By Erik J. Heels
The Internet is such a glorious thing because it lets you make all kinds of information freely available to people. Better yet, it increasingly lets users interact with the contents' providers. But thriving on the new iteration of the Web requires keeping pace with the times.
One of the things that separates humans from monkeys is our capacity for self-examination and self-improvement. It's why diets get started, houses get painted, and Web sites get redesigned.
The following is an introspective and retrospective look at Internet publishing—and also why organizations large and small need to evolve on the ever-changing Internet. I am (at the editors' indulgence) using this magazine and its publisher as a case study, but the lessons apply to all of us. Including me.
Point One: Planned Obsolescence Is a Bad Thing. The first article I wrote for this magazine, "Why Lawyers Should Get on the Internet," was published in 1994. Today it is nowhere to be found on the ABA's Web site. Maybe that's not so unusual. But the article I wrote for the June 2006 issue is also no longer freely available on the site—at least not to the public. To read that article on the site, you have to be an ABA member and log in to access the magazine's archives. However, even if you do log in, nothing before 1999 has been preserved on the site. Newsweek declared 1995 the year of the Internet, so I could see there being a pre-1995 gap, but I'm pretty sure that articles of value were written before 1999.
Getting on the Internet is a good thing. Taking things off the Internet is a bad thing. It was true in 1994, and it is still true in 2006.
Point Two: Copyright Is a Good Thing. Copyright law is beautiful in its simplicity and complexity. Copyright rights can be sliced and diced in a seemingly infinite number of creative ways. For example, I write for this magazine and grant the ABA the right of first publication for this and other articles. I always wait until after the issue comes out in print before I post my columns on my Weblog. (You may be reading this column in October, but I wrote it in August.)
Similarly, when I published the first edition of my book The Legal List, all the way back in 1992, you could get a free electronic copy of it over the Internet—but you could not get a free copy of it in print. I called this "print-and-pay copyright," and it was a simple application of copyright law. In recent years, the Creative Commons ( www.creativecommons.org) has become popular as a way for authors and artists to declare which rights they are reserving and which they are granting.
I routinely grant reprint requests for my articles. The ABA also routinely grants reprint requests. But maybe reprint requests wouldn't be necessary if a different publishing model were used.
Point Three: Blogs Are a Good Thing. Thank goodness for blogs. The best thing about blogs is that they allow you to publish on the Web by filling out forms on a Web site (or in a publishing program that runs on your local computer). Enter the title, enter the article's text, click on publish, and your posting is done. If you can figure out how to order a book from Amazon.com, then you can publish a blog.
Thanks to the advent of blog software, I can publish, link, cross-reference, categorize and tag my articles to my heart's content. And so can other bloggers. My personal favorite feature on my blog is that all articles are automatically linked to and from related articles on the same blog. So, for example, when I post the article that you're reading right now, it will automatically be linked to other related articles on my blog, and other related articles will automatically be linked to this article. I don't have to tag it. I just have to write it. The software does the rest.
(You can find more information on how to automatically add tags, or keywords, to your articles and how to automatically add links to related articles in Movable Type on my blog at www.erikjheels.com.)
Blogging is a lot like juggling. People watch as long as you're doing it. If you stop, your audience may depart, or your popularity may decrease. But on the Internet, where everything is (potentially) archived, blogging is like having every juggling performance stored for eternity on YouTube.com, or whatever comes next. The history is there for future audiences.
In short, blogs and blog-related technology make the Web (1) more Webby, (2) more linky, (3) more related, (4) more relevant, and (5) more powerful. Without the dynamism of blog technology, none of those things exist.
Point Four: Interactivity Is a Good Thing. In October 2000, I wrote in this magazine that business is a conversation. Or at least it's supposed to be. But that wasn't my idea. That's an idea from The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, a book in which authors Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls and David Weinberger explored the Internet's revolutionary impact on business markets. But how did the Cluetrain people spread their idea? Via the Internet, of course. In fact, their book started out as a Web site ( www.cluetrain.com). I first heard about The Cluetrain Manifesto in March 1999 via e-mail, nine months before the book was published.
There are really no new ideas—there are only good ideas. Interactivity is a good idea. Making Web sites interactive is a good idea. That's why blogs, again, are so great. People can leave comments on my blog, and you can get the comments in my blog's feed. People can link to my site and have their own articles automatically linked from my blog, and then you can get the links (trackbacks) in my blog's feed. Spam comments and spam trackbacks are a problem, of course—but where there is any conversation, there is noise.
And the conversation, the interactivity, is really the thing that matters.
Point Five: Love and Money Are Both Good Things. There are two reasons to do most things: love and money. You should write because you love writing. You should blog because you love writing. Do what you love and the money will follow. Love is a good motivator for writers. But it is not the only motivator.
If you have a Web site that gets lots of visitors, then writers will want to write for you. Advertisers will want to advertise. Writers like to write because it is good marketing and it helps them make money. Advertisers make money from advertising. Publishers make money from advertising. While I have generated new business as a result of writing for this magazine and other publications, I consider writing an ROI-positive experience primarily because I enjoy doing it. In other words, I don't write for money, I write for love.
But my Weblog makes money because it has advertising. Not a lot, but it pays for my bar association dues.
What I'm Not Saying
I am not saying that any association publication should strive to be more like Wired. I am saying that the Internet works in a certain way. For every action, people and technology will react differently. Read Steven D. Levitt's and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics ( www.freakonomics.com), which is all about the economics and psychology of incentives. Perhaps the ABA should keep only its best publications online. Perhaps the ABA should keep only its worst publications online. Perhaps only the current issue of a periodical, perhaps everything except the current issue, perhaps everything ever published, perhaps nothing. There are many options. Each option, each action, has a logical reaction. But it certainly appears, at least to me, that whoever or whatever you are, fewer people will visit your site if your content isn't findable.
I am not saying that every association or publisher or anyone else should have a blog. I am saying that blogging is cool and powerful because it makes the Web more of what it was intended to be—and that adding interactivity to any site can improve the conversation.
I am not saying that I like things the way they used to be. I am saying that old content should not be put out of existence. And that new technology should not be ignored.
Lastly, I am saying that, whether or not you agree with Darwin that we evolved from monkeys, everyone has to evolve to survive and thrive on the Internet. I am also saying that I miss the interaction with you, my audience. I miss the conversation. And since there are only two reasons to keep doing this, love and money—I can only say, "Show me the love!" Read this article. Steal this article before it disappears into the archives. Forward it to a friend. Visit my blog and leave feedback. Link to me so I can link to you. Let's show everyone what a people-powered conversation machine the Internet can be. Then, in December 2006, when this article goes into the magazine's online archives, check back on my blog to see the results, to see what's more powerful—a dynamic open Web 2.0 or a static closed Web 1.0.