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With Google's Authorship program, you might be tempted to think authors are on the up.
But maybe not. There are quite a number of reasons why authors are as dead as they ever have been.
Any mention of ‘death’ in a web headline is likely to bring accusations of contentiousness through user comments. It’s often the case that articles proclaiming the death of a digital medium do so to gain attention, without properly reasoning why the medium has died. Indeed, it almost never has.
However, having witnessed reactions to my own headlines I began to feel that it almost didn’t even matter about the content, people would form an opinion before reading the text.
In a sense, I felt that since people were able to express opinion having not read the text, that my role as author had been significantly eroded.
It made me think of an essay that crops up around English Literature University courses – Roland Barthes' Death of the Author, something that’s due for at least something of an update.
Barthes and The Death of the Author
Barthes 1968 essay reasons that the reading and criticism of texts should be done in isolation of the author’s identity. Since we cannot wholly purport the intentions of the author through the writing, it would be wrong to do so.
Thus the interpretation of the text is down to the reader. The author is separated from this.
Readers now have an arsenal of tools to create their own content, remix other people’s and respond to it. Each of these brings its own challenge to the concept of authorship.
The commoditising of content
While it would appear that the social media web presents some of the greatest challenges to authorship, the factor of content commoditisation occurred before social media existed.
Since the www was formed, it was possible for anyone to set up a website. Pre-social web content had far less identity than has been attached now, and thus the concept of authorship – particularly through identifiable journalism was beginning to erode.
The fragmentation of authority
Social media was a great enabler in content creation – 200 million blogs are in existence, a similar number of active Twitter accounts and five times that are on Facebook – and as it developed it brought the notion of online identity.
However, we have not yet reached a point where this identity is universally worked out. With such low barriers to content creation, and no authority required to become a published author, previous conceptions of authorship have faded.
While Google has pushed for identity through its authorship program, it is quite clear that significant fragmentation and erosion has occurred.
While the barriers to entry for authorship have declined, the ability to remix and distribute content has dramatically increased.
The ability to publish to the web, combined with applications that allow content remixing (Adobe Premiere, Wordpress, Instagram) has meant that original authors now find themselves with significantly more challenges to their intellectual property.
Remix culture can completely change narratives to the intentions of the remixer. This is most clear in the remixing of television shows into vignettes that have normally satirical intentions.
Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System has been remixed into Wonders of the Stoner System, a mashup and cutting of the series into a short film where Cox explains the apparent 'wonders' of taking mind bending drugs.
Clearly, this was far from the original intent of the program, yet it has over 500,000 views (a similar audience to an episode of the series).
What is quite remarkable about such mashups is that they are of little personal gain to the person doing the mashing. Indeed, many mashups are done by anonymous creators – good for hiding away from potential copyright notices.
The original author’s intent is remixed by the anonymous, at no other gain than to produce a humorous and sharable piece of content.
Fan fiction too presents an interesting challenge to the concept of authorship. The website harrypotterfanfiction.com contains over 80,000 different stories related to J.K Rowling’s original work, and attracts some 30m visits a month.
In chapter five of Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, entitled Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars, the challenges to traditional notions of copyright and intellectual property from fan fiction are highlighted.
While the fan community generally believed its work was a celebration of Rowling’s universe, thus driving forward the marketing of the films, the rights holders – Warner Brothers – initially had quite an awkward relationship with such communities.
Of course, when you own the rights to such a profitable intellectual property, it would make sense to attempt to protect it, but when you’re facing a hugely active community it’s so far proved impossible to stop it.
User commenting and reaction to web content
As I suggested in the introduction, due to the ease of response through user commenting and social media, the original intent of authoring is now more under threat than it ever has been.
Due to the limits of time and attention to content, it would appear that many comments are left after reacting to the headline (which may sometimes be of different intent to the text) or after a light skim read of the article.
A common reaction I have when reading a lot of user comments is to simply think ‘read the article, since that part is explained’ but feel I would come across as rude or patronising to actually respond like that.
User commenting is also extremely transient. People react to apparent tone rapidly and emotionally, not giving time to think things through.
In response to one article I published this year – Is Google’s Author Rank Just a Myth? – I found a significant Google+ thread filled with claims that I was being sensationalist and knee jerk reactions to the headline.
Because the respondents didn’t know me or my previous content, they made a number of assumptions about my position. By contrast, given the author has an emotional connection to the text, they can subsequently misinterpret the comments! In all, the experience left me feeling never so dead as an author.
With headlines and comments like these, is there anywhere on the web where authors are deader than the Mail Online?
Are authors going to be resurrected?
Clearly, online tools bring numerous challenges to the concept of authorship. Even if the notion of identity and the tying of social media profiles to web documents to produce ‘author scores’ is worked out, established concepts of authorship have been eroded more in the last ten years than they have in any other period in history.
Even so, it is clear that some authors continue to carry weight, particularly those with large followings. In the SEO community, authors like Rand Fishkin carry enormous weight, and many of the responses and comments to the content are extremely positive.
However, as he’s often written, there will always be haters – and the author has no control over such responses. Perhaps rather than thinking authors are making a comeback, we might think that they're even more dead than they were in 1968.