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Jan 22

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

The Connection Between Short, Modular and Open

How did we get from the two-hour film to the 24-minute TV sitcom? Why is it that the Academy award-winning short film of yesteryear was watched by a few thousand, while a YouTube clip shot on a camera phone might be watched by hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers? While movie studios were protecting their two-hour movies from redistribution on the net, viewers are forming new habits on new devices. The medium changes the format in which content is delivered.

I think about this a lot in the context of publishing. The web has put a premium on short-form content, both because it's easier to read in the ADD style that today's interrupt-driven technology is driving us towards, and because it's easier to build collaboratively. This is why some of O'Reilly's most successful new publishing projects -- our programming Cookbook series, our Hacks series, and of course, Make: and Craft: magazines -- as well as our new Short Cuts downloadable PDF publishing program are all built around short-form content.

In this regard, I was interested to see Lawrence Solum make the same observation about legal writing on the web:

This Article analyzes the shift of legal scholarship from the old world of law reviews to today's world of peer reviews to tomorrow's world of open access legal blogs. This shift is occurring in three dimensions. First, legal scholarship is moving from the long form (treatises and law review articles) to the short form (very short articles, blog posts, and online collaborations). Second, a regime of exclusive rights is giving way to a regime of open access. Third, intermediaries (law school editorial boards, peer-reviewed journals) are being supplemented by disintermediated forms (papers on the Internet, blogs). Blogs and internet conversations between academics are expanding interdisciplinary legal scholarship and increasing the avenues of communication among legal scholars, practitioners and a wide array of interested laypersons worldwide. [via]

Solum is particularly insightful to link short form content and increased participation. I long ago noted that one of the under-appreciated elements in the success of open source software projects was their modular design, which is an essential element of what I've elsewhere called an architecture of participation. It's easier for people to collaborate around small chunks, and to build up larger works piece by piece, than it is for them to work together on a large, complex project with many dependencies.

(Incidentally, this is one reason I wasn't as excited about the recently touted "wiki book" launched by the Economist. They didn't study wikipedia closely enough. Wikipedia's basic unit is the page, not the book, or even the chapter. Its granular organization and its standardized stub format, are keys to its success, not just the fact that editing is open to everybody.)

Where else have you seen the connection between short and modular and openness?

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Scott Berkun   [01.22.07 05:48 PM]

Here's some quick examples:

- Open mike nights. Everyone gets a small 5 minute set. Experienced people try new things, new people get over the first time jitters. People bond and support each other (or heckle :) Karaoke and open mike nights often have communities form around them.

- Library donation tiles/bricks. $25 (small, modular) lets you help with the library and say whatever you want (open) in 50 characters. However, given that I can't find my tile anymore, not sure about the community it forms.

- Potluck dinner parties. Everyone brings one thing (small, modular), forces conversations, new experiences.

I do like bite size media, but I also worry about the stigma of being long. I like 2 hour movies. I like essays written for depth and intensity: some important ideas and experiences can never fit into bite size pieces.

Tony Williams   [01.22.07 10:06 PM]


You could argue that the short reviews on Amazon conform to this model. When compared to the book and product reviews in a newspaper or magazine they are in general considerably shorter.

Notice that when you are comparing products it often takes two or three Amazon reviews to cover all the bases so you are relying on a number of people who each provide a subset of the required information.

# Tony

Andrew   [01.23.07 08:11 AM]

I think the distribution of the media plays a bigger role than the length of the media. The academy award winning short film isn't as easily accessible as the YouTube clip because the distribution rights and copyright is protected over-zealously, not because the film is longer than the YouTube clip. Solum hits on this in his second point, which I agree with, but I don't buy the rest of the arguement which hinges on length.

monopole   [01.23.07 08:38 AM]

Short and modular often forms the components for things that are larger than their predecessors. The Wikipedia is a classic example, while the individual page is the basic unit, it's the eclectic coverage and cross linkage that is the draw.

Another classic example is modern anime, while nominally in the 20-24 minute format, a good anime show will incorporate a multiplicity of plotlines and story arcs which stretch across the 13-26 episode series length and have a distinct beginning, middle and end. Watching the entire series in order is essential. Is this a 25 min show or a 13 hr film with 26 intermissions?

scoots   [01.23.07 09:46 AM]

There is a huge difference between "consume" and "purchase". Obviously short form content is consumed on the web, but it isn't purchased.

Wikipedia is purchased, Youtube videos aren't purchased, even sitcoms aren't purchased.

What is purchased are two hour movies, in depth books and other long form content.

Anonymous   [01.23.07 09:49 AM]

^^^edit: wikipedia ISN'T purchased. ;o)

Ned Gulley   [01.23.07 06:44 PM]

I just happened across this biologically-inspired SlideShare set by Pedro Beltrao: Modularity and Evolvability.

The biological notion of evolvability is all about creating a system that puts the mutation rate (open access to jostling crowds) to optimal use. Openness, modularity, and granularity all play important roles.

galeal zino   [01.24.07 07:12 AM]

"The web has put a premium on short-form content, both because it's easier to read in the ADD style that today's interrupt-driven technology is driving us towards, and because it's easier to build collaboratively"
Well said. As Andrew noted, today's open distribution of short-form content verses the mainly closed distribution of long-form content is also a critical factor. Also, our time and attention is finite and scarce, and the more time we use in the "architecture of participation", the less time we have to consume long-form content. Collaboration is often more compelling then consumption, especially if we get the *benefits* faster, so there is a snowball effect towards short, modular content (and code) on both the supply and demand sides.

Anonymous 2   [01.24.07 07:15 AM]

You might include "songs" instead of entire albums, per the iTunes Music Store model. In a lot of cases, you can also sample 30 seconds of a song before downloading or purchasing.

meat   [01.24.07 10:42 AM]

However, the question is whether or not you can build a business based on these ideas. The answer is yes, if you're willing to sell advertizing or if you 're wanting to eventually sell your company to Google or Yahoo.

However, short form content is really not for sale. I would argue that a song is not "short form", it is a complete work of art by it's self and has always been the unit that's been sold. Anyone remember singles?

We are certainly not at the stage to purchase any of these short form types of content at least not individually.

Richard Volpato   [01.24.07 06:32 PM]


Good piece! Short, Modular, Open, might be re-arranged onto an evolutionary scale to OSM (for Open, Short and Modular). It is the last one that remains a challenge....

OPEN, and the associated licences that deliver openness, has released much material that might otherwise remain locked by copyright.

MODULAR, as you note is the way of the future. It interesting to note that even movie studios understand this by the way they spend so much on the production of trailers! And short also lowers the thresholds of participation --consistent with your architecture of participation view.

MODULAR: that has yet to fully arrive. The real challenge is how to imagine the experience of a *series* of short pieces. It may be that YouTube provides a kind of animated backdrop of content interludes to the main activity at a computer (eg writing an essay). Maybe people even do cooking and ironing while letting YouTube pieces (on some theme) be piped through their big home screen. But is this the high point?

I think software development shows us the way here regarding 'modularily'. Software has APIs that enable connections and integrations to run both horizontally and vertically. Programmers know this and exploit it; authors and literati have little sense of how 'stacks' of content might operate. The 'architecture of participation' requires an 'architecture of modularity'. Maybe the Semantic Web (via RDF, Topic Maps, or scalable forms of micro-formats) deliver this.

A good example that I find can focus the mind: imagine hundreds (or thousands) of people taking photos, from various vantage points, of an 'event' (a goal, a crash, a weather pattern). They are short and open and on Flickr. But ideally, with location, time and orientation meta-data, the totality of these photos could be weaved into a larger digital object, with perhaps much more value, that users might then be able to pan and zoom by virture of all the photos from all the angles and distances. By understanind this issue, there need be no confusion between modularizing content (so it can 'snap together' vertically and horiztonally, and simply minaturizing it for smaller episodes of consumption. The latter breeds more of the ADD to which it respond; the former, just maybe gets us back to much larger cultural monuments that are really a montage of mosaic pieces.

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