For two summers in college, I volunteered to teach literacy to illiterate adults. Usually indistinguishable from their literate counterparts (employed, married, and beloved mothers and fathers), these adults had learned to adapt through cues, context, and concealment. They hid these deficiencies well, but bravely had chosen to finally take them head-on. The two summers I did this were very rewarding. I met some incredible people who allowed me to witness a different kind of courage.
More than once, I saw a person liberated from a way of living that was both secretive and demeaning. I clearly remember how joyful and confident the gift of even baseline literacy made these people.
Illiteracy is relatively rare in our world, but literacy is typically defined as the ability to consume information. In the current information landscape, it will be increasingly defined as the ability to also generate information — i.e., write.
This approaching universality of authorship is the premise of an interesting article in SEED magazine entitled, “A Writing Revolution.”
Clay Shirky has asserted that we are in the midst of “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” The evidence that he’s correct keeps mounting.
How fast is authorship growing? Well, for books, authorship (defined as anything read by 100 people or more) increased by 10x each century. Currently, authorship is growing at 10x each year. That’s a 100x increase in rate.
Tthe authors of the SEED article, Denis G. Pelli and Charles Bigelow, go on to suggest there may be a correlation between increases in authorship and social change:
The period of the first steep rise, near 1500, coincides with the discovery of the New World and Protestantism, which saw the publication of the first vernacular Bible, translated by Martin Luther. The second, near 1800, includes the Industrial Revolution and its backlash, Romanticism. The current rise is much steeper.
Or, as someone at a recent meeting tried to parse it, publishers are experiencing the Industrial Revolution, not the French Revolution. Now I’m not so sure. We might be experiencing both. After all, the Industrial Revolution led to a lot of social change.
It’s an interesting twist to the story. While publishers have worried about the “revolution” in publishing and what it might mean for our insular world, society as a whole may be on the verge of some revolutions, as well, with authorship moving from 0.01 percent of the population to 0.1 percent (this year), to 1 percent (next year), to 10 percent (in 2011) to 100 percent (by 2012).
As Pelli and Bigelow describe it:
Today, at 0.1 percent authorship, many people are trading privacy for influence. What will it mean when we hit nearly 1 percent next year and nearly 10 percent the year after as the current growth predicts? Governments, businesses, and organizations must adapt to a population that wields increasing individual power. Protestors used Twitter to discredit the election in Iran. When United Airlines refused to reimburse a musician for damaging his guitar, the offended customer posted a song online—“United Breaks Guitars”—and United’s stock dropped 10 percent.
It’s a reminder that publishers share their infrastructure with an audience that is also publishing; that power equations are shifting dramatically between providers and consumers; and that trust and curation will be vital to success.
When everyone is writing, the filter on reading may become more valuable than ever.
7 Thoughts on "Will the Writing Revolution Beget a Social Revolution?"
While I concur with Shirky and the authors of the Seed article (Pelli and Bigelow) that there is a trend towards increased authorship with profound consequences for our society, I think the numbers used to make this case are overstated.
It seems a bit of a reach to classify Facebook and Twitter posts as “authorship.” Most people who use these platforms do so to communicate with friends and family. In that sense, these communication platforms replace and augment letters and e-mail. On the professional side, these platforms replace and augment e-mails and list-serves. If one is not counting letter and e-mail writers and list-serve posters as “authors” I don’t think it makes sense to count Facebook and Twitter posters as such. While it is true that Facebook and Twitter posts can be read (in many cases) by more than 100 people, it seems a stretch to classify postings of one’s vacation pictures or lunchtime activities as authorship. Context is more important, I think, than quantity: surely the writer of a scholarly article read by 90 people is an “author.”
I think there is enough evidence of this authorship trend available elsewhere (e.g. blogs and the explosive growth of self-published books) to make a credible case. To include Facebook and Twitter posts smacks of shoehorning the data to fit the trend, undermining Pelli and Bigelow’s otherwise thought-provoking article.
I think some of the points made in this post are more about communication than “authorship”, and as such one could define authorship more broadly (or to minimize confusion, perhaps drop the term all together).
It seems the real “empowerment” is that people are communicating more and with more people simultaneously creating “a population that wields increasing individual power.”
If that is true then change is inevitable!
I’d like to point out the relationship of the words “authorship” and “authority” and see what people have to say. . . .
There may be a law of diminishing returns in the ‘influence vs. privacy’ economy. With all those people ‘authoring’, who’ll have time to read?
Dear Kent Anderson
Teaching literacy is a great thing. Thank you. I’m an author of the Seed article. Your article and its commenters raise nice points. As Cody Brown says, perhaps “Publishing is the new literacy.” We discuss the issue of how broadly to define publishing (and authorship) in our response to comments at the New York Times blog. http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/a-writing-revolution/#comment-28215