Authorship as a Scale

In the chapter devoted to “Texts” in Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s excellent and thorough work Planned Obsolescence the author continues her investigation into forms of networked publishing and its impact on authorship. Her argument that the necessary investigation into new forms of academic publishing should not attempt to mimic the codex form takes her from an examination of the implications of hypertext (it’s shortcomings in satisfying the transition to a new publishing paradigm), to more socially-tethered, born-digital works. My provocation deals with the practicalities of attempting to elevate the reader to the status of “writer.”

Although it seems worthy and necessary to think about the existential framework for the networked publishing model, and its place in the social landscape into which it is born, reducing the demarcation that is the fruits of authorial labor seems misguided. Setting aside the challenges of creating a deep structure that organizes the feedback mechanism (comments on comments on comments) inherent in the networked form, I still see an issue akin to the fallacy of freedom in hypertext. The leveling of the hierarchy between author and reader (a hierarchy that I can find very little fault in) ushered in by the linking and anchoring of hypertext markup, from my perspective, is false. Someone is always behind the placement of links. A deliberate choice about what choices are available should be kept in mind as a byproduct of authorship. Just because a reader has a new way of choosing what they choose to read doesn’t restructure their relationship to the creation of the content. They are choosing entry points into someone else’s ideas. It is in the interpretation of the content, and the unique articulation of individual thought that positions the reader as a true participant in the enlivening of any publication.

For conscientious, open-minded authors, reader feedback has always informed the iterative versioning of a work. With networked texts, the iterations can happen more quickly and with greater ease. That the conversations surrounding the iterations of a work can be made public and displayed as a single package is a truly fantastic element of the networked text form. It’s not that all commenters are worthy of a mention in an acknowledgments page instead of their name listed on the metaphorical front cover (or metadata bisac). It’s that they are contributors to the networked text, and it’s unique ecosystem. It may very well be that the demarcation between author and reader in the codex form should not extend to the networked form. However, what should be we call comment contributors? And should they really factor into the discussions of authorship. Ultimately, it may be the syntax that bothers me. That being said, I do not see the robust data-driven labor of reader feedback as an adequate contribution to allow for the moving of the dial in this regard. Remix, borrow, analyze, and contribute all you want, but this does not necessarily constitute a contribution worthy of authorship. Although all works are born from these same techniques, it may ultimately be from the sheer weight of skin-in-the-game that an author derives the title.