Justin Hall's personal site growing & breaking down since 1994

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Publishing Empowerment

decentralizing media for human potential

Delivered June 13, 1995
News Industries & Journalism/Preparing for 2010
New Directions for News, Rand Corporation
by Justin Hall

Thank you Jean, for inviting me to speak before such a well heeled group. People here seem genuinely interested in making good online - figuring how to reach the large audiences.
I am an example of personal publishing empowerment. As I sat down to frame my talk, I realized I have a pretty bleak message for large scale publishers. Mass media requires passivity while the net resoundingly rejects it.

This technology promotes decentralization. Force feeding the net public heaping spoonfuls of what you think is tasty will fail - even if people have a choice of spoons. People want to talk to eachother, if they are going to read something, they want it to be vibrant and heartfelt. Even now, large media has a hard time with both of those - in the future, on the net, they will grow lifeless and useless faster than ever.

Force feeding the net public heaping spoonfuls of what you think is tasty will fail - even if people have a choice of spoons.

Links from the Underground

Besides writing for high school publications, my first sizable publishing experience was completely self-driven. In January 1994, I checked out the world wide web, the coolest thing I'd ever seen on computers. I immediately took my stories, poems, reviews, netsurfing impressions and put them all online. Soon, I had my own magazine, with a daily readership in the thousands.

Over time, my site has evolved to encompass my interests, and in response to the feedback I've recieved from the community.

I provide tours of the net - by subject site surveys. From sex, and drugs to Native American nets and Scientific Art. Each of these links is a point of exit, but ultimately, it's about building the web. I appreciate other people's efforts, and obligingly link to them. Each subject page is a focal point for a specific community of interest. As a part of that community, I am mentioned on other relevant pages - each of which is a point of entry back to my web world.

As soon as people began visiting my site, they were asking questions - how do you center your text? how do you do those pictures? People are excited and inspired by my example, and want to get involved. So, I designed tutorials. There are some people who can stand about ten minutes of the web before they are itching to try it themselves. Offering them ease of access and understanding further broadens the web. There's nothing like watching a untapped publisher get their hands on the medium - they go crazy - and I can never keep up.

Recently, I've been into storytelling, specifically autobiographical. I have individual pages devoted to my friends and family, with links to their pages, if they have them. If everyone was to tell their stories on the web, we would have an endless human storybook, with alternating perspectives. It would be content provision, but on a personal level, a distinctly human scale.

If everyone was to tell their stories on the web, we would have an endless human storybook, with alternating perspectives.

I actually have a related problem - seeing people as web sites. When I meet someone, I try to draw out their story. Everyone's got a story. Imagine if they were all online! Like when I meet big honchos, important people involved in the web, I ask them if they have a web page, and they point me to their magazine. I don't really care about the magazine's top five hotsites for the week, I want to know what that guy thinks is cool. How did he get to be on top? Who is there with him? Tell me about yourselves, otherwise, I'm gonna get bored and look for someone who's telling me something heartfelt, not something market driven.


I used my zine to secure myself a job in the online division of Wired magazine. I arrived at Wired just in time to join them in attempting what they called "new thinking for a new medium" - HotWired. An impressive array of creative minds were granted use of impressive resources to build an online community that would take the web by storm.

Instead of innovation and invention, political wrangling over creative control, deadlines and money meant that we ended up with "old thinking for a new medium." Rather than allow the technology and creativity to run their course, the emphasis was on tracking users for sponsorship, adhering to a rigidity at odds with the net.

HotWired is the magazine model ported online, with minimal allowance made for user interaction. Whatever you've heard about the net, that ain't it. People want to muck around. HotWired is still trying to tell the net at large what is cool, while it's user registration and adherance to obscure design principles prevent the free-flow of information. I won't deny its market niche, but ultimately, HotWired falls short.

Of course, they get hundreds of thousands of hits daily, and were making advertiser money from day one, but the magazine itself is inconsequential. People don't link from their pages to HotWired content, they link to reputation. This is Wired magazine's web site. Not, Hey, wow, check out that cool stuff on HotWired. People on the net don't talk about what's in HotWired, and I'll bet when the next large net magazine comes around, there won't be much reason to remember your HotWired username and password.

Personal Publishing

Personal web pages merge content provision and human connection. I'm telling stories, but they're human, and ultimately for my own satisfaction. This is journalism of the future. Give someone a digital camera, a laptop, and a cellular phone, and you've got an on the spot multimedia storyteller from anywhere in the world. The need for staff and overhead has been drastically reduced. The primacy of placement, the immediacy of the story is mandatory.

What's the point of doing the same old in this new medium? Selling magazines? Big deal. The web has greater potential than just larger markets and larger revenues. When people can browse through a site in a matter of seconds, and leave for an independent operator in a single bound, the rules are changed. Bridging the gap by relying on old systems creates undo burdens on both users and providers. Top down publishing, trying to rein people in with exclusivity, registration, and proprietary technology is tantamount to fighting the net. Working with the net requires openness - unlimited content, ease of access, open standards, low overhead, independent producers. Of the two, working with the net makes for better web sites, and happier readers.

The web has greater potential than just larger markets and larger revenues.

It is increasingly difficult to intice a broad range of folks with a single publication. As we can see from our country's burgeoning magazine racks, the trend is towards niches. Specialization. Attempts to design a "killer app" - a netwide unifying content force will only stifle creativity. People on the net see Microsoft this way, and have made the company the butt of many a joke.

Profits on net won't come from mass market media, they will come from millions of miniscule fees, per story tributes to usefulness.

In this setting, the role for large publishers is empowerment. You can hire experts to predict the next great youth trend, and build a magazine around it, or you can give some inspired young people computers and let them do their thing. The best content comes from people who love what they are doing. You can't hire experts to figure that out. But you can give resources to people who would do it anyway, and share in the fruits of their labour.

Large publishers then become media stables, places that provide the computers and net access for writers. The writers themselves provide the context - their point of view, and their area of specialization. Marketing is done through communities of interest.

With the advent of digital cash, anyone can set up their own stories serving station - hundreds upon thousands of little self-sufficient magazines, supported by communities of folks who care to share. If you can tell your stories, and make money, and have decent health care, why would you ever write for a large media organization?

Reporters will then leave major media, set up their own content serving stations. People will be charging miniscule amounts of money to read eachother's stories, and after a while we'll realize - hey, I like writing, I like telling stories. That you would listen to me is flattery. I like your stories too, so let's trade.

So we'll all forget about money, sit around and make art, and tell each other stories, while computers handle all the problems of the world. Why not?

Computers are already replacing folks with those shitty industrial revolution jobs. People say, what are they going to do? Like there's a crisis - we've got to find something to keep all the unemployed busy. What are they going to do, dig ditches? Why don't they to make art? Of all the reasons to live, and participate in society, having a voice ranks higher than performing manual labour at the bottom of the skill set.

We can use this technology to unite the world - not in vying for market share, but with stories and art, celebrating the human experience.

What's important is that a broad range of people have access to the technology. If the world is split into those that are wired, and those that aren't, we will continue to walk the razor's edge of revolution and civil strife. If, on the other hand, we welcome the previously disenfranchised into the information age, and give them a voice along with ours, we can use this technology to unite the world - not in vying for market share, but with stories and art, celebrating the human experience.

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