The sanctity of publication

Thanks to Antony Mayfield (@amayfield) for drawing my attention to a couple of recent  articles.  It has prompted me to finally post on something that has been lurking  in the back of my mind for a year or more – this thing I call the sanctity of publication.

Both articles – one a piece in the Daily Mail and the other a opinion piece by Seth Finkelstein in the Guardian – come from very different people and places but both are essentially the same: cries of indignation from people and/or institutions who see their position as ‘sanctified’ oracles being undermined by the great unwashed.

Both articles focus largely on Twitter but they follow a common theme used by the published elite and traditional media to classify and denigrate all forms of social media – which is to determine that its content is trivial, narcisistic, irrelevant and in all senses therefore not worthy.  Or to be more precise, not worthy of the sanctity which they wish to see (and have become accustomed to seeing) attached to any material that is published.  Granted, Finkelstein is not a journalist – but he is does frequently have his opinions sanctified via a column in the Guardian.

Of course the sanctity of publication is an attribute which derives from the scarcity of publication which has been the dominant characteristic of the Gutenberg world (the world of mass media).  Within this world the simple act of publication attached status, because it was expensive or risky to publish anything.  There were two principal hurdles that a piece of information needed to get over to make it to publication.  First, it had to appeal to a mass audience and secondly it had to adhere to a set of protocols (sometimes called standards of journalism), most of which were devised to protect its publisher from any legal redress that inaccuracy might incur.

Social media, of course, doesn’t have to conform to these strictures because it is defined by the fact that the means of publication are free and readily available to anyone.  And this leaves many in the traditional media or published elite either totally confused or just plain hopping mad.  Hence the cries of indignation.

Social media completely sidelines the sanctity of publication.  The traditional elites cannot come to terms with the fact that what gave them an advantage has ceased to be relevant. Their words and opinions have to compete on a level playing field with everyone else.  In Twitter, all tweets are equal.  Information is classified (rather than sanctified) according to its relevance – and this may be based on its relevance to only one other person. Where, or how, information gets to you is increasingly irrelevant.  Content is no longer defined by its means of distribution.

Said elites also have real difficulty coming to terms with the fact that when someone uses Twitter they may not actually wish to talk to the world and receive its approbation.  Because, of course, such approbation is what they themselves have been chasing every time they have their work published in a traditional way.  Hence Finkelstein’s summary of Twitter as “low-level celebrity for the chattering class”.  What he doesn’t actually say, but you can hear weeping through his words is “why aspire to such lowly ambitions when on display in the Guardian is genuine high-level celebrity for the intellectual classes?”

The assumption that only certain types of content are appropriate for certain types of media is not new.  In the early days of the telephone it was determined that telephone usage should be restricted to serious matters of business.  Telephone companies even took out ads instructing people on what to talk about and actively discouraged what was seen as idle chit-chat.  How strange that seems now – “Its good to talk”, “Life is for sharing” and all that.  But all this is a hang-over from the world where distribution was the dominant partner in a marriage with information.  There has now been a divorce and information is free (in a liberty sense) while poor old distribution is now free in a monetary sense (and therefore valueless).

There is another dimension to this issue – which is the fact that social media is powered by chatter and nonsense, as I have previously outlined.  However, this is not institutionalised, individualised nonsense – it is connected nonsense.  And connected nonsense = intelligence.  Something that can be proved by examining the bits of information on your own mental shelves.  Collectively all this information would be seen as irrelevant, but connectedly it is what defines who you are.   This is the difference between an institutionalised way of looking at things (Gutenberg media) and a process-based way of looking at things (social media).

Trying to explain all this to a traditional journalist is not easy.  To accept it is to accept the inevitability of your own demise.  Therefore expect many more howls of indignation.  The sanctity of publication will not lightly be taken from those who have basked within it.


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  2. jessica mullen

    Your points are right on. I am very frustrated, because I see the same thing happening with university education. The system is an outdated, industrial era system teaching to do as one’s told. Now we can learn anything from anywhere, and what needs to be taught is an adaptive set of skills to solve problems–design thinking. An accreditation system will be difficult to wrestle from the elites, howling in the same indignation you speak of.

  3. raimesh

    For “sanctity of publication” substitute “expectation that what is published has been reviewed/edited for value”.

    Now sadly lost to the world, although decent standards of editing were falling long before “editing before publishing” became optional.

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