T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R

  VOLUME 2, NUMBER 11                                NOVEMBER 1995


     "You have to organize, organize, organize, and build and
      build, and train and train, so that there is a permanent,
      vibrant structure of which people can be part."

          -- Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition


  This month: Designing genres for new media


  Welcome to TNO 2(11).

  This month's issue consists of a single long article, an informal
  manifesto on sociocentric design that I wrote for an introductory
  Internet class and presented at a recent publishing symposium in
  Portugal.  The WorldWide Web makes everyone a publisher in some
  basic sense, and new media in general vastly expand the scope
  of potential innovation in communications between individuals
  and groups.  My experience, though, is that too many people,
  both professionals and amateurs, try to design for new media
  through an unarticulated sense of what they "like".  My argument
  is that design for new media (which, these days, really means all
  media) requires some mapping of the social relationships around
  a given type of communication.  This process doesn't replace the
  designer's skill of writing, layout, choice of type, and so on,
  but it *is*, I think, a prerequisite for the rational application
  of this skill.  The central concept is "genre" -- the expectable
  forms of communication that fit into particular forms of activity
  involving relationships between communities of people.  I explain
  what this means, and I sketch some examples.  Much work obviously
  remains to be done to put these thoughts into practice, but
  perhaps they will be helpful even on an abstract level.

  The usual TNO departments -- wish list, recommendations, and
  follow-up, have all been crowded out by the length of this one
  article, which runs over the usual 50K length of a TNO issue.
  They'll be back next month.


  Designing genres for new media:
  Social, economic, and political contexts

  //1 Introduction

  Portrayals of a digital future are too often monolithic:
  everything will be digital, everyone will be wired, all media
  will converge into one, and the physical world will wither away.
  This kind of monolithic story is wrong, I think, and particularly
  unfortunate when it comes to the future of communications media.
  In fact, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the unfolding
  digital present is a proliferation of new media and new forms
  of communicative interaction between people: the Web, CD-ROM's,
  economical printing on demand, cellular telephones, messaging
  pagers, fax machines, MUD's, optical scanners, voice mail, and
  many other media have become widespread in recent times, and
  more will be marketed soon.  Perhaps these media will undergo
  a shake-out, leading back to the relatively homogeneous days of
  yore.  But more likely, I think, media will continue to multiply.
  Everybody's daily life will include a whole ecology of media;
  some of these will be voluntarily chosen and others will be
  inescapable parts of life in public spaces and the workplace.

  As media proliferate and change, the task of designers becomes
  more difficult.  By "designers" I mean to include everyone --
  authors, composers, performers, public speakers, letter-writers,
  editors, and others -- who make decisions about the format and
  content of communications media, whether for others' purposes
  or their own.  More indirectly I also mean to include the people
  -- librarians, publishers, book sellers, programmers, critics,
  anthologists, and others -- who operate the distribution channels
  that connect the producers and the users of media products.
  Designing for media, and particularly for new media where stable
  conventions have yet to be established, requires many kinds of
  effort -- research, experimentation, rational choice, iteration
  of prototypes, and learning from the work of others.  Many skills
  enter into the process.  In this article I want to focus on a
  single theme: the design of genres that fit into the activities
  of the audience one hopes to reach.  Design for new media, I want
  to argue, requires some rational understanding of who is using
  the materials, what they are doing with them, and how they fit
  into an overall way of life.  Such elaborate ideas about the
  audience might not have been necessary in the old days, when
  media were few and their uses evolved slowly.  That is not so
  today, and it is not just possible but crucial for designers to
  learn what is known about the uses of media and to contribute to
  such knowledge themselves.

  My analysis will be divided into three parts.  In the first part
  I will present a framework for media design based on inquiry
  into the role of genres in people's activities, followed by
  some examples.  Putting these concepts to work will result in
  a vast space of potential genres and uses of media.  The second
  part, therefore, will describe some of the economic forces
  that tend to select among these various potentialities, and
  the third part will sketch some of the democratic values that
  might guide concerned citizens and professionals in shaping the
  media infrastructures and policies of the future.  Nothing is
  inevitable, not even in technology, and some of the choices we
  might make about communications media right now are much better
  than others.

  //2 Framework for media design

  Design should be an iterative process, and much of the learning
  that develops through iteration concerns the uses that people
  might make of the materials you are designing.  I want to suggest
  that the principal *object* of design for new media is a *genre*
  -- that is, an expectable form that materials in a given medium
  might take.  Here are some examples of genres:

    romance novels
    op-ed articles
    IRS tax forms
    scientific research papers
    statistical tables
    Romantic poems
    "tagging" graffiti
    the blues
    business memos
    street maps
    conference announcements
    corporate financial reports
    sales pitches
    action-adventure movies
    shoot-'em-up video games

  Notice several things about this list:

  1. Genres can be defined more or less broadly.  Depending on
  one's purposes, one may wish to focus specifically on research
  papers in biology, or on early blues, or on sales pitches for
  condominium time-shares, or on French companies' financial
  reports.  An advertising campaign, for example, might be
  regarded as a small genre that inserts a range of elements
  into a recognizable shared frame.

  2. Each genre implies a particular sort of audience and a
  particular sort of activity (Bazerman 1988).  Who the audience
  actually is and what they are actually doing are, of course,
  fairly difficult empirical matters.  But romance novels and
  graffiti and financial reports do fit into people's lives in
  particular ways.

  3. Each genre also implies a certain kind of relationship
  between the producer(s) and consumer(s) of the materials in
  question.  The relationship may be a one-to-one personal or
  professional acquaintanceship, or it might be a one-to-many
  performer-to-audience interaction, or it might be mediated by
  institutionalized distribution channels.  Interests may conflict,
  matters may be concealed, money may change hands, persuasion may
  be intended or disavowed, useful information may be conveyed,
  reputations may be enhanced, and so forth.  All of these aspects
  of the relationship will shape both the genre and the activities
  within which it is used.

  4. A genre implies not a single document but a stream of them.
  Even if the "rules" of a given genre are never codified, past
  instances of each genre create precedents and expectations
  for the interpretation of subsequent instances.  Genres permit
  people to seek out "more like that one", and they permit the
  establishment of efficient, familiar, habitual routines for using
  the materials.

  5. The genre does not, however, fully constrain the ways that
  instances of it might be used.  Financial reports might be read
  as if they were literary texts, IRS forms might be mined for
  poetic phrases, blues songs might be sampled to make hip-hop
  songs, video games might be played as if the goal were to *avoid*
  killing anyone, sales pitches might be solicited for use as
  sociolinguistic data, research papers might be interpreted as
  business plans, and romance novels might be read by those who
  hope that the heroine is going to blow off the brooding guy and
  go get a life.

  6. Any given way of life will involve the routine use of several
  genres.  Tourism involves guidebooks, menus, street signs,
  timetables, roadmaps, phrase books, and postcard notes back home.
  Genres sometimes imply one another, at least in the loose sense
  that they will need to take up complementary roles in the same
  kinds of activity.

  7. Genres change historically.  The changes might be encouraged
  by regulation, by competition or influence from other genres,
  from changes in the lives of their users, from shifts to
  new media, or by the changing purposes of the people who are
  producing them.  The changes might be decided consciously,
  evolve incrementally, or arise through the "natural selection"
  of markets and other mechanisms.

  I want to focus on genres because, in analytical terms, they
  are the meeting-point between the process of producing media
  materials and the process of using them.  Depending on your
  purposes, be they commercial or political or personal, you might
  wish to start out at either end.  The point is to cultivate an
  understanding of how the two halves fit together.  Building on
  the observations I have just enumerated, I want to formalize
  such understandings under five headings: communities, activities,
  relationships, media, and genres.  The point is not to formulate
  vast generalizations about these five abstractions but to
  have a handy schedule of questions to ask in mapping out the
  relationships between people and media in particular situations.

  Communities.  A community is a the set of people who occupy a
  given structural location in an institution or society.  Examples
  include immigrants to the United States, employees of temporary
  agencies, owners of a particular model of car, the CEO's of
  insurance companies, students in journalism schools, members of
  the ACLU, Republican candidates for state senate offices, public
  librarians, neighbors of a company's factories, regulars at the
  Upside Grill, people eligible for the draft, family farmers,
  unemployed scientists, and paroled felons.  A community might
  have a stronger or weaker sense of itself *as* a community.  It
  might or might not have its own organization, and might or might
  not meet as a group.  But most communities engage in some degree
  of collective cognition -- the interactions through which they
  learn from one another's experiences, set common strategies,
  develop a shared vocabulary, and evolve a distinctive way of
  thinking.  (See TNO 2(7).)  These interactions might take place
  through war stories, newsletters, rumors, conference speeches,
  philosophical tracts, music videos, management consultants, or
  bards who travel from place to place bearing news.

  Activities.  The life of every community includes shared forms
  of activity within a particular institutional logic.  This is not
  to say that the community members mechanically follow a rulebook,
  although sometimes they may have little other choice.  The point,
  rather, is that the commonalities of their lives and goals and
  surroundings, together with their collective thinking about
  their situations and futures, tend to lead to similar patterns
  of activity.  These include the activities through which
  particular kinds of media are used, but they include much more.
  In particular, it does not suffice to identify an activity
  such as "reading" without asking how this "reading" is part of
  some larger pattern of social practice.  For example, students
  studying for an exam may apply procedures of reading that chop
  a book's contents into discrete, memorizable facts according to
  an economic calculation of which ones are likely to count for
  how much on the exam.  This might be contrasted with the reading
  engaged in by American men reading the post-Vietnam war fiction
  that was inspired by characters like Rambo, with the way that
  Washington insiders read the newspaper to assess how yesterday's
  action is going to play back home, or with the business
  people who read the books of business gurus while asking "what
  concretely does *this* and *this* and *this* mean in the context
  of my own industry and firm?".  Each kind of "reading" reflects
  a perfectly legitimate way of using a text for culturally and
  institutionally organized practices.  Note that "activities"
  include both the physical actions (sitting, writing, talking,
  looking, turning pages, pushing buttons, etc) and the cognitive
  and emotional processes (identifying with characters, figuring
  out what's important, wondering what the professor thinks is
  important, catching the allusions, etc).  The genre needs to
  "fit" with the whole complex of "external" and "internal" aspects
  of the activity.

  Relationships.  The members of a community share a social
  "location" because they share relationships to people in other,
  adjacent locations.  Thus temporary employees have relationships
  to temp agency managers, managers of firms that contract for
  temps, employees of those firms who have permanent status, and
  so on.  Family farmers must contend with bankers, shippers,
  extension workers, their own family members, and so on.  The
  lives of people in communities are similar largely because of the
  similarities of their relationships, and much of a community's
  shared thinking is concerned with these relationships.  Farmers
  chat about dealings with bankers, managers discuss their dealings
  with the people they supervise, voters listen to poll numbers
  about their fellow voters' supposed views on the candidates,
  sales people read books by other sales people about selling
  things to buyers, and so on.  Many of the characteristic
  activities of a community either directly involve these
  relationships (asking for a loan, writing a report, casting a
  vote, holding a meeting, and so on) or are heavily influenced
  by them (learning skills, gathering ammo, making oneself
  presentable, thinking about analogous relationships in others'
  lives, and so on).  Relationships between particular individuals
  or institutions have life cycles: employment contracts and family
  relationships, for example, tend to pass through a more or less
  expectable series of stages within a given society, each with its
  characteristic issues and forms of activity.

  Media.  Media are the specific technical means of communication:
  telephone, television, CD-ROM's, video tapes, magazines, books,
  face-to-face conversation, smoke signals, drums, chalkboards,
  billboards, radio, clothing, and so on.  People use media in
  activities, and the technical affordances of the media condition
  how they can be used.  For example, it is difficult to carry a
  VHS playback system, it is physically painful to read a long text
  on a computer screen, radio is much easier to use while driving
  than television, overhead transparencies can be projected better
  onto whiteboards than chalkboards, e-mail requires net access,
  face-to-face conversation requires travel, and so on.  But media
  should not be confused with genres: radio supports both Top 40
  programs and call-in talk shows, a magazine usually contains a
  stable mix of several genres among its contents, and the genres
  of face-to-face conversation include performance evaluations,
  party smalltalk, paranoid harangues, and accounts of one's
  research interests at a conference.

  Genres.  A genre, again, is a relatively stable, expectable form
  of communication.  Genres are addressed to particular communities
  and fit into particular activities in the lives of that
  community's members.  Of course, a given genre might be addressed
  to several different purposes simultaneously, or even to several
  different communities, but it stands to reason that a genre
  cannot be too many things to too many kinds of people without
  diluting its usefulness for any one of them.  It is probably best
  to identify a genre with a particular medium: a folk song goes
  through important changes in its transition from live performance
  to audio recording to music video.  A novel might not change its
  words in the transition from paper to CD-ROM, but nobody really
  knows whether anyone has any use for a novel on a CD-ROM, or
  whether CD-ROM's need new genres that can participate in the
  activities for which the CD-ROM medium can actually be useful
  to the members of a particular community.  It helps to think of
  a genre in historical terms as the product of an ongoing process
  of coevolution between its producers and consumers.  Genres
  are effectively codesigned with forms of activity, even if this
  codesign process might be unconscious, haphazard, or even the
  result of conflict between parties with differing interests or
  worldviews.  In particular, every genre implies a distinctive
  constellation of relationships: it is supposed to be useful
  to members of a given community, in activities whose forms and
  purposes are heavily influenced by relationships with the members
  of particular other communities.

  I have sketched, then, an analytical framework consisting of
  communities, activities, relationships, media, and genres.  The
  purpose of this framework, once again, is not to give precise
  abstract definitions to each of these terms.  Instead, the
  framework is supposed to be useful in making sense of particular
  cases, whether for understanding what people are already doing
  with genres or for designing new genres.  It can be highly
  illuminating to map out all of the communities, activities,
  relationships, media, and genres in a given environment.  One
  might start this process anywhere one likes, for example with a
  community one hopes to help or a medium for which one hopes to
  design new materials.  I find it useful to start with particular
  genres, precisely because they form the boundary between the
  processes of production and consumption.

  //3 Some examples

  When designing genres for new media, the slogan is: "do more".
  Pick a community, explore how existing genres fit into existing
  activities and relationships, and then consider how a new genre
  might "do more" for the people than the ones they already use.
  The new genre might, for example, be designed to ease certain
  functions (like searching or sorting or comparing or pooling
  group efforts) that the people now perform laboriously for
  themselves, or that they rarely perform because it is so
  difficult.  For example, if you're working with reporters who
  must routinely produce documents that draw together information
  from several different sources, then you can provide them with
  documents that draw together as many of those sources as you have
  access to.  These documents would not simply dump the information
  in a pile, but would arrange it in a rational, intelligible form
  that creates and satisfies a stable set of expectations.  I will
  return to the broader meaning of doing more for communities later
  on, but here let us consider some examples.

  An example that arose during a recent workshop on these issues is
  the genre of art indexes.  These are reference works connecting
  works of art to the authors who produced them.  They are found on
  paper, but mainly today, I am told, they are found on CD-ROM's.
  The communities that employ them consist mostly of students and
  scholars, and the relationships of these communities include
  teachers, critics, the artists themselves, the public of art
  enthusiasts, curators, and scholars in related fields such
  as literature.  The activities that community members engage
  in include writing papers (which may be usefully decomposed
  into a variety of other activities), conducting seminars, and
  presenting talks.  And the other genres produced or consumed
  in these activities include research papers, scholarly books of
  art criticism, student term papers, other reference works, class
  presentations, popular articles, and so on.

  Given this background, it is possible to reason about how the
  art index genre might evolve.  More detailed information might be
  required, for example what questions someone writing a research
  paper has in mind when opening an art index, what other questions
  they have in mind at other times, what later uses are typically
  made of the facts discovered in the index, how particular works
  of art are employed as examples in classroom teaching and the
  apprenticeship process of seminars, and so forth.  One could
  spend a lifetime exploring these questions, but even a little
  such exploration will quickly provide the raw material for
  brainstorms about other applications of the genre or other genres
  that might fit into the activities of the relevant communities.
  For example, what kinds of reference materials might be invented
  to support the social processes of seminars?  The media would
  probably need to be located in the seminar room itself, though
  it could have remote connections elsewhere.  Perhaps it would
  be useful to brief specialized librarians ahead of time on a
  seminar topic so that relevant materials could be placed in
  a menu.  Perhaps it would be useful to have a genre of visual
  presentations to support compare-and-contrast types of reasoning
  in seminar settings.  And so on.

  Evaluating such proposals is obviously not simple.  The only real
  test of their practicability is to try them, hopefully through
  iterative participatory prototyping (Bjerknes, Ehn, and Kyng
  1987; Schuler and Namioka 1993).  The design process itself will
  presumably lead to fresh discoveries about the real nature of the
  relevant communities, activities, and relationships, and it might
  even change them.  Any such change will not be "caused" by the
  new genres, at least not in any simple sense.  The changes will
  express latent potentials in the local social system, and they
  will be influenced heavily by the participants' own (shared or
  conflicting) understandings of the situation.  The changes might
  settle into a new equilibrium, with genres once again fitted
  to activities that express relationships between communities.
  Alternatively the changes might continue, fueled by the social
  system's internal dynamics or by exogenous factors, including
  further innovations in media and genres of communication.

  As another example, let us consider the design process involved
  getting a particular organization "on the Web" by creating some
  prototype Web pages.  In my experience, most organizations try to
  jump directly to layout and graphics and bullets and hyperlinks,
  steering by an unarticulated sense of what they "like" without
  thinking through the issues in a strategic way.  The relevant
  questions include:

   * Who are these pages for?  What defines their relationship to
  us?  What goes on in the life of each community?  How is each
  community changing?

   * What purpose are these pages supposed to serve in the context
  of our relationship with these people?  What are the stages in
  the life cycle of our relationship with each individual in a
  given community, and what role (if any) is each medium and genre
  supposed to play in each stage of the cycle?

   * What activities are the people going to be engaged in when
  they call up our Web pages?  What are they trying to accomplish?
  What specific questions do they have in mind?  Do they have
  that kind of question often?  What other questions do they have
  at other times?  What other media and genres do they employ
  in the course of these activities?  Are these activities aimed
  principally at producing materials in other particular genres?
  Which ones?  What is the connection between our materials and

   * Are they going to use our pages just once, or whenever a
  particular problem arises, or on a regular basis?  What existing
  genres, whether on the Web or in other media, are going to shape
  their expectations when they encounter the new genre of Web pages
  we are designing?

   * What are Web pages going to do for these people that cannot
  be done better on paper memos or brochures, over the telephone,
  by electronic mail, in meetings, through posters or newspaper
  advertisements, and so on?  What role do these other media
  already play in our relationship with these people?  Do they
  already use the Web for other things?  Do they tend to have a
  Web client running on their computer at all times?  Or do we hope
  that they'll get up to speed on the Web just to use our pages?

   * How much will our pages change?  Will they contain a steady
  stream of new content?  A steady evolution of the existing
  content?  What expectations will the user communities have about
  these changes, and what expectations would we like to encourage
  them to have through the design of our genre of Web pages?
  Through what division of labor will the pages be maintained?

   * How will the people hear about your Web page and learn your
  URL?  Through a print advertisement?  Business card?  Electronic
  mail?  News article?  Scrap of paper scribbled at a conference?
  Do your plans effectively require the people to put your URL in
  their hotlist?

   * How do the practical properties of the Web medium fit with
  the activities that these people are going to be engaged in?
  Do the activities take place at a desk with a computer on it?
  On the move with a Web-connected portable computer?  What else
  can they be doing during the several seconds it takes to boot
  their computer or launch their Web client or download our page?
  What else can they be doing during the several moments it takes
  to follow each link within our pages?  How powerful are their
  computers?  Do they share their computers with others?  What kind
  of bandwidth do they have to the net?  Will they be using our
  pages at high-load times of day?

   * Is absorbing the futuristic cachet of the Internet going to
  be a significant part of the activity of using our Web pages?
  Will this be the case next year as well?

   * If we want several different communities to use our pages,
  are the answers to these questions similar or different for each?
  Should we design separate pages for each group?  A separate
  starting-point ("home page") for each group, perhaps with links
  to overlapping sets of materials?  Do we want to exclude certain
  communities from access to particular materials (home phone
  numbers are a common example) that we wish to make available to
  other communities?

  These questions will have very different answers for different
  purposes -- that's the whole point.  Some of the answers might
  be unknown, or they might be uneven across a given community, or
  they might change.  Having at least sketched the answers to them,
  one is in a position to start designing and prototyping pages.
  The next step might be to sit down with some representatives of
  each user community, show them the pages, and get them to talk
  about their activities and the role of various media and genres
  within those activities.

  //4 Economic considerations

  Discussions of new media are often framed in terms of "where
  things are going".  The idea is to predict the future and then
  to accommodate oneself to it, hopefully to maximum advantage.
  This kind of reasoning leaves a great deal out.  The future is
  not a deterministic outcome of a mechanical procedure; it is a
  human choice whose outcome may be constrained and biased but is
  not settled in advance.  Only when we believe we have choices
  do we start articulating our values and figuring out how they
  apply to the situation at hand.  Economic considerations help
  in understanding the practicalities of these choices, including
  the choices that other people are likely to make.  They are only
  one part of the larger picture -- or at least they ought to be.
  Nonetheless, the vast range of potential applications of new
  media make the choices exceptionally difficult, and it will be
  helpful to take a broad range of considerations routinely into
  account during the design process.  In this section I am going to
  describe some economic concepts that can influence the design of
  genres in new media -- or of genres that address new situations
  using old media.

  A genre, once again, is not a single document or event.  Instead,
  it is a form of media materials, and it implies a steady flow of
  materials that can play a definite role in the activities of some
  community.  The economics of genres are the economics of this
  flow and these activities.  Here are some issues to consider,
  some of which apply more directly to genres and others of which
  apply more directly to the media in which they are realized:

   * Fixed costs of distribution.  One force for concentration
  in industry is the overhead involved in creating a network of
  distribution channels.  Since this overhead must be recovered
  through sales of the stuff that passes through the channels,
  competition makes it necessary to fill the channels to capacity.
  Fixed costs of distribution include brand awareness through
  advertising, creating and updating policies about personnel
  and customer relationships, facilities and course materials
  for training personnel, product design costs, capital assets
  such as storefronts and vending machines and trucks, and so on.
  Newspapers have high fixed costs of distribution.

   * Marginal cost of distribution.  Once the fixed overhead costs
  have been paid, what does it then cost to actually sell someone
  a product?  This includes the manufacturing and shipping of a
  single unit, personnel time and paperwork to execute the sale,
  the rate of customer complaints and returns and other transaction
  problems, and so on.  If the total of these costs is low compared
  to the fixed costs of distribution per customer then competitive
  forces will drive the industry toward monopoly until antitrust
  enforcement or diseconomies of scale set in.  Information
  commodities tend to have low marginal costs of distribution
  because it is so easy to make new copies of an original.

   * Fixed costs of consumption.  What does it cost to become
  able to consume a particular kind of product or service?  For
  information commodities these costs can be usefully classified
  into machines (to play records you need a record player), skills
  (to consume sheet music you have to learn to play a musical
  instrument), and content (to use software a hundred times you
  need to purchase it at least once).  Machine costs tend to be
  associated with media, not genres, and skill costs tend to be
  associated partly with media and partly with genres (learning
  to play classical piano gets you halfway toward learning to play
  jazz piano).  These fixed costs must be paid back across the
  particular occasions of consumption, which should hopefully be
  numerous.  Some genres, like classical CD's and video games, are
  used in activities that entail using a given package of content
  repeatedly; others, like novels, are not.  When content costs
  are high, it can make sense to rent (videotapes from Blockbuster)
  or share (books from the library) the content-bearing artifacts.
  All types of fixed costs of consumption can raise distributional
  questions when they are high, as with the case of "equity of
  access to the NII".  This is particularly true when media that
  have high fixed costs of consumption (e.g., television or
  networked computers) compete against media that have high fixed
  costs of production (e.g., newspapers or books).  As the latter
  lose their needed economies of scale and are forced to distribute
  their fixed costs among ever-fewer units, they will consolidate
  among themselves and may ultimately collapse.  Those who cannot
  afford high fixed costs of consumption will be left without any
  service at all, since they can only consume a limited number of
  high-fixed-cost commodity streams.

   * Marginal costs of consumption.  These include the price of
  the commodity itself (assuming it has one), but it can include
  a lot of other costs as well.  These can include travel costs,
  wear and tear on bodies and machines, the risk of accidents, and
  the opportunity cost of not having done something else instead.

   * Specialization.  Information commodities undergo two powerful
  economic pressures that push in opposite directions.  It is well
  known, on one hand, that their high fixed costs of production
  and low marginal costs of production create powerful competitive
  incentives for distributing them to the largest possible
  audience.  On the other hand, there often exists a pressure for
  specialization to particular communities, known to marketing
  people as market segments.  This is obviously in part a question
  of genre: genres can often be tailored to the needs of more
  specific groups.  Both pressures operate at all points in the
  market at all times.  The balance between them can vary wildly,
  causing markets for particular products and genres to appear or
  disappear overnight.  The emergence of a mass software market,
  for example, caused some categories of software to drop in price
  by two orders of magnitude.  Content producers are developing
  a range of strategies to deal with these contending forces.
  Software can be tailored locally by setting a range of switches
  or through the purchase of utilities or add-on packages (as
  with the huge range of packages for use with Notes).  Printed
  materials like books and brochures can be tailored locally as
  well through new technologies for economical printing on demand.
  This creates a need for genres for specifying a whole grammar of
  possible documents.  Simple versions of this phenomenon include
  syndicated newspaper columns that include optional paragraphs
  that can be trimmed to fit space restrictions, as well as
  professors' "reading packets" assembled from a batch of chapters
  and articles from various sources.  But much more complex
  versions are possible as well, all the way out to artificial
  intelligence techniques that design documents (like instruction
  manuals or advertising brochures) within a set of genre
  conventions based on elaborate symbolic representations to the
  uses to which they will be put.

   * Practicalities of duplication.  Records can be copied to
  cassette tape and books can be photocopied, but neither process
  is particularly convenient.  Copying software, though, is usually
  easy.  People will be more likely to make illicit copies if their
  social network includes other members of the relevant community.

   * Time-critical nature of use.  If the value of a commodity
  decreases rapidly over time then distribution costs will probably
  be higher.  On the other hand, if an information commodity (like
  a stock price) loses its value quickly then illicit copying and
  sharing is probably going to be less prevalent.

   * Third-party costs and benefits of consumption.  Television,
  radio, and print media advertisers subsidize the publications
  they advertise in because they expect to profit from your
  attention having been brought to their advertising.  On a more
  subtle level, companies hire PR firms to "sell" friendly stories
  to the media because they expect to enjoy benefits if the story
  gets an audience.  (Among political campaign operatives and
  advocacy people, this practice is sometimes known by the
  wonderful phrase "earned media".)  Even when no money changes
  hands, this is effectively a subsidy to the media because it
  saves them the trouble of digging up the story themselves, and
  media firms that do this enjoy a cost advantage, other things
  being equal, over their competitors (Gandy 1982).  Third parties
  can also suffer costs from information consumption: rumors can
  cause harm to their subjects and trade secrets are worth less
  to their owners once they leak out.  It follows in each case
  that effort will often be expended to suppress them, or at least
  to get some control over the process by which they become news.
  (Think, for example, about the Netscape "Bugs Bounty".)

   * Brand identity of the content stream.  One might think about
  a magazine, for example, as branded content.  A brand is a set of
  expectations and associations that a given community has about a
  product, and attaching a brand to one's content stream is a way
  of explaining what it is and enabling satisfied consumers to get
  "more like that".  Newsletter editors, novelists, genre fiction
  publishers, concert promoters, television networks, record
  labels, booksellers, trade associations, and think tanks all try
  to brand the content streams they produce, with varying degrees
  of success.  The ability to extract income from a content brand
  depends on the audience's ability to predict the qualities of
  each next unit of content before they buy it.  The matter is
  particularly interesting in the case of brands established
  by distributors: television networks, booksellers, concert
  promoters, and so on.  In some cases these brands are based
  on matters that go beyond the "content" narrowly speaking, for
  example how well-run the concerts are.  In other cases they
  are based on the selection of materials to suit a particular
  audience, as in a special-interest bookstore or a magazine.
  Brands increasingly cross media boundaries; the "Lion King"
  brand, for example, is generating revenue across dozens of media.
  A content stream needs a brand whether or not money changes
  hands; a free Internet newsletter, for example, needs to build
  an audience over time, consisting of people who have read a few
  issues and are willing to read further issues on the expectation
  of getting "more like that".  In all cases, the crucial thing
  (the basis for reckoning "like that") is how the stuff fits into
  the reader's life (its "use value" in one idiom), and that in
  turn depends on its relevance to that person's relationships and
  goals.  Libraries and other public sources of information tend
  to fight against the logic of brands, and reasonably so, because
  their justification is based on serving the general public's
  needs, not the summed needs of a series of market segments.  Yet
  it's hard to think about the general public in concrete terms.

   * Transaction costs.  These are the costs of selling something
  to someone: finding customers/suppliers, free samples and
  browsing rights, negotiating the contract, dealing with later
  problems with the contract, collecting the money, keeping track
  of the money, getting the money to the bank, and so on.  In
  the case of information commodities, these transaction costs
  can exceed the marginal cost of producing the commodity itself.
  As the cost of electronic transactions goes down, the contracts
  for purchase of information commodities may shift from a fixed
  per-copy price ($99 for a spreadsheet program) to a per-usage
  price ($0.001 per command that you type on the spreadsheet).
  This is certainly Microsoft's plan.

   * Compatibility and standards.  Contrary to the dogmata of
  neoclassical economics, media industries are powerfully
  path-dependent because of effects deriving from the compatibility
  of different commodities.  VHS thrived and consigned Beta to a
  living death, but this was not because VHS was the better format.
  (Many think it wasn't.)  Rather, each standard had high fixed
  costs of both consumption (for the player) and distribution (for
  the stock of the video rental stores), and VHS got started first
  and had a better alliance of content producers and distributors
  lined up.  Microsoft Windows grows and grows, but not because it
  is the better operating system.  In each case, an initial market
  advantage permitted a de facto standard to become embedded in the
  economy.  People buy Windows because a lot of software exists for
  Windows; a lot of companies write software for Windows because a
  lot of people have bought Windows; people generally use just one
  operating system because of the high costs and low benefits of
  using more.  Telecommunications industries in particular exhibit
  powerful critical mass phenomena.  Everything needs to work the
  same way because everyone's equipment needs to be compatible
  with that of everyone they call; it is hard to introduce new
  categories of equipment when it's not useful unless most everyone
  you call is also using it.  (This is why the PGP encryption
  scheme is still miles from being a "standard" in any real
  economic sense.)

  All of these considerations should influence anybody who is
  considering the introduction of a new medium or genre.  The
  really harsh effects operate more strongly on the media than
  on the genres, but in each case it is not sufficient for one's
  product to be "better" as measured in a vacuum.  In particular, I
  want to stress that the considerations just listed include three
  strong arguments for believing -- contrary to an enormous amount
  of passionately argued ideology -- that media industries tend
  toward monopoly:

   * Information commodities, to an even great extent than
  classical monopolies based on physical infrastructures, like
  utilities and railroads, have high fixed costs and low marginal
  costs of production.  A company is rewarded heavily for having
  a large customer base because it can distribute its costs more
  widely, thereby creating huge barriers to entry.

   * When consumers are making frequent choices among commodities
  whose qualities are hard to assess in advance, as with books
  and videos, brand identity counts for a great deal.  A great
  advantage thereby goes to the organization that can amortize the
  high fixed costs of establishing a brand identity across a higher
  number of customers.  (An advantage also derives from generating
  a higher number of media products under the same brand umbrella,
  but this can be accomplished through licensing once the brand has
  been established in the first place.)

   * Once proprietary standards become entrenched in the
  marketplace, so that compatibility effects create ever-higher
  barriers to entry for potential competitors, their owners
  can start to extract rents from a variety of other parties.
  Moreover, network externalities (costs to individuals that
  derive from everyone else's choices) mean that dominance over a
  market tends to expand once it is established.  Microsoft Windows
  is just about the worst possible case of these effects.  Such
  situations can be prevented if a critical mass of customers (or,
  in some cases, other interested parties such as content producers
  for a prospective new medium) can exert bargaining power by
  acting in a coordinated way early enough to influence vendors'
  choices in the direction of nonproprietary standards and open
  architectures.  This can happen if the customers are few and
  large, are able to cooperate, have a high degree of understanding
  of the issues, and are thinking ahead -- conditions that are
  rarely all met.

  //5 Political considerations

  Economic reasoning about the media easily gives the impression
  of a seamless, impenetrable logic that neither requires nor
  permits dialog with political concerns.  Yet the most significant
  questions surrounding the emergence of new media pertain
  precisely to their role in encouraging or discouraging democratic
  values.  To be sure, technologies do not straightforwardly
  determine political cultures.  A given technology can be
  appropriated in a variety of different ways, and technologies
  always coevolve to a certain extent with the institutional
  structures around them.  In the past it has seemed sufficient to
  inquire about such things one medium at a time -- "what is the
  effect of television on democracy?", "need radio have evolved
  into a centralized medium driven principally by advertiser
  sponsorship?", and so on, or else to pose the issues in terms of
  an orderly whole called "the media" or "the press".

  The rapid proliferation of new media, though, may call for a
  new type of analysis.  Digital networks such as the Internet,
  for example, are so flexible that it is practically impossible
  to imagine the range of architectural choices that lie ahead.
  Indeed, the Internet is capable of simultaneously supporting a
  considerable range of facilities, each of which would count in
  normal times as a separate medium.  These media might in turn
  support a wide range of genres, which might fit into people's
  lives in a wide variety of ways.  To reason about the political
  values that such technological developments might support or
  inhibit, I think it is important to return to basics and pose the
  general question of the role that communications genres as such
  play in the life of a democracy.

  It is useful to pose this question specifically in terms
  of genres because, as I have explained at some length above,
  genres tend to imply and be implied by forms of activity within
  communities.  Of course, communities engage in numerous forms of
  activity, some of which have greater significance for democratic
  values than others.  Perhaps the most democratically significant
  activities are those through which communities conduct their
  collective cognition -- the group thinking through which a
  community's members shares experiences, maintains memories,
  conducts conflicts, and performs its work of solidarity
  with regard to all of the other communities to which it is
  structurally related.  It is an obvious fact that, in society
  as we know it, some communities have more effective means for
  engaging in these kinds of group thinking.  A core democratic
  value, I would suggest, is broad access to the means of
  collective cognition.

  What are the conditions of collective cognition?  In some
  cases they might include physical meeting spaces, and it may be
  important for these spaces to serve a range of other functions in
  addition to formally organized discussions.  In other cases they
  might include the existence of a viable community publication
  such as a newsletter or newspaper.  It probably matters whether
  the community is concentrated or dispersed in geographic terms,
  and whether it can travel.  It probably matters whether other
  communities, such as employers, derive benefits from the shared
  thinking of the community's members, as in the case of many
  professional associations.  It probably matters whether the
  community's members have some way of accumulating capital by
  serving as thought leaders, circulating among the community's
  members and synthesizing what they hear into a form that is
  broadly useful.  All of these considerations, in turn, depend
  upon the economics of genres, travel, careers, professions, real
  estate, and much else.  Someone who wishes to design genres of
  communication that support democratic values, then, must assess
  a larger and probably quite complicated picture.  No single
  solution will fit all purposes.

  Nonetheless, some general considerations do apply broadly.
  Much attention has been focused on one of these: the relationship
  between producers and consumers of content within a given genre
  and medium.  Broadcast television and the Internet are frequently
  held out as opposite extremes in this regard, in the sense
  that anybody with a computer and some basic skills (admittedly
  significant fixed costs of both production and consumption)
  can create content for the Internet, but hardly anybody can
  create content for television (and only under a great mass of
  constraints).  But it is important to understand that the degree
  of symmetry in the producer-consumer relationship is not wholly
  determined by the technology.  Marketing considerations are
  significant as well: the power to create a coherent brand image
  across a coherent segment of the population is simultaneously the
  power to concentrate enough capital to gather facts, pay writers,
  support travel to the places where news can be gathered, maintain
  the most attractive production values, and so on.  Whether the
  future brings 500 channels or 50 or 5000 may depend as much on
  the market logic of segmentation as on the physical capacity of
  the medium.

  At the same time, the experience of fanzines teaches different
  and more appealing lessons.  The 1980's fanzine genre was
  adapted to numerous aspects of the music-centered youth culture
  from which it emerged.  Since the genre created a stable set
  of expectations, people could decide that they are interested
  in 'zines as a category, and this enabled mechanisms such as
  Factsheet 5 to arise to spread knowledge of them to a definite
  audience.  Broad access to desktop publishing and photocopying
  provided basic production methods, and the genre incorporated
  the properties and limitations of these methods as part of its
  visual language.  But fanzines did not operate in isolation from
  other genres; to the contrary, they coevolved with the genres of
  popular music upon which they were explicitly predicated.  A fan
  who found something of value in a particular band, whether on the
  radio or through clubs and cassette circulation, could employ the
  fanzine network to join a community with a common language and
  common concerns.  Mainstream elite discourse may reduce bands
  like Metallica or Hole to stereotypes, not least because the
  arbiters of this discourse do not participate in the relevant
  communities' activities and thus cannot comprehend the genres
  that are adapted to them.  But such bands provide occasions
  for serious political discourse among their adherents, largely
  through fan publications and the spaces where fans find one

  Another broadly relevant issue, already mentioned in my
  enumeration of economic factors above, is the role of third-party
  costs and benefits in a community's collective cognition.  The
  problem is not that a community might be influenced by outside
  voices and opinions and pleas.  The problem, rather, is the
  practice of simulation among practitioners of public relations.
  Most of the magazines that serve as the primarily forums for
  interest-communities such as car and sports enthusiasts, for
  example, are thoroughly corrupted by the influence of advertisers
  and other interested parties on the editorial copy.  Even general
  interest publications such as newspapers rely on information
  subsidies from a wide range of interested parties.  In each case,
  the journalistic voice of the publication is shaped in covert
  ways by the interventions of interested parties whose messages
  would not have the same "credibility" if openly owned up to.
  These effects continually throw into question the notion of an
  authentic community voice.  How can the channels a community's
  collective cognition be designed to be immune to these types of
  corruption?  One straightforward solution is to make them cheap,
  so that outside subsidies are not necessary.  And the rapidly
  decreasing cost of communications bandwidth ought to contribute
  to the emergence of inexpensive channels of group thinking such
  as Internet mailing lists.  But the bandwidth for distributing
  digital material is not the only cost of producing a publication.

  One final set of broadly applicable issues concerns the
  infrastructure of a political organization.  A modern
  organization such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and
  the Christian Coalition employs a broad range of genres of
  communication for its internal operations, chapter and member
  relations, campaign mobilizations, networking with related
  organizations, recruiting, training, and so on.  These genres
  might include fact books, pitch letters, member newsletter
  articles, op-eds contributed to newspapers, legislative
  briefings, support materials for lobbyists, meeting
  announcements, and many recurring types of phone calls.  One of
  the innovations of GOPAC under Newt Gingrich was the development
  of a range of additional genres, such as issue-focused conference
  calls and training videotapes sent to candidates to watch while
  on the road between campaign stops.  Likewise, electronic mail
  can permit an organization to hold fewer meetings (particularly
  of committees) by doing much of the work online.  The point
  is not that e-mail substitutes for meetings by any fixed
  proportionality, but rather that groups can explore which parts
  of their collective work can be performed in which medium,
  postponing until the physical meeting those interactions which
  must be conducted face-to-face.  This exploration is precisely
  the evolution of genres of communication.  As usual, each genre
  fits into the broader patterns of activity in the individuals'
  lives and the life of the organization, and participation in the
  genres is a skill that is acquired and in some way transmitted to
  others.  To consciously design these genres of communication is
  precisely to design the social relationships of the organization
  and the values that these relationships reflect.

  It is hard to generalize any further about these matters.  Few
  fixed rules or lessons may exist.  The important thing is to use
  the proliferation of new media as an opportunity to completely
  rethink the place of communication in our lives.  We are all
  designers in our daily practice of communicating -- in the
  small ways in which we innovate and evolve the relatively stable
  genres of our mediated interactions with others.  But we are
  equally dependent upon the professional designers who have the
  resources and skills to map out the broad systems of community
  relationships within which genres of communication live.  This
  is why it is so important for the broadest public in a democracy
  to become conscious of, and choose, the values that inform
  professionalized design.  For this design work provides some
  of the central conditions for the extension of democracy in the
  future, or else its decline.

  //* References

  These references are obviously incomplete and don't include
  citations on the economics of monopoly and standards, but I
  expect I will return to these topics later on.

  Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and
  Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, Madison:
  University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

  Gro Bjerknes, Pelle Ehn, and Morten Kyng, eds, Computers and
  Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge, Aldershot, UK: Avebury,

  Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., Beyond Agenda Setting: Information Subsidies
  and Public Policy, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982.

  Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka, eds, Participatory Design:
  Principles and Practices, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1993.

  Phil Agre, editor                                pagre@ucla.edu
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles         +1 (310) 825-7154
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520                FAX 206-4460
  Copyright 1995 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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