Easy access to billions of pages of information has changed the way writers research topics, how they attribute that research and, indeed, how writers perform the writing process itself.

For example, access to email has radically transformed the way journalists do business. It has always been standard practice for a reporter to conduct face-to-face interviews, whether for print or screen media. In fact, a reporter who only contacted his subject via telephone was accused of “calling it in” and taking shortcuts.

In a live interview, a reporter interacts with the subject, picking up on body language and voice cues. By establishing a rapport, a reporter can convince a source to share more and more of his story through friendly banter and questioning. Today, many reporters conduct their business through Question and Answer emails that they may or may not turn into Q and A-formatted articles.

As Erick Qualman predicts in his book “SocialNomics,” more journalists will rely on video interviews since the cost to entry is so low. (p. 104). Any reporter can pull out his FlipVideo camera and he’s “live at 5.” In the future, writers and readers will be mixing up media the same way that we’re mashing up data online. Scrolling through an enticing webzine Q and A with pop star Madonna, for example, will allow the reader to click on recent video of the pop star to see first-hand how well she’s aged. No longer will we need a writer’s description of the crow’s feet surrounding her eyes or the sagging skin drooping from her triceps.

As writers rely on links and mashups and what Naomi Baron calls “vapor text” (facts that surface from nowhere, without proper citing or authority) (p. 41), what happens to the incredibly important notion of primary sourcing? Princeton University defines a “primary source” as a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. Students are taught about the importance of citing a primary source in their research. In another 10 years, will there be any primary sources left?

As we delve deeper and deeper into vats of information that have no organization save the imaginations of the “searchers,” will students be able to differentiate between the sources presented to them? For example, if a student is researching the hiding of Jews during World War II and finds a quote from Anne Frank, how is he assured that it’s from the original “Diary of Anne Frank?” Furthermore, in citing a reference from a book on a Kindle, does a student use the “location number?” instead of the page number?

Information needs a verified tagClearly, the academic world needs new rules to keep up with the onslaught of online. Perhaps books (and their excerpts) need a verified tag much like celebrities have on their Twitter accounts.

There are two ends of the spectrum as far as how people feel about the accessibility of online books online. In 2006, “Wired” magazine’s Kevin Kelly was excited about the notion of an “infinite book.” He imagined a mega-Wikipedia where users tag favorite book quotes. Kelly was prophetic in imagining four years ago an “iTunes-esque” situation where we’re tagging favorite quotes such as “Call me Ishmael?” and “I prefer not to.” On the anti-online access end of the spectrum is legendary author John Updike who, in the 2006 New York Times Book Review article, “The End of Authorship,” bemoans the potential death of the entire writing profession. Updike argued that writers will stop writing if they cease being paid for their words.

Baron correctly points out that both Updike and Kelly miss the point. Computers, he says, allow for the massive consumption of text and therefore, there are more writers than ever; there are new genres of writing and there are new readers. (p. 75)

As soon as the first university researchers started sharing documents on Arpanet, society realized the importance of rushing to get content online. In his book “A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution,” Dennis Baron describes the Google Books project which began in 2002. (p. 47) Google outsourced to China and India the massive project of scanning the collections of major university libraries such as Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and the University of Michigan as well as the titles of New York’s Public Library. A world of intellectual property “without borders” almost became realized until publishers began to scream about massive copyright infringement and Google restricted online access to only full versions of books where the copyright had already expired.

Currently, Google awaits a federal judge’s ruling about whether it can continue with its project of creating a full digital library and further boast its dominance in the search marketplace. And as Apple as elbowed its way into the ebook market, by signing big publishers such as Penguin and Simon and Schuster, Amazon (Kindle) tries to determine its place.

This PricewaterhouseCoopers chart posted on the Transliteracy Research Group website predicts that e-books will represent about 6% of consumer book sales in North America by 2013, up from 1.5% last year. Kate Pullinger also notes that:

Carolyn Reidy, the boss of Simon & Schuster, another big publisher, thinks they could account for 25% of the industry’s sales in America within three to five years . . . Mobclix, an advertising outfit, reckons the number of programmes, or apps, for books on Apple’s iPhone recently surpassed that for games, previously the largest category.

If Apple can revolutionize the book publishing industry the way it revolutionized the music publishing industry, the above figures are conservative, at best.

The development of civilization has seen a shift from the more informal traditions of an oral society where people told stories and verbally relayed information from tribe to tribe to the more formal tradition of the written word. Thanks to Gutenberg and his printed bible in 1455, when something is credible and important, we refer to it as “gospel.”

Having work appear “in print” has always been a measure of success in a written culture according to Naomi S. Baron in “Always On: “Language in an Online and Mobile World.” (p. 10). As an enlightened race, we started out as an oral culture–from fifth-century Athens where the Iliad and the Odyssey were passed on orally . . . to the middle ages in England where books were like a rare musical score kept locked away . . .  to the Queen Elizabeth I era and the dawn of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre tradition. With the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, we launched headlong into being a culture that valued the written word. According to Baron, the attributes of a written culture are:

  • Enough people to create and distribute the written word
  • A valued attitude toward authorship
  • Separate conventions between speech and writing. (Writing having its own punctuation, grammatical conventions, etc…)
  • A cognitive dimension whereby we are not simply reading something, but the ideas themselves impact us emotionally or intellectually. (pp. 186-88)

Our modern written culture is being transformed at astonishing rates. As we’re bombarded with various sources of media (print, online, video, audio and their various mashups!), we will transcend simple intellectual impact of this cognitive dimension. We have the potential to emerge as a race of intellects that goes beyond written culture as we experience a renaissance of sorts that has never before been experienced. This will not be the simple “epistolary renaissance” that some scholars predict, but a complete shakeup of how we use and assimilate information and ideas and one that encourages us to think deeper and more clearly than ever.

Easter Realities

This morning, I set out a cute Easter display complete with bunnies both stuffed and chocolate. In the middle of it all, I placed a photo of my kids when they were little. Took a quick pic, posted it to Facebook as a Happy Easter message to my college kids and waited for my 15-year-old to wake up.

She headed straight to the laptop and checked her Facebook.  So, instead of watching her face light up when she entered the kitchen, I got to see her surprise at my post on Facebook first.

I am astonished daily at how important our virtual lives are to us. And I am reminded of the absurdity of the Tokyo man marrying a virtual wife.  Are we ourselves really that far from it?

Next year, maybe I’ll save myself the trip to See’s.

Tokyo Man Marries Video Character

The Los Angeles Times sold its soul to the Mad Hatter early this month for a reported pittance of $300,000.  Subscribers awoke to find Johnny Depp had been burned into the front page:

The Times continues to meander down the path of confusion in dealing with new media. Journalists throughout the Southland belted out a collective, “OH NO!” as they tried in vain to read the fake stories obliterated by the Mad Hatter’s red hair, only to realize that Johnny was a cover-wrap advertisement and that the real front page was underneath. Traditionalists felt the Times had “sold its identity.”

Times management and some ad execs thought the stunt was cool. 

“The Times is thrilled to work with Disney to create a truly exceptional and distinctive way in which to let L.A. know ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is now in theatres,” said John T. O’Loughlin, Executive Vice President, Advertising and Chief Revenue Office. “We knew this was an unusual opportunity to stretch traditional boundaries and deliver an innovative ad unit designed to create buzz and further extend the film’s brilliant marketing campaign.”

All the Times did was to further dilute the value of their advertising space by telling their clients, “If you’re not taking over the front page with your ads, don’t bother . . .”  Gee Mr. O’Loughlin, why not do this on the web where you could have had a chance of it looking 3-D?!

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
Lewis Carroll

Kindle Constipation

I just finished a 4550 location book on my Kindle.

While “kindling” Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” I “highlighted” more than 250 locations. I can now quickly search that file for any notation I’d like to recall. I was pleased to know that every single word I read was backed up by a definition. As I moved the “stick” to ready a highlight, I took comfort knowing that “user” was “a person who uses or operates something” and that “want” was to “have a desire to possess…”

As I progressed towards the final location, I began clicking the “Next Page” button a little too hastily. I was anxious to finish. With a book book, I would have been able to skim the last two chapters, picking and choosing, flipping ahead pages to scout out interesting tidbits, varying my pace to read only the juiciest morsels.

With Kindle, I paid too much attention to Shirky’s Meetup examples and not enough attention to the three key marketing aspects: what were they? something, something and bargain. Ok, I can search for it.  I type “bargain.” I get 62 results. There’s no way to search for “bargain” beyond location 3000 and no way to just “dip” into the book.  And the little chicklet keys on the Kindle make my Blackberry keys seem like landing pads.

This is the third book I’ve “kindled.” One was fiction (Lisa Genova’s “Still Alice,” which I’d lend to you, but, ahhh, wait, can’t really do that!) and one was nonfiction (Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.”)

I’ve kindled enough now to say that I’m disappointed. Sure, disappointed in the way that Oscar Wilde said he was “disappointed in the Atlantic” after his first crossing in a oceanliner. I love the idea of the Kindle, the iPad, the whatever else comes along to improve my life. I love the portability. I love the instant access to any book. When a friend recommends a book, I pop on over to the Kindle Store and check it out. (I have more samples of books on my Kindle than actual books!)  I love that I can mix magazines, newspapers and books together. But for all Kindle’s virtues, I still prefer an old-fashioned book.

After all that kindling, I’m feeling the urge to visit a bookstore.