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The Internet and Culture: Books, Blogs and Building New Forms

· March 11, 2016

I’m going to Normandy for a couple of days, and one of the rituals for going there is packing an enormous book for the long ferry crossing. Someone always asks why I don’t take a Kindle instead. While I love mine, especially when weight is at a premium — there’s nothing like the feel of lovely booky paper. The ship I’m going on takes freight, so technically has a luggage limit of 75 tonnes.

Much has been written about the internet’s relationship with books. Amazon has opened its first physical bookshop, after irreversibly changing traditional book retailing. Google’s project to scan millions of them has helped people rediscover out-of-print favorites, while leading to a courtroom battle with authors. And then there are concerns that an endless diet of cat vines will leave us all with attention spans so short we can’t even read a whole book. Ooh look! A squirrel 😀

The internet has turned the whole business of journalism on its head, as we previously discussed. It also creates new possibilities for every type of writing and culture. Look at data journalism as a discipline, densely-reported news stories which use videointeractive graphics and the ability to share news-breaking documents instantly. For graphic novels, it’s a new canvas for the artist. And for books, there are new ways of publishing, many which leave behind agents, paper and bookshops altogether.

This said, a “whole book” hasn’t always been the cultural artefact we venerate. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens’ greatest works were all published in regular instalments — much like a popular weekly-updated blog. William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was published in serial, with illustrations by the author — so a bit like a musician on SoundCloud also filming their own videos.

In fact the serialized nature of much great 19th-century fiction makes it ideal for modern bitesize chunks, as anyone who has watched The Lizzie Bennett Diaries on YouTube will attest. But come on, what about Twitter, I hear you say, Twitter is real genuine dumbing down! It’s only 140 characters! Except that “Flash Fiction” and other literary games have always been popular, even if the famously sad six-word short story “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn,” isn’t actually by Hemingway, as is usually claimed.

Fine, the internet hasn’t stopped people from writing books — except in the sense of constantly distracting them while trying to do so — but it has changed the way fans interact more generally with creators. Known as Fandom, Harry Potter, Doctor Who or Sherlock fans can now endlessly discuss and theorize about their favorite characters.

The internet has created much more two-way traffic between creators and audiences, journalists and readers, and musicians and listeners. I recently saw — and loved — Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. There was a lot in it to please the fans, much more than the prequels we endured at the turn of the century — JJ Abrams knew exactly what he was doing. But even this wasn’t unprecedented. All the internet has done is make this two-way communication easier.

Back in 1988, the BBC made a short children’s series called “What’s Your Story,” where viewers could phone in to suggest the next day’s adventures. They got 50,000 phone calls in an evening, prompting British Telecom’s whole system to break down — at a time when landline calls were expensive and all of those phoning in would have had to ask their parents’ permission.

In all seriousness, the internet has created endless new forms for writing and creativity. As well as the changes above, the edges between reportage and reality are sometimes blurred: the NPR Podcast Serial uses documentary techniques to investigate a real-life murder, but the case has been re-opened to review new evidence. It’s also been downloaded millions of times, proving that the appeal of spoken word radio is as powerful as ever. In fact, Producer Sarah Koenig has noted that doing the story as a serial is an idea as “old as Dickens,” and that the Podcast is “about the basics: love and death and justice and truth. All these big, big things.”

What else has changed? The concern that the internet places all the power for commissioning cultural and distributing content in the hands of a powerful few? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Sign of Four were commissioned for Lippincott’s Magazine at the same dinner in London’s Langham Hotel, according to the rather lovely introduction of this BBC Radio 3 show.

In fact, the internet has produced the opposite effect, opening up publishing to everyone. You can tweet your poetry, self-publish your novel on Amazon, or share your wish-fulfilment fan fiction on your favourite forums. The results may not be to everyone’s taste — Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fanfic — but that’s a problem with people, not the internet. And if you don’t like it, it’s never been easier to write, and share, something better.

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