“The internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly saysÂ in “Better than Free“Â an essayÂ in which he paints theÂ net asÂ a “super-distribution system.” ItÂ churns outÂ copies so “super abundant they become worthless.”Â KellyÂ advises creative people to invent new ways to make money because it is no longer possible toÂ charge for content.
But KellyÂ is onlyÂ half right. SureÂ the net isÂ a copier. But heÂ overlooksÂ the moreÂ revolutionary trait thatÂ will work toÂ our advantage as communicatorsÂ — the net is interactive. It restoresÂ the feedback between audience and author that we used to enjoyÂ back when stories were told around the campÂ fire.
That feedback loopÂ went missing aboutÂ six hundred years ago. Blame Gutenberg. HeÂ mass produced thought andÂ packaged itÂ in books.Â They diffused knowledgeÂ more efficiently than dispatching story tellers hither and yon.
ButÂ something was lost in the leap from oral to print. The oral storyÂ was interactive. If the audienceÂ seemed puzzled the story teller rephrased the tale. Print was practically set in stone. It never paused toÂ lookÂ forÂ comprehension.Â Print toldÂ only one versionÂ of the story andÂ it alwaysÂ flowed one way.Â About a century ago broadcast untethered stories from literacy. Knowledge radiated even more widelybut itÂ still flowed justÂ one-way.
And that’s the way it was.
Looking at today’s internet you’d never guess interactivity had staged aÂ comeback. Today’s internetÂ has bolted-on some interactive features –Â viewers canÂ comment on stories orÂ vote in informal polls.Â These tacticsÂ seem reminicent ofÂ early television when announcersÂ cupped oneÂ hand behind their earÂ for better acousticsÂ — realizing how silly they looked.
What wouldÂ an interactive publication look like? OhMyNews, the South Korea citizen journalism phenomenon,Â may beÂ the best example.Â About 20 percent of its content is produced by professionals. The rest is citizen-generated. It was founded in 2000 and is thoughtÂ to have swayedÂ the 2006 South Korean presidentialÂ race.Â
Yes, the Internet is a copying and distributionÂ engine. It isÂ destroying jobs and rewiringÂ industries. But the more pregnant change has yet to be realized. For more than 600 years the author and the audience have been sundered. Now the audience isÂ coming back into view. We can see themÂ just beyond the circle of flames. How do we catch their eyes and entice them to stay? That the question willÂ preoccupyÂ the 21st Century publisher.