Open-ended publishing

Digital content isn't defined by editions, so let's stop thinking that way.

TOC 2011All change begins with a thought. That’s why I’m big on mental shifts. If you start thinking a different way, you have the potential to adapt to that new mode. It takes enormous effort and commitment to manifest change, but that simple act of deciding to look at the world a little differently is always the catalyst.

I was reminded of this when I ran across my colleague Russell Jones’ recent comment on a company email list. Here’s what he wrote:

“Publishing,” in the past, was always tied to an event — printing the book. That’s no longer true. The “book” now consists of whatever content you provide for readers to download — and if you can update them automatically, that’s not even exactly true.

For example, you could create a book that updates constantly, a book that consists entirely of reader input, a book that is actually a series of links, a book that readers interact with, a book that grows over time, and, of course, book readers that collect their own metadata. Books that are applications, books that are interactive tours. Books where the ending (or the whole story) changes as people read them … There are no reprints. There may be editions, but in most cases, that’s not terribly useful to readers.

Everything has changed. The sky’s the limit.

[Note: This was published with Russell’s permission.]

Russell’s comment got me thinking about how a mental “change filter” applies to the content industries. It also made me want to share some of the questions I’ve been noodling on over the last few years. Specifically:

What if all content is on a continuum? What if there’s no end? What if there’s no finality anymore?

That’s a huge change from what most of us are used to. From early on, we’re trained to create editions: an essay, a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a movie, a game, etc. Those are projects with defined beginnings and endings.

But digital content doesn’t really exist in an edition-based world. It moves, it flows. It gets chunked up, mashed up, and recombined. It can be copied and pasted at will (whether you like it or not). It can be added to. It can be deleted from. It hibernates and reappears unexpectedly months or years later.

Just look at the revision history on a Wikipedia entry. Digital content is fluid.

What’s odd and interesting is that many content creators — even folks who truly understand digital — are stuck in editions. I fall into this trap all the time. Too often I see the world in terms of “posts” or “articles.” But by thinking that way, I’m leaving opportunity on the table. I’m limiting my creative output to a defined amount of content that’s poured into a defined container.

So that’s the set up. As you’ll see, my thoughts about open-ended publishing are nascent. I’m not entirely sure this process has long-term utility. Nor do I know if it’s viable as a business model. Nonetheless, here’s a few ideas on how open-ended publishing might play out.

Everything can be public

Under an open-ended model, notes, excerpts, links, and drafts can all be published online. Few people would care to access this content — heck, its disorganization could make it private while in public view — but it’s been my experience that pushing material into the public space changes it in an important way.

Public content holds the content creator accountable. This is why I dump all sorts of quotes and excerpts and half-baked ideas into my Tumblr. That’s my big bucket of slop: all the stuff that informs the posts I write and the interview questions I ask. I put it out there not because I think it has value to all (it doesn’t), but because public content makes me want to follow through.

I used to collect similar dribs and drabs in private Google documents. Despite good intentions, I never closed the loop on any of that stuff. It just sat there, locked in a doc no one will ever look at again. But publishing that same material publicly is like creating an alpha version for a future piece of content.

You’ll notice I wrote everything “can” be public. It doesn’t have to be. If there’s a competitive advantage connected to a particular insight or breakthrough, you might want to hold that back. That’s fine, but I’m of the mind that almost everything can and should be blithely tossed into the public space. After all, a stunning idea means little without great execution. (Note: Nuclear launch codes, secret herbs and spices, and private corporate data don’t apply here. Just so we’re clear.)

Go forward or back whenever you like

We’re so accustomed to sensing “the end.” We see that last paragraph or feel that last beat and we know, subconsciously, that the ride is almost over. Because of this, open-ended publishing feels weird — perhaps even wrong. But I think we need to fight through that.

A content creator can always reach a full-stop with their work. He or she could tie up loose ends and make their creation cohesive. But even in these cases, the “never say never” adage will always apply. If a related idea pops up, what’s to stop that same person from firing up the engine again? Or, if someone else wants to run with the same ball, why not? This is already common in the film industry, where franchise “reboots” are a norm (and given what we’ve seen from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films and JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek,” a reboot can be a very good thing).

The big takeaway here is that if content is open ended, creators can go forward or back whenever they like. Personally, I find that liberating.

Just start

The world is filled with people brimming with ideas. The world is not filled with people who will act on those ideas. Content creators are naturally scarce because writing, filming, and editing requires effort — often lots of effort. Some of us are blessed (or cursed) with a need to create. It’s a compulsion.

This section doesn’t apply to those people.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that all great material comes from borderline psychosis. “Writers have to write,” that’s true, but others have it in them to create interesting things as well. The key is to reduce the barriers to entry. When that happens, we’ll see two things:

  1. Ungodly amounts of hideous material.
  2. A small but vital percentage of beautiful stuff.

YouTube is the embodiment of this. Much of that content is very, very bad. But nestled amidst the shaky home videos and cringe-inducing “comedy,” you’ll find genuine voices and genuine talent.

But YouTube is using technology to lower the barriers of content creation and distribution. What I’m proposing is a barrier-busting mindset.

The key is this: Instead of pushing the notion that all material of merit must only appear after countless revisions, we could instead just start. Just publish it. Just write it. Just put it out there. Let it become a thing instead of an idea. Since this content is open ended, you can always revise the material, or rework it, or completely alter its intent. The most important thing you can do is begin. (This is why NaNoWriMo is a fantastic project.)

“Publishing without boundaries” is the theme of TOC 2011, being held Feb. 14-16 in New York City. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

Expectations and platforms

I know it sounds like I’m suggesting that all content should become stream of consciousness blather. But that’s not true.

I’m an editor. I value clarity, and I know clarity is only achieved through structure and revision. (This post, for example, was reworked and then reworked again.) I also see quality as a competitive advantage. Because there’s so much bad stuff out there, committing to the good stuff sets you apart.

As such, open-ended publishing needs to mesh expectations with platforms. That’s why I dump my random gatherings on Tumblr, where the expectation — if there is one — is quite low. I would never post that material on Radar. But I would (and do) take the ideas and links that bubbled up in my Tumblr and use those as building blocks in Radar posts.


There’s a missing piece here, though. If Tumblr is where the ideas start and Radar is where they manifest in a better-formed way, then what do I do when a related idea or development pops up? Do I add to a pre-existing Radar post? Do I create an entirely new post? Or, do I use a separate platform for these “director’s cut” versions? I’m not sure about the execution, but abandoning a line of thought because there’s no home for it doesn’t sit well with me. A story with energy deserves to continue. And with all sorts of low-cost and easy-to-use digital platforms now at our disposal, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.

Your thoughts?

In a way, this is a meta post. I’m gathering the threads I’ve collected over years of working in, and thinking about, digital content. Those individual threads were already “published” in various places: Tumblr, blog posts focusing on adjacent topics, emails, tweets, etc. Now the threads have been partially bundled here on Radar (for good or bad). This story is on a continuum, and I imagine it’ll chug along in one form or another.

But is there anything to this idea? Does open-ended publishing make any practical sense? I welcome any comments, counter arguments, enhancements, or rebuttals.


tags: ,