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A Reader's Attention:
Catching that Rare and Migratory Bird Online

by Laura Fillmore

Notes for Presentation at the AIC Conference
"Publishing On the Networks"
London, England
January 24, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

The effective and successful publishers driving towards the Millennium on the Infobahn will be looking forward through the windshield and not into their rearview mirrors when they publish on the Internet. Surely some of these successful publishers will cast a backward, nostalgic glance at the product-driven paper publishers of yesterday, those men and women fearful of losing control of their content, and protective of their precious bottled words, fearful of letting loose the leaves from the countless books, magazines, and newspapers that have contained humanity's thoughts and ideas for 500 years.

Tomorrow's successful publishers will be doing something fundamentally different from anything their predecessors--probably most of the publishers on the planet today--dreamed possible. Instead of purveyors of the printed word, millennial publishers are more likely to assume the role of real-time thought enablers, purveyors of experience. Instead of packaging and distributing thoughts and ideas in the form of books, tomorrow's publishers on the Net will be offering access to and participation in active, online "idea" sites .

To appreciate the communicative possibilities online publishing offers, it is useful to understand the "distributive environment," which is the basic architecture of the Internet. Think of this worldwide network of networks as a post-nuclear publishing medium, and a real-time thinking tool.

It is post-nuclear for several reasons: the Internet was designed by the U.S. Department of Defense in response to the cold war nuclear threat, to enable US communications infrastructure to survive a first strike. If half of the continental US disappeared in a mushroom cloud, this packet- switched network of networks, a protean meshwork of disparate machines all using a common protocol to communicate one with the other, is designed to reform itself and survive. It has no physical center, no headquarters.. In the event that part of the network becomes inoperable, the remaining portion of the Internet would simply reroute the packets of information through the remaining available "pipes." If, for example, the northern half of the Internet were blacked out, just as the email version of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" was travelling from New York to San Francisco through the Badlands of North Dakota, Internet routers would quickly and automatically reroute the story's packets, through the Okefenokee Swamp server instead, perhaps. In packets.

Packets are pieces of an electronic message, small portions of a whole. Packets in an email message do not travel to their destination all in a row, like one nice neat line of type. Rather, packets are the product of a network's router doing its work: breaking up messages into little pieces, affixing headers and footers, destination addresses and re-assembly instructions, and routing the pieces along the most obvious path that is free at the time the message is being sent.

An understanding of packets helps explain one of the underlying concepts behind distributive publishing: hypertext. Hypertext is analogous to packets in the sense that both involve breaking messages into many small pieces, constituent parts of a whole message. What distinguishes packets from hypertext is that the pieces of the message that they contain were broken apart independently of their meaning, and simply for ease of transmission from point A to point B. Hypertext, on the other hand, involves what might be seen as the molecularization and potential reconstituting of thought.

To understand both the concept of hypertext and that of distributive publishing on a worldwide network, consider a book that the Online BookStore (OBS) published recently for Time Warner: Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom." This book began as scraps of paper buried under Mandela's jail cell floor during his 27 years of incarceration in South Africa. Now those scraps of paper have become real bits on the Internet, accessible to millions of people worldwide. In fact, not only can people access this distributive version of Mandela's book free on the World Wide Web, but they can also participate in the book by suggesting new contextual links.

In publishing a distributive version of Mandela's book, we have extended the content of the book to incorporate the context offered by the many multimedia resources elsewhere on the World Wide Web. We have created a kinetic, evolving "online subject center" out of portions of the book by pointing to, or linking to other sites on the Web. For example, when we first put the site up, we pointed to a sorted electronic newsfeed about South Africa; every time someone clicked on the news feed, they would get the ten top news stories about South Africa. If you go to a section of the book that mentions Martin Luther King, we have put in a link to King's "I have a dream" speech, located on a server in the US. If you go to the section of the book that describes the fact that Mandela wore the same suit every day for five years, there is a hypertext link from there to an Internet store offering modern African clothing to the Internet public, illustrating then and now.

Establishing a context around a core of content is an important job for online publishers at this point in the evolution of Internet publishing. This context is defined both by the internal links one chooses to make inside the document itself, say from the table of contents to the referenced chapters, and by external links from within the document to other resources out on the Internet. Such creation of context works very well in the free environment we find ourselves in today, where sites are many and interesting, and ingress is generally free. At this point, it is an open sandbox to play in, a reader-driven environment where the reader rather than the author or publisher, determines the thought paths he may travel down. This thought path can be effectively defined or guided by the efforts, at once editorial, technical, and legal, of the author and/or publisher in their linking strategies employed to create context out of content.

For example, to use the Mandela book example again, we can see several different types of external linking going on, pointing the way to future licensing agreements as readers begin to appreciate the added value customized link sets bring to clusters of information or context centers. Some links are unidirectional, simply pointing the reader outside of the Mandela book to another site on the Net, such as the African clothing store. In that case, we lose our reader to the clothing store, with which we might have an agreement stipulating a modest payment from the store every time one of Mandela's readers clicks on their clothing page. This is a kind of no-risk advertising established on a pay-as-you-go basis. Another link might be a reciprocal link, in which we point, for example, to the SUNsite educational server and it simultaneously points back to OBS. Through reciprocal links, we offer our readers a semi-closed loop on which to travel: they may decide to visit the SUNsite server and simply return to the Mandela book, or go further and explore educational resources on the SUNsite server. On the Internet, where attention spans sometimes reflect the brevity introduced by the medium of television, it is important to cater to the hungers and wants of that scarce commodity, attention, by offering the readers the capability to customize their own link sets for a particular title.

With the Mandela title, we created an external link set and offered the readers the opportunity to extend "The Long Walk to Freedom" by suggesting new links and editing the external link set. Such an external link set is definitely an added value to the online publication, for several reasons.

First of all, an external link set is a unique addition to the book, one which can only be made via a computer network, as it accommodates the nuances of meaning inherent in a text by pointing to contextual references related to the text at hand. Secondly, the external link set enables the reader to customize this "living" publication on the Net, making it uniquely suited for his own intellectual needs and interests. The online, contextual version thus reflects the way someone thinks about a particular book or topic, and that "way of thinking" becomes transferrable--and transmutable--over the Internet.

The capability to customize an external link set is crucial. For example, a reader might object to the African clothing store, and, after seeing it once, decide that enough is enough and he would much rather have a link to a living, breathing footnote to the text, such as some excerpts from the Lincoln/Douglas debates about slavery in the US.

Another reader may decide to customize her external link set based on what others she respects have done---links other readers have made to or from the book, readers such as perhaps a professor, or the Nobel Prize winner who recently read the book. The key issue here is that online, thought paths become visible, and thus, transferable, from reader to reader. So the content ceases to be a thing in itself, independent of its context, but an element in the context.

The marketing of external link sets is analogous to giving customized tours on the Internet, where the core content might be seen as functioning like a tour bus. For example, if one were taking a tour of black history on the Internet, one might have the Mandela project as a "bus" offering customized tours for people with differing backgrounds: young urban blacks, senior citizens, or sixth-grade suburban schoolchildren in France.

Such an approach, using the value-added external links and the readers' attention to which they appeal as the two poles of commerce in the online publishing environment, constitutes a working hierarchy which should preserve free, or relatively free access to thought and ideas. Assume in the example above that the text files for the book, the ASCII files, would be freely available to any who wanted them. What would be of value, and what readers would pay for, would be the customized contextual referencing surrounding the text files, the value added. In short, such a hierarchy preserves the free public library component of paper publishing with the free availability of ASCII, while capitalizing on the unique properties of the Net by making possible a kinetic core of content, linked into distributive online context with a protean set of links, customized for individual users or groups of users.

The very fact that the Internet is growing at such a rapid rate indicates that, if only in the interests of time and expedience, people will begin to pay for reliable context clusters of updated information. Reliability of links will also become a premium, as people pay for publishers not only to identify, but also perhaps to secure the links from one site to another. For example, the ClariNet newsfeed we had linked into Mandela must be renewed after one month. Some users would pay us to keep testing all the links and make sure they are up; other users might want ingress into proprietary or closed areas of the Net or bulletin board systems or libraries; this kind of customized link licensing is also a new commodity in the distributive publishing environment.

We need to capitalize on the free and open status of the Net today in order to prepare intelligently for the future, to begin to learn how people read and live and think online. It is important to look at what we can do on the Internet today and identify what it is about the distributive environment that needs to be preserved and enhanced as commercial publishing begins to capitalize on the inevitable material economies and far-reaching international audiences promised by the Net.

Also, as we move away from the free environment of sponsored publishing, where free access to WorldWideWeb sites is offered to readers in exchange for advertising dollars from sponsors (which amounts are generally related to the volume of traffic or "hits" at any given site), and toward a reader-paid system, it becomes absolutely essential to understand what captures readers' attention and to provide it to them. This attention grabber is, I suspect, not a single thing or commodity, but rather, a form of real-time, online experience which is itself a blend of time-based need (such as my boss is due in at 4 and will want my report to be done by then) and uniqueness of customized information and interactivity offered.

The successful publisher will not simply translate into digital zeroes and ones the copy from a book it publishes, and expect to use the Internet to deliver the contained files for that book from Point A to Point B. Instead, the successful publisher will offer the reader an online, customized experience, which will mimic the living thought process by itself being kinetic and alive. And so the challenge before publishers as we approach the millennium is to abandon their traditional fears of protecting control of what is finite and has been the product of value for centuries -- copies of the printed page -- and begin to appreciate instead the new model for publishing: experiencing thought in a kinetic environment. Such collectivization and immediate publication of human thought, now being witnessed in the online versions of scholarly journals, then becomes the valuable source of knowledge and entertainment, the unique product of the Internet which one will be able to charge for: ideas.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

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