This article, prepared to support a talk at Wordcamp 2009, discusses how
writing itself has changed because of the availability of the Web and
Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990
The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful
of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would
print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be
distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless
5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the
minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.
- the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the
- the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
Filler Example: The Steve Ward Diet
In the 1980s Steve Ward, a professor of electrical engineering and
computer science at MIT, described a sure-fire dieting scheme. "All
that you need for my diet is graph paper, a ruler, and a pencil,"
Steve would explain. "The horizontal axis is time, one line per
day. The vertical axis is weight in lbs. You plot your current weight
on the left side of the paper. You plot your desired weight on a
desired date towards the right side, making sure that you've left the
correct number of lines in between (one per day). You draw a line from
the current weight/date to the desired weight/date. Every morning you
weigh yourself and plot the result. If the point is below the line,
you eat whatever you want all day. If the point is above the line, you
eat nothing but broccoli or some other low-calorie food."
Steve noted that this could also be called the "Bang-Bang Servo Diet"
but that would likely be confusing to non-engineers (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bang-bang_control).
Steve's diet is probably more effective than most popular diets. How
come he isn't a bestselling diet book author? How do you turn an idea
that can be explained in one paragraph into a diet book that people
will buy? Printing that one paragraph really large would take up one
page. Then you'd have a few example graphs, each with a personal
story of someone for whom the Steve Ward Diet worked. Now we've got 10
pages. We still need 190 pages. So we add recipes for near-zero
calorie foods: steamed broccoli; raw celery; lettuce au radis;
etc. Eventually we have something that can be sold for $12.95 in a
bookstore, but is it better than that one paragraph description?
Harry Greenspun, M.D., one of America's most brilliant doctors
(according to our mother), offers his own diet: "Don't eat anything
that a Caveman wouldn't have eaten; humans have not had enough time to
adapt biologically to the agricultural revolution." What does that
mean? "You can eat meat, vegetables that you pick up from the ground
and fruits that you pick out of a tree. Don't eat pasta, bread, corn,
potatoes, and other products of modern agriculture."
For Dr. Greenspun to get this idea to the public through commercial
publishing channels would require him to add 200 pages of elaboration
that would not make the diet more useful. Perhaps it could be a
20-page diet, but the market for pamphlets is very limited, and 20
pages is too long for a magazine sold in supermarkets.
Procrustes in New York and LA
Our literary culture is impoverished when every idea is stretched or
amputated to fit the Procrustean bed
made up by magazine and book publishers. When an author runs out of
relevant stuff to say after 20 or 30 pages, that's how long the essay
How about a collection? If an author writes enough essays, eventually
they can be collected into a 200-page book and distributed
commercially. Many authors are experts on only a single subject and
should not be encouraged to continue scribbling.
Publishing from 1990 to 2000: World Wide Web
The original World Wide Web, as conceived and implemented in 1990,
solved seemingly all of the problems of publishing:
Examples of some useful 20- and 30-page documents that never would
have been published commercially:
- supports any length of essay, including 20- or 30-page essays that previously had no home
- allows anyone to publish, even on topics with very limited
potential readership, due to zero marginal cost of distribution
- allows authors with no funds or technical skill to publish, by
filling out forms on, for example, GeoCities (1994)
- allows readers to find relevant material at the "instant of curiosity" (Webcrawler search engine; 1994)
Some works that are too long to fit into the world of commercial publishing...
- Building a 35mm Digital SLR System (18 pages; way too long for any photography magazine; to be useful in a magazine, would need to be reprinted every month)
- Cirrus SR20 review (25 pages; helps people avoid wasting $300,000; only a few hundred of these airplanes are sold each year; flying magazines run 5-page articles at most)
- Magic Ink (60 pages; user interface ideas; guy stopped writing when he ran out of ideas)
and Blowhards, a critical look at some popular Web essays
- The Autodesk File, a 900-page history of Autodesk/AutoCAD, with a lot of original documents
- malagasyworld.org, one
man's dream to document all 70,000 words in Malagasy, the
non-Indo-European language spoken by 18 million people in Madagascar;
for each word, the goal is to have a picture and 10 examples from literature
What was missing?
What was missing from the 1990 Web? The original Web did not
effectively support the one-paragraph idea. A reader who encountered a
Web page containing only one paragraph would have been startled and
wondered if the page had been left unfinished.
How would a reader consume one-paragraph ideas? Wait until an author
had developed a few dozen and published a page of collected thoughts?
Return periodically to an author's site to see if there were any new
Marcus Aurelius: The first blogger?
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 160 AD to 180 AD, kept a journal
during a military campaign in central Europe (171-175). It was not
available until after his death and not widely available until printed
in 1558 as the Meditations.
Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not
thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou
mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What
is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt
be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the
future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is
reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest
thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.
This was preserved because the author had been Emperor. How much
ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked
TCP/IP? [By 1700 BC, the Minoans were trading with Spain, had big
cities with flush toilets, a written language, and moderately
sophisticated metalworking technology. Had it not been for the
eruption of Thera (on Santorini), it is quite possible that Romans
would have watched the assassination of Julius Caesar on television.]
After Marcus there have been quite a few folks whose collected short
thoughts have interested readers, but in very few cases have those
thoughts been made available in a timely manner.
Favorite things about the Weblog
My favorite things about the Weblog:
- good support for one-paragraph ideas
- great repository for personal thoughts, if only so that the author him or herself can go back later to review
- content over form; Webloggers generally use a standard style and don't play with colors and formatting the way that GeoCities authors used to
- distributed comment system; no need for the entire conversation to be on one server
- RSS feeds and aggregators
Here are examples of one- to four-paragraph ideas that would not have
fit well into traditional Web publishing, but that work great for the
Text and photos: Copyright 2009 Philip Greenspun.
Add a comment | Add a link