The web is one of the most perfect feedback environments, where the creator and the consumer become intertwined in the network.
When books were written by hand there was very little capacity to deal with feedback, even if that feedback was received. “The power which printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume, “appears to me the chief advantage of that art.”
“By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Abraham Ortelius made his Theatrum atlas a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis,” Elizabeth L. Eisentein writes in "The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe." “He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.”
Although these events happened five centuries ago, the basic ideas of openness and feedback are even more relevant today. Because they were faster to publish in quantity and because they standardized things, printed maps were much easier to correct and expand than hand-created ones. “The Theatrum was …speedily reprinted several times …. Suggestions for corrections and revisions kept Ortelius and his engravers busy altering plates for new editions …. When Ortelius died in 1598 at least 28 editions of the atlas had been published in Latin, Dutch, German, French and Spanish.”
“The term 'feedback,'" Eisenstein continues, “is ugly and much overused, yet it does help to define the difference between data collection before and after the communications shift. After printing, large-scale data collection did become subject to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes.”
I believe it was the great inventor Charles Babbage who once asked: “Does man maketh the tool or does the tool maketh man?” Printing did not just mean that books that were written by hand were now "printed." Printing allowed for a whole new world of communication to emerge. It allowed for levels of data accuracy that were simply not possible when writing by hand.
Thus, writing by hand was radically different from writing for print. They were different worlds. Print was a communication revolution. Equally, today, writing for the web is not the same as writing for print. They are different worlds. The web is the latest communication revolution. And yet, a great deal of the content we see on the web today is a result of jaded print cultures: whether it be monstrous PDFs, tired banner ads or carousels, pretty pictures of politicians or actors pretending to be consumers, or merely long reams of dreary content "migrated" from print.
One of the key characteristics of the web is the endless ability to manipulate data and content and the continuous, frenetic feedback loop this can create. Ortelius was so happy with feedback because it allowed him to make a more accurate and more comprehensive atlas and to publish it more quickly. For the web writer, there is the possibility of intense feedback, co-creation, linking.
The writer and the reader merge, morph and interact intensely on the web. Sometimes the most interesting thing about an article is the readers’ comments. The web is about rapid evolution. It’s not about new editions. It is rather about an eternal beta and continuous flow. This is not print anymore. That age is over.
About the Author
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994. His latest book is titled The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online.
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