It’s the interactivity, stupid!

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“The internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly says in “Better than Free“ an essay in which he paints the net as a “super-distribution system.” It churns out copies so “super abundant they become worthless.” Kelly advises creative people to invent new ways to make money because it is no longer possible to charge for content.

But Kelly is only half right. Sure the net is a copier. But he overlooks the more revolutionary trait that will work to our advantage as communicators – the net is interactive. It restores the feedback between audience and author that we used to enjoy back when stories were told around the camp fire.

That feedback loop went missing about six hundred years ago. Blame Gutenberg. He mass produced thought and packaged it in books. They diffused knowledge more efficiently than dispatching story tellers hither and yon.

But something was lost in the leap from oral to print. The oral story was interactive. If the audience seemed puzzled the story teller rephrased the tale. Print was practically set in stone. It never paused to look for comprehension. Print told only one version of the story and it always flowed one way. About a century ago broadcast untethered stories from literacy. Knowledge radiated even more widelybut it still flowed just one-way.

And that’s the way it was.

Looking at today’s internet you’d never guess interactivity had staged a comeback. Today’s internet has bolted-on some interactive features – viewers can comment on stories or vote in informal polls. These tactics seem reminicent of early television when announcers cupped one hand behind their ear for better acoustics – realizing how silly they looked.

What would an interactive publication look like? OhMyNews, the South Korea citizen journalism phenomenon, may be the best example. About 20 percent of its content is produced by professionals. The rest is citizen-generated. It was founded in 2000 and is thought to have swayed the 2006 South Korean presidential race. 

Yes, the Internet is a copying and distribution engine. It is destroying jobs and rewiring industries. But the more pregnant change has yet to be realized. For more than 600 years the author and the audience have been sundered. Now the audience is coming back into view. We can see them just beyond the circle of flames. How do we catch their eyes and entice them to stay? That the question will preoccupy the 21st Century publisher.