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The Reading World

Reconstructing Dialogue: Publishers’ new jobs

The 140 Characters Conference this week, hosted by Jeff Pulver and attended by many of my friends, spawned a lot of discussion about the nature of communication, even though it was often cast in the terms of economics, both monetarily so and in relation to intellectual brevity. Publishers Weekly observed a conflict between long- and short-form discussion as well as the potential poisoning of the economic well because of too much commercialization of Twitter.

We do love competition
We do love competition

This is simply another variant on the professional/amateur, journalist/blogger arguments of earlier years, but it has legs, because it frames a debate about which side should “win,” which is excellent fodder for conferences and columns, blogs and short statements on Twitter or Friendfeed. It misses the point that all media blends over time, rather than one media appearing and replacing another. These conflicts are sideshows, albeit apparently enjoyable sideshows, to the larger, subtle changes that are altering our world.

It is not the case that all thought can be reduced to 140 characters, as it is fashionable to claim these days, so the challenge—one that is going to be partially addressed through the evolution of books and social software, is to create a consilience of long- and short-form dialogue, so that ideas that are explained at length in one venue, such as a book or Web page, can be extended and discussed in shorter forms that gracefully integrate with the long-form. Also, the short form needs to be artfully connected to long-form thinking, so that the two experiences are not separate, as they are today, which creates false dichotomy between the parts of discussions.

Hashmarks and search don’t heal this rift, they simply organize the boundary between long- and short-form parts of human communication.

Many worlds in a view
Many worlds in a view

Practices of the mind and social behaviors that “bridge” this gap are helpful, but remind me of the guard towers along the Berlin Wall—everyone on both sides spoke German (and a different second language, ideologically charged, which was the real communications problem). The fact that there is dialogue across these boundaries is the exception that proves the rule of opposition between long and short forms.

We need flow (see Jerry Michalski‘s declaration of a desire to be accessible and useful from the early blogging days), we need consilience. Formats need to be completely permeable, semantically connected and, wherever you are, on a page, in a book, in Twitter and IM, to serve as channels out of one place and its ideas to others. That’s what the Semantic Web will look like, and we haven’t seen even a glimmer of how vastly different that will really be.

We’re adding channels, which is not a zero-sum game. It’s not necessary for one mode of communication to defeat another. The current e-book format wars are yet another example of a useless conflict, because none of the formats supports real dialogue. They are just replicating the close experience of paper books, with barriers to sharing ideas, annotations and conversations (note: the plural is necessary) within the text.

When this argument about the “best” channel for all communication gives way to reasonable discussions about all channels, we’ll be making progress toward a semantic infrastructure that doesn’t trap people and their ideas in a single format.

Bonus Reading: Tom Foremski offers this assessment of the Internet, it “devalues everything it touches, anything that can be digitized.” Yet, that doesn’t mean there’s no value on anything on the Internet, only that the traditional services and processes for gathering and distributing value in information need to change. Tom writes, “Is this a bad thing? No, it is just what it is, just as gravity just —neither good or bad.” It also means, I might add, that the old ways weren’t necessarily bad or good, just what happened to evolve in response to technology and human culture. Highly recommended.

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