A journey from cables to people´s minds

Ok, so here we are, it has been like one of those roller coaster rides where you experience a lot in such a short time and by the end you say: Its that all? After you were (probably) screaming during the ride.

I leave this ride shook but very satisfied with what happened. Suddenly, as everything starts to calm down and I write this, my very last assignment for the term, I realize so much had happened week to week. Yes, I was sitting here, most weeks “rolling the squirrel” (that is how we Mexicans say… Oh forget it!) thinking about what we discussed earlier in the week about the topic. The routine, to read, annotate and write something coherent has been the most enriching exercise for me, it helped me get more disciplined, academically speaking and preview what was coming next. I certainly wrote most of my blogs at this time, 7, 14, 21, (not 28) days ago. But I can say I spent many other days just thinking of what we talked or telling  my wife about those articles that did not make sense to me.

So for knowledge, yes, the internet and DARPA, interesting story, “Its just a Cable” said Juan the first day, “The web is not the Internet” and started to shed light over those tiny details that make the whole thing as fascinating, powerful and dangerous as it is. This is the modern Pandora’s Box, except that we open it regularly without it exploding in our faces… most of the time.

Having references and learning some  tags and categories was very useful, we were building our internal agreements and vocabulary, Never-Betters, Better-Nevers and the other lukewarm water guys helped a lot to understand further topics, but most important, to understand each other in the discussions. Obviously the categories were simplistic and the words changed over time, (early/late adopters for example) but the discourse kept growing over the weeks, we were discussing “What Rachel and Anu” said the other day for example.

More than a study of technology, was a discussion about the human mind, or if you allow me, the human soul. I can say I learned from every reading and from everyone, whether they share my point of view or not, the world is a big place, and it becomes even bigger in cyberspace (finally found a place to use that word). Being the oldest around also helped (yes, older than Juan, if not as smart), as I was raised in a world where computers were just a luxury accessory and you dialed the phone, literally. Where you could create things with 512 Kb of RAM, had to be careful to save an image with 1.3Mb of capacity and the user friendly concept was a work in progress (for computers anyway). I certainly may have seemed alien in many of my opinions during discussions but as much I learned from other views, respected them (mostly) and I can say they changed my own vision.

I am sure this was the plan so the ride was successful, as for my favorite topic… I am still debating. I really enjoyed reading about Copyright from a different perspective, always was glad we did not take it off the syllabus, but Digital Reading was also fascinating. In the end, I can say the one I enjoyed most reading was Interacting and socializing, although this may be because it triggered a lot of things and the focus Trenton and Lena gave to it was great, after all, what is the future of Publishing? We will find out, probably soon. … well, not that soon anyway.

So excuse me for being enthusiast, I could talk about “what I learned” in terms of knowledge, but that is well known and has been discussed already, the most valuable thing is what I learned from my cohort  and Juan, because all of them are exceptional people and I am honored to have been part of this group. It saddens me not to be able to hear your opinions in the same forum although it may be interesting to create a group for that… I can see your faces saying “Are you crazy? Get some sleep!”

Anyway, its been a great ride! Now, let’s get out there.


FIN  WAIT!

Lets go back to the fundamental question:

What happens to publishing in an era where the vast majority of publishing and reading happens on the Internet?

My impression is internet and printed books are seen many times as poles of the same thing, while it is not the case, we love the dialectic discourse and had been trained to look at things this way.

There are reasons why some really BIG corporations and individuals see it as a problem, they were shaken by the advent of the Internet, they were happy curating, editing and printing books, magazines, newspapers and other printed materials, enjoying a great power and misusing it often to shape the world along with their friends, the mass media: TV, Radio, Movies, etc. Then comes this thing, the Internet with the Web and suddenly, everyone is talking, discussing, expressing opinions they did not asked, they did not allowed to ask and actually nobody had a way to ask publicly. When heard, read and discussed, these questions raised more questions, in a snowball effect.

Suddenly everyone was aware of many more things than those that were filtered through the TV screen, newspaper, books or radio, everyone was giving an opinion and not hearing to those “expert” writing books or talking in shows and programs, people started sharing events not sanctioned by the publishers and media and making the whole thing a mess.

It has been some times discussed in class, publisher houses have been progressively absorbed into “Media Groups” as have been the case of film companies, and like Alphabet is starting to understand, these Media Groups, like Bertelsmann and Pearson (Owners of Penguin-Random House), do not like to be under the light, after all, people is happy having those funny “big” companies as referents, while the real BIG ones just watch the game unfold.

In the above example, it would be definitely bad for the business if someone finds use for the fact that Penguin-Random House is actually co-owned by Bertelsmann a German Company that has been around for nearly 200 years (183 to be exact) and which, for example, during World War 2, was a leading supplier to the Wehrmacht and even used Jewish slave labor to increase their profits. But also Pearson plc, the other co-owner, started as a construction and engineering company which among other things, built Tanks for WW1. Nothing farther from “the preservation of culture” unless your idea is to preserve your culture by wiping out the rest, which is a discussion point for later.

Those really BIG companies started to build their empires, way before the publishers we know today, and like them, other BIG players came into scene like CBS (Owner of Simon & Schuster), Viacom, Time Warner, etc. They are not concerned with readability, legibility, privacy respect, ebooks, etc. They just want YOU.

So what the internet has to do with this? Like I said, it came to shake the way we shared and consumed information. But then it derailed somewhere, when America On Line (AOL) came into the picture, it growed exponentially, like them, allowing to merge (buy) with Time Warner while retaining 55% of the shares, they really screwed up so Warner took it back some years later. In the meantime, other companies benefited of the big boom and then, later we had the players we love to hate  (some just love them) Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the other guys who really don’t matter. What does that mean? That the Internet has become another great power source, and just like the other media companies, it has given us more titans that fight among the older ones with no clear victory foreseeable and the only real effect in that they “change people’s lives”.

But wait! Wars and disease also change people’s lives, so don’t be deceived by the kind-related motto, product of years of marketing seen almost everywhere.

The whole point of this picture is to these companies have been there for a while and struggle today for having the big prize: US (as in we, not the country). It has been sad and terrifying to hear many of my classmates to say: I am no one, my data is not important, let them track me if they give me what I want and things like that. It points out that the indoctrination has worked, and so, everyone is jumping freely into the furnace (enter cartoon of people hitting the “I Accept” button and jumping into a fire pit).

Yes, we share, we laugh and we give our data “freely” having little space to rationalize it. Events like Cambridge-Analytics are opportunities for that. What happened to that internet that would free us from the BIG ones? That caused them to shake and even be acquired by the new players? Weren’t they supposed to change the world? So many questions but lets back to the first. What happens to publishing?

We now are aware of the potential power a Publisher has, not only in the book industry, but as an expert in making things public, to divulge, to understand what is happening, to get information, setting up strategies, tracking and distilling data, all those skills that will help us not only in the immediate industries, but as a human activity. The conclusion, Publishing is not disappearing, far from it, is outreaching and adapting to other fields, interacting with them and figuring out what to do.. Game publishers, interactive narratives, video game publishers, podcasts, bloggers, social media, social causes, publishers can make a change in many places now, not just the book and magazine industry. The key here is observe, learn and adapt.

Now that I know better, I don’t find a reason for the printed books to disappear like many early adopters suggest. I am contemplating a huge landscape with millions of possibilities, this is what this course has taught me. To think about who are the players, to know what is my role as an individual and as a future publishers and to learn the existing technologies and business (rather difussion) models we have available. It has been really helpful to learn this because even if I decide to set up a Scriptorium where we make books manually old-style, I will be aware and watching what is happening outside and for sure, I will be using what I have learned here to promote these hand made products. It has been helpful to know other’s opinions, we gave the best and we gave it for free, we even hit the I Agree button.

So what is coming next? We will see, now, lets get those tacos!

 

Set them free, the world is your limit!

This week questions are quite interesting, they took me back to square one: our firsts discussions during Pub800 class where we talked about the differences between texts and documents and how Publishing was the process to make these public, resulting also in counter-publics that detached and created further texts of their own.

As we have have learned, Publishing’s ultimate goal, in its aspect of creating, gathering or finding a public for a text, would be that such public shares, experiences and adapt the texts contained in the documents produced. Thus, once published, the text becomes part of the common knowledge domain and its nearly impossible to prevent audiences from interacting, shaping and even limit them to experience it the best way they can, because, in any case, its unimaginable to expect to provide a single experience out of it.

However, the document where such text (or texts) is contained, is usually protected by Copyright laws in order to ensure the author and publisher get proper compensation for their efforts producing it. And thus, is becoming subject of discussion about its integrity and the right of the audience to change it.

When an author wants to publish something, whether to reach a specific/limited audience or looking for more widespread recognition, he or she must be ready for such appropriation by the public, after all, that is the whole point about publishing. Yet, they have also the right (along with the editor and publisher if present) to shape the way it is told and presented,  so that way  reflects the intention and ideas contained withing it, we know this as the moral rights.

Now, considering these two factors, the document becoming public on one side and the author retaining moral rights on the other, seems pretty simple to draw a line where the audience can use and enjoy the text while authors and publishers can enjoy the right to decide upon the possible outcomes and follow up from there on.

Whether as marginalia or annotations, sharing or discussing in real public forums or digital media, or even expanding a text, the public is using their right to experience it, after all, it is what is expected. But the author, as the creator of an idea, and the publisher as the responsible to shaping it for the public, have the right to decide on the following step (if any) of its publishing history. Still, authors should not limit who can talk about them or how they do that, that is practically impossible, although they can give their opinion on the subject and use their moral authority on them.

So certainly, people can create fan fiction, music themes or other derivative works of The Expanse novel series for example, but that does not mean these will become part of the next novel or the “official universe”. They cannot be used to make profit as detachments but they can be shared and discussed of course. No matter how democratic we wish to be, the moral rights for those works simply belong to the Authors and they are the only ones allowed to decide on the next step of this story. The only exception to this rule that comes to my mind, would be an academic text, which contains some erroneous theories or conclusions that would be observed by the community and peer reviewed.

Furthermore, adding some of the topics also reviewed last week, let me bring the example of Role Playing Games to this picture. RPGs are quite fascinating. In their tabletop version, we suddenly have a whole world at our disposal to play in, and tell stories. Storylines and worlds are offered to the audience to freely play with them (literally) and thus, createtheir own versions of them.

Simply speaking, I can read a story written by some author, adapt it or even change it completely to tell a spin-off with my playing group. In practice, every playing session of a RPG will be different, even if the same group of people plays it a second time. This kind of narrative outcome clearly exemplifies these matters, people appropriating a text, using it, adapting it to their interests and then delivering a group experience. When I ran weekly campaigns for war games at our business in Mexico, the results of one week games shaped the way the following week’s story, and thus, the collective experience we had with one particular story-arc, was unique.

Is it possible we can figure out a similar way to use these annotated, non-linear narratives for the next story we plan to publish? Probably yes, and it would be interesting to see what kind of outcomes we get and how are they shared and evolved. We are not limited to fiction of course, think of a travel guide where people contributes their experiences using it, having a second, annotated edition. Or a cookbook where readers suggest substitute ingredients or cooking times based on their location via an app. Possibilities are unlimited and we just now have learned of the many technologies available to make them happen, be it as part of an application, podcast, blog. Anything is possible!

If you love something, set it free

I am a supporter of marginalia. Written works do not exist in a vacuum: society will always surround anything that we write, and by publishing something once and expecting it to never change is a good way to ensure that it fades from people’s interests very quickly. Our thoughts are never the same one moment to the next, so why should we expect our written work to stay stagnant? School textbooks release new editions every year or every few years for this very reason; information is always changing, adapting, and updating, and there is no reason that we should have to keep learning old information. Being open to the idea of readers commenting on a written work is a great way to make sure the publication stays up to date with society, not to mention the benefits this has for archival purposes. Reading a manuscript from a hundred years ago is interesting to be sure, but consider how much more interesting it is if you understand the social field of the same time. By allowing our works to be commented on, we are allowing society to flood its pages, giving depth to the work as a whole.

Before the introduction of the printing press to Western Europe, the way people (I am thinking here especially of poets) spread their work was to read it aloud in front of an audience. For some, poetry was a performance art more than it was a written one. If a listener enjoyed the poem, he or she would write it down. Frequently, these copied-down poems would take on a life of their own, with frequent  mishearings, misspellings, and misinterpretations. The copier-downer was free to write down the poem as they liked and how they saw relevant. Furthermore, the poet him or herself would often adjust their poem to suit their audience or their feelings as the situation saw fit. Their poem was a fluid document. When the printing press and movable type was introduced to Europe, some poets were unhappy with the permanence this gave their poems and chose to reject its use. Some poets believed that publication would deemphasize a poem’s intimacy. The social aspects of poetry preserved a closeness with the reader or listener that was difficult to duplicate through print at the time.

I see current society’s interest in marginalia as a return to this era of “social publication.” “Meaning exists in the exchange, and contrary to modern print assumptions, not solely on the page” (Wollman, 91). By allowing readers to comment on and add their thoughts to a published work, it becomes richly socially-charged in a way that hasn’t really been the norm for centuries. Marginalia adds new life and personality to a text. A text should never be one thing and one thing only: there are so many benefits to opening up your work to the world to see what society has to add to it. As the old adage goes, if you love something, set it free!


Works Referenced:

Slizak, Annie. “The Importance of Print Culture in Seventeenth-Century Poetry.” April 8, 2014.

Wollman, Richard B. “The ‘Press and the Fire’: Print and Manuscript Culture in Donne’s Circle.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 33, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1993). (1993): 85-97. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Comments: On

I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, but seeing as this is the last response of the course, let’s have one more for good measure: in regards to the social life of online texts, writers, readers, and publishers all need to think forward about not only how text is currently received and interacted with online, but also about the possibilities for interacting with these interactions. Of course bracketing all of this is how these parties must deal with the challenges of fully public discourse in the face of hatespeech or trolls, the Internet’s native fauna.

In week 4 I talked about Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that the invention of the Web would cause a societal shift from a print/written culture to an electronic/oral one, and how this would signal a change in the public’s interaction with media and each other. I want to go a step further in thinking about texts. Within print culture, interactions with text were mediated through a culture of discourse where one publishes an idea and any responses to that text move lineally onward, either publicly in a similarly published form or lecture, or privately, in the form of marginalia or conversation. The scope of responses in this mode were greatly limited by both the classic “gatekeepers” standing at the doors of publishing and education. The electronic oral age brings a culture of participation, where the public may not only be content publishers but also content critics. Couple this with the looping, tangled, multi-dimensional way in which texts exist and interact on the Web. This is worrisome for those comfortable in the previous era, especially authors or content producers who fear negative– or just, opposing– conversation around their work. However, the advent of the Web and social accessibility means that social hierarchy has the opportunity to be levelled, and that all opinions can at least be publicized. Obviously, in today’s context, this is threatening to a neoliberal society of creators or intellectuals who have been trained to protect and capitalize their unique gifts of wordsmithing and critical framing. If any Average Joe can respond and even challenge a published text, modern civilization will surely descend into anarchy and chaos.

Which is why I say “Comment on!” Nothing grows or evolves without challenge. I might even add–cautiously– that the truly negative or insidious commenting that takes place is a necessary part of a democratic ecosystem. For a writer receiving trolling on their work, a new kind of critical eye must be honed. First, publishers and writers must learn to distinguish real criticism or opposing views worthy of discourse from comments that are not only inflammatory but more importantly, meaningless. Second, they must learn how to respond (to those where response might be productive) in a way that grows the work, or the public’s relationship to the work, in new or more nuanced directions. Dylan Marron’s podcast “Conversations with People who Hate Me” is one such example of how an author might learn from and interact with trolls in a productive, and I daresay transformative way. In each episode, Marron calls up people who had left hateful comments on his online work and engages them in an open conversation about their experiences. More often than not, the hatespeech the commenters espouse comes either from a place of ignorance or from their own seat of trauma and online conflict. When actually listened to and questioned, as Marron does, these commenters are able to see themselves critically and possibly the ways in which they would change in the future. 

A book is a book is a book: On Marginalia and Authority.

Publishing is to make public”. This is a statement that has been repeated plenty of times over. To publish is to seek out eyeballs. Whether it is done on the individual level (via self-publishing) or the collective level (traditional publishing), when work is put out there, audience engagement in some form, is sought out. “Eyeballs” are multidimensional: audiences do not only read works but they form opinions of works and make them known. They comment, they highlight, they leave marginalia on texts, both online and in print. Do they have the right to interact with texts that have been made available to them? Yes, they do.

Is marginalia authoritative if it is never found, never made public or if it never garners an audience? It has been argued that marginalia in print is long-lasting however in my opinion, it is less likely to gain an audience of more than a handful of the same people. For example, if a codex has a print run of 10 000, distributed all over Canada. And a person finds marginalia in one of the 10 000 books, possibly on a library shelf buried besides other books, their likelihood of being able to trace back to the original creator of the marginalia is low and their ability to create an instant community around the musings is even lower. In the digital sphere, however, marginalia is usually credited to a specific person (eg. on Hypothes.is) and as much as S. Brent Plate argues that this marginalia is ephemeral, the likelihood of more people interacting with it quicker is higher. Furthermore, the ease of community building around online marginalia could also be based on the fact that everyone is commenting on the same article despite their geographical location. In print, the marginalia might be in book 528 of the 10 000. Unless posted online (yet again), can this marginalia reach the author and be in conversation with them? The likelihood is no. I take into account that entire communities have been formed around print marginalia but these are the limitations of it in this digital era.

The point I am getting at here is that both audiences in print and online should be allowed to interact with texts if those texts have been made public. Whether they can “shape the text” however will be determined by the visibility of their marginalia and the community they can build around it.

Writers are also able to determine who can comment on their work by the simple act of defining the public it reaches and not publishing to all groups. They can choose language that deters certain people from engaging with their works for example. This has a tendency to be discriminatory however. By censoring interactions the writer becomes  a propagator of an opinion vacuum.

To summarise:

1) Audiences can react to texts if those texts have been made public. To publish something is to garner eyeballs. Interactions between published work and reader are part and parcel of the publishing process.

Marginalia requires an organised public of its own to be authoritative.

2) The writer can determine how their work is disseminated thereby deciding who has the right to comment on it. This can be discriminatory.

3) Should authors seek out eyeballs and subsequently not allow those eyeballs to engage with their works? I think not.

Small fun fact, on this topic of marginalia: I am a person who had first edition Jane Austen books and doodled in them because a book is a book is a book.

 

The Dumpster Fire of Online Comments Sections

When thinking about online publications one issue that presents itself that is not as prevalent in print publications is the role of the content creator and their responsibility or freedom to control, moderate, or even block annotations, comments, or marginalia on their work. This raises two very interesting questions; do online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious. These are two very different questions that online content creators are forced to consider when they publish their work. I don’t believe there is a clear right or wrong in this situation but that there are best practices.

Firstly, let’s start with considering should content creators be allowed to control things like comments on their publications or is this a form of censorship. Audrey Watters explains in her post about blocking hypothes.is that she has felt the need to block comments (including hypothes.is and genius) on her blog to avoid “having to wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas.” As someone who is has been creating YouTube videos in some capacity for nearly a decade I can understand the desire to keep your website, blog, or YouTube channel as your safe place. To make a comparison between the online world and meat space, if you thought of your website as your house you have the right to control who is allowed to enter your house and under what circumstances they would no longer be welcome. The concept of freedom of speech is complicated but in the comparison of your website being your house no sensible person would claim censorship if you kicked them out of your house after making violent threats towards you. Now the complicated part of this argument is if you consider a website a private space like a house or if by the very fact that it exists on the world wide web it is therefore a public space, and how is this complicated if you do not own the platform on which you are hosting your online content? I will not pretend that I have the answers to these questions, and any resolution that you come to is likely to upset one group or another. I am inclined to believe that your intellectual property is a private space that you can see to control in any way you see fit, even if you don’t own the platform on which you are posting. YouTube actually has built in capabilities to allow content creators to moderate the comment sections on their videos. This is done by allowing the creators to ban key words that frequently pop up in malicious comments, going through and being able to delete individual comments, or turning off the comment section all together. Controlling who can comment directly alongside your work does not prevent people from making comment about you on other platforms but it does provide content creators to have a sense of agency over their publications and the paratext that appears next to it.

This brings us to the complicated issue of content creators and their responsibility to control the comments, annotations, and marginalia so it is not malicious or filled with hate speech. It is unrealistic to expect an online content creator to manage a comments section consisting of thousands of comments, however if they are made aware of offending content and do not take action to remove it are they accountable. This is a similar logic to how copyright violations are often handled on platforms such as YouTube. It is reasonable to assume that there is content on YouTube that violates copyright, however it is unrealistic to expect YouTube to seek out every piece of violating content so an understanding has been made that once made aware YouTube must act or else they are held accountable for providing the platform for this content to be posted. Even if it is established that the online creator’s website is a public space and therefore not subject to private space regulation, there are limitations on freedom of speech and stipulate hate speech is not protected by the freedom of speech. Therefore expecting an online content creator to remove hate speech within their comments section is not forcing them to engage in censorship. While saying that a content creator removing hate speech from their comment section is not a form censorship it is still negotiable if it is their responsibility to be the moderator or not. An adjacent issue that I wanted to quickly touch on is the similar responsibility of content creators to control how their work is being used and consumed. A popular example is the Pepe the frog meme being adopted by Alt Right groups. This is an extreme example but it is relevant to think of how content can be manipulated by audiences.

These issues are considerations that online content creators must grapple with when publishing their content in online spaces. Again, while it is impossible to reach a right or wrong answer on whether online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious, these questions are important to consider and to come to individual conclusions that are defendable when deciding to publish online.

Give the Reader What They Want—In a Way That Works for Everyone

Audiences have always interacted with text, whether it is hand-written marginalia as Plate describes itor online comments and annotations as Watters describes it. Some people have no problem annotating and commenting online, but despise it when others write in physical books. Other people hate online comments sections, but enjoy making notes in the margins of their books. Everyone has their own opinions and, ultimately, you cannot please everybody.

Personally, I took notes in the margins of my school textbooks all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same in the books I read for pleasure. Reading comments sections on most websites makes me sad because most often comments tend to be negative and fights break out; however, I do comment on specific websites and forums frequently—places I know are more professional and people are less likely to cause petty fights. I suppose I’m a happy middle in between the two people described in the last paragraph.

I had never thought of marginalia and comments being a problem—if you don’t like the comments section, stay away from it, and if you don’t like people writing in books, make that clear when you lend a book to someone. Stay in your happy bubble and everything will be okay. However, that is thinking about it purely from a reader’s point of view—what about the author?

I definitely think it is up to the reader whether or not they want to interact with the text, however they may choose to do so. I had never thought about it from the author’s point of view, and what if they don’t want people interacting with their text in that way? Watters makes an interesting point in her blog post “Un-Annotated” about not wanting comments, annotations, marginalia, or anything like that on her websites. I understand her point about not wanting to “wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas,” but I’m not sure I understand why she went from allowing comments to not allowing any—surely there’s a middle ground we can work with here.

I’ve always been told that having people comment on your blog post (and social media, for what that’s worth) is a good thing. It allows your audience to connect with you in a way that they normally can’t in person, and this can drastically improve the way your audience sees you if you’re responding to and engaging with them. However, as stated above, I hate most comments sections because of exactly what Watters is describing. In an ideal world, we would have control over that. Perhaps a step between allowing commenting and disabling it altogether would be to install a plugin that filters out comments that have certain words or combinations of letters that could indicate a negative comment (negative here meaning hurtful, not “I don’t agree with you” because those comments are valuable). Many websites aimed at kids already do this (Neopetsand Runescape, for example). Obviously comments can still sneak through, but filters can be improved and it will reduce the number of negative comments being posted. I think something like this is at least worth a shot before completing removing the ability for readers to comment altogether—give them the chance to continue the conversation.

Author, Authority, Authoritarian

While thinking about the dichotomies involved when we talk about authorship of a work, it struck me that when I think about the word “authority” I don’t usually associate it with the word “author” — though pretty clearly that was the idea behind the concept whenever some old Latin guy or gal coined it yesteryear.

As Wikipedia lays it out for me:

Middle English: from Old French autorite, from Latin auctoritas, from auctor ‘originator, promoter’ (see author).

[I “see author”]:

Middle English (in the sense ‘a person who invents or causes something’): from Old French autor, from Latin auctor, from augere ‘increase, originate, promote.’ The spelling with th arose in the 15th century, and perhaps became established under the influence of authentic.

So now we’ve conglomerated a family of meanings and associated terms: author, authority, and authentic denoting originality, promotion, and invention. In the most denotative sense of the term, authority stems from the original author or writer’s creation of a thing. They have (?) the innate authority — or power, as we’ve come to view the term — over that work.

In the digital age of global marginalia and annotations, we’re now challenging those ideas of authority, or perhaps redefining them. There is nothing in particular in the etymology of the word authority that gives us an idea of a timeline; we can decide, perhaps, that an author has authority over a piece until it is passed to the next person (Copyright law, anyone?), or we can decide that an author has authority over a piece ad infinitum. At some level, I think the discussion is one of respect, but on another I think that publishing something — making it available to a public — is in the act itself asking for a response from your audience.

Though their complications with audience interaction didn’t manifest in the same way, I believe Audrey Watters‘ views on marginalia echo those of fiction author Anne Rice. Rice, back in the early 2000s was so vehemently against fan’s appropriation of her content for fanwork purposes — art, fanfiction, et cetera — that she sought legal action against her fans. The contention then was that she was alienating her own fanbase. Though many authors who shared Rice’s opinions turned around and came to accept fan culture, those sentiments are still harbored by many today, as we can see. A public is hard to form if the members of that public have no way to communicate with one another, and an effect of that is that the author/authority of that content works against their own interests.

So, should readers be able to interact with or shape the text? Should is hard to say, but will is definite. It’s an inevitability that authors will have to face. And annotations software like Hypothes.is don’t affect the original copy of the work; that maintains its shape.

Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? The writer has the right to give that comment context, of course, but to define “who can comment” is inherently discriminatory. In practical terms, most writers aren’t in control of the platforms they publish on anyway, and most websites have some means of moderation. Ever more popular these days is also the Reddit-style peer review system in which readers of a particular piece up and down vote comments according to how valuable they feel that comment to be. Peer reviewed community commenting seems to me a lot more reader-friendly than banning a particular group of people.

Should audiences be limited in their socialization over a text? Not if authors want an audience. But ultimately, it is and should be up to the author.

Who Can Comment?

Occasionally throughout this last year, the definition of publishing has been thrown around the classroom: to make something public. And if something is public, then I believe that others should have a right to interact with it, comment on it, share it, and so forth. If you are producing something for the public to consume, then they should have the right to respond or interact with it in some way. It should not be a one-sided conversation.

If we didn’t allow interaction with text then there would be no criticism, and the counter public would have a much harder time organizing and affecting change. Without discourse, culture would not evolve—it would be the same people in positions of power saying the same things. We need to be able to hold people accountable to their words, and one key way we can do this in a democratic society is by having discussions in public spaces, such as in the comment section online. To stop people from commenting would be to censor people; and would be just another, more obvious way that we decide who has a voice and who doesn’t (the other way being deciding who gets published in the first place).

And while the majority of the time I think audiences should be allowed to socialize and discuss publications, it is also important to recognize that there are times when this can become dangerous. As we know, there is a difference between free speech and hate speech, and the latter has no place in public discourse (or anywhere!).

For example, in 2015, CBC decided to temporarily close comments on stories about Indigenous Peoples due to what they referred to as “uncivil dialogue” taking place in the comment section. Comments are still closed today (although not on the Facebook comment section), and I would argue for good reason. Often, the comments added nothing to the discussion about the story or the issue, but were racist generalizations. In this case, the cost (harm caused to people who read these comments) outweighed the benefit (people being allowed to engage in conversation). People’s well-being should come before everyone else’s two cents.

Similarly, if people abuse their right to comment (such as issuing death threats on Twitter), then I support them losing their ability to contribute to the broader conversation. If we are going to have discussions about texts, then we must do so in a way that does not attack a person or group of people and cause real harm.

Challenge, not bash

Keeping in mind the readings on marginalia and annotations, and thinking more generally about the life of text online, should audiences be allowed to interact with and shape the text? Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? Should audiences be limited in their online socialization over a text?

I believe that the form of annotation and online commenting are just another technological spin on what we used to call highlighting and taking notes. It is also a spin of social interaction over a text; like the one we used to have when we lend our friends our textbooks with scribbles all over it. But now, the interaction is more effective and can go both ways; people who access our annotation will be able to reply and we will be able to see it, unlike before. Well, unless you want your friends to also scribble all over your book and you want to take more time to actually find out what and where they are writing their comments on.

The thing about marginalia and annotation is tricky; a writer might have some disagreement over what people are “saying” around his writing and now he has a way to know that. But that does not mean that they have the right to define who can comment. Essentially, whatever you chose to publish online is public and is deemed to be discovered and talked about to certain extent. Taking it offline, it’s the same as you telling your story to your relatives. It’s out in the public and they have the right to judge you. You just sometimes don’t know what their judgements are. Furthermore, even if people can’t comment and/ annotate, they still have other platforms or even dark social to share their opinion about the text.

By limiting online socialization over a text is basically asking certain audiences to agree to whatever information they are reading and that what they are saying should be no more important that what’s in the text. In reality, I’ve seen more insights given in the annotation section rather than the actual text itself.

So, how should we do this?

As a social and educated being, we should understand that we are entitled to our opinion, but to certain extent. Our opinion should be unbiased, challenged, well-informed. We should always keep in mind that a text we are reading is carefully curated and well-researched, that our opinion should challenge them, not bash them.

As for the writer; it is always good to gain broader scope on the stuffs we post online. We might have research and polish our text to mere perfection, but there’s always a slight chance that someone or some people out there know more and could give better insight and understanding. Furthermore, it is always nice to know what other people think about certain issue we are discussing, whether their opinion might be favourable or not. It is a learning curve.