Category Archives: authorship

fantasy author’s site hosts fan-created wiki encyclopedia

In marked contrast to J K Rowling, whose battles against the publication of a fan-created Potter encyclopedia we’ve covered here, fantasy author Naomi Novik‘s website hosts a wiki in which fans of her writing help to co-create an encyclopedic guide to her Temeraire novels. It’s no coincidence that Novik is one of a handful of fanfic writers who’ve made the transition to publication as ‘original’ authors. She also chairs the Organization for Transformative Works, an archive dedicated to fanfic or ‘transformative’ work.
Novik’s approach reflects a growing recognition by many in the content industries that mass audience engagement with a given fictional world is can deliver benefits worth that outweigh any perceived losses due to copyright infringement by ‘derivative’ work. Echoing the tacit truce between the manga industry and its participatory fan culture (covered here last November), Novik’s explicit welcoming of fan participation in her fictional universes points towards a model of authorship that goes beyond a crude protectionism of the supposed privileged position of ‘author’ towards a recognition that, while creativity and participation are in some senses intrinsic to the read/write Web, not all creators are created equal – nor wish to be.
While a simplistic egalitarianism would propose that participatory media flatten all creative hierarchies, the reality is that many are content to engage with and develop a pre-existing fiction, and have no desire to originate such. Beyond recognising this fact, the challenge for post-Web2.0 writers is to evolve structures that reflect and support this relationship, without simply inscribing the originator/participator split as a cast-in-stone digital-era reworking of the author/reader dyad.

a few rough notes on knols

Think you’ve got an authoritative take on a subject? Write up an article, or “knol,” and see how the Web judgeth. If it’s any good, you might even make a buck.
Google’s new encyclopedia will go head to head with Wikipedia in the search rankings, though in format it more resembles other ad-supported, single-author info sources like the or Squidoo. The knol-verse (how the hell do we speak of these things as a whole?) will be a Darwinian writers’ market where the fittest knols rise to the top. Anyone can write one. Google will host it for free. Multiple knols can compete on a single topic. Readers can respond to and evaluate knols through simple community rating tools. Content belongs solely to the author, who can license it in any way he/she chooses (all rights reserved, Creative Commons, etc.). Authors have the option of having contextual ads run to the side, revenues from which are shared with Google. There is no vetting or editorial input from Google whatsoever.
Except… Might not the ads exert their own subtle editorial influence? In this entrepreneurial writers’ fray, will authors craft their knols for AdSense optimization? Will they become, consciously or not, shills for the companies that place the ads (I’m thinking especially of high impact topic areas like health and medicine)? Whatever you may think of Wikipedia, it has a certain integrity in being ad-free. The mission is clear and direct: to build a comprehensive free encyclopedia for the Web. The range of content has no correlation to marketability or revenue potential. It’s simply a big compendium of stuff, the only mention of money being a frank electronic tip jar at the top of each page. The Googlepedia, in contrast, is fundamentally an advertising platform. What will such an encyclopedia look like?
In the official knol announcement, Udi Manber, a VP for engineering at Google, explains the genesis of the project: “The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.” You can see embedded in this statement all the trademarks of Google’s rhetoric: a certain false humility, the pose of incorruptible geek integrity and above all, a boundless confidence that every problem, no matter how gray and human, has a technological fix. I’m not saying it’s wrong to build a business, nor that Google is lying whenever it talks about anything idealistic, it’s just that time and again Google displays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in the way it frames its services -? a lack that becomes especially obvious whenever the company edges into content creation and hosting. They tend to talk as though they’re building the library of Alexandria or the great Encyclopédie, but really they’re describing an advanced advertising network of Google-exclusive content. We shouldn’t allow these very different things to become as muddled in our heads as they are in theirs. You get a worrisome sense that, like the Bushies, the cheerful software engineers who promote Google’s products on the company’s various blogs truly believe the things they’re saying. That if we can just get the algorithm right, the world can bask in the light of universal knowledge.
The blogosphere has been alive with commentary about the knol situation throughout the weekend. By far the most provocative thing I’ve read so far is by Anil Dash, VP of Six Apart, the company that makes the Movable Type software that runs this blog. Dash calls out this Google self-awareness gap, or as he puts it, its lack of a “theory of mind”:

Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can’t see her. It’s the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren’t looking.
Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn’t know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

He gives some examples:

Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web’s users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.

He compares the knol enterprise with GBS:

Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol. [his emphasis]

And lastly concludes:

An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.

For a long time Google’s goal was to help direct your attention outward. Increasingly we find that they want to hold onto it. Everyone knows that Wikipedia articles place highly in Google search results. Makes sense then that they want to capture some of those clicks and plug them directly into the Google ad network. But already the Web is dominated by a handful of mega sites. I get nervous at the thought that could gradually become an internal directory, that Google could become the alpha and omega, not only the start page of the Internet but all the destinations.
It will be interesting to see just how and to what extent knols start creeping up the search results. Presumably, they will be ranked according to the same secret metrics that measure all pages in Google’s index, but given the opacity of their operations, who’s to say that subtle or unconscious rigging won’t occur? Will community ratings factor in search rankings? That would seem to present a huge conflict of interest. Perhaps top-rated knols will be displayed in the sponsored links area at the top of results pages. Or knols could be listed in order of community ranking on a dedicated knol search portal, providing something analogous to the experience of searching within Wikipedia as opposed to finding articles through external search engines. Returning to the theory of mind question, will Google develop enough awareness of how it is perceived and felt by its users to strike the right balance?
One last thing worth considering about the knol -? apart from its being possibly the worst Internet neologism in recent memory -? is its author-centric nature. It’s interesting that in order to compete with Wikipedia Google has consciously not adopted Wikipedia’s model. The basic unit of authorial action in Wikipedia is the edit. Edits by multiple contributors are combined, through a complicated consensus process, into a single amalgamated product. On Google’s encyclopedia the basic unit is the knol. For each knol (god, it’s hard to keep writing that word) there is a one to one correspondence with an individual, identifiable voice. There may be multiple competing knols, and by extension competing voices (you have this on Wikipedia too, but it’s relegated to the discussion pages).
Viewed in this way, Googlepedia is perhaps a more direct rival to Larry Sanger’s Citizendium, which aims to build a more authoritative Wikipedia-type resource under the supervision of vetted experts. Citizendium is a strange, conflicted experiment, a weird cocktail of Internet populism and ivory tower elitism -? and by the look of it, not going anywhere terribly fast. If knols take off, could they be the final nail in the coffin of Sanger’s awkward dream? Bryan Alexander wonders along similar lines.
While not explicitly employing Sanger’s rhetoric of “expert” review, Google seems to be banking on its commitment to attributed solo authorship and its ad-based incentive system to lure good, knowledgeable authors onto the Web, and to build trust among readers through the brand-name credibility of authorial bylines and brandished credentials. Whether this will work remains to be seen. I wonder… whether this system will really produce quality. Whether there are enough checks and balances. Whether the community rating mechanisms will be meaningful and confidence-inspiring. Whether self-appointed experts will seem authoritative in this context or shabby, second-rate and opportunistic. Whether this will have the feeling of an enlightened knowledge project or of sleezy intellectual link farming (or something perfectly useful in between).
The feel of a site -? the values it exudes -? is an important factor though. This is why I like, and in an odd way trust Wikipedia. Trust not always to be correct, but to be transparent and to wear its flaws on its sleeve, and to be working for a higher aim. Google will probably never inspire that kind of trust in me, certainly not while it persists in its dangerous self-delusions.
A lot of unknowns here. Thoughts?

content syndicate

While Andrew Keen laments the decline of professionalised content production, and Publishing2.0 fuels the debate about whether there’s a distinction between ‘citizen journalism’ and the old-fashioned sort, I’ve spent the morning at Seedcamp talking with a Dubai-based entrepreur who’s blurring the distinction even further.
Content Syndicate is a distributed marketplace for buying, selling and commissioning content (By that they mean writing). Submitted content is quality-assessed first automatically and then by human editors, and can be translated by the company staff if required. They’ve grown since starting a year or so ago to 30 staff and a decent turnover.
This enterprise interests me because it picks up on some recurring themes around the the changes digitisation brings to what a writer is, and what he or she does. In some respects, this system commodifies content to an extent traditionalists will find horrifying – what writer, starting out (as many do) wanting to change the world, will feel happy having their work fed through a semiautomatic system in which they are a ‘content producer’? But while it may be helping to dismantle – in practice – the distinction between professional and amateur writers, and thus risking helping us towards Keen’s much-lamented mulch of unprofessionalised blah, but at least people are getting paid for their efforts. And you can rebut this last fear of unprofessionalised blah by saying that at least there’s some quality control going on. (The nature of the quality control is interesting too, as it’s a hybrid of automated assessment and human idiot-checking; this bears some thinking about as we consider the future of the book.)
So this enterprise points towards some ways in which we’re learning to manage, filter and also monetise this world of increasingly-pervasive ‘content everywhere’, and suggests some of the realities in which writers increasingly work. I’ll be interested to see how we adapt to this: will the erstwhile privileged position of ‘writers’ give way as these become mere grunts producing ‘content’ for the maw of the market? Or will some subtler and more nuanced bottom-up hierarchy of writing excellence emerge?

what the book has to say

About a week ago, Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine declared the book long past its expiration date as a useful media form. In doing so, he summed up many of the intriguing possibilities of networked books:

The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books.

I’m going to tell him to have a look at GAM3R 7H30RY.
Since the site launched, discussion here at the Institute keeps gravitating back to the shifting role of the author. Integrating the text with the discussion as we’ve done, we’ve orchestrated a new relationship between author and reader, merging their activities within a single organ (like the systole-diastole action of a heart). Both activities are altered. The text, previously undisturbed except by the author’s hand, is suddenly clamorous with other voices. McKenzie finds himself thrust into the role of moderator, collaborating with the reader on the development of the book. The reader, in turn, is no longer a solitary explorer but a potential partner in a dialogue, with the author or with fellow readers.
Roger Sperberg elaborated upon this in a wonderful post about GAM3R 7H30RY on Teleread:

A serious text, published in a format designed to elicit comments by readers — this is new territory, since every subsequent reader has access to the initial text and to comments, improvements, criticisms, tangents and so on contributed by the body of readers-who-came-before, all incorporated into the, um, corpus.
This is definitely not the same as “I wrote it, they published it, individuals read and reviewed it, readers purchased it and shared their comments (some of them) with others in readers’ circles.” Even a few days after publication, there are plenty of contributions and perhaps those of Ray Cha, Dave Parry and Ben Vershbow are inseparable now from the initial comments of author McKenzie Wark, since I read them not after the fact but co-terminously (word? not “simultaneously” but “at the same time”). My own perception of the author’s ideas is shaped by the collaborating readers’ ideas even before it has solidified. What the author has to say has broadened almost immediately into what the book has to say.

Right around the same time, Sol Gaitan arrived independently at basically the same conclusion:

This brings me to pay attention to both, contents and process, which I find fascinating. If I choose to take part, my reading ceases to be a solitary act. This reminds me of the old custom of reading aloud in groups, when books were still a luxury. That kind of reading allowed for pauses, reflection and exchange. The difference now is that the exchange affects the book, but it’s not the author who chooses with whom he shares his manuscript, the manuscript does.

McKenzie (the author) then replied:

Not only is reading not here a solitary act, but nor is it conducted in isolation from the writer. It’s still an asymmetrical process. Someone asked me in email why it wasn’t a wiki. The answer to which is that this author isn’t that ready to play that dead.

Eventually, if selections from the comments are integrated in a subsequent version — either directly in the text or in some sort of appending critical section — Ken could find himself performing the role of editor, or curator. A curator of discussion…
Or perhaps that will be our job, the Institute. The shifting role of the editor/publisher.

GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2

Read Part 1
We had a highly productive face to face meeting with Ken this afternoon to review the prior designs and to try and develop, collaboratively, a solution based on the questions that arose from those designs. We were aiming for a solution that provides a compelling interface for Ken’s book and also encourages open-ended discussion of the themes and specific games treated in the book.
What we came up with was a prototype of a blog/book page that presents the entire text of GAM3R 7H30RY, and a discussion board based around the games covered in the book, each corresponding with a specific chapter. These are:

  • Allegory (on The Sims)
  • America (on Civilization III)
  • Analog (on Katamari Damarcy)
  • Atopia (on Vice City)
  • Battle (on Rez)
  • Boredom (on State of Emergency)
  • Complex (on Deus Ex)
  • Conclusions (on SimEarth)

Unlike the thousand of gaming forums that already exist throughout the web, this discussion space will invite personal and social points of view, rather than just walkthroughs and leveling up cheats.
We also discussed the fact that discussion boards tend towards opacity as they grow, and ways to alleviate that situation. Growth is good; it reflects a rich back and forth between board participants. Opacity is bad; it makes it harder for new voices to join the discussion. To make it easier for people to join the discussion, Ken envisioned an innovative gateway into the boards based on a shifting graph of topics ranked by post date (x-axis) and number of responses (y-axis). This solution was inspired in part by “The Pool” — “a collaborative online environment for creating art, code, and texts” developed by Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine — in which ideas and project proposals float in different regions of a two-dimensional graph depending on quantity and tenor of feedback from the collective.
Returning to the book view, to push the boundaries of the blog form, we introduced a presentation format that uniquely fits around McKenzie’s book form—twenty-five regularly sized paragraphs in nine different chapters. Yes, each chapter has exactly 25 paragraphs, making mathematically consistent presentation possible (as an information designer I am elated at this systematic neatness). We decided on showing a cascade of five paragraphs, with one paragraph visible at a time, letting you navigate through chapters and then sets of five paragraphs within a chapter.
As a delightful aside, we started prototyping with a sheet of paper and index cards, but by some sideways luck we pulled out a deck of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards, which suited our needs perfectly. The resulting paper prototype (photo w/ wireframe cues photoshop’d in):
This project has already provided us with a rich discussion regarding authorship and feedback. As we develop the prototypes we will undoubtedly have more questions, but also, hopefully, more solutions that help us redefine the edges and forms of digital discourse.
Ben Vershbow contributed to this post.

the value of voice

We were discussing some of the core ideas that circulate in the background of the Institute and flow in and around the projects we work on—Sophie, nexttext, Thinking Out Loud—and how they contrast with Wikipedia (and other open-content systems). We seem obsessed with Wikipedia, I know, but it presents us with so many points to contrast with traditional styles of authorship and authority. Normally we’d make a case for Wikipedia, the quality of content derived from mass input, and the philosophical benefits of openness. Now though, I’d like to step back just a little ways and make a case for the value of voice.

A beautiful sunset by curiouskiwi. One individual’s viewpoint.

Presumably the proliferation of blogs and self-publishing indicates that the cultural value of voice is not in any danger of being swallowed by collaborative mass publishing. On the other hand, the momentum surrounding open content and automatic recombination is discernibly mounting to challenge the author’s historically valued perch.
I just want to note that voice is not the same as authority. We’ve written about the crossover between authorship and authority here, here, and here. But what we talked about yesterday was not authority—rather, it was a discussion about the different ethos that a work has when it is imbued with a recognizable voice.
Whether the devices employed are thematic, formal, or linguistic, the individual crafts a work that is centripetal, drawing together in your mind even if the content is wide-ranging. This is the voice, the persona that enlivens pages of text with feeling. At an emotional level, the voice is the invisible part of the work that we identify and connect with. At a higher level, voice is the natural result of the work an author has put effort into researching and collating the information.
Open systems naturally struggle to develop the singular voice of highly authored work. An open system’s progress relies on rules to manage the continual process of integrating content written by different contributors. This gives open works a mechanical sensibility, which works best with fact-based writing and a neutral point of view. Wikipedia, as a product, has a high median standard for quality. But that quality is derived at the expense of distinctive voices.

50 people see the sunset
50 beautiful sunsets, programatically collapsed into a single image. By brevity and flickr.

This is not to say that Wikipedia is without voice. I think most people would recognize a Wikipedia article (or, really, any encyclopedia article) by its broad brush strokes and purposeful disengagement with the subject matter. And this is the fundamental point of divide. An individual’s work is in intimate dialogue with the subject matter and the reader. The voice is the unique personality in the work.
Both approaches are important, and we at the Institute hope to navigate the territory between them by helping authors create texts equipped for openness, by exploring boundaries of authorship, and by enabling discourse between authors and audiences in a virtuous circle. We encourage openness, and we like it. But we cannot underestimate the enduring value of individual voice in the infinite digital space.