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Self-Publishing

Where do you have the best thoughts? Me, usually in a quiet place where I can let my brain jump from node to node. In my case this place often is the bathroom, sitting on a particular inventory.

Just a few minutes ago my brain jumped again and led me to the concept of self publishing and what this concept has done to *the Internet*.

Before we start we need to distinguish what this term, Internet, actually means. First, Internet is stuff done by TCP/IP. This ranges from IRC, NNTP, Mail including SMTP, POP, IMAP and so on, to FTP, several other services and of course HTTP. But today, I think I can savely say, Internet mainly means stuff done by HTTP, or in the word of laymen, the Web.

Here comes the second term we need to have a closer look at: user. Generally spoken, a user is a person using a tool to accomplish a task. The crucial points are *tool* and *task*.

It’s some ten years since the internet took off. In the first half of the decade, being a user meant using a browser, mail client, ftp tool, newsreader to surf or to take part in the various types of communications. With one type of tool users were on the receiving end of the information stream, with others types they could also send. The paradigm was that you had to use a certain tool for each single task you wanted to accomplish.

Within a few month it was clear, that even if mail was — maybe it still is — the most used service, the most significant service was the Web. Sadly enough, back then the web was not very interactive or communicative. Communication was targeted away from the web towards the users, so called surfers. If a surfer wanted to talk back, she had to use another tool, another interface, another context.

There were different kind of tools and tasks to establish communication between users. A user needed to use a text editor or one of the very early specialized Web editors to create content. She then had to move to her website, again using a different tool, namely a FTP client. The task of creating content was rather technical. It was not focused on the content, but on fancy syntax she needed to know to make the content surfable — usable — to the surfer.

Perhaps a year or two later, the first Web based user-to-user-communication places came along. Users could communicate directly, using a single tool, not switching context or interface, inside of boards or forums, modeled after the bulletin boards of the mailbox era.

But wait, we already had the Usenet at this time, and for some time before, too. As pointed out earlier, users were not able to use it without special tools and thus breaking up the experience of using the Internet in different islands, each one represented by a single icon on your desktop — CLI users forgive me ;) Breaking things in islands is not good. Islands are not directly connected to each other and you have to either swim or use a boat of some sort to navigate between them. This takes time and generally requires an effort.

With the Web, it was different. As soon as the first people discovered that the content making up a website didn’t have to be premade HTML documents written with a special editor by a human, Dynamic Webpages came into being. Sure enough CGI was hardly older than HTTP, but it was not used to faciliate communication between users. The [CGI Intro][cgiintro] says: *[…] to transmit information to the database engine, and receive the results back again and display them to the client.* Even if it was technically possible, using CGI to make users communicate was not intended, hence the name *gateway*.

[cgiintro]: http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/cgi/intro.html

Some people thought about it and concluded that CGI was a waste of time if its sole purpose would be to transfer content from one isle to the other without letting users actually work on the content, grab it, do something to it.

Let me focus on self publishing, not on the technical terms surrounding web applications. You all know well the importance of enabling technologies like PHP.

Meanwhile services like Hotmail and GMX built a bridge between the Web and e-mail islands. Now we could use both services using the same interface, staying in context, hardly noticing that we were using different services and tools. The distance between the islands began to lessen.

What happened was that we started to realize that the Web could integrate all other services. Using the Web, we could not only write an e-mail to a friend, we could also use newsgroups, navigate FTP servers, build bridges to fast outdated services like Gopher and other specialized services. We could use the Web to accomplish virtually every Internet-related task. Our desktop became cleaner, since we could delete most icons, just keeping the one saying *Internet Browser*.

To publish today, you sign up to one of the many hosting services available and pay less per month than one night at town. You can get your own website up and running within 24 hours using nothing more than a browser. Taking part in discussion groups on the Web is nothing new or revolutionary. But with only very basic knowledge about some details, you can even become a forum host yourself.

Regardless of the type of content you want to publish, you can do it within hours. You can do it yourself, right from your desk. You don’t need to know about fancy syntax or about the inner workings of FTP or HTTP.

As it is with any topic given, this has advantages and disadvantages. Some people argue that the Internet was better when only people who knew about each gory detail could actually publish. They argue the Internet suffered from [AOL users][aoluser], it suffered from amateurish done homepages (some complain about personal or private homepages in general) and distinguish good from bad by using the terms homepage and website. The complaining usually ends with pointing out that most novice users cannot quote correctly, have no sense about spelling and punctation or have other improprieties making them bad users in general.

[aoluser]: http://vowe.net/archives/005275.html

While these discussions are fun, they cover the fact that the same people complaining about users who use easy-to-use-services are using them theirselves. Maybe the complainer know *why* and *how* the services function. But does that make them better user or publisher?

Back to topic…

Allowing every one to create, maintain and manage her own content on the Web provided a voice to people who weren’t heard before. We can reach not only hundreds, but thousands of people all around the world. Reality check. You can reach perhaps 100 people speaking the same languages and sharing the same interests. But you can do so from your desk, you can do so with a click of your mouse and you can do it *now*.

For professional users, professional publishers, writers, librarians and people of simliar trades, self publishing has impacts, too. Sure there will be groups that suffer more than they benefit. The Pony Post vanished when the telephone came, and some professional publishers might vanish when self publishing hits the minds of writers and researchers. But after all, information is the means of production today. Delivering information is vital for most businesses, as is multilateral communication – both we can enable and simplify using means of self publishing.

In the first 5 years we tried to figure out how this whole thing works. In the next five years we sat up services that faciliated the usage, aggregating a whole bunch of services into a single interface, building huge bridges between all kinds of services.

What’s next? Will we aggregate even more services into this interface? Will we shift to a different interface and live through all this again? Will there be new services superseding the Web?

Thanks to [Stefan Rubner][stefan] for improving the readability and orthography ;)

[stefan]: http://whocares.de/

Josef Kolbitsch and Hermann Maurer - Journal of Universal Computer Science 12.2:

To date, one of the main aims of the World Wide Web has been to provide users with information. In addition to private homepages, large professional information providers, including news services, companies, and other organisations have set up web-sites. With the development and advance of recent technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasting and file sharing this model is challenged and community-driven services are gaining influence rapidly. These new paradigms obliterate the clear distinction between information providers and consumers.

One comment

  1. […] Das Internet, vornehmlich das WWW, ermöglicht es jedem, binnen Minuten eigene Inhalte weltweit zur Verfügung zu stellen. Gepaart mit günstig verfügbaren Digitalkameras und Digicams wird jeder mit Zugang zum WWW zum Produzenten. Wir sehen das bei Blogs, Foren, Foto-Communities und was-weiß-ich-nicht-allem. Für ein paar EURO bekommt man passenden Webspace mit Scriptsprachen, Datenbanken und allem, was man dazu braucht (siehe auch: itst.net -Self Publishing). […]

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