At last week’s SSP Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Priem after many months of exchanging comments with him in the Kitchen. Jason is a very nice guy, and is pushing the envelope in many ways, both of which are good things. One of his pushes snapped something into high relief for me — namely, his assertion of the common wisdom that “we are now all publishers” made it clear to me that we are not all publishers. Not by a long shot.
Jason was talking about how he’d just used Twitter to make a statement, and therefore was a publisher — in fact, we all were publishers, with our tweets, blog posts, and newsfeed updates. Snap! He’s wrong, I thought. And I knew why in a blinding flash of the obvious (BFO).
I asked Jason about it during the session, and he generally agreed.
When we tweet, blog, or update, we are not publishers. We are authors. Twitter, WordPress, or Facebook are the publishers. They just accept nearly everything we submit, so it feels like we’re publishers. But each company has sheltered us as authors from the risks of their ventures, is trying to make enough money to remain viable for years to come, and has created the venue we want to publish in.
Even Clay Shirky forgets this, the illusion of 100% acceptance is so strong. With immediate acceptance and publication, publishing seems like it’s just about pushing a button for a lot of the ephemeral networked writing we do these days. But it’s about pushing a button a very particular type of publisher has made available, after millions of dollars of funding, lots of technology deployment, long-term (they hope) business planning, hiring, infrastructure creation, and marketing.
Because we are not the publishers of our writing in these venues, we are subject to whatever these publishers want to do with our material. Twitter is launching a new weekly email digest, which will repackage some of my tweets for some of my followers. Did I give them permission to do this? No. But that’s the implicit deal I have with my social network publishers — I get free and relatively unfettered access to their publishing platforms, and they get to do what they want with my writing. WordPress can feature it wherever they want on their network, and Facebook can use it to inform targeted advertising.
The sneaky part is that we don’t realize this. The publishing buttons are so available and feel so empowering that we don’t realize there’s an economic transaction, and that perhaps we’re the product being peddled. We feel like the owners, but are not. We are merely writing for the owners, the publishers — Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, to stick to those three examples (there are more — Blogger, FourSquare, Google+, any site you write a review for, and so on).
How can you know you’re not the publisher? There are a few hints:
- You’ve assumed no risk. Real publishers of all types shelter authors from risk.
- You have no legal exposure. Real publishers assume legal exposure of one type or another.
- You have no authors or contributors, and write whenever you want. Real publishers have to keep the content coming or perish.
- You can’t fail financially because you don’t publish well. Real publishers can fail if their publishing initiatives fail.
The last one of these raises an important point — I used to write for CompuServe.
Where’s my CompuServe publishing button today?