Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fine, I'm listening...

So I suppose I was a skeptic of this crowdsourcing concept. I fell into the group that worried we were lowering the bar to the common denominator in place of letting the brightest amongst us speak up. The idea, for those few not in the know, is that the internet has created a networked world, so now cheap data can be found by throwing a problem out to the networked masses. The linked article by Jeff Howe from Wired uses these examples:
The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users.
And mind you, folks, that article was from 2006. So the concept is now here and common and ready to take over the world.

But my fear has always been that you remove any credibility in this equation. I mean, why trust the masses in this way?! Are you nuts? I guess it seems like just another spin on capitalism, shrouded in technology and celebrations of the ever-trendy Geek.

Having said all that, I still found the quote from Clay Shirky in today's brief BEA report on Publishers Lunch interesting. Shirky is credited as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization. I know, I just groaned a little, BUT the man makes a good point!

To quote The Lunch:
Shirky suggests that "the critical question for the book industry is how you deal with a world in which readers can also write and share," and finding "some way to take advantage of that engagement." He wonders whether publishers can establish more subscription-like relationships with readers, whether on an imprint basis or author-by-author--observing that "effectively, Clancy and Grisham have all but subscription models today." He asked, "Is there a way to say 'trust us on this.' Can we involve the reader in a long-term process that's about some emotional connection." As he noted, "one-off transactions are incredibly expensive and they lock the reader out of any kind of conversation."

Now I've talked about publisher subscriptions on here multiple times, referencing McSweeneys Book Release Club (which I joined) and Community Supported Publishing at South End Press. And I like to pretend readers notice publishers and build trust in them, though folks like Christopher have tried to disavow me of this naive belief. But Shirky is telling publishers they might want to think this way, and get into the game.

The email right below Publishers Lunch in my inbox is from the good folks at Alternet, and the subject line is my name and followed by "Citizen Publisher." Now hear this! They are starting to publish books, which has some potential, and they have a whacky new campaign. As the email explains,
We tried something new last week. For the first time in AlterNet's history, we invited our loyal readers to join our publishing family as AlterNet Citizen Publishers. Hundreds stepped up and are now helping us publish our upcoming book, Count My Vote.

Here's how you can help publish this book: make a donation of $10 or more and you'll immediately become an AlterNet Citizen Publisher. Your name will be listed as a publisher in the book, Count My Vote (or not, if you prefer anonymity). And if you donate $40, we'll send you a copy of the new book -- hot off the presses before its public release.

This is bringing the citizen journalism movement into book publishing, and once again blurring the lines between vanity publishing and traditional publishing. It's doing what Shirky endorses, by getting people - in this case, quite literally - to invest in the company, to subscribe, to feel part of it.

This kind of excites me, makes me reconsider the concept. Part of me is still bothered by the central conceit that American consumers, just to separate out my countryfolk for a second, need to see themselves in the products they purchase and/or endorse. Of course, I immediately think of Time magazine voting it's person of the year, "You" in 2006, putting a reflective something on the cover. That was the ultimate in appealing to a customer's vanity, no?

So is Alternet doing something similar? Is the message that a person won't buy a book unless they are in it somehow?

And if so, is it a good thing because of Alternet's (and the book's) higher purpose, trying to push a progressive agenda in a way that uses solidarity?

My skepticism is mixing with optimism, but they are slugging it out. I'll have to keep following these developments.

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Sociable