by Cassie, Associate Publicist
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at an article from Seed magazine claiming that soon we’ll all be authors.
Researchers are predicting that Twitter is going global: in just four years, everyone on the planet–some 10 billion people–will be tweeting.
Writing in Seed magazine, neuroscientist Denis G. Pelli and graphic designer Charles Bigelow (he co-designed the Lucida font) find that the internet has brought us to the brink of universal literacy, and we’re also fast approaching universal authorship: “Nearly everyone reads. Soon, nearly everyone will publish.”
To illustrate this writing revolution, Pelli and Bigelow have assembled what can only be called an “authorgraph,” a chart plotting the number of book authors from the middle ages to the present, and the far greater number of authors using new media–blogs, Facebook, and Twitter–since the year 2000.
The researchers find that only 50 authors published a book in 1400 (a serious undercount). Then, thanks to the printing press, which came on line in the 1440s, book publication grew steadily over the centuries and peaked at just over a million book authors per year around 2000.
In contrast, the new genres enabled by the internet have shown massive growth in authorship over a far shorter time span. Pelli and Bigelow observe that before the printing press it took a scribe a year to produce a bible, while today you can tweet or update your Facebook status in seconds. They conclude, “The new media are growing 100 times faster than books.”
But comparing books to tweets leads to skewed figures. Plenty of writers in the age of print wrote not books but songs, poems, news articles, chronicles, laws, essays, and plays; they too must be considered authors (and of course scribes copied bibles, they didn’t write them, so they don’t count as authors). And, since books are still a presence in the internet age, we should remember that even in the age of Google and Wikipedia it still takes an author a year or more to write a book (yes, there’s Sarah Palin’s four-month wonder Going Rogue–but I’m only counting books with actual content).
That’s not to deny the impressive impact of the internet on authorship. Pelli and Bigelow’s figures show that blogging takes only five years to go from 60 bloggers to a million. Then social media sites take off, and Facebookers jump from an initial 50,000 to 75 million in just four years. Twitter authorship grows even faster, exploding from10,000 tweeters to a million in only three years and no end in sight–and here’s where Pelli and Bigelow go off the rails: “Extrapolation of the Twitter-author curve (the dashed line) predicts that every person will publish in 2013.”
Even hard-core fans of the internet must realize that’s just not going to happen.
I too have made the claim that because of the internet, everyone’s an author. Computers and the internet mean that more and more people are creating text and publishing it, and the internet has shown a robust ability to connect writers with readers in ways we never before imagined.
I’ve said more than once, as well, that thanks to the digital revolution, all you need to be an author is a laptop, a wi-fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks. But my claims are hyperbolic.
Assuming that by “everyone” we mean people all over the globe, then we’re far from “nearly everyone” reading, and farther still from “nearly everyone” publishing. Pelli and Bigelow concede that authors today constitute 0.1 percent of the world’s population (according to their standards, an author is someone whose text reaches at least 100 readers, a number which excludes many bloggers and tweeters), but they’re optimistic that “Authors, once a select minority, will soon be a majority.”
That’s going to take a lot longer than four more years. True, the internet opens the possibility of authorship to the other 99.9% of the world’s 10 billion people, but first many of them will have to survive infancy, find a source of clean drinking water, learn to read and write, acquire a computer, find a reliable source of electricity, and, oh yes, locate an internet service provider. That’s assuming they’re motivated to become authors in the first place. And they live in a country where the government doesn’t block Twitter.
And even if all that happens, we’ve still got to increase the capacity of Twitter to handle all that traffic without triggering the fail whale, and we’re still a long, long way from the day when there are enough Starbucks so that everyone will have a place to sit and tweet–plus somebody’s gotta make the latte.