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.

Roland Barthes

Image: Wikipedia

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.

Remix culture

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

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.

Daily Mail Comment

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.

James Carson

Published 13 August, 2013 by James Carson

James Carson is a media and content strategy consultant and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Sandy Gerald, Software Developer at Snoick

I am just immensely influenced by his persona..

almost 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi James,

An interesting article, I was tempted to post an irate comment that ignored the context of your article just to stir things up, but I'm more mature these days:)

I personally think the role of the author is more important than ever, it's just that the desire of the masses to become authors and have a public forum is muddying the waters. I think Mark Schaefer makes an important distinction in Return On Influence: people who produce quality content will last the long haul whereas people with fleeting interest who don't add anything original/unique/valuable [edit at will], will be soon forgotten. Essentially, the people you would want to influence will eventually work out whether or not you're worth following and your influence will increase, so nailing your colours to the mast with who you are as an author is actually really important.

Speaking on a personal level, I keep an eye out for a few names when deciding what to read. For example, this blog got a full read because I trust your voice on all things content. I think it then also helps to understand who the author is, their background, their viewpoints, attitudes etc as it can help you interpret what they're writing.

So i guess that's a long way of me saying I think author profile is definitely important and having a clear identity and vision should help in the long-term, for influence at least. I'm not going to conjecture on the likes of Google, i'd rather worry about influencing real people, SERPs is a side-effect.

What do you think?


ps what was the article about?

almost 5 years ago

Steven Wilson-Beales

Steven Wilson-Beales, Content Strategist at Consultant

Hi James,

Great article. Always nice to see a bit of 'ol Literary Theory on this site!

I really like what you're saying above and I would add a few other points...

Maybe it's the internet disrupting the basic process of editing or just sloppy writing but I see a lot of digital soothsayers out there now trying to take old ideas and present them as new concepts. Seth Godin is an example and I wrote about that this morning:


It's like the advent of the internet has challenged basic editorial standards and led to past authors and ideas being erased. That's why I like your article - you acknowledge the influence and then move on with the argument.

Maybe it's got something to do with the way people read digital text nowadays - 'don't bore me with the detail, just get on with it'. Sometimes, it's the context rather than the content that is more important to the audience (i.e. the ability to spot a headline and share with friends wins over content).

As a content strategist, I'm always going to defend the value of editorial - but we always need to make it very clear to the audience the value proposition behind the text. Otherwise, the notion of the authorship can come across a bit authoritarian.

Take digital music for example. You would have thought by now that there would have been a platform out there that fuses great technology and editorial with a decent catalogue - but there isn't one. Why is that? Because we are led to believe that discovery through crowd-souring and peer recommendation is the way forward. This very funky, and I don't mean it in a good way.

You need serendipity and expert opinion. People don't just need the digital tracks, they need the stories behind the tracks and that takes a bit more effort and skill. Time vs. ROI.

I've rambled now so will stop. At the end of the day, it's not a technological debate, it's a political one. Once the notion of the author is gone then who's left to watch the watchers?

PS - I didn't write this.
No-one did.

almost 5 years ago


Kate Charles


Great to see some beautiful academic texts being highlighted a contemporary and relevant.

I'm a Creative Associate -specializing in Digital Content Development for City-Insights Ltd.

For author, read authority. The further / longer human society develops the more we implement process that respond with either a tightening or loosening of singular, top-down control (process is always implementation of control of one kind or another, as it just means action). Look at the emergence of crowd sourcing, micro funding, open source etc etc. As social groups our products and practices evolve to become reproductions of the group itself - a matrix / a number of differential communicators / a fragmented-collective crowd.

Nice work!


almost 5 years ago

Jon Harrison

Jon Harrison, Freelance SEO Consultant at SEO Company Edinburgh

Interesting thoughts. I think authorship is a great idea but have concerns about things (of which you mention some).

One large problem with the web has always been the uncontrollable nature of it. We can do so much but the rest if out of our control. As you say there are always haters.

almost 5 years ago


Ralph du Plessis

I agree with you, James, that the authorship landscape is currently littered with remixers and low quality wannabee "authors", but I think this is part of the cycle we have to go through to cut the wheat from the chaff.
Take music, for instance. Everything we listen to today has taken an element from something else and repurposed it for a new tune.
DJs are earning millions each year from playing other peoples' music.
However the real "authors" remain in the mainstream long after they have passed i.e. Elvis, The Beatles, Hendrix, Marley etc.

Like James Gurd points out, People who are consistent will last the distance. Then your time will come where we all want to be like you because true purveyors of quality content are rare.

almost 5 years ago

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