The ethics of publishing platforms

A Twitter conversation about the implications of centralized digital publishing in the non-profit sector. August 6, 2018

Plattegrond van de stad Béthune, belegerd door de Geallieerden vanaf 23 juli 1710. Linksonder een cartouche met de legenda A-F in het Frans. from Rijksmuseum

A couple of weeks back, Greg Albers put out a tweet that touched on something that’s similarly troubled me for a while but that I hadn’t really put into the front of my brain until he said it:

This tweet kicked off a really interesting conversation that I’m going to attempt to recap here for posterity, because there’s stuff here I’d like to be able to refer to later. Since Storify’s gone, I’m recapping this conversation by hand (which actually is sort of the point of the following discussion). If you were part of this conversation and I missed your tweets, let me know!

This is probably a good place to mention a great piece from Dan Cohen, Vice Provost at Northeastern that gets at a lot of these issues in a really eloquent way. In “Back to the Blog ", Dan discusses the difficulties as well as the benefits of “re-decentralizing” the web. This article, and some similar thoughts from fellow Austinite Austin Kleon got me thinking about re-focusing on my own blog (12 years old now!) again.

This issue of governance has been concerning me more and more over the last couple of years. As Matt Popke says later in this conversation, you’d think that non-profits would be more sensitive to this than we are, but this is rarely the case. I just read a great quote from Marina Gorbis, the director of the Institute of the Future, in an article on AI failures , that gets at what I think is the core of the problem:

“We need technologists who understand history, who understand economics, who are in conversations with philosophers…We need to have this conversation because our technologists are no longer just developing apps, they’re developing political and economic systems."


Matt really gets at something critical here. I understand the need to work with interfaces that are “intuitive” or “easy to use” instead of the alternative, but it remains fascinating to me how often this need overwhelms other priorities. I accept a certain invasion of privacy and a nebulous sense of “ownership” over content in return for convenience, but only when I’m working with my own stuff. Non-profits have a higher calling, and the content we produce is to a certain extent owned by the public that supports us. It’s on us to prioritize issues of governance, ownership, and ethics over those of convenience.

Visibility and reach are important, for sure, but I think those things need to exist on a continuum of other values. As mentioned above, “ease of use” is also a value on the continuum, but giving it primacy over other values leads us to make decisions that might not necessarily be in the public’s interest.

This is a great point. Except for the very few of them that are truly competing with big online publishers for eyeballs, museums are mostly finding their online audiences through more traditional means. If this is the case, why not return to the Dream of the 90s and make things the way we want? I don’t think those glasses are as rose-colored as we think they are.

Yes. Very yes. Here the conversation took an interesting turn, looking at the idea of the persistence of archives and content.

Both Heidi and Duane make great points here. Many publishers are comfortable with the ephemerality of blog posts, but I must say that I’m often surprised how much traffic goes to certain “ancient” posts on this blog and others I’ve managed. Posts that I didn’t necessarily intend to live on have ended up being incorporated into class syllabi and the like.

But again, I think the issue is that as institutions, we should be the ones deciding what posts live on and which don’t. It would be sad to have to tell our constituents that all those posts we put up on Medium for those five years are gone forever not because we decided to, but because Medium changed its business model. However…

And so this conversation wrapped up in an interesting place. What I see happening here is that we’re struggling with how tied up with one another convenience, distribution, and stability are. As soon as we favor convenience, we take risks with stability. As soon as distribution becomes paramount, convenience takes a hit. For me, I suppose, the ethics of stability should be paramount for a non-profit institution, but I recognize that that might not be true for some (or even many). More to think about here.

Of possible further interest: