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Anthologize It

as most«/span> readers of this blog know, I was one of the people involved with One Week | One Tool and (therefore) one of the people responsible for Anthologize.

There’s a lot to say about this. Even if the team hadn’t produced anything worthy, I would still consider my experience at OneWeek to be among the most exciting of my career. I have no doubt that software development under these extraordinary conditions provides some useful information about how to do it under normal conditions. But the truth is, the people I worked with were in every sense extraordinary. I’ve been writing software for a long time. I seldom encounter people who so perfectly combine ferocious talent with bonhomie. It was a total blast from beginning to end.

But I do want to say a few things about what we built.

Anthologize was designed by committee, so my sense of what it’s about doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the wider group. To be honest, I spent most of OneWeek thinking about code, since I was (and continue to be) one of the developers for the project. But since we just had a point release, I’ve found myself thinking about the bigger picture.

The reaction to Anthologize has been overwhelming — really beyond what I could have imagined. This tool clearly fulfills a need that people have, but I honestly don’t think I was fully in touch with the depth of that need even as I enthusiastically voted to go forward with the project. In the midst of all the enthusiasm and well-wishing that followed the official launch, though, I noticed a couple of detractions. To me, these were some of the most thought-provoking comments. Two struck me in particular:

What’s with the book fetish?

Bloggers have had to contend with a lot of sneering opposition from other parties (publishers, professional journalists, academics), who consider the “blogosphere” a faddish, pseudo-populist version of what they do both professionally and very well, thank you. By creating and promoting a “blog-to-book” framework, aren’t we just bolstering the dubious idea that “books” — even digital ones — are more legitimate than things like blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts? What’s wrong with blogs? Why do blogs need to be something else? Especially something that looks for all the world like a non-digital, old school codex?

Why would anyone want to use a blog to write books?

The WordPress editor is great for typing up blog posts. But do we really want to use it as the basis for a publishing platform? Do we seriously imagine that any serious writer will want to move from Word to WordPress for the creation of books?

I’m glomming together a number of different voices here for the sake of argument. But these two struck me as the most significant threads.

It’s striking that neither of these critiques is in any way hostile toward technology in general or eBooks in particular. The first wonders whether there’s a secret conservatism to what we’re doing; the second poses a mostly utilitarian question about which tool is best for the job. So the usual screed we hear (the one I, at any rate, hear all the time from people I assume should know better) won’t work:

”[People Students Kids Forward-thinkers] nowadays don’t work anything like the rest of us. They don’t care about [publishing school grades books]. They just want to [text blog tweet frag]. The future lies with [MyTwitFaceList]. Those who fail to recognize this will end up like [Chrysler The British Empire Dick Cheney That Guy From the Patent Office].”

People who move in tech circles — particularly in “edutech” — will recognize how little exaggeration there is in the above paragraph. I’ve sat through entire talks where the basic rhetorical posture amounted to “kids these days” and the way they’re lapping us with their canny, transhuman tastes. But in the end, there’s never any explanation as to why such a change might be good or bad — why we might, as a culture, want to intervene or not. Generally, such pronouncements come with all the portentous inevitability of prophecy. You can get with the program or go off the grid, but the program is running and the grid is permanently woven into the fabric of contemporary reality.

Yet it’s tempting to say something like this with respect to Anthologize. Many segments of conventional book publishing are, for a variety of reasons both practical and philosophical, in serious trouble. It is the case that more and more writing is moving online, and that the line between draft and finished, “published” product is becoming less and less clear. It is also the case that a world in which written words are conveyed in a sharply limited number of hard-to-produce formats (hardback/paperback, newspaper/magazine) is giving way to one in which “format” indicates literally dozens of devices, layouts, and contexts.

I think Anthologize is a tool that not only countenances this new way of doing things, but declares that it is a good way of doing things.

It’s a rare writer that doesn’t dream of being published, because publishing means legitimacy. You might be planning a novel, or writing a novel, or even printing out your finished novel, but we reserve the title “novelist” for those who have published. In academia, publishing stands as the final warrant of your expertise — a certification that is even more powerful than holding an advanced degree in the subject. In fact, any expert on any subject appearing on any television program you might see “is the author of” something. That’s why they’re experts. They’re published.

Many people involved in the business of publishing — including authors — like to defend publishing-as-legitimacy on philosophical grounds. At times, the contours of that defense are indistinguishable from those used to defend Petrine succession or the establishment of coequal branches of government — either as a sacred trust that is self-evidently good, or as a rational principle that is now part of the stewardship necessary for a well-ordered society.

The reality is that much of what legitimizes publishing arises from the fact that only a few people get to do it. Resource constraints prohibit just anyone from publishing, and so we have to choose a subset of the people who are interested in and capable of doing so. If you’re published, you automatically belong to a pretty exclusive club. You can view that cynically (as I am wont to do with segments like university press publishing) or as a mostly neutral, if hard-edged reality. But the idea that resource constraints somehow ensure or logically entail the validity of systems designed to limit the number of people who can publish seems to me pretty ridiculous.

And that is, more or less, the argument that is made. In most sectors — and especially in academia — online publishing removes most of the resource constraints that limit the dissemination of information. Leaving aside the (very real) problems of the digital divide, we now live in a world in which pretty much anyone can put pretty much anything online. Yet even in the absence of the old constraints, the communities with a stake in publishing rush in to try to re-establish the old methods of selection.

I am not so naive as to think that everything that appears on a blog is of world-historical moment, or that every site devoted to the advancement of knowledge meets the standards of scholarly excellence. But it strikes me as obtuse and mildly elitist to think that our present system successfully separates the sheep from the goats even most of the time. The question is not “How do we ensure that only good stuff appears?” The question is, “How do we know what’s good in a world where everything appears?”

Except that that’s not the question either. The real question is whether we think that the traditional systems — which were designed for scarcity — represent the best way of figuring that out. Is it really the case that acquisitions editors, editorial boards, and “outside” reviewers remain the best way to manage what some have called the “Age of Abundance?” Is it really better to have a restricted set of “journals” that present carefully chosen subsets of ideas, when all the rest of the ideas are a click away? Do our choices really lie between the sage judgments of experts and the fickle whims of the unwashed masses?

Anthologize is a piece of software designed to manage some very practical matters related to the way we move text around on the Web. But I also think it’s an intervention in this debate. I think it says the following:

Anthologize isn’t the last word on all of this. Given the “this,” I’m not sure that we would want it to be. But I think if there’s one lesson to be gleaned from One Week One Tool, it’s that tools can embody arguments and viewpoints — that building is itself a rhetorical act. To me, Anthologize embodies a lot of my beliefs about the past and future of publishing.

Others may differ, of course. Fortunately for you, they also have blogs.

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