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Oct. 21, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

‘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.

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.

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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