What is a magazine? This is a more difficult question than what is a book or what is a newspaper. When you start to contemplate the idea it seems a very strange one. A magazine is a collection of articles designed to inform and/or entertain. Where exactly any particular magazine fits in the inform-entertain continuum varies but it's obvious that they all do have to do some entertaining otherwise they become learned journals, which might also be called unpopular magazines by contrast with popular magazines. Similarly some newspapers are more about entertainment than news and so fall into the magazine category - it's all very vague and difficult to classify.
As I've said before, the web has taken something away and as yet given nothing back in its place. That something is the whole concept of a magazine and I will explore the reasons why later, but for the moment I'm interested in the idea that it has given nothing much back.
When I subscribe to a magazine or to a daily paper I know what I'm buying into. Despite the fact that the term "e-zine" and similar were coined fairly early in the life of the web doesn't mean that the idea is working. I can subscribe to major sites by making them my home page, or perhaps even put together my own home page by aggregating feeds, but it's just not the same. When the periodical of my choice drops on the mat it’s a collection of information that has been selected for my delectation and delight. Unless I stick to the mainstream news websites there is no such promise of quality.
In particular, specialist websites, except those associated with print publications, are generally low quality and shallow. Websites associated with print publications are strange entities that are in the main placeholders for a future when all print publishing might stop. For the ones not associated with a print publication we get to see the true nature of that future. Even when a good article is located the average length is much shorter than in a print magazine and often padded with material that would have been cut from a print edition just to save trees. The pressures on a web site just aren't the same as for a print magazine where cost of production demands that the space is used carefully.
But there is obviously the demand for quality, as proved by the rise of the social book marking sites. Just in case you have missed the phenomenon - users join a site and post links to articles that they recommend - see Digg, Delicious, Stumbleupon or Reddit for examples. A good social book marking site should provide a diet of entertainment and information that a good magazine does. You could think of it as a user-edited attempt at a magazine but at the moment this really isn't working. The reasons are that the recommenders are ill prepared for the task. Take any specialist group and any good article will please 50% and irritate the other 50% with the result that it scores zero. Now consider any trivial article that contains a good proportion of humour and it pleases 50% and irritates no-one to the point where they bother to vote against it. The result is the trivial gets a big score and the valuable is voted down. This is the mediocrity of democracy.
What is worse, there are social forces that encourage an element of down-voting plus censorship that simply wouldn't be tolerated in other situations. Digg's bury squad and Reddit's downvote pack are perhaps the two best examples but even normally mild mannered and courteous individuals may discover a peverse joy in voting down anything they can. In addition small groups of mostly anonymous moderators don't just moderate, they censor for whatever reason comes to mind. Unelected and unaccountable - this is not the way of the civilised. This really is the wide west with no lawman in sight… and little appreciation that one might be necessary.
I'm not saying that this social bookmarking approach couldn't be made to work and deliver targeted quality articles to people wanting to read about something on a regular basis, but at the moment it isn't working. It might be that so far no one has found the right way to allow a mob to mutate into a skilled editorial force. Perhaps a new idea is needed.
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