Thursday, October 22, 2009

Universal Authorship

You know that line about everyone being a critic? It may be more true than you think. Denis G. Pelli and Charles Bigelow, two cool seeming professors at NYU and the Rochester Institute of Technology, respectively, claim in a new article in something called Seed Magazine that we are quickly becoming a society of writers:
To quantify our changing reading and writing habits, we plotted the number of published authors per year, since 1400, for books and more recent social media (blogs, Facebook, and Twitter). This is the first published graph of the history of authorship. We found that the number of published authors per year increased nearly tenfold every century for six centuries. By 2000, there were 1 million book authors per year. One million authors is a lot, but they are only a tiny fraction, 0.01 percent, of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth. Since 1400, book authorship has grown nearly tenfold in each century. Currently, authorship, including books and new media, is growing nearly tenfold each year. That’s 100 times faster. Authors, once a select minority, will soon be a majority.
I'm not sure if the particular conclusion that "every person will publish by 2013" is accurate, but I think the details here aren't terribly important. Even the people I know who refuse to give blogging or Twitter a try are basically already authors, whether their chosen medium is a Google Chat status message or whatever Facebook is calling its status updates these days. This is a cool thing.

The most basic underlying mechanics are remarkably similar for each of these media (and are themselves remarkably similar to what we think of as traditional authorial pursuits): unlike a simple email or letter, in all these cases the author composes a thought for an audience that is largely undefined. It takes a certain measure of creativity, imagination, and empathy to be able to write effectively for an undefined audience. The author needs to be able to recognize the differing levels of background knowledge, reading ability, and cultural literacy for an amorphous reader. That's not an easy task. I'm not saying that these new forms of authors will achieve a high level of this empathy--or that even the best authors aren't capable of being hideous people--but this shift to near-universal authorship in our society might prove to have an impact in areas far beyond what internet start-up is popular this week.

I'm curious also about how this changing pattern in authorship will affect reading and our languages. Will people become more serious, thoughtful readers if they better understand the writing process? Will our use of languages change more rapidly? How in the heck will dictionaries decide what constitutes credible sources for usage? I obviously don't know, but it'll be cool to find out.

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