The Social Life of Numbers

Increasingly, data analytics is becoming a major driver in many markets. This is largely in part due to the proliferation of data that is out there and the many sophisticated tools that people have developed for analyzing this data. Now, more than ever, businesses are able to make informed decisions, and conversely businesses are realizing that to ignore data would prove detrimental to their success. Publishing is seeing uptake of this mindset with initiatives such as Booknet, Nielsen BookScan, (now The NPD Group), and Bookstat, among others, which track book sales, and projects that attempt to mine the data of literature at more granular levels, such as plot and sentence structure. Other initiatives are aiming to crack the “blockbuster” code—that is, scan manuscripts using a sophisticated algorithm to determine whether or not this book could be the next big hit.

I support the gathering and usage of data at the point-of-sale level. This data can provide insights about the size and shape of the publishing industry, help publishers manage inventory and distribution, and can also be used to help predict sales, which can help publishers at numerous stages of the acquisition and production process. I believe that this kind of macro-level data can support the human decision making process without supplanting it, and it is for this basic reason that I object to the use of algorithmic data to scan manuscripts. I believe that data use in this way would fundamentally stifle innovation because the algorithm would essentially be backward-looking, because it was built using books already published. For this reason, I also feel like it may be unable to accomplish the task it was designed to do. Blockbusters are so successful partially because they are doing something new or fresh—readers are intelligent, and they know when they’re being sold something that they’ve seen before.

Where I feel that data could be used more meaningfully and beneficially in publishing is in the area of marketing and social media. Increasingly it seems to be the case that books live or die depending on their author’s social media platform and presence. I believe that this is owing to the ubiquity of social media—people are now able to be connected to almost everyone almost always, which has conditioned them to want this. Consequently, the figure of the author is becoming more and more central to a book’s success.

So, what if there was a way to analyze an author’s social media presence and reach in a streamlined way, and then apply that knowledge to knowledge of the social media market on a large scale, to help construct and plan a social media strategy to gain that author the greatest reach possible? An algorithm could be constructed based off of press campaigns for past books and authors, sales data, and social media reach before and after the campaign. Ideally, the algorithm could also look at market distribution to help publishers plan book launch tours based on where receptive audiences (according to interest, affiliation, etc.) cluster.

Essentially, I’m not comfortable using data to help shape the history of literature. I believe that that should be done with the human eye, to allow for and encourage innovation. I do, however, believe that we could be using data in a more meaningful and robust way to help market books once they have been selected for publication.

 

 

Data Privacy 101: An Introduction to Surveillance Capitalism

The issue of data privacy is of central importance in the modern age, and, given the business models that now depend on metrics gathered via surveillance, it doesn’t seem that it will change in the near future. Furthermore,  much of people’s discomfort around data gathering seems to stem from the lack of transparency and knowledge about what data is gathered and stored, and how that data is used. As a result, and, influenced by education that I received regarding sharing on social media, I do think that education about this issue should be built into curriculums, and that it could be spearheaded by the government.

Often times corporations argue that users have agreed to have their data monitored and collected, however the terms by which users agree to this are invariably written in legalese and buried deep in long contracts that users have gotten used to skimming or ignoring completely because they are so long and often impenetrable. Often, I think, even if users did read the entire document, they wouldn’t fully understand what was being communicated or what they were agreeing to.

If the issue is a lack of understanding and knowledge about data collection and use, then the method of redress should aim to demystify and make transparent the issue of data collection and use. The problem is that, as surveillance capitalism becomes more and more commonplace, and the methods by which data is gathered, and—in fact—the data gathered become more and more extensive, we can’t expect private companies who stand to profit under this system to educate people. It would be great if they did, but they stand to gain too much from people remaining uneducated.

For this reason, I actually think the government could and should assume the responsibility of educating people about data collection and privacy. When I was in high school, we had a number of assemblies and lectures about what sort of information we were sharing on social media. It was framed as a matter of safety, and also from the perspective that nothing that was shared could ever really truly be deleted or taken back.

In a lot of ways, a conversation about data collection is an extension of this issue—essentially, it is still a matter of privacy. The difference is that the lessons I was taught in high school were about information and content I was choosing to share, whereas the conversations we need to be having now are about information that is being collected without our knowledge.

I think that educating people about how their data is collected and used is essential to people being able to make informed decisions about their digital lives. Furthermore, the current structures in place for doing this (Terms and Conditions documents, etc.) are not accomplishing this, (probably because ignorance of this matter is actually in corporations’ best interest.) Therefore, the government should intervene and build education about data privacy into curriculums. It should be something that becomes a basic part of peoples’ consciousness, as digital technology is increasingly becoming intertwined with peoples’ daily lives, and surveillance capitalism may be here to stay.

So Much Depends/ Upon/ So Many/ Business Models

In any ecosystem, heterogeneity is a healthy thing. We love flowers and they’re beautiful, but if Vancouver *only* had flowers—no trees, no grasses, no vines or bushes, the ecosystem would collapse. Likewise, if we only had, say, Maple trees and violets and no other trees or flowers, we would have an impoverished ecosystem because only a select few other plants and limited animals would be able to survive here.

The same is true of any market. The danger of any business model—Patreon, Kickstarter, or ad-generated revenue—becoming dominant is that each of these models allows for a certain type of content to survive. Patreon works ideally for artists who have grown a platform elsewhere and have an ongoing artistic practice that would exist with or without patrons—that is, it works best when the income earned is supplemental as opposed to substantial. Of course some people do survive off of their Patreon income, but as we’ve seen, that’s an incredibly small percentage of people using the platform, and I think putting this expectation on the platform is unreasonable.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, works best when it’s enabling a project to move forward. As opposed to Patreon, which has little-to-no community or tools for discovery, it is possible to find projects on Kickstarter without knowing *exactly* who—or what—you’re looking for. For this reason, having a following is definitely beneficial but not absolutely necessary in the same way it is with Patreon. Where Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding) platforms excel is actually in building awareness and support for projects—monetary and otherwise. For this reason, it’s best suited for large, one-off projects that exist outside of an artist’s regular practice.

The existence of ad-generated revenue is also essential because it allows for “free” content, or at least content that is widely and openly accessible without the user having to pay money. Because the Internet is so ubiquitous in, and in many ways, essential to modern life, it’s important that there are services, communities, and content that are accessible without a fee. This is, of course, outside of the conversation about privacy and the politics of collecting information in lieu of a fee, which isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for a fee. That being said, however, while I use Facebook (for communicating with fellow cohort members and for finding out about/RSVPing to events,) I’m not sure that I would pay for it. Personally, I’m okay with the exchange of some online privacy for a service that I feel is useful but not absolutely essential.

Part of what makes the Internet as great and useful (and at times scary) is that it allows for so many different types of content and creators to flourish. As with almost anything, however, one size does not fit all, and too much of a good thing is not a good thing. In my opinion, the Internet benefits from creators with an ongoing artistic practice, creators with big ambitious ideas, and free services, and for all of these to survive, there needs to be a variety different business/funding models to properly support them.

Platform Cooperativism Takes to Publishing

I’m going to take a stab at applying platform cooperativism to publishing, which I actually don’t think is that much of a stretch from established chapbook/anthology cultures.

It starts with five authors. No, it starts with only two. They’re best friends. They went through writing school together, but they haven’t had any luck submitting their work to literary journals. They’re frustrated with the gatekeeper system, so they decide to publish a chapbook together using their own money and limited understanding of design/layout. It’s a bit ramshackle, but it’s a sincere effort. They tell their friends and they bring some by to small art spaces around the city. Some of their friends express an interest in putting together a similar project, so the next time around, there are five authors. With the growth of the group, their reach also expands, and they’re gaining the interest of writers and creatives outside of their immediate social circles. They start to think of themselves as a collective. They stumble over involving people that they don’t directly know, but the city is small and the people interested are still friends-of-friends, so they start holding meetings and thinking about putting together another chapbook.

From my understanding, the story so far is one that many independent presses more or less have in common—it’s also analogous to various artists throughout history who have been unable to find mainstream success, so they’ve broken out and done their own thing instead (for one very notable example, check out the history of the Impressionist movement, following the initial Salon des Refusés  of 1863.)

How I’m imagining this venture could mature into a platform cooperative, however, is if they continued to publish anthologies as opposed to  collections or pieces written by one person. I say this because it seems more compatible with the cooperative model—in the Shareable article, “What is a Platform Co-op?” the contributors talk about the importance of the platform providing a service or selling a product, as well as the centrality of the platform being collectively owned and governed.

I think it takes a great deal of goodwill and organization to set something like this up, but perhaps the collective could be run by an editorial board and an executive board. People on both boards would be voted in, and every member of the collective would contribute a certain amount of money. Collective members could submit pieces for inclusion in that year’s issue, and the editorial board would decide what to publish. A portion of proceeds would go towards supporting the publishing etc., but anything earned beyond that could be paid back to the collective members.

Obviously this sort of idea is only scalable to a point, but I do think it’s possible. It almost feels like a hybrid between a Patreon-like model and a true platform cooperative, but I think it’s the most realistic way to apply the idea to publishing.

Work Cited

Mai Sutton, Cat Johnson, and Neal Gorenflo. “A Shareable Explainer: What is a Platform Co-op?” Shareable. August 16, 2016.

 

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was an Ever-Waser

No, I’m not comparing myself to the titular bear, but doesn’t all of this lingo remind anyone else of that tongue twister?

Anyways, let’s get down to it: Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker article, “The Information,” lays out three categories of people, divided according to how they feel about the evolution of technology. The Never-Betters feel very optimistic about technology’s continued evolution; The Better-Nevers, as a foil, feel equally pessimistic. The Ever-Wasers have a more ambivalent relationship to technology—or, at least, they accept it for what it is currently and acknowledge that it will continue to evolve and change.

I’d sort myself into this third category. Quite frankly, the Golden Era rhetoric is getting a little tiring. I get that for people whose livelihood/identity was associated with the Internet at a specific point in its evolution, there’s more on the line. They have a horse in the race that I admittedly do not. I think also for my generation, who grew up as the Internet was growing up, maybe it’s easier for us to take these changes in stride.

But I also think that underlying this conversation is a bit of a blindspot regarding technology and evolution. Technology and media exists as a continuum, and it’s never really been stagnant. People have always been pushing forward—be it by combining different parts of the printing process into one mega machine, putting telephone’s in people’s homes, or building smaller (and then bigger) and smarter cell phones. Also, at every point in history, as technology has evolved, there’s been someone saying that it was so much better before  X existed, and that X is corrupting The Youth, ruining humanity’s collective existence, etc. Perhaps the issue is that technology evolves faster and more dramatically than we do.

There’s also a part of me that feels like the Golden Era rhetoric is ageist. Saying “the Internet/technology was better way back when” is at least similar to saying “my Internet/technology is better than your Internet/technology” (which, also, returning to my previous point, is more or less the same as “my generation’s music is better than your generation’s music”.) I feel like it goes hand in hand with “you had to be there”. But we weren’t.

Finally, an issue that was raised in this week’s readings that I feel relates back to this conversation is the issue of the Internet/technology being misused and generally evil. I resent the implication that humans for the first time in history are being mislead or being exposed to biased information. Media and news has always come from somewhere, and as long as it’s been coming from anywhere, the framing and colouring of the news has reflected the views/biases of the person writing the copy, or paying for the broadcast station.

Technology is not any better or worse than it’s ever been. It may be stronger and bigger, but I’m positive that in 20 years, someone will look back and call this a golden era. So, relax. These are the golden days. They always have been. They always will be.