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Publish, Perish?

Could the subject for this month in technology be anything but platform vs. publish? This has been the subject of many a heated conversation, on and offline. The history of social media and internet “publications” has hit a significant bump, and some re-engineering will no doubt have to be done. 

    I’m tempted to say that the quarrel over who owned what, what could be “published” via new technology, who was responsible and how owners were paid, violators were punished, and publishers vs. platforms, began as far back as the printing press. Though it has long been illegal to copy works owned by another, from paintings to photos to modeling shots, from scholarly works to screenplays to magazine articles, the format (technology) of the original often limited the means of stealing.   
Oddly, if you go back far enough, copying the hard way was once considered legitimate. Books were copied long-hand by monks and scholars sitting for hours with a pot of ink and a flickering candle; master paintings were copied by budding artists eager to learn their trade, or apprenticing to the artist. Performances of a piece of music had no way of being reproduced until relatively late in the scheme of things, though radio stations, department stores and even elevators that “piped in” music had to have appropriate licensing.

With the advent of copying technology, copyright holders had to up their game, and eventually the very means by which copywritten material could be stolen (copy machines, copying from the Internet, file sharing, and mp3’s, among other tools) was the means by which copywritten material could be protected. Humans, and later bots, scoured the Internet for strings of copy or matching images of photos or clip-art, with angry demands for payment if protected material was found on someone’s website without license. Clip-art and stock photo shops opened as the demand for material increased. While truly high-end, or large volumes of material remained pricey, a wide range of “copies of copies” became available at relatively low prices, including buy-out music and matching sets of icons and cartoon images.

Now let’s trace mass media. The printing press began the long road from “everyone can read,” (which put nobody between the Bible and the reader) to “anyone can be a content provider (which, in a way, put nobody between oneself and an audience).” Before the days of Amazon publish on demand, or even the vanity press, in order to write and publish a book a writer had to find a publisher – someone willing to take a chance on all the printing, binding, and distribution to get a book in the hands of the readers. In the second half of the last century, beyond the vanity press which has been around much longer, publish-yourself was an option for a new writer who couldn’t find a publisher or was too stubborn to find an agent. The relatively less expensive book publishing industry, with its paper-clad books and computer set print, was open to anyone willing to pay, and while you might not get rich, you could get your book published.

Film-making started small and went very, very big, and eventually began to see competition on the small scale again, and distribution (again, a big challenge for any media) could be cracked by direct-to-tape and later direct-to-dvd movies, later direct-to-tv. Television, once the empire of a handful of stations, eventually began to accept product from small, independent production companies – and with cable, the market for your production expanded exponentially, so that now some of the best and most-watched series are made for Prime, or Netflix.

Websites, especially those targeting a special audience, and offering articles, “reporting,” and interviews, began to chew at the edges of magazines’ and even newspapers’ hold on the reading audience.

But news, public affairs talk, and opinion seemed to remain firmly in the hands of the big networks. It was expensive, it needed a dedicated audience, and it required a lot of hands behind the scenes to keep it going – editors, writers, reporters, on-camera (or on-mic) talent, and many more. Cable also made some inroads into news operations, but it really wasn’t until political talk radio and FOX News that a significant number of viewers moved from the old standards to a news operation that catered to its audience’s worldview, and proved to be a success. A few other news operations had sprung up with the access cable provided, but the formula of “talk to your audience” had never been so successful.

With podcasts, a new way of reaching audience was realized, and though its momentum was slow at first, it began to really pick up speed in the last 10 or so years. I began listening to podcasts quite a long time ago – mainly as entertainment when in the car, or doing household chores. Back “then,” which by the history is about 20 years ago as a phenomenon, though it has it roots back in the 1980s, podcasts covered a wide variety of topics, from books to science to films to the occasional political ‘cast. You got them from the host’s website, or from a podcast aggregator, such as iTunes. With more and more good – sometimes borderline great – content being offered via podcasts, listeners had a genuine choice. Though there was still often a monetization formula, and a publisher of sorts, more and more chatty, smart people with wit and wisdom could engage with an audience. Success was measured in subscriptions and downloads, and there were a few that even back then I’d never miss.

Meanwhile, social media had made its appearance in the form of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a handful of others including, to a degree, YouTube, and users could share their dinner of last night, or drag out their digital soapbox and get into keyboard wars with one another. (Just to be fair, “flame wars” had started with the bulletin boards of several decades back, when largely very select users would subscribe to a bulletin board, and post opinions on code, tech, history, and other esoteric subjects, and scream at their desktops in frustration when someone they didn’t really know contradicted them.) The social media platforms that offered the average individual some space in front of an audience were selling their users willingness to show off their food photos, selfies, or share their opinions,  and while its tempting to think someone had this all mapped out, I would guess it was simply one thing happening, then another, and eventually someone taking advantage of putting this thing and that thing together. So, at some point in the last 5-10 years, we had: the technology to communicate instantly and cheaply, to have a microphone, a high pixel camera, and the leisure to use them; the scattered audience hungry for something other than the commercial-laden shows that seemed to be based on formulas; the massive number of outlets competing for that audience; and, as a final piece to the puzzle, the “monetization” of social media, both from the standpoint of the platforms that host your favorite commentators, and the “content creators” who are getting paid (very indirectly) to share their shows. Eventually, content creators began to team up to share a “channel” on which they would host “shows,” and who created little empires of up to millions of subscribers, each subscriber “paying” either directly, or indirectly by way of commercials/sponsorships. But remember, each “channel” has to be searched out and hosted on the Internet in order to reach its audience. It was access to the audience of the Internet that was the one key the content creators couldn’t create themselves.

So, why this long history (however imperfect) of what is happening now? Publishing, at whatever level, has consisted of a handful of things, though in different specific packages: content creator, publishers, audience, and advertisers. Most recently, “platforms” have been added to the mix. The best comparison to platform that I can reckon is the telephone. The old-school telephone was a monopoly for the convenience of the subscriber, and was a platform for private individuals and businesses to hold conversations with one another. There was an assumption of privacy, and at the same time, the telephone company had a certain protection from liability if two of its subscribers said bad words, or exchanged salacious ideas – even if two people had a conversation planning a crime, there had to be a wiretap order, issued by a judge, and that judge had to be convinced by the police that there was probable cause to listen to a phone in order to solve a serious crime, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, or terrorism. The phone company, however, was just the “platform.” It was not “publishing” the plot to terrorize, or money launder. Granted, it could have some liability if it didn’t cooperate with a judge’s order, but it wasn’t responsible for the “content,” and it had no responsibility for the truth or lies expressed in the call.

And this is why the argument of “publisher” vs. “platform” has been discussed at such volume among so many people in the last few weeks. It began with platforms issuing things like “strikes,” “jail,” “time-outs” and “banning” from platforms for users writing, or saying (in the case of podcasts and webcasts) things the platform objected to, or which it felt violated its TOS (terms of service). That seems fair enough, but there is (at least) one more piece to the puzzle: protections. There is something called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It was based on Internet platform providers’ concern that they be held accountable for things the users might say, images they might share, or ads that might be on something like, say, a Craigslist or eBay. In order to keep their platforms open and meaningful to users, they wanted to be sure there was wide freedom, and they also needed to know that they wouldn’t be held accountable for something prurient or goofy a user might “say.” The provision specifically is: “No provider or user of an internet computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This, like most legal language, is harder to parse that would seem at first reading.

On eff.org/issues, one of the reasons for this careful wording was supplied (and it’s only one): “CDA 230 offers its legal shield to bloggers who act as intermediaries by hosting comments on their blogs. Under the law, bloggers are not liable for comments left by readers, the work of guest bloggers, tips sent via email, or information received through RSS feeds. This legal protection can still hold even if a blogger is aware of the objectionable content…” In other words, it seems unreasonable to expect that a platform which might have a billion users, or even a small one with a few hundred but no staff, could be expected in this world of immediate and vast communications, keep track of every bit of commentary that crosses its open (because of its very nature) doors. Moreover, one of the features of social media that keeps us interested is our ability to offer our opinions via comments to the original content creator. Once comments are off, or the podcaster or short message originator is liable for the comments of the audience, free speech dries up and our interest in the exchange largely disappears.

Surely some of the answer will be “does the platform have more of an obligation if it has users who are famous and well-known,” and “does the idea of being famous and well-known limit the free speech of any individual user?”

That is at least one other side of this argument: if a user is notorious, have they, in effect, become a content creator for hire (i.e., is the platform a publisher)? Does the platform relinquish its status as “platform” and become a de facto “publisher?”

One thing is for certain: if you follow this meandering and very indirect thread all the way back in publishing/ownership/responsibility/reward, it’s obvious that as each technology was eclipsed by a new one, the rules of the road had to change, but not without considerable damage to the frame of the vehicle in the process.

Nancy Roberts