The Internet's Effect on Publishing

Did the internet deliver exactly what was promised?

We have had the internet for decades, and everyone thought it would usher in a new era of knowledge sharing and democracy. Few predicted that it would so effectively facilitate the death of quality journalism and the rise of populism and fake news. [i won’t cite the person since this was a throwaway line and I don’t want risk a dogpile]

As far as I can tell the internet delivered exactly what everyone agreed it would back in the 90s, everyone has a voice now and a direct means of publishing their thoughts (even if their facebook friends have learned not to read it). Vastly more info is at our fingertips and we can factcheck stories in an instant for lies, but also omissions and burying of the lead, and affective manipulation.

And as a result we’ve realized the “intellectuals” and “adults in the room” have been lying to us and manipulating us the whole time.

. . .

I don’t know, I can barely remember not having the internet, maybe the 90s did expect some glorious conscienceness raising that never occurred... but from my perspective looking at Cyberpunk and 90s “break the story no one wants to hear” sci-fi....well the Internet is one of the few sci-fi predictions that totally delivered.

What do you think? am I missing something?

I liken this to publishing. As you may know, a similar sea change has swept through the publishing industry, now that anyone can sell a self-published book on Amazon (and elsewhere, but mostly it's just Amazon). There is a lot of debate and drama and even partisan camps over "traditional publishing" (getting an agent, a book contract, presence in brick-and-mortar stores, etc.) vs. "indie publishing" (throwing your NaNoWriMo novel up on Amazon and hoping that Hollywood comes calling).

Indie publishing really has taken a bite out of traditional publishing, and hurt a lot of authors' careers as publishing houses shrink, narrow their niches, focus more on a few bestsellers rather than cultivating a long-tail of midlisters, etc. (This trend isn't entirely the result of electronic publishing - it was already underway in the 80s. But Amazon has drastically accelerated it.)

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of indie published ebooks are badly written, unedited crap. You are searching through a sea of shit to find a few gems. The Andy Weirs are few and far between. Whereas traditionally published works have at least been professionally edited, and been through a vetting process whereby a few people with presumably professional tastes decided something was worth publishing. This doesn't prevent utter crap from getting published, but most people will have more confidence in something you can find on bookstore shelves.

Still, the fact that anyone can publish their novel, and a tiny handful of these indie authors are actually pretty good, and some of them actually build an audience, is a powerful incentive to say "Fuck the publishing industry," especially if the publishing industry won't publish the transsexual dinosaur Austen fanfic erotica you yearn for, but there's an indie author who will.

So, journalism. Professional journalists, who've been to j-school, and have editors, and a professional community, are, by and large, better at journalism than Internet Rando With An Opinion #3471233. We still go to the NYT and the Washington Post, not because everything they publish is reliable and good, but because even if you think they are horribly biased "fake news," the ratio of legitimate information to crap propaganda is still vastly higher than a random selection of blogs and reddit posts. If I don't have a lot of time and I want a more or less accurate summary of what happened in the impeachment hearings yesterday, I go to CNN, I don't spend an hour or more trawling through /r/pol.

Unless I have found a reliable blogger or a subreddit with people who I know post analyses I value. They are few and far between, but they exist. But it takes time to curate that list of "independent" sources and you of course run the danger of creating your own little echo chamber of people who just happen to say all the things you want to hear.

But more and more people are doing that. Any rando with an opinion can start a blog, and if he's entertaining enough and his opinions hit a chord, he'll get a following. Even if he's crazy and completely unreliable.

And that's what the Internet has brought us. An infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of keyboards. If you look hard enough, one of those monkeys is writing exactly what you're looking for, and nothing but time and effort stops you from finding him. The Internet has given a voice to everyone, but that doesn't mean it's made it easier to find "good" voices. So people still tend to defer to authorities. Professional publishing, professional journalism... you may think it's corrupt and out of date, but the signal to noise ratio is always going to be better. Both publishing and journalism is trying to shift to the curation model where they have people who can sift through the vast crap of randos on the Internet, find the few who write something you find worthwhile, and serve it up to you. (Medium is kind of this right now - anyone can post on Medium, you get paid according to how much of an audience you get - usually pennies, literally, but a few popular writers are making a living - and Medium has curators who will signal boost the stuff they think is actually good, and Medium subscribers can tailor what they receive according to their interests.)

All of which is to say, yeah, the Internet kind of delivered what it promised, but no one really knew what that would look like in twenty years because future predictions are always terrible.