June 17th, 2008

Connecting The Dots Of The Web Revolution

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For several days my brain has been connecting the blogstorm over AP trying to dictate how much of their content can be quoted on the web with the “quote” that Nick Carr lifted from one of my blog posts in his Atlantic article — I finally figured out why. The problem with the AP isn’t really about linking, it’s about quoting. And the problem with quoting is that, now that anyone can publish any thought or idea on the web, and anyone can link to it or reproduce it, the whole notion of quoting and citation has been completely turned on its head. Let me try to explain.

Ever since Nick Carr’s Atlantic article appeared on the web (finally), there’s been a spike in Google alerts for my name. Prior to this quote in the Atlantic, whenever I checked out a site where my name was mentioned, it almost invariably had a link back to my site — because someone was quoting me from my blog and linked back. But The Atlantic article had no link to my blog, even though Nick lifted the quote verbatim from the site. So here are all these reproduction of this citation, but no links. And I’m getting a spike in traffic from people searching for “Scott Karp blog” because they’re looking for the source.

Something is very wrong on the internet.

Take a look at the way Nick quoted me:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

It’s very similar to the way journalists have traditionally quoted sources that they actually TALKED to. Substitute “he said” for “he wrote,” and you would think that this was a phone or in person interview. Even when articles with such quotes are published on the web, the source isn’t typically linked because it doesn’t exist on the web.

But in this case, the source did exist.

The traditional practice of journalism also requires that you ask a source’s permission to quote them. Nick never asked my permission — he assumed he didn’t have to, because I had already published what he was quoting. And yet he doesn’t cite the post or even name my blog. It’s like he’s quoting me, personally, yet also citing a published source. When I first saw the quote, my gut reaction was to feel annoyed that Nick didn’t ask my permission, although technically he didn’t have to. Sources have forever complained about journalists quoting them out of context, and that’s exactly how I felt — yet if there had been a link, or a URL in print, I don’t think I would have felt that way.

It’s like Nick and The Atlantic were trying to play by the old rules and the new rules, and yet not really adhering to either.

So what does this have to do with the AP?

If The Atlantic, with its top shelf editorial standards, can do this, then why can’t a blogger quote AP — almost as if the AP were a person?

What’s happened is that the lines between quoting a person and quoting a published source have blurred.

Bloggers aren’t really reacting to the copyright issue, although that’s what everyone is taking about. It’s more like AP is giving on the record interviews to bloggers with its stories, and then when bloggers quote them, the AP turns around and claims the interview was “off the record.”

The AP found itself deeper in the hole when a blogger discovered a page where the AP was asking payment per word for citations. Yet the AP quotes from blogs and other sites — as if they were abiding by interview standards. Which has led some bloggers to turn the tables and demand payment for all the times the AP quoted them.

Geesh.

Yesterday Jay Rosen wondered on Twitter how the AP could have so distanced itself from Tom Curley’s speech in 2004. Mathew Ingram expressed what so many are of us were thinking:

@jayrosen_nyu: i’d love to explain how they got here from there — i wish i knew :-) do you think curley has been steered wrong by others?

It just defies comprehension.

Here’s why I think this is all such a mess, why the AP is cutting off their nose to spite their face, defying comprehension, why Nick Carr thinks access to more information and more connections between information is making us dumber (also defying comprehension).

Nobody has really been able to conceptualize yet just how dramatic the change is in our traditional systems of information, media, publishing, reading, writing, relating ideas, and thinking itself. Nick Carr has come close with his recent writing, and he’s brave enough to try, but he gets too distracted by his nostalgia for a simpler age.

Nick argues that we are losing our ability to “read deeply,” e.g. read a whole book and contemplate it, without “distraction.” The problem is he’s using an antiquated yardstick to measure the quality of thought.

Maybe I don’t need 250 page books anymore because the web enables me to connect ideas and create narratives that I used to depend on book authors to do for me, because I wasn’t able to access all the information and connect all the dots myself.

Maybe the reason why Nick and so many other literati are losing their patience with long form information is that it is so fundamentally inefficient and inferior to connected bits of information.

You look at a book, read a book, and you easily perceive a coherent whole. You look at all the information on that book’s topic on the web, all connected, and you can’t see the sum of the parts — but we are starting to get our minds around it. We can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re measuring it against our old linear thought process.

Nick romanticizes the “contemplation” that comes with reading a book. But it’s possible that the output of our old contemplation can now be had in larger measure through a new entirely non-linear process.

Just look at this post. If there’s any insight here (which still remains to be seen), it didn’t come from a linear process of A to B to C. It came from all of these seemingly random nodes connecting, and all these bits of information coming together, and then suddenly I saw the whole. If you had watched me, tracked my reading and my thoughts, you would have judged me positively scatological by traditional standards.

But even in presenting my “aha,” I’m jumping all over the place because I’m still trying to figure out how to make sense of networked thought process. The end of this post may seem completely disconnected from the beginning, but it’s all deeply connected. (Although it makes choosing a pithy title difficult.)

So what’s the lesson for the AP and every other media business? We don’t “get it” yet — none of us do. We’re starting to connect the dots, slowly but surely, but we’re looking through a glass darkly at the change we’re immersed in.

As Jon Fine observed about all the Titans of Media speaking at the All Things D conference:

It is sobering when not even the smartest guys in the room have any plausible answers. But then, no one has the answers.

What is increasingly clear is that the thought processes, assumptions, and standards that governed analogue media, information, and thought are increasingly going to get us into trouble in a digital media world.

What I’m hoping is that we’re bumbling through a “period of stupid” before we realize that we’ve actually become a lot smarter.

The next media business to connect those dots will be the next Google.

UPDATE

TheAtlantic.com is now linking to this blog in Nick’s article, which I suppose proves the squeaky wheel maxim, but there still aren’t links to other quoted blogs, e.g.

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me.

I’ve searched for this blog, but can’t find it (for shame, Google) — so a link isn’t just about principle, it’s about real utility.

Of course, Nick actually talked to Bruce, and also quoted him the old fashioned way. Ah, well.

  • Fascinating issues to grapple with. When cars were new there were no traffic rules, no parking regs, no stop lights, no parking lots. City streets were seas of raging chaos filled with horses and carriages, cars, trolleys, and pedestrians. Movement became almost impossible and people began to avoid central business districts. The consequences were different than with the internet but just as road traffic had to be sorted out at some point so does the web.

  • "What I’m hoping is that we’re bumbling through a “period of stupid” before we realize that we’ve actually become a lot smarter."

    I think this is where we're at, similar to the period of time just before the industrial revolution, where we invented a whole bunch of new technology, failed to understand it, and decided to get drunk for a decade or so (as described by Clay Shirky).

    I think that while the Titans in the publishing industry may not "have any answers" yet, there's a lot of good, innovative and productive thought happening in the tech/web 2.0 startup space, and there's a lot of potential to marry the ideas being generated there with the classic world of publishing.

  • Thank you, Scott, for putting a different spin on Nick's article. Nick seems to be a very contemplative person, and his view that the internet is changing the way people think is extremely thought provoking. However, I disagree with his pessimistic view of the phenomenon. I am an avid reader of books, and have been for most of my life. Though I consider myself an 'intellectual type,' I have never been to college, I have therefore never been exposed to the culture of research that is taken for granted at the university level. The internet is perfect for me. My attention deficient mind is wired in a way that allows me to be able to flip from one topic to the next and play that hypothetical connect-the-dots game with a myriad of informational sources. In a library I would be lost. . .wandering from book to book with no conscious idea of where I've been or where I am going. The internet, with its historical archiving, allows me to keep track of my informational walkabouts. Acting as a bibliographic compass, the internet gives my disorder free range to find whatever I am looking for and more. Perhaps my lack of focus gives me a leg up in the evolution of the mind in our connected world. My adult life has been shaped by the internet, yet I am NOT stupid. I just come by information in a different way than others. But, in the end, I can take away many views from many sources and form my own opinion. Can I keep track of it and get paid for my accomplishments? Doesn't look like it. But that's OK. . .the information and insight is payment enough.
    -LucFerris

  • I'm actually the opposite. I'm reading more books now, even though I've been working in the internet industry for the past decade. Spending too much time reading on the internet turns my brain into smush just as much as watching too much TV.

    I guess it depends on what you do. If you're writing articles, you tend to want to track how people have reacted to it. Nowadays, when you read articles, you also tend to want to read other peoples' perspectives and reactions to the article.

    It's different from reading a book though, I think. It's like watching a movie versus watching a youtube video. I still prefer to watch movies.

    Anyway, regarding the AP. Yeah, it's their business model, and they have to protect that. Getting a link doesn't help them at all, because the article usually tend to be housed on another website.

  • Ironically, your thoughts about non-linear learning on the web are not that different from the AP's own conclusions in their study called "A New Model for News" (http://www.ap.org/newmodel.pdf... in which they state "Hypothetically, new value can be created if news producers and distributors can figure out ways to help consumers connect the dots more coherently. But where do you start? This study confirmed the need to maintain two parallel tracks of work. First, create more appealing content for the key entry points. Second, and more difficult, build the connections that will transport consumers to that content across both media platform and brand."

    They got it right all the way until the last line. The platform is the Internet, not the AP.

    (hope they don't send a bill for the quote)

    Best regards,

    Alex

    Alex Nesbitt
    DigitalPodcast.com

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