Header image for A pointable we [3/3]

A pointable we [3/3]

The power of URLs and publishing


Other entries in this series:

Land Locked

Monkey Business is here in my hands, printed. A solid brick of a publication. I understand it. It’s real. But from our corpus perspective, it’s deflated. It doesn’t have legs. The author’s words start and end on the page. I can’t point. It’s not “close” like digital text. It isn’t adjacent to anything. All I can do is create a simulacrum here, on my website. And legally I’m only allowed to simulacrumize a few things.

So this — those blockquotes floating over in part one — is me adding Murakami’s conversation to the corpus. Our corpus. Putting it in a public space. Making it searchable. Pointable. Taking it out of my underlined, dog-eared pages, dumping it into Simple Note / Notational Velocity,1 and embedding a slice of that here on my public home.


Which brings us to The Really Controversial Question many print publishers grapple with: How much should be put online for free? And when? But I don’t think those are the right questions. It’s not about content being free or not, it’s about content existing or not. Can I point? No? Then it’s kinda not really there. At least not in the way we now expect. Undeniably, it’s certainly not doing the work it could be doing.

All this ties back into the importance of platforms in digital publishing. The web, of course, is the largest, most open, device agnostic, and most pervasive (and thereby a great place to start). But this doesn’t preclude others from emerging.2

This lack of platforminess is what makes many iPad magazine apps impotent. They end up in no better a position than a printed magazine. There are no routes by which you can directly get to their content. You can’t point in. You’re forced to go through the “front door” to get anywhere. And it’s a door usually weighing several hundred megabytes and infuriatingly difficult to unlock.

The reality is — because of the way in which we share content — we almost never even see the “front door” anymore. (Which indicates that the long-term value of an ‘issue’ drops precipitously with time.) If you find a piece of great content inside one of these apps, at most you can say: Hey! There’s something interesting in there! Just download the app, swipe right ten times, up three, then tap to remove the text, rotate to landscape mode and I swear there’s a great article in there! You gotta trust me. Which, of course, almost no one follows all the way to the interesting thing.

In a best case scenario the article you want to point at also exists on a website somewhere. But there’s often no obvious connection between the closed (unpointable) article in the app, and the open (pointable) article on the web.

Close Your Loops!

Which is to say: the loops are left open. The reading-enjoying-sharing-engaging-reading loop can’t be closed when your platform doesn’t have universally, publicly accessible points.3 And right now, those points — to be truly universally accessible and pointable — need to be web based. It’s our lowest common denominator of pointability.

So that feeling: if a text isn’t online, then it doesn’t exist. This needs a little amendment: If a text isn’t online and publicly pointable, then it doesn’t exist.

Commercially, it gets sticky. But Amazon and their Kindle-as-platform solves a bit of that.4 The New York Time’s pay-fence is another alternative.

Just as I was about to publish this satellite entry, apropos this discussion, Harvard announced their massive meta-data injection into the corpus:

Harvard is making public the information on more than 12 million books, videos, audio recordings, images, manuscripts, maps, and more things inside its 73 libraries … “This is Big Data for books,” said David Weinberger, co-director of Harvard’s Library Lab. “There might be 100 different attributes for a single object.” At a one-day test run with 15 hackers working with information on 600,000 items, he said, people created things like visual timelines of when ideas became broadly published, maps showing locations of different items, and a “virtual stack” of related volumes garnered from various locations.5

It seemed remiss of me not to point at that.

All I know is the more I read digitally, the more this feeling — the strange joy of adding to the corpus6 and seeing where it takes us — grows inside me, and I can’t be the only one to feel this. Adding to the corpus — making things pointable — has become habitual, and aspects of it are becoming more and more passive. These habits and expectations aren’t going anywhere.

As a publisher your text is either in the corpus or it’s not. And so there is no better time for great, print-locked publications like Monkey Business or countless other app-locked publications to show others what happens when their texts “exist,” when they’re made open and pointable.

Other entries in this series:

  1. Simplenote/Notational Velocity has become my de facto external brain. Everything gets dumped into it. If we’re having dinner together and I take out my iPhone, I’m not checking my mail, I’m dumping part of our conversation into my external corpus to reference later.
  2. Although it seems like it would be very difficult to build a platform that doesn’t touch the open web in one way or another. This is perhaps the fundamental difference between Kindle and iBooks — Kindle has thus far achieved much more platforminess than iBooks. That achievement has come largely due to (among many other things) Amazon’s embracing of the open web as a public anchor for book highlights and notes. When you “share” a highlight, that highlight receives its own landing page on the web. Combine this with web based Kindle reading software and you’ll begin to see Amazon’s holistic understanding of balancing a closed, ‘sale’ (which can be an Amazon Prime checkout) oriented platform within the context of social media sharing. With links to purchase the books on all the landing pages, they fully understand how to close their loops.
  3. When’s the last time you saw someone link to or talk about The Daily?
  4. The books live within the walled, paid Kindle garden but pieces can sneak out through public links to notes / highlights / samples — Amazon doesn’t make people go in through the front door.
  5. Harvard Released Big Data for Books, The New York Times, April 24, 2012
  6. And as I mention in part one, this also goes for location checkins, photos, hangouts and any other physical action with a digital hook upon which it can be hung. I’ve gone from abhorring checkins to feeling like they ground activities. Regardless — it’s now our duty to feed the anonymous algorithms invariably watching over all of this. You don’t want them to get hungry. You wouldn’t like them when they’re hungry.

Popular Essays

Join my mailing list

Once in a blue moon I send out a tiny missive.
Something on books, photography, travel, and writing.
In the spirit of Roden.