Thursday, 11 April 2013

reading : on The Browser and decline of the editor


This year I read a thought provoking article, Net Wisdom which appeared in the FT on February 2013 (where it can be accessed with a free login). It was written by Robert Cottrell, the editor and creator of one of my favourite websites, The Browser.

Essentially The Browser is an edited selection of long-form web articles where the common theme is excellent writing that is 'worth reading'. On a personal level, The Browser has had a significant effect on what, where, when and how I read - it is the source of much of my bed-time reading (and a good portion of my daytime reading too) - and is a site I would recommend to anyone who loves intelligent articles on eclectic topics.

I would also urge you to read the FT article itself - it is well written and thought provoking. Its main theme is how reading and writing have been affected by the internet which, surprisingly, is something I have spent relatively little time considering.

For some reason, much of my thinking about digital and creativity has focused on physical making. Perhaps I am just too close to the subject of the online written word to have the necessary perspective to look at it objectively - my day-to-day work involves managing web content for an art and design museum. Whatever the reason, I am happy to say that this article caused me to pause and reflect on how the internet has affected the creative world of reading and writing.

Clearly the internet is a vast place, so when Cottrell says 'only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader', this still reflects a lot of writing and explains why he considers now to be 'a great time to be a reader' - a fact I had not consciously considered before.

As well as commercial sites such as the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times and the London Review of Books, Cottrell explains that much great writing is by professionals 'who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read' by blogging.

I had an 'ah-a' moment when he explained that he considers businessmen and politicians to be the worst bloggers because they are afraid to be wrong. He quotes Felix Salmon, Reuters’ finance blogger, as saying 'If you are never wrong, you are never interesting'... something well worth remembering when one is going through a period of writers'/bloggers' block.

The decline in the role of the publisher is concisely explained by Cottrell as due to the publication no longer being the 'unit of comsuption' which leaves the article free to take on a life of its own and the reader free to read it on their own terms, where they choose (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard and my own favourite, Instapaper). Indeed, Cottrell optimistically envisages a world where the reader is free to directly reward the writer, cutting out the middleman and thus removing then publisher from the equation altogether.

Another insight of Cottrell's I had not previously considered is that 'we overvalue new writing... and we undervalue older writing'. He anticipates a possible disruptive force of 'archives editors' bringing less current writing to the fore, of potential relevance to museum digital content. He also explains how the web has created a counter-intuitive move towards brevity with authors no longer compelled to write to fill a set amount of space, allowing for the rise of short digital books.

After reading the article, it stood out in my mind that Robert Cottrell's job title is give as 'editor' of The Browser, a title which I feel has more gravity than the now often used term 'curator'.

Much has been said in recent years of the rise of the term 'curator' in the digital sphere to refer to someone who 'collect[s]... and assemble[s]' material for digital publication. Unsurprisingly this has caused quite a stir in the world of museums and galleries where some staff cling to their traditional meaning of 'curator' and are reluctant to yield to any changes.

Personally love the way words change and morph over time - a process clearly necessary to keep a language living, breathing and relevant - I can't help but feel that there is something wonderful in observing a word in a state of flux as it evolves into something new. And, perhaps controversally, I also think it is a good thing that 'curation' has been embraced in this new way and has become something the 'cool kids' aspire to.

Yet with this rise of the word 'curator', there is a flip side where much of what is called online 'curating' is just good, old-fashioned, editing.

Perhaps being an editor is just no longer something many people in digital sphere aspire to? Tellingly, in this Guardian article, Micke McCue, founder and CEO of Flipboard, even talks about people 'curating' their own digital magazine. Perhaps over time 'curate' will replace 'edit' altogether in the digital realm... but I am pleased that we are not there yet.


No comments: