How the Web and the Weblog have changed Writing

by Philip Greenspun in May 2009

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This article, prepared to support a talk at Wordcamp 2009, discusses how writing itself has changed because of the availability of the Web and the Weblog.

Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990

Digital photo titled dead-slow-hoot The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
  1. the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
  2. the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
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.

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 should be.

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

Digital photo titled sorry-no-internet-today-2 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: Some works that are too long to fit into the world of commercial publishing...

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 paragraphs added?

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:

Weblog Examples

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 Weblog:

More


Text and photos: Copyright 2009 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu
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