The future of publishing

If there’s one thing that fills the web more than cat pictures it’s ruminations on the state, past or future of newspapers and magazines. The truth is old models are failing and no-one really knows. Rupert Murdoch is trying paywalls, which is a possibility for publications with existing audiences and strong brands, but what can a start-up publication do?

In my own small way I’m experimenting — this week sees the launch of a—yes—paper-based magazine that Danny Smith and I have been working on for the best part of six months. This is what it looks like:

Pile of Dirty Bristow magazines

Things we’ve worked out so far:

  • Print is really expensive at small scale, but it’s still much easier to get people excited to work for and to sell than web content.
  • Brand is all important: we’ve gone for wilfully obtuse and arty—we think that’s a sector we can sell to.
  • A clean break between web and print means that you need to create lots of reasons for, and a fair amount of, ‘related but not similar’ content. Content that reaches the same audience, but isn’t seen as either a free or a second-rate version of what you’re asking payment for in print.
  • A new thing needs its networks—we’ve tried to make sure that everyone that can feel ownership of the magazine finds it easy to talk about and share stuff about it with their networks.
  • If you’ve got a brand, related events can make a fair bit of money—but they’re an additional risk. We’re operating at small scale, but publishers have tried this — Wrox Press when I worked for it’s web design offshoot was trying to maximise return on brand by conferences, it didn’t bring in enough money to save the company. It seems easier, however, to sell a specific happening via the social web than it does an ongoing concept.
  • No-one’s going to pay to get past the paywall on a Twitter account—well only about ten people in my experience.

As well as being exhausting and a great hobby, there’s been a fair few opportunities to try out different promotional web-tricks that I’m going to use again. Issue two shouldn’t take so long.

Bounded groups – fast changing overlapping networks

You may have heard of, and I’ve mentioned before, the Dunbar number (which reflects the limit of the number of people with which you can maintain social relationships). You can supposedly cope with around 150 people, but this seem doesn’t to tally with our online experiences. It seem that we can hold many more relationships, but I’m not sure. I think that the Dunbar number is still a valid theory.

Here’s a simplified view of traditional network, from the point of view of the red dot:

Untitled-1 @ 95% (CMYK/Preview)
From your point of view you’re surrounded by your group (they have different an overlapping groups themselves). In offline society the theory holds well, you have relationships with people and they reciprocate (you may care more, or invest more in the relationship — you’re closer or further from the centre of their circle than they are in yours — but you’re both in each other’s group). This extends well onto social networking sites where “friendship” is a reciprocal arrangement: @ 95% (CMYK/Preview)

Conversely as far as your expectations may go the online grouping is likely to be the smaller one, there are people you know who you don’t connect with offline. Trying to represent this here is the solid blue (both on and offline contacts), with whom your communication is obviously most connected. @ 95% (CMYK/Preview)

Online however we see groups forming where the isn’t reciprocal “friendship”. Within a Twitter network you can have people within your group that don’t have a group containing you — and this can have within it people that you connect with offline only that follow your online activities. @ 95% (CMYK/Preview)

But — and here’s the main way that online communication is changing grouping and networks online — you can exist simultaneously in a great number of these groupings. Moving within them, paying more or less attention as your mood or activities require.

Untitled-1 @ 95% (CMYK/Preview)

These groups overlap, some almost completely, some not much, all are flexible and have flow to and from at any one point. Groups can quickly appear, disappear,and change size and composition rapidly.

You still may only be able to maintain a Dunbar number of relationships, but the free flow allows you to “place relationships on hold” (not breaking the ties, just not using them for a time)— vastly expanding the number of connections, while not weakening any one individually.

Ze Frank's new blog on online partcipation projects

Ze Frank has long been the master of mass participation on the internet, if he's involved with something you can be sure that all the barriers for people to join in have been broken down. He's started a new blog with "notes and advice to someone like me" — which is you if you're going to try anything online that you hope people will join in on. [link]

It’s behind me. Twitter pantomime, a social media experiment

Pantomimes have taken a good couple of hundred years to evolve from ballet and variety acts, they’ve at times been four-hour sprawling shows with a lavish ballroom scene. These days they’re more likely to be a string of doubles-entendre hung loosely over a plot that gives a TV personality a chance to expand his or her range beyond looking fetching in swimwear.

In their heyday they were so engrained into the British culture that it would have been hard to imagine any media outlet that didn’t shoehorn its presenters into an in-joke laden panto – to the delight of the audience and also the schedulers that could fill up hours of festive programming. That they’d also turned into a fiesta of cross-dressing, was just a bonus.

They may not be as culturally relevant now, but the traditions are well-established and they are even starting to see signs of a post-modernist revival.

Panto is an ideal format for a community project, as it has well established traditions – and just a few basic plots. If a show is Robin Hood, Puss in Boots or Alladin the audience know that the basic plot will be boy meets girl, boy gets girl, while thwarting “baddie”. Maybe it’ll be the girl that does the thwarting, or maybe (Beauty and the Beast) the baddie will be our own prejudice that looks are more important than personality. Whatever, there’ll be slapstick, there’ll be a slushy dance scene and something will be quite obviously behind someone else – while they are seemingly doomed never to catch a glimpse of it.

But why did I organise one online, and why twitter?

Continue reading It’s behind me. Twitter pantomime, a social media experiment

Links for 28th February

  • Online Shops for Niche Products / ShopWindoz – Etsy for europe? One stop shop for leather leiderhosen min-dresses and amigarumia at the mo'
  • South By South West Midlands – A group from the West Midlands go to South By South West Interactive. Lucky, lucky, sods, we're not jealous or anything… 😉 But seriously, they're offering to spread the weird by letting youse lot tell them what to go and see (within reason I guess).