On Being Public

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, I was confronted with some truly big think ideas that took me a few months to really digest and get my head around after I had finished them.

Reading Jeff Jarvis’ Public Parts, by contrast, felt more like continuing a conversation that had been going and would continue well after I finished the book. In part this is because I listen to This Week in Google every week, and watched as Jarvis formulated the idea for the book and gradually became chief publicness advocate on the show.

But I had also been having discussions on this subject on my own. When Google+ first launched on an invite-only basis, they were looking for all the feedback they could get. The whole concept behind circles was to give people maximum control over their privacy with the minimum possible effort, in response to concerns expressed about Facebook, not to mention Google itself. The debates that took place those first couple of weeks made me eager for Jarvis’ book to come out–so many people put so much stock on the importance of privacy, without taking into account the value of being public!

Jarvis has been practicing what he preaches for some time, talking openly about his prostate cancer and the unfortunate side effects of the treatment on his blog. One complaint that people have about this is that most of his readers subscribe to his blog to read his commentary on media, and don’t want to hear about his surgery-induced impotence. But Jarvis argues that he, personally, got value from being public, because he received a ton of feedback from people who had experience with what he was going through and were able to give him advice.

Morever, there is a social benefit to talking about such things in public–now, anyone who has prostate cancer can find Jarvis’ blog posts on the subject–as well as all the helpful comments on them–simply by searching on Google.

Jarvis doesn’t discount privacy, but he does think there is a dearth of publicness advocates relative to the big privacy advocacy industry that has cropped up. Since participating in those discussions on Google+, and reading his book, I have begun to look at things through the lens of the value of being public.

The recent Hyperbole and a Half, Adventures in Depression, is a perfect example. I have a lot of friends and family who have suffered through depression, but I haven’t lived it myself. The writer of H&H gave someone like me an insight into what it is like that I had never had. At the same time, the people I know who have experience with depression universally seemed glad that someone had so perfectly, and humorously, described what they have gone through.

For those of us who don’t command the kind of audiences that Hyperbole and a Half or Jeff Jarvis have, there is still plenty of reason to be public. You may not even realize who cares about the events in your life and is willing to make an effort to support and encourage you if you limit the people you share with. When my friend Kelly wrote this very brave and very honest post about what she’s been going through, she received some very wonderful feedback from an unexpected source, and it made her day.

This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be made public all the time. But it’s important to take the value of being public seriously, and to think hard about how you present yourself in public.

I created this site, under this domain, on a server I pay for, because as I was reading Jarvis’ book I started to rethink the way I was conducting my public life. I have no problem with my various social network profiles, and Blogger blogs, showing up when someone Googles me, but I wanted to have one site that I owned from beginning to end, under nothing but my own name. I don’t think everyone needs to do this, but I do think it’s something everyone should consider–and something schools should be informing students is an option.

So how could you benefit from being more public?

Innovation will Bubble Up from the Long Tail

I recently wrote that the long tail of digital content producers–that is, the vast majority–will make nearly nothing in revenue. This is especially true when compared to the head of the tail, the tiny fraction of content producers that will earn the vast majority of the revenue. By this I did not mean that the long tail was unimportant–in fact, I believe that the long tail is the most important segment, because that is where the future can be found.

Social Trial and Error

Societies progress through continual and parallel processes of trial and error. Small groups adopt products or activities or norms, a subset of which are picked up by larger groups, and even smaller subset of which goes on to yet a larger group. This process continues until only a tiny fraction of the original products, activities, or norms go mainstream.

An enormous number of trials end up discarded before a single one makes it to even a middle level of adoption, much less the favored few that go mainstream–or stay there long.

This phenomena, well documented in the diffusion of innovations literature, is most familiar to people in the fast moving world of consumer technology, where phrases like “early adopters” are used in casual conversation. It applies to anything that could proliferate across groups–for example, art, and content more generally.

A Hotbed of New Ideas and Failure

An unknown, aspiring writer in today’s world faces the same problem as any unknown, aspiring writer did in generations past–obscurity. He has many more tools at his disposal than his equivalents in the past did–he can start a blog, podcast, and connect with others on social networks to promote his work. There are also many, many more places he can submit his work–there are still magazines in the traditional sense, but there are many more online outlets of widely varying audiences.

These tools are available to any aspiring writer, however–in fact, the barriers to putting out your writing in public are so low that huge swaths of people who wouldn’t have even tried in the past are also putting their stuff out there. If anything, the web and the new opportunities it affords have actually reduced the probability that any one aspiring author will make it big.

If they want to set themselves apart, they will have to innovate. Of course, as touched on above, most of these innovations will fail to gain any traction. The new and exciting things happening in writing, however, will come from the successful subset of these innovations.

Scott Sigler is an example of a successful innovator in digital writing. After losing his book deal ten years ago, he learned about podcasting and decided to record and serialize his book himself, and put it out for free. He continued to do this after the first book, and eventually had built up a big enough audience to catch the attention of Dragon Moon Press, a small independent publisher. On the strength of his online following–who helped not only with sales but with marketing the book–the book managed to rocket up Amazon’s bestseller list. This caught the attention of Random House, with whom he currently has a contract. His second book with them was a New York Times bestseller. He isn’t selling Harry Potter-level blockbusters, but he has definitely moved up out of the long tail and into the head.

Sigler wasn’t the sole creator of the podcast novel; others were trying it out at basically the same time. But Kevin Kelly has documented how innovations and ideas tend to occur in parallel in art, as well as in science, math, and technology.

The podcast novel is a great example of how this dynamic works, too, because while it helped launch the careers of Sigler and some of his peers, the form itself has yet to become anything like mainstream. It has grown over time, but Podiobooks.com, one of the largest repositories for podcast novels on the web, still boasts a mere 569 titles, and a registered audience of 83,000. If you asked a random individual, even a random book enthusiast, odds are extremely low that they would have even heard of podcast novels.

Most innovations never make it even this far–but there is still no guarantee that podcast novels will get to the level of mainstream adoption, or even mainstream awareness.

The Head of the Tail is Conservative

The big record labels, publishing houses, and movie studios will never try something truly new. I am confident on this point–anything that is celebrated as being new from these big institutions will in fact just be the first time that big money has been spent on a form that was tried out first by individuals in the long tail.

It makes sense–a lone writer, musician, or filmmaker is working with a very small budget. In a writer’s case, they may pay next to nothing and face an opportunity cost made up primarily of their time. If they try something new and different and it fails, they may be out a few months of work. A big publishing house, on the other hand, has to pay the salaries of its army of editors, not to mention the costs of promoting a work. In dollar terms at least, failure hurts a publishing house a lot more than it hurts the lone, unknown author.

And publishing houses still fail more often than they succeed. They just win really big when they do win, and that subsidizes the failures. Profitably depends on their ability to increase the fraction of the authors they sign on who end up being successes, and minimizing the failures.

For that reason, they are always going to stick to the tried and true. Innovations will have to gain widespread adoption in the long tail–and for a while–before they bubble up to the head.

Consider the movement towards ebooks. The formats that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple are providing consumers are essentially nothing more than the digitization of the print versions. They do not offer the increased capabilities that digital technology makes possible–of including video and audio files mixed in with the text, for example, something commonly done on blogs. They optimize for the tried and true, because all the money is being invested in the tried and true.

Mechanisms exist for making money from innovations–you could pitch an idea beforehand on Kickstarter, or make an app for smartphones and tablets and charge a price for it. Only after a respectable amount of money has been made by innovators will the institutions at the head of the tail start to take notice.

So while I don’t agree with Chris Anderson’s original hypothesis that the long tail will be of increasing monetary significance to businesses, I do think that it will be an even greater engine of innovation in the digital era than it was in the analog one.