In this final instalment of my interview with Tim O’Reilly (see also: Part 1 & Part 2), we discuss eBooks,
social networking, collaboration and Remix culture. This is probably my favourite segment
of the interview, because we explored some interesting new ideas here about Web
Books and Social Networking
Richard: eBooks are a current interest of mine. One theory I like is that
eBooks should be a social activity carried out on the network, rather than a physical
thing you hold in your hands. Cory Doctorow has said something similar:
eBooks are a practice, not an object. Do you see books going the same way as weblogs and
enabling a social networking experience?
For example: say a user could bookmark extracts of an eBook, perhaps mixing it with
extracts from other eBooks, and then quote it all on the Web interspersed with their own
comments. That sort of thing could be a basis for social networking amongst like-minded
people, just like blogs and wikis currently. Do you think that’s a likely scenario for
books, that they become more of a social read/write experience?
“…yes there are examples of books that are processes and practices, but we don’t
call them books anymore.”
Tim: You know….no, I don’t see that. Take Cory’s books, he puts them up online and he’s doing
all kinds of experimentation – and that’s the book. But he also does a blog, like Boing Boing. It’s kind of like going back to this
analogy of plays and movies, you have new forms evolve out of old ones. And you also have
products that are seen as very different that do the same job, you have products that are
seen as the same that do a different job, and you have to kind of parse the whole
So I would say yes there are examples of books that are processes and practices, but
we don’t call them books anymore. An online multiplayer game, a classic collaborative
book – if you like. But we don’t call it a book anymore. Similarly Wikipedia – classic collaborative reference book, but
we don’t call it a book anymore. I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here.
Earlier I said that we could call EverQuest a book, but now I’m saying that a
collaborative blog or a Wiki is not a book. I suppose it depends what point you’re trying
Richard: Although the Wikipedia is being made into a book, I
“A book is always a dialogue with other readers and other books.”
Tim: Yes those things are possible, but it depends on how you define ‘book’.
Look at our Hacks series, that’s a book series
that grew out of collective web content. We’d often start things online and write things
on the O’Reilly Network and then we’d say “Well
let’s assemble this into a book”. We’d start with what we already had, put an author on
collecting other cool stuff off the net, and finding people to write pieces to fill it
out. So in that sense, yes. But in the sense of people sort of morphing books, with the
‘rip, mix, burn’ kind of thing – (like we have with say The Grey Album, which
mixed The Black Album and The White Album), I don’t really see it. Other than in the
sense that people are always creating new works out of old works in the book
For example, think of a book on politics or a book on history. It’s quoting from other
books. Also a book on literary criticism. A book is always a dialogue with other readers
and other books. And I certainly see ways where the Internet can be used to enhance that,
but I don’t think for example: “Oh, we’ll have some collaboratively created novel and
that will be the new form”.
Richard: I wasn’t really thinking of that. I was more thinking of say Cory
putting his new novel online, maybe it gets mixed with other content, and then people
using that as a base for conversations and other social activities.
“I think that the form of the book, per se, will persist and the job of
the book will be re-discovered in a lot of new forms.”
Tim: Right, but does that really change the book per se? I mean right now
there’s conversations about books going on all the time. We’ve always taken reader input
into our books. Every new edition is the result of conversations with our audience. And
that was one of O’Reilly’s early innovations, because we were Internet
Think back to a book I did in the late 80’s on UUCP – I did it originally as an
80-page pamphlet and I did 10 editions over the next five years, about every 6 months
there was a new edition and they were almost entirely driven by user-submitted content.
People would say “Oh you didn’t cover this-and-this device, and here’s how it works” and
they’d give me 3-4 paragraphs which I’d just drop right into the book. And I think
we have a lot more of that ‘book as output of connected conversations’ now, where people
are engaged in dialogue. But again I don’t see that as fundamentally different than the
kind of dialogues that a scholar would go through before – it’s just accelerated and
enables people to reach out to people who they might not otherwise have worked
with. So I think that the form of the book, per se, will persist and the
job of the book will be re-discovered in a lot of new forms.
Remix Culture and Collaboration
“There’s almost always a guiding spirit, an author or editor who puts out a framework
that guides a collective work.”
On second thought, there are probably other areas where some of what you’re talking
about is happening. I’m thinking, for example, of all the mashups that people are doing
with video – really creative works that re-use content in ways the original authors never
intended – like the Bush-Blair singing lip-synch video that Larry Lessig showed at Web
2.0. This whole “Remix” idea is actually the theme of our Emerging Technology Conference this year
(that’s being held in San Diego in March).
But at the end of the day, there’s almost always a guiding spirit, an author or editor
who puts out a framework that guides a collective work. Even in an area like Fanfic, where people write new stories
online based on the Harry Potter series, or Star Trek, or whatever – you still have
authors who are putting out their idiosyncratic vision. Spock and Kirk as a gay couple is
apparently a major sub-genre of Fanfic. But somebody came up with the idea and wrote the
first story. Others then piled on. [Ed: the writers, that is… :-)]
“The network is opening up some amazing possibilities for us to reinvent content,
But you do raise a good point: can we build systems that are designed better for
letting people remix content? One way we’re doing that is with our SafariU
product. Looking at our content, which is primarily tutorial and reference content,
people often want to learn things in a different order – they want to put together
teaching or reference material for a specific task.
In Safari U, what we have is a framework where we have a database of 3000 books in
XML. Here’s an interface that lets you pick and choose what you want, re-assemble it, mix
it with your own material into specific custom purposes. We’re targeting right now
at two markets. One is the academic and training market, where people want to put
together custom training materials – that’s been a request we’ve had for a long time. I
think similarly we’re seeing it in a corporate context, where a company says: I support
these technologies and I want to put together a custom library. We’re not really seeing
it at the user level, which I think was your question.
That being said, one of the key ideas from the Creative Commons that I really embrace
is the idea that all creativity is rooted in re-use. The network is opening up some
amazing possibilities for us to reinvent content, reinvent collaboration. The smartest
thing that any publisher can do is to make sure that we allow our customers to surprise
us with ways that they have remixed our ideas and our material with their own.
Well that wraps up what was a hugely rewarding interview for me, in terms of what I learned and also having the opportunity to talk to the CEO of a major technology company. If you’ve read this interview, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below. And of course, I encourage you to link to it on your blogs and pass it onto blog connectors. Tim took a risk giving an interview to a C-List blogger, so I’d love to repay that faith and get this interview linked around the blogosphere.