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‘Public Parts’ and its public parts: In a networked world, can a book go viral?

Behind the Jarvis/Morozov spat is a book tour tailor-made for the digital age.
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Last month, Jeff Jarvis published his new book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. Last week, Evgeny Morozov published a scathing review of it. In response, Jarvis rebutted Morozov via Twitter, Google+, and then, finally, a Google Doc (custom link: http://bit.ly/AnsweringMrGrumpy) that copied Morozov’s nearly-7,000-word review, in full, and then proceeded to plug the holes Morozov had hacked therein.

There is something both ridiculous and refreshing about all this. Ridiculous because 90 percent of Morozov’s criticisms are wildly unfair (and also because, you know, http://bit.ly/AnsweringMrGrumpy)…and refreshing because here is a work of book-bound nonfiction — chock full of claims to be assessed and arguments to be discussed — that is actually being assessed and discussed. In a public forum! Discourse, and everything!

That shouldn’t be an anomaly, but it is. Books both e- and analog — the kind that exist not to tell a tale, but to advance an argument — face a fundamental challenge: The interests of books-as-artifacts and books-as-arguments are, in general, misaligned. Books are great, definitely, at capturing ideas. Books are great at claiming cultural ownership of ideas. Books are great at generating speaking gigs based on ideas. Books are great at getting authors paid for ideas. But books are much, much less great at actually propagating ideas — particularly ideas of the relative nuance that Morozov’s “Internet intellectuals” tend to favor.

Which is a flaw that’s easy to forget, given books’ cultural status. A book deal is a big deal; those who have gotten one will make a point, as they should, of highlighting the achievement. A writer and an author.

And yet. The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

Books of ideas often end up the victims of the Idea-Industrial Complex that created them.

In an ideal world, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem. In an ideal world, Jarvis wouldn’t need to issue rebuttals — no, Mr. Morozov, what the book actually said was X — that both correct the record and imply the assumption that most people won’t actually be reading the whole what-the-book-actually-said. In an ideal world, everyone would just buy the book, and read the book, and luxuriate in the book’s arguments, and discuss those arguments with friends and family (who would, of course, also have bought and read the book). In an ideal world, books’ ideas would be honed by vigorous debate; they would be adopted or rejected as they deserve; and Progress would be made.

But we’ve never lived in that world. Even before the web came along — and, with it, the mechanisms that disentangle public discourse from mass media — we’ve discussed books in, generally, the most derivative of terms. The same process that reduced The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to “there are these things called paradigm shifts” and Democracy in America to “Americans are chatty” evolved, in the mass-media age, into a complex system devoted to teasing ideas from the books that contained them — systems devoted to what Jarvis might call publicness and others might call publicity — which work (again: generally) by whittling books down to their constituent sound bites and presenting them to the public via a mix of book reviews, TV appearances, and other ex-post-libris affairs.

The system itself is essential. Jarvis would be right to assume that most people — even among his fervent fans and followers — won’t be reading Public Parts. Books are long; time is short.

How can books be expected to share things when the very point of their existence is containment?

But the system has also (generally!) been designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas. It aims at publicity rather than publicness, at selling objects rather than propelling the arguments they contain. (Seth Godin refers to products of the book industry’s publicity machine as, for the most part, spam.) Most idea-driven books tread a well-worn path: Book pitched, book bought, book written, book published, book shelved, book reviewed, book ranked, book removed from shelves so as to make room for more copies of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

There’s flexibility within the cycle, of course — bonus points if the Journal excerpts you or if Kakutani eviscerates you or if Colbert chats you up — and, sure, Amazon and its digital-world counterparts can give books and their arguments a long-tail relevance they generally didn’t enjoy in an analog environment. For the most part, though, books of ideas, and whatever wisdom they contain, end up reduced, commercialized, anesthetized, the victims of the very Idea-Industrial Complex that created them. “The future of the book,” McLuhan wrote, “is the blurb.”

But: It doesn’t have to be. We now have tools that are actually pretty great at conveying nuance and information — the stuff of books — in reasonably nuanced and informative tidbits. We have TED talks. We have RSA lectures. We have authors’ Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr feeds. We have their Amazon pages. We have podcasts and livechats and reviews-as-events and any number of mechanisms that liberate books’ ideas — and authors along with them — from the cozy confines of the analog. And we’ve only scratched the surface.

Very little in Public Parts is surprising. That’s because much of it has already been said, publicly, by Jarvis himself.

Here in FutureOfNewsLand, we talk a lot about conversation and collaboration, about how those new values are transforming our sense of what journalism is and can become. Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping “the news” from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process. The same changes that have disrupted the news industry will, inevitably, disrupt the book industry; Public Parts hints at what might come of the disruption. Books as community. Books as conversation. Books as ideas that evolve over time — ideas that shift and shape and inspire — and that, as such, have the potential of viral impact.

One of Morozov’s blanket complaints about Public Parts is a valid one: Very little in the book is terribly surprising. And that’s largely because much of it has been said already, publicly, by Jarvis himself. The professor has been preaching publicness for years — at Buzzmachine, in his Guardian column, at conferences, on TV, on Twitter, on the radio, on his Tumblr. If you follow Jeff Jarvis, you follow Public Parts. You’ve seen his thoughts on publicness take shape over time. The book that resulted from that public process — the private artifact — is secondary. It is the commercial result of a communal endeavor.

Which is another way of saying that what’s being sold on the book market is not just Public Parts, but Jeff Jarvis. Authors are, increasingly, products. And they are increasingly expected to be, in that capacity, conversationalists as well as writers, and promoters as well as producers. Since Public Parts has come out, Jarvis has done a Q&A with Facebook Live. He’s done a 92nd Street Y event with Eli Pariser. He’s given talks at Google, and Microsoft, and Twitter, and Tumblr. He’s posted an excerpt of Public Parts‘ audiobook version. He’s done a YouTubed session with This Week in Tech. He’s done a Q&A with the Times. And on and on.

The public book is defined as much by its publicness as by its bookishness.

These are the events of a traditional book tour — their upshot being, in part, straight-up, age-old publicity — and they are events largely enabled by the fact that Jarvis is a celebrity apart from being an author. But they also hint at the more diffusive dimensions that “book tours” will take as books — like the rest of us — exist, increasingly, in public. In addition to his traditional “buy my book” events, Jarvis has been talking about Public Parts — er, #publicparts — on Twitter. He posted the book’s introduction and an interior section on Scribd. He embedded a free excerpt from the book’s audio edition on Buzzmachine. (He made similar moves with his first book, What Would Google Do?, creating, among other things, a public slide deck of the book’s main points, a YouTube video discussing those points, and a browsable digital version of the book itself.) The subtitle of Public Parts was crowdsourced.

These all have, in their way, commercial motives; Jarvis’ book is not an act of charity, intellectual or any other kind. It doesn’t matter. The events’ net effect speaks to a new kind of object: the public book, defined as much by its publicness as by its bookishness. At the end of Public Parts, Jarvis mentions that his next project may not be a book at all, but rather a book-without-a-book: a Godinesque series of public events held both in person and online. “The book,” Jarvis writes, “if there is one, would be a by-product and perhaps a marketing tool for more events.”

The book, if there is one. The book, a by-product. Imagine the possibilities.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/gsistare Gabriel Sistare

    I take two issues with your essay. “Books are long; time is short.” and “But books are much, much less great at actually propagating ideas…” Both of these statements are unobservant to the actual intent of a book. When you say “Books are long; time is short,” you imply that to meditate on a text’s reflections is a gross waste of time and the better converse would be to ingest as much data as you can without thinking about what that data actually illustrates–getting your fill before your time’s up.

    A value of a book is not tied to the amount of time it takes to read it, despite our high-school pleas for brevity. Books may not easily or publicly propagate an idea, but to constantly revisit an important text teaches you how to think and generate important ideas of your own. A book is a reflection of your own capacity to think seriously about something and understand that to have a valuable thought might take a long time.

    My issue with Jarvis is that it seems like he publishes to stay relevant rather than offer something revelatory. You even point this out. “Very little in the book is terribly surprising. And that’s largely
    because much of it has been said already, publicly, by Jarvis himself.” If Jarvis already offered ideas similar to “Public Parts” before publishing the book, then he wrote it out of necessity to secure longevity.

  • http://stdout.be/en/ Stijn Debrouwere

    “In an ideal world, everyone would just buy the book, and read the book, and luxuriate in the book’s arguments, and discuss those arguments with friends and family (who would, of course, also have bought and read the book).” That presupposes your ideal world is so ideal that there aren’t even time constraints. In my personal slightly-more-realistic ideal world, I skip stuff all the time and depend on second-hand news just as often :-)

  • noam lemelshtrich latar

    Thanks for your valuable review .
     i think that when discussing the future of books one needs to define primarily two categories–idea-arguments ideological  books and cultural enhancing philosophical books–the “clasic literature’ that address human moral ethical issues that are part of human nature that never age. Need i mention Shakespeare?Tolstoy? Kafka?

    We can not discuss the future of books without this separation. Idea-argument books will bocome a “blurb” and will take a new digital virtual format. a conversation is not a book .the longevity concerns of writes of such materials will be ensured, for a while only, by the digital “link economy”. Ideas are changing so fast the even “longevity” becomes “shortgevity” for Ideas-argumental “books”.
     
    The cyberspace does offer a great opportinity to classical literature writers to create a conversation with their readers to discuss ideas, to co-develop characters, to explore new plot directions all under the guidence of the authors themselves. this can enrich classical literature and offer the author an exciting new experience, but only if they desire one. i would have a problem with allowing the “wisdom of the crowds” play with the calssical literature not under the full control of the author, it may be a sacrilege.
    Noam Lemelshtrich Latar

  • http://www.brandonmendelson.com Brandon Mendelson

    I would really, really like to know what of what Morozov said about “Public Parts” was unfair. Based on my reading of both Jarvis’s book, Morozov’s review, Jarvis’s temper tantrum that followed the review on Google+, and then his “response”, all he did was demonstrate how right Morozov was for calling him out on making statements he can’t back up, often contradicts, and ultimately has no stake in as he gets paid anyway by CUNY and by those who employ him as a speaker for $45,000 and as a consultant.

    Oh, and by the way: Jarvis doesn’t disclose how much he makes as a consultant. For someone preaching publicness, he sure seems to have a lot to hide.

  • http://www.wendyparker.org Wendy Parker

    “90 percent of Morozov’s criticisms are wildly unfair.”

    Would you care to elaborate on this Megan? Instead of rehashing what Jarvis does on the web, why didn’t you address Morozov’s criticisms? Because they were many, and they were scorching. 

    I thought he was rather kind, frankly. 

  • http://twitter.com/fluxresearch Flux Research

    “In response, Jarvis rebutted Morozov via Twitter, Google+, and then, finally, a Google Doc (custom link: http://bit.ly/AnsweringMrGrumpy) that copied Morozov’s nearly-7,000-word review, in full, and then proceeded to plug the holes Morozov had hacked therein”

    Classic Jarvis over the top, accept no criticism, OCD-powered, defensive behavior.  After seeing how viciously he handles even blog comments, I’ve avoided his work and digital presence as much as possible.

    Ok, I got to wrap up my web work which consumes so much of my day.  Just finished reading Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (awesome book, nearly 600 pages) and moving on to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (even longer, looking just as awesome).  Both in hard copy of course!

  • http://twitter.com/fluxresearch Flux Research

    Just read a bit of the review to see what’s up.  Powerful criticisms but I have to point out that Morozov does a bit unfairly hold Jarvis’ work up to the standards of research and scholarship befitting someone with an advanced education.  My understanding is that Jarvis has only journalistic training which does not provide one the tools to consider issues in a scholarly manner.  So, of course he would misread and miss out on earlier scholarly work in his own investigations.

  • DK

    Why do the people practicing this kind of book without a book/book as byproduct tend to be insufferable twits like Jarvis and Godin?

  • http://dhdeans.blogspot.com David H Deans

    There’s only a few reviews of the latest Jeff Jarvis book on Amazon, and none are negative. Megan, perhaps you’ve summed up the general public’s interest in this book publication within your final paragraph — “It doesn’t matter.”

  • http://www.twitter.com/stevenkane Steven Kane

    +1

  • http://twitter.com/gsistare Gabriel Sistare

    My continued frustration with this essay, and now Jarvis’s response (http://goo.gl/VIfTO), is that it proposes statements lacking in context but laden with word choices which are sure to excite people. In his response, Jarvis quotes Garber’s declaration that “designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas.” I acknowledge that there is a commercial market for books, but to suggest that there is a parallel marketplace for ideas is to ruin the whole act of creating and securing an idea. But Garber may not imply that an idea marketplace is commercial, it may just be marketplace as in a…What other interpretation of the term “marketplace” is there? Jarvis obsesses over how to make words profitable rather than ensuring that these words are profound or intentional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/psbuchanan Peter Buchanan

    I think the new Steve Jobs biography will go viral – today.  In fact, if you are a Kindle device or software user, it showed up early for you.  It will be interesting to track first week sales.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    I’d never mean to imply that “to meditate on a text’s reflections is a gross waste of time.” I’m a card-carrying, lifelong bibliophile; to me, it goes without saying that books, and the kind of deep thinking they encourage, are immensely valuable. What I’m saying here, though, is that “the actual intent of a book” is twofold: both spreading ideas on an author-to-reader level, *and* spreading them on an author-to-public level. At the former task, books are fantastic; less so at the latter.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    How so?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t mean to oversimplify the argument here, but if more ebook/bookapp readers allowed the reader to post substantive (up to 100 words?) quotes from a book, the ideas in the book would spread faster and, I believe, more copies would be sold to more interested readers. So I see a lot of this discussion (and a lot of what Jarvis says and writes) as intentional over complication of a pretty simple phenomenon.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    It’ll definitely go viral. To be clear, though: In the post above, I’m talking about a specific kind of book — not books that exist to tell stories, like the Jobs bio, but books that exist to advance arguments. That said, I think it’s quite interesting to see the ways in which Isaacson’s take on Jobs is being distributed — through platforms like the Kindle, yes, but also through ech writers who have been, essentially, live-blogging their reading of the book.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    You’re completely right: My ideal world *is* a world with no time constraints. :)

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    Happy to. It’s the review’s frame that’s unfair: Morozov is criticizing Public Parts for not living up to standards that Morozov, rather than Jarvis, established. It’s not intellectual enough — well, by whose standards? You can’t just create rules that books never set for themselves and then fault the books for not living up to them. It’s like reviewing the Harry Potter books and accusing them of not being realistic enough. 

    Sure, reviewers need a normative appreciation for the books they critique; they deal, implicitly, as much with what books should be as with what they are. However: They also need to take books on their own terms. And Jarvis never claimed Public Parts to be a work of philosophy, or of history, or of any of the things that Morozov mocked it for not being. The book sold itself as an argument, nothing more, and it made an argument — to my mind, quite convincingly. Morozov’s review may have been full of individual straw men; my main problem with it, though, was that it treated Public Parts as something it wasn’t, and, more to the point, never claimed to be. A straw book.

  • http://www.bjmendelson.com Brandon Mendelson

    “My understanding is that Jarvis has only journalistic training which does not provide one the tools to consider issues in a scholarly manner.  So, of course he would misread and miss out on earlier scholarly work in his own investigations.”

    He’s a teacher at a graduate school for journalism in NYC. If he’s not able to understand arguments and discuss them in a scholarly manner (which, from my own experience with him last night indicates), then he shouldn’t be teaching those kids and using work above his intelectual reach to back up what amounts to a sales pitch for his consulting and speaking services.

    By the way: Jarvis is quick to point out how much he makes from CUNY (it’s public information), but not so much when it comes to how much the Guardian is paying him as a consultant.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    The Morozov review wasn’t the point of the post; quite the opposite, actually. That said, see my reply to Brandon, above.

  • http://www.twitter.com/stevenkane Steven Kane

    you must be joking. or a close friend of jeff jarvis. 

    jarvis does not present himself as a public intellectual? and he does not present his writings as serious intellectual discourse?

    sorry, he is. and he does. and i would think he would be flattered to have me say so — I may or may not agree with him but i respect his seriousness 

    in any case, if jeff jarvis is not presenting himself as a public intellectual, who is? and, by your measure, i guess popular work can not be judged by high standards? are you one of those folks who cry foul when popular culture like hollywood movies or rock and roll or TV shows or comic books are given serious study at universities? is serious study only available to high culture?

    sheesh.

  • http://www.bjmendelson.com Brandon Mendelson

    I think at this point, between Morozov’s replies, people on both this blog here and on Jarvis’s blog and Jarvis’s comments, that we’ve established that specific criticism was fair to make of the book.

    If the man works at a graduate school, is responsible for teaching graduate students, charges $45,000 per speaking appearance, and who knows what for his consulting arrangement, I think it’s beyond reasonable to expect him to back up what he says. And given that he is an employee of CUNY, it’s also beyond reasonable that he backs up what he says in a relatively academic rigorous manner. Especially if he’s making an argument.

    Otherwise, we’re admitting that he’s releasing this book solely to better position himself to the people silly enough to pay him these fees, which is exactly what Morozov was saying.

  • C3

    its the good old time revival show. hawking “magic” medical advances as well. confess your private thoughts to the power wannabe? new? said first by jarvis?.. elmer gant. perhaps?. they all used the “book” as a prop… today its about the “property”, and how to own it. or more accurately, control its perceived value.

    the book is the product, not the man.   that ideas byproduct trumps any ive read here. 

  • C3

    btw- you know” Snowcrash” was never intended to be a “book”.. but was originally being created to be an interactive hypercard graphic novel- interactive comic…. so goes the great “cyberpunk life manual” for those like Jarvis and Megan:) whos big idea for reality, was a  failed process at making a clickable comic book.;)

  • Dr Stephen Jones

    Megan, your argument puts Jarvis’ arguments above almost ANY kind of critique that could be made of them. 

    Whether you intended this or not hardly matters. Our world doesn’t work like this, and hasn’t for 300 years,. Jarvis seems incredulous not used to having his ideas challenged, and appears singularly ill-equipped to respond. So typically techno-utopian. 

  • Jonesteve

    You’re saying that members of the public who haven’t read a book may not grasp its complexity and nuances, while members of the public who *have* read the book are more likely to.

    You’re also saying that a book’s arguments can be simplified and misrepresented, and the simplification and misrepresentation becomes popular. Particularly with people who haven’t read the book.

    Well. That’s all fine. 

    But neither is a justification for a shoddy argument, or for failing to stand by one’s arguments – two accusations levelled against Jarvis by Morozov. 

  • http://twitter.com/MatthewBattles Matthew Battles

    In the case of a discourse like the one Jeff Jarvis engages, the book is indeed secondary and even tardy in just the way you describe. But that’s an element of the discourse, not the book—and it’s also a symptom of the strange ways in which the book as token and talisman continues to haunt us. Authors have long availed themselves of the performative and the discursive in engaging and promoting ideas… I think we do those media a disservice, though, if we hold them up as ideals over and against the book. TED talks and RSAnimate videos are very cool, but in their reliance on the spectacular and the charismatic, in their very brevity and closedness, they have their drawbacks as well. For centuries, by the same token, authors have been giving lectures and lantern-slide shows, putting on exhibitions and cycloramas—creating events. And we continue to access them and reflect upon the ideas they expressed largely (though hardly solely) thanks to the books that were their products—but not necessarily their by-products; the two terms are not synonymous. 

    All this, and also—books do *many* things. In many ways. The best of which do and shall continue to find their analogues in digital media, as complement and not contradiction.

  • Shirley Showalter

    The publishing world is indeed turning upside down. Your point about the function of the book being to contain (rather than spread) ideas was a perspective I hadn’t thought of before. We probably only see it after the fact. Consider the differences between the kind of internet commentary right here in this post and the typical book (not just Jarvis’).

    “Follow the money,” however, is always a safe rule of noting cultural change. Enormous speaking fees can provide more of an incentive per hour of work than any written platform whether traditional or electronic. Forty years ago, a book gave you the credibility and honor to speak (and maybe $5,000 if you were very famous). Now the book is the entre’ to the real money at the podium. My guess that speakers’ fees and CEO salaries have followed a similar trajectory.

    Occupy Speaker’s Bureaus??

  • http://www.wendyparker.org Wendy Parker

    I understand that Megan, but why throw out a comment like the 90 percent line and then do nothing to back it up?

     I’d like to know how you calculated that figure, for starters, and then to write at least a little bit about what you thought was unfair, not wait until other commenters asked you to do the same. 

  • Steve

    Because they have nothing to say?

  • Eric

    The Show Must Go On!
    http://youtu.be/oeowcABapVA
    (jeff performing his show on 10/24/11, right in the middle of the Morozov aftermath)This does not look like utopia to me. It looks like a hellish vaudevillian insane asylum.

  • Eric

    You’re right. There are only a few reviews, and I think it’s a little weird the way Jarvis thanks almost all of them individually in the comments to their review…

    For the review by Ken Nielsen, Jarvis writes, “Thanks so much, Ken.”

    Does Jarvis know the reviewers?

  • http://indiagetseverythingfree.blogspot.com/ Rajan
  • Jpierce

    If the work were published under a Creative Commons copyright so it could be remixed with others thinking it could truly be reflective of :
    “How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live”

  • A K

    I would say that all books, irrespective of whether they tell a tale or not, face a challenge. All books negotiate the digital era, some to their benefit, others to their detriment; fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t make a difference. You do have ideas in fiction as well as in non-fiction.
    Even fiction has become into a commodity that requires book tours and so on and so forth.

  • Shaner

    I haven’t read Public Parts yet, but I’ve read Morozov’s review and the subsequent back and forth between the two. The difference in the cogency of their arguments is remarkable. Morozov’s critique is maybe harsh but it is persuasive. Jarvis’ response to his objections is astonishingly superficial. 

    By his own account his book developed out of his blog. It sounds like it didn’t develop very much. In a more recent post on BuzzMachine he goes on to talk about books as ‘process’ and ‘product’, emphasising the public part of ‘public intellectual’ as if giving talks was more important than thinking. 

    TED talks and blog posts are undoubtedly valuable for writers who want to reach a new audience, summarise an argument or just tease out a new idea, but if someone wants to be taken seriously as an author, then they must be able to sustain and defend their arguments in an essay or a book. That involves lots of research, writing and reviewing. 

    By all means develop your ideas online and through conversation, but if the book you are writing isn’t going to add up to more than the sum of the parts that you’ve posted on your blog then don’t waste the ink. 

  • http://indiagetseverythingfree.blogspot.com/ Rajan

    good