Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are Traditional Publishing and Social Media Learning to Get Along?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Timothy Noah’s editorial I’m Being Wiki-Whacked in the Sunday, February 25, 2007 Washington Post (registration required) tells the tale of one author whose biographical entry in Wikipedia may be deleted because a Wikipedia editor has determined that it is not “notable” enough. In the process we learn something about how traditional publishing and collaborative publishing have a long way to go before they learn how to get along.

Remember the flap over Wikipedia’s initial deletion of the term “enterprise 2.0” that caused such consternation among social media practitioners? Even my blog was visited by someone identifying himself or herself as a Harvard Law blogger — a Wikipedia editor? — who chided me for for daring to suggest that the deletion of the “enterprise 2.0” Wikipedia entry was an act of “censorship.” This debate raged for months and is even now the subject of a Harvard Business School case.

Noah’s editorial is evidence there are several models of publishing flourishing today. How they interact and how they integrate with social media and social networking is still being worked out.

The process is not a simple one. In one model of “traditional” publishing, an editor (or editorial board) has ultimate say over the author’s content and how it is published. In the blogosphere, on the other hand, almost anything goes. In between these two poles — one autocratic, the other egalitarian — a variety of models exist or are being developed.

Both news publishing (e.g., newspapers) and professional publishing (e.g., professional journals) are being impacted differentially by the collaborative forces now at work through applications of social media and social networking. In the news business, for example, we see newspapers experimenting with blogging, user generated content, and user comments on published articles. In professional publishing, things are even more complex, with journals such as Nature experimenting with different forms of peer review (and with blogging).

In both cases, the source of disruption is not so much the changing of social and professional relationships in the worlds of news and professional publishing. Instead, these relationships are being made visible and are then being used as part of the publishing and information dissemination process.

Once complex processes become visible, they become subject to criticism and to change. Wikipedia is a very public example of this. From what author Noah and the “enterprise 2.0” debacle tell us, there are still editorial forces at work within Wikipedia that control what gets published in ways that have been difficult to evaluate from the outside.

What may have started the “enterprise 2.0” flap with Wikipedia was an editor who was not qualified to pass judgement on what he or she was reviewing. Are the people who are saying that Noah’s bio should be deleted just as (un)qualified to pass that judgement?

This situation is different from the world of commercial and professional publishing. There the people who perform editorial duties are — presumably — doing so because of their educational, professional, or academic qualifications.

Perhaps these Wikipedia problems are inevitable as new publishing models come into conflict with old publishing models. Perhaps Wikipedia is finding it needs to balance a democratic process with necessarily autocratic editorial functions following explicit rules.

Turning to professional publishing, we are starting to see examples where aspects of social media and social networking are applied to traditional publishing models. Some professional associations (including one of my clients) are evaluating how best to use social media and social networking in member communications and publishing. Soon we will see many more examples of professional publishing operations incorporating aspects of social media and networking as publishers look for ways to adapt their offerings to the realities of how professionals currently share personal and professional information online.

The trick will be balancing the new with the old ways that make business and professional sense. Just as some corporations need to work through how to “open up” through a more collaborative relationship with customers, professional publishers must experiment to determine what makes the most sense when trying to integrate social techniques with traditional publishing forms.

As I’ve discussed previously, blogs and peer reviewed journals share some common characteristics even though how they appear to operate quite differently. Their commonality arises from how they both explicitly depend upon social and professional relationships and how they are created, published, and used.

Professionals who publish and use peer reviewed journals have always been embedded within multiple social and professional communities. Blogging, email, and instant messaging may have made informal communications easier among geographically distributed research communities, but they may not have changed the ways that authority, status, and reputation are defined and conferred.

Authority, status, and reputation are important features of how professional publishing systems operate. How these features are integrated with web based professional communication and publishing will make or break attempts to take advantage of the tools provided by social media and social networking.

The publisher who knows how to properly balance traditional editorial and publishing functions with approaches based on social media and social networking will succeed by providing a useful service to users, subscribers, and customers that is viewed as reinforcing and strengthening professional activities. One key to success will be understanding that professionals operate simultaneously in multiple communities and that they may need to switch easily from one community to another.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

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