Digital Digest: Balancing Collaboration and Control

Adrian Versteegh
From the November/December 2012 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine, an online publishing platform backed by former Twitter parent the Obvious Corporation, went live in mid-August, and cofounder Evan Williams was unabashed about the project’s ambitions: “We’re re-imagining publishing in an attempt to make an evolutionary leap,” he wrote on the site, “based on everything we’ve learned in the last thirteen years and the needs of today’s world.” Medium organizes original writing, photos, and various artist projects thematically as “collections,” some of which are currently open to submissions from outside contributors and some not. Early reactions to the platform have been muted, with most commentators wondering how the new arrival, still in beta, could significantly distinguish itself among similar collaborative outlets such as Pinterest or Tumblr. But Medium may be worth keeping an eye on simply by dint of pedigree. Along with Williams, its backers include Jason Goldman and Biz Stone, veterans not only of Twitter but also of Blogger (now owned by Google)—technologies initially dismissed as ephemeral that quickly went on to assert an undeniable influence over both digital and conventional publishing. And even if Medium stalls, the issue it’s addressing is more pressing than ever: how to make the collaborative free-for-all of digital media navigable, useful, and enjoyable.

Platforms designed to foster literary collaboration have approached the need for control and curating in various ways—not least because of copyright violation complaints leveled against sites like the document-sharing service Scribd. As the back-and-forth of online exchange evolves into a genre of its own, gatekeeping and editorial vetting are emerging as increasingly welcome responses to the chaotic openness that marked—and was celebrated in—the early days of the web. Another Obvious Corporation–backed project, Branch (which began as a collaborative blogging platform called Roundtable) has morphed into a by-invitation-only discussion site, operating on the premise that controlled conversation among carefully selected participants begets higher-quality discourse.

And of course where there’s commentary there’s judgment—a principle that many collaborative sites beyond the literary realm have attempted to harness as an organizing rubric. Social-news outlet Reddit, launched in 2005 and following the lead of 2004’s recently reimagined Digg, allows registered users to submit stories that are subsequently voted up or down the ranked listings by other users. BuzzFeed, brainchild of Huffington Post cofounder Jonah Peretti, plays the popularity game with a more active editorial hand, serving up slices of what it calls “the viral web” as online fads unfold. Comparable rating and ranking systems have worked their way—and not without controversy—into the literary web as well, with social-cataloguing platforms such as Goodreads serving as forums for book-based discussion and as generators of actively crowd-sourced reviews that create tailored recommendations. The recently launched idream, a book-review site that bills itself as a “ for books,” leverages a more circumscribed crowd, aggregating reviews from professional book critics to generate a weighted average that’s displayed as a percentage on the “Readometer” next to each title. A score of more than 70 percent triggers a recommendation. Wattpad, a platform for user-uploaded writing that includes its own mobile reading app, straddles the line between collaboration and curating, ranking stories on its “What’s Hot List” according to user votes and reading statistics, but also maintaining a “Featured Story List” selected by the editors.

For its part, Medium hasn’t yet taken any revolutionary steps away from these straightforward ranking models. Chunks of content are stacked, blog-like, in sequences determined by the average ratings assigned to them by users. Although its founders plan on eventually giving anyone the ability to contribute to Medium, they insist that the organizing principle behind the material published will be quality—though what that means exactly is yet to be determined. “In terms of how we figure out quality, that will be a long-standing project,” Williams admitted in September at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. “I look at it similarly to the question, ‘How does Google figure out quality?’ It’s algorithmic, and it’s based on people’s behavior out in the world. And lots of data.” This may offer little consolation for writers who worry that value is being reduced, à la Google search results, to mere frequency of use. But just as popularity and its pitfalls are hardly new concerns, so is there nothing especially novel about collaborative literary production or the need to determine what is useful material. What is happening, as the digital glut becomes more pronounced, is an increase in ways to publish, promote, and access new work. Writers will need to deal with the pressures of the crowd, learn to navigate a multiplicity of voices, and, perhaps, learn how to exist as one among many. The solitary genius in the garret is yesterday’s myth, and the community is creeping closer and closer to the site of creation itself.

Adrian Versteegh is a MacCracken fellow at New York University. His nonacademic writing has appeared recently in Dissent and the Brooklyn Rail.