Cory. Giving your stuff away is but one part of the story. You also have to work your arse off – I actually don’t know anyone who is as prolific and hard-working as Cory. I remember once sitting in the office with him, listening to him type with the speed and ferocity of a man possessed (deadline notwithstanding). It made me feel deeply inadequate. And, of course, you have to be a good writer, and that itself takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and years and years of practice.

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Open publishing – Something for nothing, three years on

Nearly three years ago, Lawrence Lessig released his book, Free Culture, both in paper and online under a Creative Commons licence which allowed derivative works. A few days later, a disparate group of strangers gathered together to take advantage of that licence and create an audiobook version. Astonished at being a part of that process, and excited by the possibilities it seemed to open up to me, I wrote a long essay entitled Something for Nothing: The Free Culture AudioBook Project.

I just reread it and, three years later I find nothing in it has dated. Larry was kind enough to let me interview him for my blog post, and his words ring true now just as they did then. I strongly recommend that all De Montfort students reading this spend a little time reading both the essay, and exploring the links in it.

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Open publishing – A wider context

The temptation when you’re looking at a topic of open publishing is to focus on the case studies of people and publishers who are making works available online for reuse, but it’s really important to take a look at the wider context within which writers, publishers and booksellers are working and related issues such as DRM and piracy (which I will also address at length in another post). You can’t consider open publishing in a vacuum, despite the temptation to focus in on just that one area, otherwise you get just a fraction of the story.

Tim O’Reilly has a really fascinating and detailed post which does just that. He talks about the things he’s learnt being both a writer and a publisher. His lessons are:

  • Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
  • Lesson 2: Piracy is progressive taxation.
  • Lesson 3: Customers want to do the right thing, if they can.
  • Lesson 4: Shoplifting is a bigger threat than piracy.
  • Lesson 5: File sharing networks don’t threaten book, music, or film publishing. They threaten existing publishers.
  • Lesson 6: “Free” is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service.
  • Lesson 7: There’s more than one way to do it.

Tim examines each of these lessons in detail, but rather than attempt a summary, I recommend that you go and read his post and get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

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Open publishing – Writing in an age of pirates

John Scalzi wrote a fantastic post in May 05 about the changing nature of a writer’s business model in an age where everything is easily copyable. A snippet to whet your appetite:

I won’t get into how much of my writing income over the last four years comes directly and indirectly as a result of writing on this site, except to say it’s six figures and the leftmost number is not a “1,” and not nearly all of it comes from book sales. This is not bragging (or not only bragging, shall I say); the point to made here is that an ambitious writer can use a non-commercial presence to generate a non-trivial amount of income. In my case, the content here, like the content on Penny Arcade, is un-pirateable; I don’t charge anything for it, and I don’t care if you send it along to whomever you like. But it brings in thousands of people every day, some of whom would probably spend money on Scalzi merchandise. Like, say, a novel, however it is published.

Or not a novel, actually — why not a novella? The market for novellas is very small right about now, because most publishers don’t like them; they don’t fit into the mass-market publishing paradigm very well at all. But if I don’t have to worry about my publisher’s production albegra, maybe I could sell one. Or not sell it at all — maybe I’ll post it up on the site with its run subsidized by an advertiser. I have eight to ten thousand visitors on a daily basis; think there’s an advertiser out there who might be willing to shell out for 100,000 ad impressions over the run of the novella?

Point is, in a pirate age, I think I still stand a good chance of continuing to make a very good income from writing. Since I don’t think we’ll get to a pirate age, this is even better news for me, because I have the advantage of generating writer income the old-fashioned way as well as in this new way. Multiple revenue streams are a writer’s friend. Now, get this: I’m not particularly clever, and I’m awfully lazy. If I can do this, pretty much any writer can. Yes, it does take time and effort to generate a readership (seven years, in the case of the Whatever). Tell me how this is different from publishing today.

Scalzi makes an excellent point: Just because business models are changing doesn’t mean either that the publishing industry will die, or that the writer will find it harder to make a living (bearing in mind that it’s already hard).

According to a report from The Publishers Association, in 2005, there were approx. 60,000 book publishers in the UK and Ireland, and about 1.6 million titles were available for sale, including 206,000 new or revised titles. The total value of sales was £2,768 million, and 788 million units were sold (giving an average price of £3.50). Consumer sales were £2,396 million for 2005, up 8% on 2004 (compared to a 3% increase in 2004 over 2003). Book exports were also up 3.7% to £1.41 billion, with the US the biggest market. Decide for yourself if those numbers indicate an industry in rapid decline, or one that’s healthy.

It seems pretty difficult to find up-to-date statistics on how much authors earn in the UK, but an old post from 2000 on the Dark Echo site says:

You think you should be able to make a living as a writer? A survey by the Society of Authors (U.K.) shows that dream may be even further from reality than we thought. An article published last Thursday by The Guardian/The Observer Web site BooksUnlimited (reported the survey — first of its kind in nearly 20 years — “shows that the universal creative dream of self-sufficiency through writing is receding farther than ever. . . Almost half British authors earn less than the £5,000 yearly minimum wage and three quarters make less than the national average of £20,000.” Only one writer in seven actually lives on earnings from writing. In other words, “You live better with toilet cleaner on your fingers than with ink.”

I can’t find the original article on the Observer site, nor an update version of this survey, but it’s still true to say that it’s bloody hard to make a living out of writing, whatever type of writing you do. But it is dramatically easier now to access to your prospective audience, to nurture a community of fans, and to benefit from a variety of income streams, such as advertising on your site or merchandise. Which means that if you get as much of your stuff as possible in front of as many people as possible by giving it all away, you have an opportunity to make money both directly and indirectly from your writing. For those who understand this, it could be said that it’s now easier to make a living as a writer, not harder – although it’s important to note that ‘easier’ is a relative term.

Again, though, we’re left with a lack of real hard data here. Do authors with blogs earn more than authors with out-of-date/static websites or authors with no web presence? Does an online presence only favour authors of specific genres? Do authors who give their works away online earn more than those who don’t, for authors at the same stage in their career and working in the same genre? (Although, jeeze, you’d have a hell of a job getting a meaningful statistical comparison out of that one.)

The problem, of course, is that authors and publishers generally don’t like giving away this sort of data, so ultimately we are left with only anecdote and experience to inform us.

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Open publishing – Why do people publish books for free, and what about audiobooks?

When I think of ‘open publishing’, the first thing I think about is people like Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and Tom Reynolds who have all persuaded their publisher to allow them to release electronic versions of their books at the same time as the physical dead-tree version. (More on those three later.) In all cases, this seems to have been to the benefit of the book, but to give your book away at the same time as you put it up for sale is a bit of a leap of faith. Why would you take that risk? It’s far from being a proven economic or promotional strategy.

I think Chris Saad gets to the heart of this very quickly, when he asks, Am I being heard? He says there is:

A fundamental human need that I think podcasting, blogging and all forms of social/citizen journalism speaks to… the need to be heard. People just want to feel connected and understood.

At a very basic level, Larry, Cory and Tom share in common with me, you, and pretty much everyone else a desire to be heard, to be read, to have the things that we’ve laboured over appreciated.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, also confesses that he just wants to be heard (although he doesn’t seem to have published an ebook version of his book):

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’m actually delighted to see that my book has been pirated and is available on Bittorrent. (Presumably this is the audio book version, even though it claims to be an “ebook”, which I wasn’t aware existed. UPDATE. One file is the pirated audiobook, the “ebook” is actually this ChangeThis pdf of the original Wired article, which was already freely available).

My publishers want to make money, and I like them so I usually do what it takes to keep them happy, but in truth I just want to be read/listened to by the largest number of people. Leave it to me to figure out how to convert that reputational currency into cash–just get me in front of the biggest audience and I’ll do the rest. My agent doesn’t want to hear this, but I’d rather take a smaller up-front advance or lower royalties in exchange for more liberty in distributing free versions, because I think I’ll actually be better off in the end.

Anderson, however, tangles up a few threads in his piece, the first is a discussion of equivalence: ebooks are assumed not to be equivalent to books; digital audiobooks are assumed to be equivalent to CDs.

Reading an ebook isn’t currently a great experience. Specialised ebook readers are expensive, and most people don’t like reading on-screen, so the ebook is seen as not equivalent for a paper book, i.e. people are more likely to go and buy the paper version if they like the ebook. Thus it is beneficial to release a free ebook so that you can reach as wide an audience as possible, as you stand a good chance of converting ebook downloads to paper book sales.

Conversely, it doesn’t really matter whether you have an unlawfully downloaded copy of an audiobook, or the real thing, whether bought as a download or as a CD, because either way you are probably going to listen to it on your iPod, computer or other MP3 playing device. The assumption is that giving away ebooks encourages sales of paper books, but giving away audiobooks, or allowing unauthorised downloads, will cannibalise the sales of the legitimate ebook. This is exactly the same logic as used by the RIAA and BPI for suing file-sharers, and the rest of the music industry for attempting to slap DRM onto everything in sight. It’s a very compelling and sensible looking argument, but it’s based on unproven assumptions behind the motivations of the downloader/buyer.

We don’t have much real evidence to go on when looking at the cannibalisation of audiobooks by P2P versions. I’m not aware of any studies that focus on audiobooks. But certainly within the music industry the picture is not as clear as it at first seems. Felix Oberholzer and Koleman Strumpf compared real download data and real sales data (pdf) and found that downloading does not have a statistically significant impact on music sales, except in the context of the most popular songs, when it was shown to improve sales slightly. Could it be that the same might be true of an audiobook?

The other issues is the assumption, again promulgated by the RIAA and BPI, that every download of an unauthorised file, whatever it be, is equivalent to a lost sale. In fact, there are many different motivations and outcomes: Some people are nearly sure they want to buy the item but want to try it first, some people are curious and don’t know if they would buy but can be convinced, some people were never going to buy it anyway (so no lost sale as there was no intention to buy), and some people really are lost sales – they would have bought it but they downloaded it instead.

The question is not if some sales are lost, but if more sales overall are gained because of the free version? Providing a free version does not necessarily cannibalise sales overall, but instead acts as a promotional tool encouraging them.

Counterintuitively, there was a study last year that showed that people who downloaded the most MP3s also bought the most music. Sadly, I can’t lay my hands on a link right now but I’ll try to find it. Perhaps, as the audiobook market develops, this could hold true for audiobooks too.

Finally, there is an intimate relationship between a book and its audiobook version, and I don’t think that we really understand how users relate to both together or each separately. What makes a book compelling, and what makes an audiobook compelling are two different things, and my reasons for buying each different. I’m absolutely certain to be buying Neil Gaiman‘s next book, whatever it is and whenever it comes out, because I’m a fan and I love his stuff. I trust him, as a writer, to produce work that I enjoy. I would be unlikely, however, to buy an audio version of one of Neil’s books if it was read by Some Random Voiceover Guy, because for me there’s no incentive to do so (I don’t frequently listen to audiobooks). But an audiobook actually read by Neil, or by Lenny Henry, is a different kettle of fish because I already have an emotional involvement with the author as a fan of his, and with Lenny Henry by virtue of the fact that I saw him and Neil reading one of Neil’s books at an event I went to a while back. My motivation for buying that would not be a desire for any old audiobook version, but a desire specifically for Neil’s or Lenny’s audiobook version.

So when Anderson says that he can’t see the case for producing legitimate free audiobooks, he’s treating them as if they are wholly separate from the paper book or ebook, and as 100% equivalent, and I don’t think that we can say that with any certainty.

What really happens if you both sell and give away an ebook? What really happens if you both sell and give away music? Didn’t seem to hurt the Arctic Monkeys, after all. But until someone somewhere does a rigorous and balanced study to find out, we’re stuck with a bunch of poorly formed assumptions and music industry propaganda.

Right now, I’m left with more questions than answers. The publishing industry, though, is being pushed into experimentation in a way that the music and movie industries are not. Authors are forcing publishers to do things that might seem counterintuitive, and we’re slowly starting to figure out, through trial and error, what all this means. Still lots to find out, though, about this open publishing idea.

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Open publishing – preparing a lecture for De Montfort

Last year I was invited by Sue Thomas and Kate Pullinger to go up to Leicester to give a lecture about the impact of blogging on writing at their Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries seminar, Blogs, Communities and Social Software. This year, I have a return invitation, not to lecture in person again but to be one of several guest lecturers contributing to De Montfort’s Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media via a variety of online venues. I thought for a while about giving my lecture in Second Life, but decided that that might be a case of the medium obscuring the message with technical difficulties – if your computer’s not powerful enough to run Second Life well, it can a very frustrating experience. Instead, I’m going to be recording a short video which I will publish here on Strange Attractor and we’ll have a discussion with the students in the comments.

My topic this year is ‘open publishing’ and everything related, and in the spirit of openness, transparency and discussion, and with the realisation that there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more than I do about this, I have decided to publish all my research here, as I go along. So you’ll get to see all my sources, my half-formed thoughts, my wrong turns and my wild goose chases – and you’ll be able to join in now, if you feel like it.

My video is due to be published on Monday 26th February, and I’m currently feeling like I really should have started putting this together before now, but them’s the breaks. Hopefully, if the wider community feels like joining in, we can pull together a set of links, notes and finally a video that will both engage the students and prompt a discussion about what all this social software and open licensing really means for the publishing industry.

A note of caution, though. I can’t say that I really have a clear cut idea right now about the shape of the video, so don’t expect this to be all that well structured! I’m also planning a lot of small posts, rather than a few big ones, so it might get a bit ‘stream of consciousness’-y.

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Our second podcast pt 2: IBC, Hammond and This American Life

Ok, it’s taken me a little longer than I had hoped to post up the second half of the podcast that Suw and I did last Sunday night.

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Again, if you want to download the podcast directly, you can click here. (29:32 14.2 MB)

I’ll add some more detailed show notes, but Suw starts off talking about her excitement about Second Life, watching the progress of Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond and the wonderful radio programme, This American Life.

Suw and I have a lot going on this week. Suw’s off to BlogTalk in Vienna, and I’m going to the Association of Online Publishers conference on Tuesday.

Why I blog, and why the MSM should and many times shouldn’t

That’s the title of the talk I gave last week at IBC and that I have given in various forms at other places over the last year. I began the talk by showing off some numbers from Dave Sifry’s most recent State of the Blogosphere reports, the latest one being from early in August. Technorati is now tracking 50 million blogs, and that’s just a self-selecting sample of people who have registered with the site (well self selecting and plenty of splogs, spam blogs, which the Team Technorati is working on trimming from its ranks). That’s a lot of people.

The mainstream media, or MSM for short, can give 16-year-olds trying to lay their hands on the latest fashion a run for their money when it comes to herd-like activity. And newspapers, TV networks and everyone else trying to protect or resurrect an old media business model have jumped enmasse on what Jon Stewart called the Blogwagon. But it’s mostly been an unthinking, headlong rush towards the blogosphere, “to get snaps” from the good-as-advertising-gold 18-to-34 demographic.

Is this really about giving a voice to the already voiced, as Jon Stewart says? What value is it to our audiences to serve up ‘news sushi’, content we already produce and publish but just served up in bite-sized blog bits in reverse chronological order? And I can hear the editors out there saying: “But blogs are just snarky comment, and hey we’ve got snarky columnists in spades. We are so going to own the Technorati and iTunes Top 10.” (And I’ve heard them say this.) Sorry, but if you want to sit up on high and keep pushing your content out at the “great unwashed masses”, YouTube, CraigsList and their successors are so gonna own your asses.

This is not about changing your content management system. You’ve already sunk a lot of cash into those. This is about changing your culture. What do blogs allow you to do that you don’t already do?

  1. Blogs can get you closer to your audience
    And that’s exactly where you need to be. I met Robert Scoble at a Geek Dinner here in London last summer, and he talked about having a conversation with his customers on how Microsoft could better serve their needs. I don’t really understand when journalists moved away from their audience, but many people have that impression.
  2. Blogs can bring new voices to your journalism
    Since when did journalism become a game of pick the pundit? It’s lazy, and it’s turned a lot of journalism into a talking shop amongst pundits, politicians and other journalists. Google yourself some new voices. In the last year, blogs have helped me bring serving soldiers in Iraq onto programmes, helped me hear from a Saudi teenager calling for women’s right to vote and let me eavesdrop in on a guy’s thoughts as he left New Orleans to escape Katrina.
  3. Blogs can get you closer to the story
    Blogs and a world of tools that have grown up around them make creating multimedia stories in the field easier than ever. I’m an online journalist because I believe that the internet is a revolutionary medium. I can do better journalism with blogging tools: Real, raw and in the field, while being in constant contact with my audience. What do they want to know? What questions do they have for the people I’m interviewing?
  4. Blogs could just re-invigorate western democracy
    OK, OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But I’m still an idealist at heart. That’s one of the reasons I got into journalism. Steve Yelvington, who really should be in your RSS reader, put it this way recently:
    1. The end of mass media. Here’s what the 20the century gave us: A population of consumers whose economic role was to eat what they’re served and pay up. These “people formerly known as the audience” are alienated, disengaged and angry. Instead of setting our sights on building a nation of shopkeepers, bankers and passive consumers, what if we set our sights on building a nation of participants in cultural and civic life? Perhaps this world where everyone can be a publisher will not be such a bad place.

And as Steve says a few days later in his blog, there isn’t a silver bullet, and I’m not going to try to sell blogs as one. But Steve told me in Florida a year ago that blogs represent a complex set of social behaviours that we’re just understanding. Blogs are just the tip of the ice berg in this fast moving world of participatory media. Blogging and the mainstream media has to be more than ‘me-too-ism’, and it can be. With a little thought to understand these new behaviours and a willingness to actually accept and adapt to these changes instead of wishing they weren’t happening, we might just have a chance.

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NowPublic NowFunded

I was the first person to blog about the launch of Michael Tippett’s participatory news network, NowPublic, which marries news stories from the media and public with “crowd-sourced” media such as photos and videos. I saw Michael demo NowPublic last February at the fabulous Northern Voice conference in Vancouver. Over a year later, just a few weeks ago, Michael, Kevin and I met up at a conference in London and had a really nice evening talking about everything, almost except NowPublic.

I’m delighted to announce that NowPublic has raised a healthy US$1.4 million in angel financing, lead by Brightspark Ventures. Congratulations to co-founders Michael, Leonard Brody and Michael Meyers and all the angels involved.

NowPublic met with early success when U2 played a ‘secret’ gig in New York. The photos posted on the site were fantastic – a realtime record of a gig posted without the aid of paid photographers or the traditional media. As an event of national and international interest to U2 fans, it was a bit of a no-brainer for people who were there to take and post photographs.

Since then, NowPublic has become one of the fastest growing news networks, with (and here I quote from the press release) “over 15,000 reporters in 130 countries and over 2 million unique visits a month. During Hurricane Katrina, NowPublic had more reporters in the affected area than most news organizations have on their entire staff.”

But what is news? We frequently thing of news as being events that have national or international importance, but much more news happens at a local or hyperlocal level and these are the types of events that we are less likely to share because they don’t ‘seem like news’ to us. We also tend to think of ‘news’ as being the same as ‘current events’, but in actual fact it spreads far wider than that, into technology, science, sports and beyond.

This is where NowPublic has huge potential – to be a repository of hyperlocal and focused news that is defined not by the sections in your newspaper or the packages on the 1 o’clock bulletin, but by the people who are involved or who witness what happened. We can make our own news – we just have to remember that what we are experiencing is newsworthy.

I myself have contributed to the site a paltry once, when I reported on a “five alarm” fire in San Francisco last July that happened just a few blocks away from where I was staying. I could have contributed more often, and one missed opportunity in particular springs to mind.

Kevin and I were walking to Holborn station in London, only to find that area sealed off. To find a tube station shut is not that big of a deal in London, but the fact that the surrounding roads were sealed off and the place was swarming with police was much more unusual. Had I had any presence of mind, (or a decent cameraphone), I would have taken some snaps, posted them on NowPublic and asked if anyone knew what had happened. Something patently had, but the traditional news outlets didn’t cover it, and the London Underground site never even mentioned the closure of the station. Yet there was news there – I could smell it. My curiosity nearly killed me.

But much participatory media happens at the behest of an authoritative source – XYZMediaCo requests photos of a specific event, or a news anchor invites people to text or email in questions. Under some circumstances – such as the London bombings or the Buncefield fire, the media can be inundated with images and reportage. But we, the public, frequently forget that smaller events are news too, and retraining us to think more critically about what is news is a hefty challenge I am sure that Michael will relish.

NLab Seminar: Blogs, Communities and Social Software

I’m up at De Montfort University in Leicester at the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab) seminar, Blogs, Communities and Social Software. I’m speaking later, but managed to get up here in time to catch the first panel discussion.

The Institute of Creative Technologies, who runs the NLab, has got a new building, and this is the first event to be held here. It’s half-finished, but already has a small kennel of Aibos and is apparently also going to be getting some flying insect robots too. Cool! I’ll have to come back when they’ve got them installed.

As to my own talk, that’s about blogging and writing, blogging writers, and Creative Commons. Thinking about the things that authors are doing with blogging in preparation for this talk got me really quite excited and, if I can find the time, I’ll write more about it.

The audience here is mixed, with some people knowing about blogs already, and some people being complete novices. That makes it a hard audience in some ways, because you either bore or baffle, so I’m very much focusing on showing what other people are doing, and am not really going to talk about concepts.

Right… to the first panel.


Josie Fraser, Educational Technologist

Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media, De Montfort

Chair: Gavin Stewart

Sue Thomas – Why RSS is important, and why you should have it

What is RSS? The easiest way to find out what RSS is is to go to the BBC site and look at their explanation, via the ‘What is RSS?’ link.

[Goes on to provide very basic explanation of RSS.]

[Demos Bloglines, as aggregator, the clippings function, publishing your blogroll, seeing other people’s blogrolls via subscription to the same feed.]

Josie Fraser – Weblogs and Web 2.0 in eduation

Used to write for Engadget – gadget based movie reviews.

Interested in getting teachers up to speed on what’s happening in the rest of the world. Edublogs: blogs in or about education by learners, practitioners, researchers, policy makers etc. Blogs are individual, groups e.g. schools, universities, etc.

Misconception that schools in the UK are lagging behind in tech, but they’re not. there is a lot of exciting stuff going on. Warwick Uni, for example, offer blogs for all universities, and people are using Amazon-type models in their blogs, so looking at book reviews, film reviews, CDs, etc.

Walsall Schools have a large blog community, with subscribers across the UK. Marketed as easy way for teachers and learners to have a web presence. Traditional websites never get updated, and for schools that’s not useful, so with a blog they can put info up straight away. They can have headmasters posting info for parents, for example.


Barbara Ganley

Gateshead Central Library

James Farmer’s, also learnerblogs and uniblogs, all hosted online. Problems that he has had are with firewalls in schools.

Edublog Frappr map.

Edublog Awards in third year.

Use of emerging tech reflects state of learning tech in all institutions in the UK – it’s patchy, it’s not embedded, and it’s not joined up. But bloggers are all about community, so there is a different agenda. Web 2.0 techs are sociable and community building, so fundamental shift now in how tech is being delivered in schools and university.

Many constructivist arguments for using blogs, not just in education, but generally. It’s an ideal platform for citizenship, participation, collaboration. Develop e-literacy which is fundamentally important. Formative value: Develop voice and provide ability to explore online, v. empowering.

Positivist concerns: retention, achievement, progression; evidence and supporting the curriculum. Very specific aims, don’t always sit well with blogging.

Issues that need addressing re: staff skills and current practice

– e-literacy and legitimacy of new tech (still in question, lots of suspicion)

– small pieces loosely joined vs. one size fits all

– training and support (some teachers are still struggling with email, so how do they go from that to engaging with blogging and social software?)

Duty of care, re: child protection

– literacy and resilience vs. moral panic (over sites about anorexia, etc.)

– online identity. what happens if you’re blogging through university, become completely googleable, and what you did ten years ago affecting how you are perceived now; lots of employers Google

Systems, re: network management:

– privacy, spam, filtering. these systems are often imposed on schools, and they have no control over them.

– hosting, ownership, data protection


Q: What makes certain software social?

Josie: The difference is, people talk about Web 2.0 in terms of social software, but the truth is that socialability has being going on on the web for years, chat, user groups, discussion boards, these are all sociable. The difference is that social software is more geared up to making friends online, although that’s been possible online for a long time. More online dating sites, which is a huge market and is becoming acceptable in a way that it wasn’t two years ago. But you can interact with it easily, use it easily, and interact with the writer.

Sue: I’d add to that the fact that social software society is a different kind of society and it has its own rules and behaviours, so the other side is the society that is produced by the software. It affects the way we regard each other, what we know about each other, what we make public. The idea of social software enabling your data to be added to the mix. E.g. MySpace, the engagement that people make involves a trade-off – their clicks, prefs, data is being logged. Same as your loyalty card logs your shopping data. That’s the hidden trade-off.

Was asked, Don’t young people worry about privacy? What is going to happen when they realise there’s so much data being held? Young people know they are making their trade-off.

Josie: But it’s not being talked about in those terms. General practice for blogs is that you are being very honest, very earnest. In a way that’s sad because it’s played off against going online and creating a fake life, and playing with identity.

I am on a crusade against the word virtual, because it’s not virtual. there is no distinction anymore. It is real. The number of people who have fallen in love online… there is no separation. It is as real. And if we pretend there is a distinction we are kidding ourselves.

Q: People develop new coping mechanisms for making sense of what is happening online, because it is different from everyday life. That’s a difficult aspect of social software, because the making sense mechanisms that we have are different from the ones that we need to develop.

Sue: You have to use it to be able to critique it, because often looking from the outside it really doesn’t make sense. It’s the difference between being a passenger in a car, and driving a car.

Josie: This comes back to digital literacy. How do we talk about this stuff to people who don’t even like using email. There are techs emerging at the moment that are characterised by the fact they are very user friendly. So a blog is where you go online and fill in some forms. It’s easy. So the way that I get people into it is to get them to go into eBay, and they manage that ok when they see something they want to buy.

There is reticence amongst a lot of teachers to engage in this, but Web 2.0 makes it easier for them. I’ve tried to teach teachers how to use Dreamweaver and it’s a nightmare, and it’s not what they need to know. But show them Blogger and you can get them up and running in half an hour.

Q: Quite often people know how to do the digital side, how to create the blog, but they are becoming aware now that they are creating an identity. People don’t always want their world online. They have something against the social side of it, rather than the technical side of it.

Sue: The problem is that blogs have got a name for being boring and petty. So when you say ‘you should start a blog’ people think that you are saying ‘you should write about what you had for breakfast’. I even thought that myself. I thought I’d be in a constant state of panic about what I’d written.

I got into it when my book Hello World came out, and I needed a website, and a blog was easiest. I just used it as a content management system.

But I think people do, because they don’t know what else they want

Gavin: I got interested in people using blogs, playing with cultural identity, e.g. hamster blogs, dog blogs, etc., and this is a sort of creative writing class blog. These blogs have minute readership.

Q: People think they have to write for an audience. My blog is writing for myself, and it was portable – could access it from anywhere. So part of the problem is that you’re immediately faced by this audience issues. Took me a long time to send a link out to people about my blog.

Sue: You’re interested in vlogging. Do you want to tell us about it?

??: It’s video blogging, but with hypertext. A true blog can’t be a book because you can’t print the links that make sense of it. So a vlog has hyperlinks, and links in the footage itself that bring other content in, people are working on video commenting etc. People are basing it around traditional, old media, in terms of it being news content. It lends itself to that, but it’s more than that. In the way that people are doing blogging as creative writing, vlogging is creative film work.

Kate Pullinger: There’s a ticking bomb, which is the business of privacy, and what it means for everyone to be publicising their lives, such as the undergraduate. For example, Heather Armstrong (Dooce). It’s a huge issue.

Me: No one got fired for blogging, they got fired for doing or saying something stupid. And with privacy, maybe we will have to learn to be more forgiving in future.

Josie: Digital literacy in terms of children and learners understanding the implications of what they are doing is important, but we need teachers and parents to understand this.

And we can bury stuff. We can blog solidly for three years and bury the older stuff. Employers don’t spend hours on this. Stalkers do, but employers don’t.

Sue: We are growing up on the web, we are learning how to do all this stuff. When you learn to write, you gradually learn that there are certain things you don’t write, or don’t show people. Now we need to become literate with the web. Someone I knew a couple of years ago, who is very literate and started teaching, and started blogging about his class as you would tell your friend. And you think ‘Don’t you realise that the students who made your life difficult today will read your comments tonight?’. And people don’t grasp it, it’s naivety.

Q: It’s part of the growth process. And the important thing is often not the host blog (e.g. Slugger O’Toole), but the conversations that they are hosting.

Josie: The use of blogging in the US elections was something that highlighted the fact that blogs weren’t all about personal diaries, and that it could be a professional tool that’s very powerful.

Some of the meetings I go to, if you say a blog is a diary they will shout at you and throw things at your head, because it’s not. It’s a website. The difference is that it’s easy to use. You don’t need to know HTML.