January 26th, 2006

Publishing Requires More Than Technology

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Tom Foremski answers “yes” to Dave Winer’s question, “is the publishing industry the new technology industry?” I think that is like saying the printing press industry is the old publishing industry. Web 2.0 applications, like the printing press, enable publishing — but they don’t define publishing. (A distinction that Tom makes.) And the current crop of apps, in fact, do a poor job of enabling “publishing.”

The first definition of “publish” in Webster’s is “to make generally known.” Technology is making content much more easily accessible and is dis-intermediating traditional publishers, but it’s also making it harder for any “microchunk” of content to be “generally known.”

Google is a perfect example of why technology is not synonymous with publishing. Business 2.0 has a fascinating imagine-the-future article, which asks: Will Google be synonymous with Media, the Internet, or God? Or will it die?

Google may well be the Internet — that Google might provide universal Internet access is not hard to imagine. And Google is already a medium. (I can’t speak to the God question). But Google is not a “publisher” — at least not in the sense that publishing has traditionally been defined — and the way I think it still needs to be defined.

The limits of Google and all Web 2.0 technologies to be publishers is made vivid in the Google is Dead scenario (which offers a panic-inducing stalker scenario that is perhaps not so far-fetched, given the recent privacy uproar over the government subpoenaing Google’s search records).

But the other immediate problem this scenario points out is the limits of Google technology to filter out the dross — “many of the popular search results were clogged with irrelevant (and barely literate) commercial and porn sites.” While Google’s formidable collective technology intelligence may well win the battle with SEO scamming, it’s fighting a tougher battle against the wild proliferation of content. Google can help you find what you want — if you know what you want, with some precision — but you still have to do the work of filtering out the gargbage.

Google News is out of Beta and has joined the News 2.0 battle, standing with Memeorandum in the “technology can filter for you” camp. Memeorandum has the advantage of filtering within verticals (politics and technology), which is one reason why it’s signal to noise ratio is much higher. But Memeorandum’s real secret sauce is its human intelligence, as Gabe Rivera explains:

The source-picking algorithm is based on this philosophy and works roughly as follows: I feed it a number of sites representative of the topic area I want coverage. It then scans text and follows links to discover a much larger corps of writers within that area.

Gabe is still doing the human editorial work of picking “representative sites,” and then letting technology process the collective intelligence by analyzing the link architecture — which, interestingly, is exactly what Google technology does, but Google doesn’t have the advantage of human judgment.

Up until recently, the publishing industry only produced a finite amount of content. Now that anyone can produce content, the publishing industry must adapt so that worthwhile content (by any definition) can still become “generally known.” As Tom points out:

The first wave of technology-enabled media companies are corporations such as Yahoo, Google, AOL, Amazon, EBay, and Craigslist. They publish pages of content and advertising. Except that most of their content is obtained for as low cost as possible; it is harvested by servers and algorithms or their content is contributed by their communities of users, such as at EBay or Craigslist.

Content can also be spidered from other sites, collected, and spun into an index. Publishing the index provides Google and others with cheap content, much cheaper than the New York Times using its journalists to produce a page of content.

If technology is going to serve the function of publishing, it has to do more than aggregate spidered and community-created content — it has to find a way to provide effective filtering mechanisms, or the exponential growth of content will overwhelm the system.

The traditional definition of publishing has always implied that the content made it through some kind of editorial filter (or “gatekeeper,” the term bloggers love to hate). With the barriers to publishing having completely fallen away, the new “publishing industry” will not grow out of merely aggregating and indexing content.

If there is to be an “industry,” i.e. money to be made, publishing needs to do more than just make content accessible and searchable — publishing needs to filter that content and give it order. If Google and other pure technology plays control publishing, individuals will have to be their own editors, and that’s a lot of work. I’ll say it until I’m blue — people are lazy! But more than that, too much choice is overwhelming, and people need help.

Whoever figures out how to help people find what they really want in an endless sea of published content will define the new publishing industry. I remain deeply skeptical that pure technology or the wisdom of the masses (i.e. Digg, Reddit) can serve this function alone. (Memeorandum is a good step, but not there yet.) We need a new breed of editors, armed with human intelligence, who can edit a content-liberated, technology-enabled world.

  • Ted

    Content is, and will always be, King.

    Some web 2.0 dorks don't care about content, but they're in the vast minority.

    The best aggregators/reconstructors will send people to the best content.

    Whoever forgets that is a fool.

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