Joho the BlogAuthors don't scale. Topics do. - Joho the Blog

Authors don’t scale. Topics do.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Richard MacManus’ post at ReadWriteWeb about where Web publishing is going. In particular, I think the growth of topic streams is pretty much close to inevitable, whether this occurs via Branch + Medium (and coming from Ev Williams, I suspect that at the very least they’ll give Web culture a very heavy nudge) and/or through other implementations.

Richard cites two sites for this insight: Anil Dash and Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Excellent posts. But I want to throw in a structural reason why topics are on the rise rise: authors don’t scale.

It is certainly the case that the Web has removed the hold the old regime had over who got to publish. To a lesser but still hugely significant extent, the Web has loosened the hold the old regime had on who among the published gets attention; traditional publishers can still drive views via traditional marketing channels, but tons more authors/creators are coming to light outside of those channels. Further, the busting up of mass culture into self-forming networks of interest means that a far wider range of authors can be known to groups that care about them and their topics. Nevertheless, there is a limit within any one social network — and within any one human brain — to how many authors can be emotionally committed to.

There will always be authors who are read because readers have bonded with them through the authors’ work. And the Web has enlarged that pool of authors by enabling social groups to find their own set, even if many authors’ fame is localized within particular groups. But there are only so many authors you can love, and only so many blogs you can visit in a day.

Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators. Topics are defined as the ideas we’re interested in, so, yes, we’re interested in them! They also provide a very useful way of faceting through the aggregated web of creators — slicing through the universe of authors to pull in what’s interesting and relevant to the topic. There may be only so many topics you can be interested in (at least when topics get formalized, because there’s no limit to the things our curiosity pulls us toward), but within a topic, you can pull in many more authors, many of whom will be previously unknown and most of whom’s names will go by unnoticed.

I would guess that we will forever see a, dialectic between topics and authors in which a topic brings an author to our attention to whom we then commit, and an author introduces a topic to which we then subscribe. But we’ve spent the past 15 years scaling authorship. We’re not done yet, but it’s certainly past time for progress in scaling topics.

6 Responses to “Authors don’t scale. Topics do.”

  1. Just wanted to add – authors are topics too.

  2. […] Authors don’t scale Topics do via Joho the…Authors don’t scale. Topics do. […]

  3. You and Doc have been scaling the mountain tops ever since Cluetrain.

  4. When I started we[b logging] it was pretty easy to sort things into heaps. (heh I just realized that, this past week when I decided to heap some bookmarks into I used the same 2 basic heaps!)
    When I realized that I was addressing at least two distinct communties (More, really.) I pondered that and came up with a simple fix: same set of heaps, but on different sites. Which got me thinking about persona.

    Though I’ve been involved with tech_comms since 1972, it was only a bit later that the matter became personally charged; it seems that when we make bad decisions we do bad things … like over-throw governments that actually had been democratically elected. So the problematic became hyper-charged. (Pun, yes?)
    Even when I managed to facilitate access to publishing (1978; thanks to the staff of UofA CS for having been so forbearing!) I felt there was still something fundamental I hadn’t grappled with. That feeling arose again ’95/’96 … gobs more access, and gobs more quantity, but …
    … what was the missing ingredient?

    I got into taxonomy big-time … cog- and social psych late 90s. (Nothing like doing a clinical degree in your 40s to quicken your step!) And that gave me a sense of what was beckoning. (Yes, I do have a point … getting to it. It’s so simple that without context it’s insignificant.)

    What dawned on me was that, while you can tree any number of sub-sets, there is a finite set of human motives. Fears here, aspirations and hopes there.

    What’s this here got to do with topics?
    Just this: why does anything matter? just interest? just entertainment? just distraction and fun? Okie dokie … heap #1. Grabs your guts as an individual? #2.

    Now thing is: there was no way I could parse / graph / distinguish subject matter that way. What matters to whom?! (“Yes, exactly Glasshoppa!”)

    Cognitive schema … significance … salience … I ended up re-visiting “subjective narrative” (I was always a hippie, even when I was in uniform doing SigInt!) and following that into (see Jurgen Habermas) “discourse ethics”.

    And this is where the circle closes.
    “Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators.” If we accept that (wonderful insight!) and refactor, we end up with something that “bridges the inevitable continuum of opinions regarding morality and world-view.”

    Taxonomy. Ontology.
    How many subjects are there? how many topics? how many themes?
    No fiction writer worth his/her salt would say that there’s an infinite number of plots. In an academic sense, precisely, yes … of course. But really, aren’t they variations on a theme?

    I knocked myself out mapping / graphing topics. (Boyz oh boyz do I ever miss VRML.) Til I realized that the human experience winnows it down … across boundaries … across sources and creators …



  5. […] Authors don’t scale. Topics do. […]

  6. […] not to say that topic-based publishing on the web won’t be successful. It almost certainly will, especially in terms of discoverability of […]

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