Two recent essays are surprising for opposite reasons. In one, John MacArther, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine reveals himself to be in a muddle about the Internet. It’s shocking that such twaddle can still pass as enlightened prose, and in a magazine I used to respect. Here’s an interpretative distillation of the conflicting and confused concepts you encounter as you go through the essay:
- MacArthur: I was at fancy restaurants pre-2000 and at UPI when it still mattered, and had my fill of all the Internet I needed. Translation — I’m old, tuned out, and ranting from the sidelines.
- MacArthur: Internet people who have business models I don’t understand are like “free trade” advocates, who I don’t like. Translation — I don’t understand how new business models work, and I had to insert an ad hominem attack on free trade into my essay to maintain my quota. Score!
- MacArthur: Writers and editors are being driven into penury by Internet wages. Translation — Subconsciously, I can see the writing on the wall, and I’m scared for my job.
- MacArthur: The Internet is anti-democratic and anti-emotional because it placates the masses with echoes of themselves. Translation — I come from the era of anti-democratic, anti-emotional, placating condescension of mass media, and I don’t understand how much less anti-democratic, less anti-emotional, and less placating and condescending new media are. Therefore, I’m upset.
- MacArthur: The lack of political change in America proves how useless the Internet is. Translation — Gerrymandering, campaign financing abuses, mass media manipulation, suspicious Supreme Court decisions, a lockstep Republication party, and the military-industrial complex — ack, it’s the Internet’s fault!
- MacArthur: Facebook’s organizational structure still has a boss at the top, so it’s nothing new. Public journalism is a joke. People think I’m a fogy. Translation — I am a fogy.
MacArthur also has to ignore major social and political events unleashed by the Internet, including the Internet-laden story of Barack Obama’s election (the grassroots Internet fundraising, Obama Girl, and more), the role of Twitter in Iranian elections, and the repeated stories of flash mobs and smallscale political uprisings spurred by Internet communications. But apparently his world view is too precious to be disrupted by facts.
Elsewhere, another publisher, renowned for his success on the Internet, finds himself still scolding publishers to wake up and smell the coffee. Tim O’Reilly, in a relatively brief note, talks initially about the differences between “formats” and “forms.” Forms are different ways of presenting the same information — a hardcover, a paperback, an e-book are all different forms of the same work. A new format, on the other hand, is more revolutionary. Wikipedia is a new format of encyclopedia.
O’Reilly saves his scold for the end of the note:
Publishers think way too narrowly about what kind of business they are in, and as a result, are blind to how the competitive landscape is changing under their feet. If someone has roots in ink-on-paper, they are a publisher, but if they are web- or mobile-native, they are not. But this is wrong-headed!
Do you hear that, Mr. MacArthur? Publishers aren’t defined by legacy or trappings. They’re defined by . . . publishing. And there are more publishers than ever now.
Harper’s was once a great magazine, but the Atlantic is reinventing itself much more effectively, according to a recent New York Times article:
The Atlantic, the intellectual’s monthly that always seemed more comfortable as an academic exercise than a business, is on track to turn a tidy profit of $1.8 million this year. That would be the first time in at least a decade that it had not lost money.
The Atlantic did this by scrupulously embracing the Internet, not by behaving with insular arrogance. And that’s the lesson here for me — in a time of revolutionary distribution, publication, and communication technologies, new business models, and new interaction paradigms, the winners will be defined by their adaptation abilities and foresight, while the losers will grouse from the sidelines about how upsetting it all is.