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« Mobile social software list | Main | Blog Censorship and Expression »

July 23, 2004

Change This

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Posted by Clay Shirky

The Change This Manifesto has been floating around for a few days:

In the Internet (and especially blogging), we see the glimpse of an alternative. Taken over time, many of the best blogs create a thoughtful, useful argument that actually teaches readers something.

Alas, blogging is falling into the same trap as many other forms of media. The short form that works so well online attracts more readers than the long form. Worse, most blogs stake out an emotional position and then preach to the converted, as opposed to challenging people to think in a new way.

So we’re launching ChangeThis. The bet?

We’re betting that a signicant portion of the population wants to hear thoughtful, rational, constructive arguments about important issues. […]

ChangeThis doesn’t publish e-books or manuscripts or manuals. Instead, we facilitate the spread of thoughtful arguments…arguments we call manifestos. A manifesto is a five-, ten- or twenty-page PDF file that makes a case. It outlines in careful, thoughtful language why you might want to think about an issue differently.

It’s obvious this will fail. Why it will fail, however, is instructive.

Change This is one of the last stands for an idea of the Old Left — media = force. This belief, present since Marx and Engels put state control of media on the Communist Manifesto’s To Do list, says that media is a strong locus of control over the individual. In this view, when you alter media, you alter the public’s worldview, as they are both pliable and mute.

This idea was attractive, because it took note of the supply-side control of media in the era when everything went mass. It was so attractive in fact, that even when the internet started to erode that supply-side control, most of the O.L. denied that this was happening, lumping social communication like mailing lists and weblogs together with traditional broadcast media, because to admit the alternate possibility — that people could now produce as well as consume, and this would not necessarily lead to a groundswell of support for the left — was too terrifying to contemplate.

(This is the source, incidentally, of much of the anguish by the O.L. over the war-bloggers. Populist expression is not supposed to be conservative.)

Look at the charge Change This lays at the feet of weblogging — people like to read short things they agree with more than long things they disagree with. True enough, of course, but Change This assumes that the audience a weblog has is somehow god-given, and that a weblogger’s choice of subject is de-coupled from their audience. This is the key assumption of ‘media = force’ — you can manipulate your audience as you like.

In fact, the opposite is the case — if the most popular weblogs are trafficking in cant, that’s because of the readers, not the writers, since it is the readers who decide which weblogs are popular.

And notice what they don’t mention? Comments and trackbacks. They regard a weblog as a publication, and a post as a stand-alone piece, rather than regarding interlinked weblogs as an ecosystem of argument. And why do they ignore the central fact of weblogging as argument? Because admitting that posts are not pieces and that readers are also writers would upset their view of the problem as “We publish, you distribute.”

Change This doesn’t like weblogs because they don’t want any backtalk; their main goal is to restore the orderly progression of outbound ideas from producer to consumer. Every aspect of their Manifesto, from the choice of the word manifesto on down, screams contempt for the reader, whose principle job is as a super-distribution network.

And then there’s the odd reference to producing PDFs. In the middle of announcing their plans to rescue intellectual discourse, they suddenly point to a specific document format; it’s like listing the brand of knife the chef uses on a menu. What do PDFs have to do with Change This’s larger goals?

And the answer, of course, is ‘Everything.’ PDF is the ultimate no-backtalk format. It is designed for the page, not the screen, can’t be annotated, has no provision for comments and nor can it host any trackbacks — in short, it is almost useless as a site for subsequent reference to the very conversations Change This says they want to stir up.

If their ideas were any good, they’d put them out where people can talk about them. To do so, though, would open up the criticism they say they encourage but actually fear. They want the old days back, where one could publish a magazine of serious discourse without having to deal with the possibility that the audience might have something serious to say in reply. Alas, those days are gone, and Change This’s attempt to re-create the muteness of anti-social media is little more than a nostalgia trip.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. Andrew on July 23, 2004 6:23 PM writes...

"They want the old days back, where one could publish a magazine of serious discourse without having to deal with the possibility that the audience might have something serious to say in reply."

The flip side of this is that many magazines of serious discourse have found their audiences have something *seriously critical* to say. Or worse yet, have found they have no audience at all.

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2. Will Pate on July 23, 2004 6:57 PM writes...

Nice summation, Clay.

When I first caught wind of the Change This hype, I was interested to see the discussions that would ensue on their weblog. Instead, they copped out and decided to "play it safe" with PDFs - which disappointed me.

I was turned off by their hat tip to bloggers, all the while refusing to allow real participatory discussion. It seems like they want to use us for spreading their message, without anything more than lip service to the spirit of blogging. With this sort of attitude, I don't think the initial wave of blog hype will carry them very far.

Neat, if sophomoric, idea; terrible execution.

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3. bill on July 23, 2004 7:25 PM writes...

That's ridiculous. Marx was a defender of the free press.

The "media" aren't mentioned in the Communist manifesto because the concept of the media did not exist in the 19th century.

The CM mentions the "press" once, when criticizing "reactionary socialism" that sought to limit press freedom.

Marx on the Free Press:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1842/free-press/

Look closely at ChangeThis: the creators appear to be around 20 years old, hardly Old-Left.

And the "Old Left" is all over the internet.

A moronic piece, Clay.

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4. bill on July 23, 2004 8:12 PM writes...

"Change This doesn’t like weblogs because they don’t want any backtalk; their main goal is to restore the orderly progression of outbound ideas from producer to consumer. Every aspect of their Manifesto, from the choice of the word manifesto on down, screams contempt for the reader, whose principle job is as a super-distribution network."

Uh, you're talkin like a hysterical ninny. They are making pdf's available so people can print the manifestos out and post them where people, including the low income people without net access who are beyond your elite horizon, can see them.

They are also making them available to bloggers to reprint and yes(!) post for comment on their own sites. They are also "non-partisan" and will publish all sorts of manifestos for redistribution, if I read their site correctly.

Put your freakin eyeballs back in their sockets, and stop yer propellor-hat from a-spinnin, Shirky.

It's gonna be alright.

Permalink to Comment

5. Sam on July 23, 2004 8:45 PM writes...

The comments from 'bill' are ridiculous:

* "including the low income people without net access who are beyond your elite horizon, can see them."

* "bloggers to reprint and yes(!) post for comment on their own sites."

Both of these assertions are inane. The original post was spot-on. Change This is leveraging out-moded, one-way forms of communication; thanks for being the first not to play the hot-potato, pass the meme around game.

Permalink to Comment

6. bull on July 23, 2004 10:21 PM writes...

Nope.

Feet of Clay is just buggin.

Let's see if "one-way" modes of commune are really out of fashion: Clay - speak up you Ivory Tower *****!

Respond!

Permalink to Comment

7. Sean Voisen on July 23, 2004 11:15 PM writes...

* "bloggers to reprint and yes(!) post for comment on their own sites."

Why is this assertion inane? I read the manifesto well before Clay wrote this piece and this is exactly what I thought they were intending: redistribution (possibly links) to the various manifestos from blogs annotated with the blog author's own comments. The author then opens these comments - these supporting points or arguments against the manifesto - up for comment from the readers.

I still don't understand the choice of PDF, though. That is indeed quite lame.

Permalink to Comment

8. bill on July 24, 2004 12:13 AM writes...

PDF's are quite lame, except for printing. The lumpenprole - those antiquarian sadsacks - are still in the print age! Imagine that!

Permalink to Comment

9. nick on July 24, 2004 3:43 AM writes...

One can, actually, comment a PDF, Clay, as well as highlight, do touchups, fill in forms etc. This is fortunate for filling out grad-school application forms, as my printing on paper is that of a 2-year-old's ;)

Permalink to Comment

10. Stephen Downes on July 24, 2004 10:25 AM writes...

I am in general agreement with the observations about the one-way, broadcast mode, elitist model adopted by Change This, but I fail to see how this approach has somehow become proprietary to the Old Left. A moment's thought will bring to mind dozens of instances of right wing uses the traditional broadcast format. Instapundit doesn't post comments or trackbacks, but is hardly leftist.

Additionally, the 'survival of the fittest' explanation for blog popularity ("it’s because of the readers, not the writers, since it is the readers who decide which weblogs are popular") is a naive analysis. The blogosphere exhibits the properties of a network and in particular (as this blog's own Clay Shirkey has noted) an instance of the power law. While a power law can be affected by the fit of a blog to a reader, it is in the main not about the quality of a blog, but about its prior placement in the network. Being first is much more important than being good.

Change This is likely to fail because, in 2004, it is very difficult to be noticed. It is very difficult to gain the traction needed to compete with more established and already popular sources of information. To overcome this disadvantage, Change This needs to be significantly better than the competition; being just better won't be enough. And the direction it has chosen - PDF pages, no comments - is unlikely to make it significantly better.

Network theory, and not some pseudo-theory about the nature of Marxist media, will explain its likely irrelevance or demise.

Permalink to Comment

11. Stephen Downes on July 24, 2004 10:25 AM writes...

I am in general agreement with the observations about the one-way, broadcast mode, elitist model adopted by Change This, but I fail to see how this approach has somehow become proprietary to the Old Left. A moment's thought will bring to mind dozens of instances of right wing uses the traditional broadcast format. Instapundit doesn't post comments or trackbacks, but is hardly leftist.

Additionally, the 'survival of the fittest' explanation for blog popularity ("it’s because of the readers, not the writers, since it is the readers who decide which weblogs are popular") is a naive analysis. The blogosphere exhibits the properties of a network and in particular (as this blog's own Clay Shirkey has noted) an instance of the power law. While a power law can be affected by the fit of a blog to a reader, it is in the main not about the quality of a blog, but about its prior placement in the network. Being first is much more important than being good.

Change This is likely to fail because, in 2004, it is very difficult to be noticed. It is very difficult to gain the traction needed to compete with more established and already popular sources of information. To overcome this disadvantage, Change This needs to be significantly better than the competition; being just better won't be enough. And the direction it has chosen - PDF pages, no comments - is unlikely to make it significantly better.

Network theory, and not some pseudo-theory about the nature of Marxist media, will explain its likely irrelevance or demise.

Permalink to Comment

12. Danny on July 24, 2004 1:13 PM writes...

I was going to post how I agree with your conclusions but find some of your reasoning a little questionable. So I have, but Stephen has already addressed most of the points I intended making.

The mass media is a powerful tool for manipulating public opinion. But to "Change This" would take something of cimparable [*] scale to Fox News, not a bunch of PDFs, no matter how Caxton-friendly they are. Perhaps the Internet media, blogging and its descendents, will change things. But I haven't time to discuss that angle, Law and Order's on.

Permalink to Comment

13. Danny on July 24, 2004 1:15 PM writes...

[*] fyi: this word spelled correctly caused your spam trap to kick in. Good job I didn't mention the reds under the beds.

Permalink to Comment

14. Jeff Jarvis on July 24, 2004 4:16 PM writes...

I added two cents -- no, make that my manifesto! -- on ChangeThis at BuzzMachine. (I tried to give you the link but the site -- amazingly -- won't let me type dot com.)

Permalink to Comment

15. Harold Jarche on July 24, 2004 6:58 PM writes...

But there is a blog:

http://blog.changethis.com/

Permalink to Comment

16. hugh macleod on July 25, 2004 2:03 AM writes...

As all us internettin' bourgoisie grow fat on the surplus economic labor of workers, blissfully unaware that the Revolution is a'coming, the workers are now discussing Class War instead of Mets vs Cubs, thanks to the PDF format.

I notice Bill sent Clay a link; he didn't offer to mail him a printed PDF copy. Tsk-tsk.


Permalink to Comment

17. Andrea Harris on July 25, 2004 8:55 AM writes...

"They are making pdf's available so people can print the manifestos out and post them where people, including the low income people without net access who are beyond your elite horizon, can see them."

In lower-case bill's world crowds of raggedy proles still gather 'round the telephone pole to read the tacked-up manifestos thereon. In the actual real world the only thing tacked up on telephone poles are ads for weight-loss herbal treatments, and the only people who publish things in PDF format are people who want total control over format. And by the way, bill, you can print out that blog, you know. Just click on that little printer icon.

Permalink to Comment

18. Robert Schwartz on July 25, 2004 11:14 PM writes...

Bill may be having printing problems because he is using IE. He will have to learn how to install Mozilla and use it to print things. Of course the price may daunt him and other low income people;-)

Permalink to Comment

19. bill on July 26, 2004 12:33 AM writes...

I guess I was wrong about that class antagonism. Oh well...

Live and learn!

Permalink to Comment

20. Tom on July 26, 2004 12:56 PM writes...

Clay,

I am pretty sure that "means of communication" in the Communist Manifesto means the mail, not the press.

Media as force is a typical theme of people known as Marxists, but (not atypically) Marx and Engels themselves had much more interesting ideas.

And as for people who expect populist expression to be progressive rather than conservative, that is most definitely the New and not the Old Left. The Old Left has an enormous literature on this, which you must be forgetting only momentarily.

Tom

Permalink to Comment

21. phil jones on July 26, 2004 10:26 PM writes...

I suspect this is just a "slow network" play. They're trying to distinguish themselves from the pack of similar group comment blogs, by appealing deliberately to an audience who want some sense of definitive document.

Maybe this is an audience that's a bit overwhelmed by chasing a debate across dozens of interlinked blogs and prefer the sense of "this is it, the last word ... for the moment" to feeling unable to keep up.

I don't see why there shouldn't be a niche for this. Or why it shouldn't "work" if that's it's aim.

It clearly isn't going to "replace" blogs. And the fact they have their own blog shows they don't think that either. If books and newspapers won't go away with the advent of the blog, perhaps there's also room for other inovations in online formats.

Permalink to Comment

22. Richard MacManus on July 27, 2004 5:25 PM writes...

I agree with you Clay. I will say however that I enjoy a good manifesto as much as the next elitist intellectual artsy-fartsy propellerhead. Manifestos were all the rage in the early 20th century - Surrealism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, all the rest of the 'isms. I think 'Change This' hanker for the good old days of manifestos, which is why they're being old-fashioned and in one-way broadcast mode.

Oh I agree with what you say - two-way web rules, man. But I have a soft spot for revolutionary call-to-arms arty manifestos too. Time to dig out my beret...

Permalink to Comment

23. Cindy on July 27, 2004 5:29 PM writes...

Well, I am neither left nor right, but I am Old. And I am neither rich nor poor. But I can afford a Dell at home. And Broadband. But believe me, perhaps one or two billions in this world are not that lucky.

Blog has all the flexibiliteis, perhaps too much. And JUST WAY too many blogs around in this world. Eventually, people like me who are not 'knowledgeable' like you folks end up not knowing who is telling the truth. That makes life becomes very difficult for people like ME. So, we simple folks would just choose a few possible candidates recommended by others. The rest we don't even look at them. So, what happen to the efforts of all the other millions of blogs?

PDF has the look of 'not going to change' the minute I close my eyes. Therefore I know what I know today will be the same tomorrow. Call me inflexible, but not everyone is as agile and flexible like many of you folks.

So, will Change This survive? I do agree that 2004 is the wrong time to say this. It is the year of the Blogs. But is Blog going to stay forever?

Starting a Blog is easy, keep one takes a lot of effort. Keeping a good one is even worse. So, then we have group-blogs to share the load. If group-blogs eventually become a norm. Would that mean we go back to main-stream News-paper ?

Another problem with Blog is standard. There is just no standard. There are so many trash around. Some of them are just plain filth. And that will be the down-fall of blogs. Lack of standard.

People like me enjoy reading some blogs. But reading blog after blog takes so much time. I would prefer to just have to read Time to know the American point of view, and The Economist from the Brits, then a good Dutch news paper for the European.

Cindy

Permalink to Comment

24. farty on August 2, 2004 11:01 PM writes...

Let's make sure and jump on any young people who have idealistic ideas, OK? Make sure we show them how much more we know. And make sure we make it clear that our primary goal is to dominate, not encourage. Especially if we can dominate people twenty years younger than us with way less connections and experience! What fun for us smartypantses! We're sooooo smart, and that's what really counts!

Permalink to Comment

25. Clay Shirky on August 2, 2004 11:34 PM writes...

I spend a lot of time with the young people you seem to be so concerned about, and let me tell you, they're smarter than you think. Change This is hardly idealistic, and they're not going to be fooled by it for a second. More like "Lets tell bloggers we love them when they forward our stuff, but hate them when they write their own stuff."

I hardly think calling out that message is going to be discouraging to anyone, young or old, who thinks that a real conversation is better than trying to stuff the book model into the weblog world.

Permalink to Comment

26. Trudy W. Schuett on August 4, 2004 11:05 AM writes...

I submitted a manifesto to Change This to see what would happen, and it was rejected, they claimed, for space considerations. So what I did was post it on a blog, http://desertlightjournal.blog-city.com/
and also make it available in MSWord and plain text versions for download. We'll see how that flies!
I am also not very comfortable with calling it a manifesto, but hey, it's an experiment!

Permalink to Comment

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