Free source, not open

Ever heard of advocacy journalism?

It is an ancient genre. Blatantly shucking the myth of objectivity and riding roughshod over the principle of fairness, advocacy journalism marshals facts to make a case, one that generally coincides with the political biases of the writer or audience. It’s a form of activism.

It can be argued that Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future was a form of advocacy journalism, advancing the political point that kids are not stupid for playing video games but in fact display intelligence and propensity for the kind of mental rewiring necessary to understand the contemporary mediascape. The point became political because baby-boomer journalists had staked out a conventional wisdom intended to belittle the younger generations and manufacture a set of crises – in education, youth crime, juvenile “hyperactivity,” and homelife.

The foregoing passages would no doubt be described as “open source” by highly-valued Internet commentator–advisor Douglas Rushkoff. He’s on this kick about some kind of gimmicky novella he’s writing:

I’m in the process of releasing my book, Exit Strategy, online as an open-source novel. (It’s already been published in print as Bull in the U.K.) It’s going up on Yahoo Internet Life’s Web site in 14 weekly installments.... The premise is that the entire text was written in present day, but then hidden online and only discovered 200 years from now. Because society has changed so much, an anthropologist has annotated the text for his 23rd-century contemporaries. They are no longer familiar with notions such as venture capital or advertising, much less Microsoft or Nasdaq.

So if the book already exists in pulp form, how the hell can it be an open-source project?

Indeed, what can open source possibly mean in the literary field?

Open-source software is not free of copyright. In certain popular variants, you are permitted to duplicate and modify the software as long as you document your modifications, In other words, you the originator authorize the creation of essentially any imaginable form of derivative work as long as such derivative works are made available for scrutiny and use unto themselves and for further derivation.

Rushkoff’s brave, trailblazing iconoclasm in the hoary, hidebound world of publishing does nothing of the sort. Readers are merely permitted to add their own snarky annotations like so many Alexaesque Smart Tags.

We congratulate Rushkoff for improving on the debased formulæ of “interactivity,” in which viewers may select from among a small number of predetermined outcomes. To his detriment, however, Rushkoff here replicates the failed history of “message boards” on corporate sites, in which the journalist writes a conventional story (invariably with few or no hyperlinks) and the rabble are left to “post comments on this story,” said comments being subsequently ignored by everyone.

You won’t quite be ignored here. Rushkoff will “release an open source edition of the text – an E-book and print-on-demand – with 100 of the most compelling footnotes added by readers.” Ah, yes. Now we understand.

Rushkoff has already written and published the book in pulp, making money off it. As with Hissyfit, Rushkoff invites the plebes to write his content for him, which he will then use as a profit source. The mechanisms differ; the result is the same: You the contributor earn nothing. Except, of course, “exposure,” which people die from. Far from being “open source,” where modification may occur unsupervised under certain quite liberal conditions, Rushkoff cherry-picks the most “compelling” footnotes. (Creaky, threadbare buzzword alert: Just how often in your life have you been “compelled” by anything?)

There’s nothing open-source about the project. It’s under Rushkoff’s control all the way, and the upcoming “E-book and print-on-demand” project unethically heists the original work of uncompensated contributors.

So what is open-source journalism?

There is no exact parallel between open-source software and any form of journalism. The best you can look for is ongoing Weblog-like diaries of a journalist’s progress (rather like Slate), giving a glimpse into the development or investigation processes. (Rather as we did up above, nuking, on second thought, our original lede.) Or perhaps Smoking Gun–style posting of full source documents.

That’s full source, not open.

Rushkoff strikes outagain. Really, he’s quite wearing out his welcome.

Posted on 2001-09-06