What Is The Classic .com Mistake?

Somebody Is Wrong On The InternetI recently came across a critical piece on two Novelr articles (this one and this one), published in Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 9 (a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media). Overall, I thought the entire thing to be well written, witty at parts, snarky at others, with a respectable open-ended conclusion about the state of e-book readers at the end. There is just one part that is bothering me, though: in his analysis of my post on the Long Tail he alleges that I make something he calls ‘the classic .com mistake.’

Ah, but the blogger makes the classic .com mistake, one Jensen doesn’t make:

Our target audience shouldn’t have to be just people who are willing to sort through the dross: if that’s the case online writing will forever be in the dark, pushed into the corners of the web by other bigger, better, more instantly gratifying web distractions. If, say 1% of web surfers are actively finding/reading online fiction, the ideal solution shouldn’t be just to find that 1%, but to expand upon it. In other words, we should not find a target audience—we have to create one, so the 1% becomes 5%, or more.

“If we can only get 5%…” That’s propounded by another problem—one that’s characteristic in this blog. Namely, the writer assumes traditional media are dying. “Newspapers are dying out, losing to online news sources”—and in an unrelated post, “We know that the traditional publishing industry is upon dark times.” Ah, but never mind. We learn that “collaborative filters” are what we need to make online fiction more accessible for others—but, and it’s a big but, you have to get people to look at those filters before they’re of any use. The writer mentions a website, Pages Unbound, that can provide the collaborative filtering. I visited briefly. Wow. Ugly white sans text on a dark-gray background, making it hard to read. A front page that seems more manifesto than invitation—and the claim that readers may need mental adjustment to read web novels. Let’s just say that, as one who might be willing to read online fiction, I’m decidedly not bookmarking this site.

Here’s my question: what is the classic .com mistake? I have absolutely no idea – and his article doesn’t really explain – but let’s hold that off for awhile because I’d like to dissect his analysis to see if I’ve missed out anything.

He opens with a rhetorical question: “if we can only get 5% …”. He then follows this up with an attack on credibility (that I’m assuming traditional media is dying, when he thinks it’s actually not) but reminds his readers that this is a minor digression – the true problem is that our current collaborative filters are too ugly to be of any use.

There are three reasons why his analysis is flawed.

Firstly, the amount of people writing and reading blooks has grown two-fold over the past year or so. When I started covering blooking on Novelr the majority of blook writers were the blook readers (prompting, incidentally, this guest post by Gloria Hildebrandt). This has changed in recent times – the number of writers have grown, certainly, but the number of readers have grown even more. Two works, An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom and Tales Of MU have significant communities built around them, mostly drawn from LiveJournal, web comics and strategic advertising. The writer of said commentary has overlooked the simple fact that our 1% has grown into a 2%, and is set to hit 3 and more over the next few months.

Secondly, while the writer is correct in saying that Pages Unbound is ugly and non-functional this comment no longer applies for two reasons. Firstly, PU has closed, and a better filter (or filters, if plans for another one takes off) have replaced it. Secondly, much of the growth has been because of PU, and its close integration with the community could be felt in the outcry that followed its closing. Many readers and writers got their first start through PU’s review system – which despite its flaws managed to spark off a number of new, high quality blooks.

Thirdly, and lastly, my belief that traditional media is dying out has no logical connection to the ‘classic .com problem’. Why the writer included it there is beyond me. Whether they really are dying is open to heated debate – the said writer points out that local newspapers, for instance, are thriving because they provide local content, whereas only the large dailies are suffering. I do believe, however, that a good example does not a good argument make – while we can say that radio has not died with the emergence of television I’d like to point out that its significance has been greatly reduced. We no longer hear of people being glued to their radio sets for football commentary or nightly entertainment. The same will probably happen for traditional media – they won’t die completely, for sure, but they’ll certainly exist in a semi-significant state, less relevant than they were before.

PS: On the writer’s comment that 1000 True Fans is a gimmick – I point to Tales Of MU, amongst other works. Alexandra Erin’s full time job is writing it.

(Image from XKCD)

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Category: Meta · Writing Web Fiction