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October 24, 2003

Defining Publish and Broadcast

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Posted by Clay Shirky

In the comments in Jarvis and Spiers on Weblogs, there is a conversation about the meaning of the words "publish" and "broadcast" in the context of weblogs. This is a hard question, of course. If you are writing about technology, you can use English words, but you have to deal with the multiple meanings that come with them -- "community" has a dozen meanings, making it very hard to write about clearly. This problem gets worse when you are also writing about media, as you get overloaded meanings from pre-internet patterns, where "publish" is for print and "broadcast" is for TV. This can be confusing in a world where both the NY Times and MSNBC have web sites. The alternative, though, is to use existing jargon or invented terms of art, which is often worse. My usual strategy has been to try to write in English, and to situate words with slippery definitions in context, but reading the comments in the earlier piece makes me think it may be worth defining the terms explicitly. For the record, and as a way of trying to start a conversation on these patterns, here are my definitions of publish and broadcast.
*Publish* -- A pattern where the recipient of a message or piece of content does not have access to the same audience or message format as the sender
A publishing vehicle privileges one author over other participants, in other words. By this definition, email lists, whether via CC line or mailing list software, are not publishing media, since any recipient of a message can reply in the same format and medium, to the same audience. Most usenet groups are not publishing media, for the same reason. By contrast, mass email to the BCC line, or *.announce usenet groups, _are_ publishing media, since I can send you a message in those media, and you can't reach the audience I sent it to. This is why I contend that weblogs have publishing as their first-order pattern. If it's your weblog, you post to your audience, but your audience can't post to one another through your weblog. Even if you have comments on, those are less visible, and obviously separate from the main posts. Only you enjoy the full control of the publishing capabilities. (Contrast the evenness of messages and replies on mailing lists and usenet.) Publishing can support conversational patterns, of course, if a group of people publish to one another, but even in tight clusters of people who read one another's work, the audience isn't shared, If you read my blog and I read yours, and one day your audience doubles, mine does not. (Again, contrast what happens when the number of subscribers on a mailing list goes up.)
*Broadcast* -- A pattern where the sender of a message or piece of content has minimal or no interaction with the recipients
Broadcast is the one-to-many pattern, where readers or viewers at the edges take in content from the center, but where the publisher at the center takes in almost nothing from the edge. The broadcast pattern is a subset of the publishing pattern, in other words. Broadcast requires publishing, but not all publishing is broadcast; as in the weblog world, some publishing can be conversational. Broadcast also does not require scale; publishers can chose not to interact with their audience even at scales, as with the bore at the dinner party. (Note that this definition clashes with the idea of broadcast vs. narrowcast, where audience size, rather than topology, is thought to be the distinguishing characteristic.) However, scale does require broadcast; beyond a certain point, a publisher cannot maintain a meaningful interaction with even a fraction of their audience, because of the limitations of time and attention. Even if Oprah loved each of her 10 million+ of viewers, and even if a single minute of her time constituted, for them, a successful interaction, and even if she did nothing Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 but talk to members of her audience a minute at a time for a solid year, she could still only reach 1% of them. Publishing, in this view, is a technological pattern. Broadcast is a choice at small scale, and a forced move at large scale. Small clusters of friends on LiveJournal publish conversationally to one another. Dave Barry, by contrast, does not have that choice with his weblog -- of necessity, he both publishes and broadcasts.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Bill Seitz on October 25, 2003 10:30 AM writes...

Well, I'm sure glad that jello's been safely nailed to the wall...

Words are too slippery/fuzzy to be perfect models of reality, so we should spend less time arguing over labels and concentrate on more complete points.

With regard to Jarvis' original point, right in the same posting, he continues:

"It is a way for them to interact with their audiences without having to write individual letters. It is a way for them to answer the same comment or question from many people at once. It is a way to enter an actual conversation. And better yet, we all get to watch. I far prefer it when people leave comments on my blog vs. sending email, for, again, I am a bad email correspondent (sorry, Uncle Richard and all the rest of you!) and I prefer to have the conversation in public."

So he *is* talking about "taking in" from some portion of his audience.

Contrary to your point above, Oprah *can* interact with a fraction of her audience. It's just a really small fraction. So it becomes tricky to know whether you're taking in from a *representative* fraction.

Then again, maybe that doesn't matter. Maybe it's just a matter of taking *some* meaningful input (defined as "input that results in a change")... (as opposed to simple love/hate messages, which non-net broadcasters like Oprah tend to receive).

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2. Lindon on October 26, 2003 7:42 PM writes...

Tim Oren(as usual) has some interesting ideas on the power law curve thingy, check out:

Of Attention Landscapes and Personal Media


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3. Clay Shirky on October 26, 2003 10:13 PM writes...

But Bill, if it doesn't matter how large or small a fraction of your audience you converse with, then everyone is equally well off. No one this side of Michael Jackson is so insulated from their audience that they have no meaningful conversations at all.

And by the time you've convinced yourself that having a few conversations is all that it takes to set the world to rights, then there is no difference between a weblog and Oprah's magazine, which runs letters to the Editor, and responds to them in a way that matches your watered-down definition of interactivity.

Now you and Jarvis may believe that publishing plus listening to the occaisional comment is the same pattern as conversation, but I don't. I think that interacting with a large fraction of your audience is different than interacting with a tiny fraction of your audience, especially as bloggers with large audiences have to filter how their users can get to them in the first place -- no comments, no trackbacks, etc.

I have a hard time seeing that that simply isn't a different kind of thing than you and your five friends posting together on LiveJournal.

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4. Seth Finkelstein on October 26, 2003 10:41 PM writes...

I think for what you call the Publish pattern, a better and much less overloaded word would be the PULPIT pattern.
That's what people are doing, declaiming from a pulpit. And the "conversation" isn't really that, it's rather referencing sermons from other pulpits.
I suppose the comment sections are like Q&A from the flock.

Come to think of it, this does capture the dynamic of many blogs.

Some people are like the street-corner preachers with a pulpit of merely a soapbox, where nobody really listens, or just a few follow for entertainment purposes.

And some people are like the TV preachers, who have a vast audience and even some political power.

I'm serious.

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5. Lucas Fletcher on October 27, 2003 2:07 PM writes...

Seth's comments above are brilliant, right on the mark. (Ooh, I'm responding to a comment, how un-publishing like! :)

Have you considered the possibility of a weblog publisher interacting with the same small group of people whether or not they are lost in a much larger croud? Since with the magic of software you can filter out stuff this is easy to do. I believe Scott Adams does this with a select few of his fans who send him ideas. He has his own custom software for this in fact.

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