I just re-read Jay Rosen’s piece on objectivity as persuasion more slowly than I did the first time. It’s like watching a master carpenter bang nails. Beautiful.
Jay’s post is #6 in a series. Jay tells me he has at least one more. So far, he’s written 15,000 words … and his commenters have written 96,000. (That second number seems way too high, but it’s based on my copying and pasting the comments (plus Jay’s integrated roundups) into a text editor. My clerical skills are poor, however.)
For Too Big to Know, I’ve written a section (which means I’ll probably be unwriting it tomorrow) taking these six pieces as an example of one type of long-form writing on the Web … or, more exactly, web-form writing. At the end of the discussion, I list advantages and disadvantages of Jay’s webby version of long-form argument versus standard, book-length, printed long-form arguments. In abbreviated form:
1. The argument assumes a natural length.
2. The ground the argument covers is more responsive to the ground itself. Readers will point out neglected areas that the argument requires the author to talk about.
3. The work becomes embedded in a loose-edged discussion that more naturally reflects the messy, intertwingled nature of topics.
4. Readers are given fewer reasons to get off the bus midway. When Darwin writes in Chapter Four of On the Origin of Species that â€œHe who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory,â€ heâ€™s opening the door and inviting passengers to get off. If Darwin had published in a webby way, he would have discovered unanticipated objections, and he would have been able to meet at least some of them.
5. Ideas get out to their public far faster than the old write-in-private, publish-in-public model.
6. The ideas more successfully escape the grasp of the author so that they can change the world.
7. Readers are more involved in the long argument the author used to be having with himself.
8. The authorâ€™s authority gets right-sized. Simply seeing the author engage with readers through comments tells the great percentage of readers who do not leave comments that the author recognizes that her/his words need defense, that her/his authority goes no further than the worth of the ideas.
9. We can see some of the effects of the writerâ€™s words rippling through the culture.
1. Some people donâ€™t like to work this way.
2. Some arguments work better rhetorically if they are presented all at once.
3. Some ideas wonâ€™t do well commercially if developed in public for free. Note, though, that itâ€™s not clear that our assumptions here are correct. Cory Doctorow, among others, has succeeded commercially, as well as in the impact of his ideas, by giving away online access to his books even as he sells hardcopies.
4. The published book is a traditional token of expertise and achievement. They look mighty impressive arrayed on oneâ€™s bookshelf.
5. It is harder for us to know what to believe, because more voices are present and in contention.
(By the way, these forms of argument are not mutually exclusive. Both and many more as well are present simultaneously on the Net. On the other hand, traditional long-form arguments posted on the Web inevitably become embroiled in web-form arguments, and thus are not unchanged.)