27 March 2008

On books and blogs (roughly)

You may have noticed that the blog has had a re-design. Frankly, I managed to break the previous template with a tweak too far, so I had to choose another but then I couldn't resist messing with it a bit...

So, being self-referential, that coincides with a message from a correspondent enquiring whether I have written or am going to write, the book of the site. I get such emails every other week or so, which is gratifying, but I usually respond very briefly; "No!" or words to that effect. Perhaps because I have been working on (grandiose term! I have been messing about with...) the re-design, on this occasion I decided to explain myself a little. And the more I got into it, the more interesting the issue became. (And of course, now I have a ready-made explanation to refer other correspondents to in future.)
I hear [an author my correspondent mentioned rather unflatteringly] is doing well out of his books and his consultancy; good for him and others (some of them friends of mine) in the same business. But in business terms his "offering" is really rather different from mine. People pay up-front for his expertise. Either they buy books (or more likely, libraries buy books), or they engage him for staff development sessions and pay for it. They do this because they have reasonable expectations of the quality of what he will offer, and he doubtless takes considerable care to deliver to meet those expectations. It's a traditional model, and it does tend to lead to slightly staid and conventional material.

The web is an entirely different medium; it is far more casual. People only have to click on a link to come to my site, and they can leave just as easily. They can glance at a page for six seconds (I read that somewhere, but this is not a topic I reference punctiliously); if it is not what they are looking for they can move on at no cost.

I get over a million unique visitors a year (as you may know, web hosting companies provide incredibly detailed statistics). But over a quarter of those visitors (28% at the latest count) only look at one page; presumably they then decide it is not for them and they move on. I get appreciative notes from people like you who stick around—and many thanks for them—but all I know about the others is that they did not stick around, because visiting a web-page is not like picking up (still less, buying) a book.

And for me that means that I can mess about a bit. I'm not constrained by much of a contract with the reader, and certainly no financial one. I can do my "heterodoxy" stuff, without taking it too seriously; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/index.htm I can crack jokes, and if some people don't like them and move on, that is no big deal. I can take risks.

I could of course even misrepresent ideas and be sloppy or biassed or unfair about the material, and that is the risk you as a reader take if you decide to trust me. Even Wikipedia is monitored by editors; personal sites aren't. There is no peer review process, and no quality assurance mechanisms. (Actually, I did take the first steps to setting up an "advisory committee" in 2005. Several of the people I approached pointed out it was a bad idea—the Unique Selling Point of the "brand" was my distinctive voice. Of course they may just have been trying to get out of serving on it...) Certainly, no-one should trust just my site.

There is also another, quite different reason for choosing this medium. It is what accounts for its appearance in the first place: and although books can manage it quite well, readers rarely make use of the facility;

Hyperlinks, and non-linear reading. About half of the present material on the "learning" side of the site started life in the form of handouts in the mid-90s. I used to give handouts to support lectures. But they were only about one topic—the topic of the lecture. And it frustrated me that my students, even Master's level students, were not making the connections between the topics. They were not fitting individual ideas into a coherent (or even incoherent—even better) whole. I was impressed by how the "Help" files of various packages used hyperlinks to help create such connections, and I found a package which would build such .hlp files from word-processor files. So I distributed these things on floppy discs... Eventually, web access came along and I put them up there. (Fortunately before VLEs, or the whole thing might have got stuck in that dead-end, but that's another story...) But the hyperlink is critical; it enables readers to construct their own mental image of the topic, rather than being dragged along by an author.
That's the rationale behind the web-sites. The blog is different again.

The point, in terms of teaching? We use many media, and often treat them as interchangeable. They're not. Often the differences don't matter much, but sometimes they do, and they go quite deep.

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