That’s not really a Publication

I think a lot about publishing and related topics. Recently, it occurred to me that people quite often use the word “publish” quite liberally – in the sense of “to make public”. Well, that also happens to be the original sense of the term, I guess. But as far as I can tell, the meaning of the term went through a transition over two or three centuries following the invention of the printing press. Apparently, during this time another term was also used: a “publishment”, roughly equivalent to what most people today consider to be a publication.

Today, the term is really almost exclusively the result of what publishers do… and one thing publishers do quite regularly is to expect people to pay for publications. In that case, a publication doesn’t actually make very much public at all.

But then again: What does?

People have to pay money to watch a television or listen to a radio. The internet is not exactly free either. Walking down the street, you might shout out whatever you want to say – but the chance that the message would carry far is probably much smaller than the chance that you might get carried away.

Perhaps leaflets, fliers, billboards and other types of “outdoor advertising” might come closest to true publications. Thrown out of airplanes, such propaganda might even have quite wide circulation, especially if the message “goes viral” (i.e., if it’s widely “shared”, passed on, etc.).

Whereas these types of true publication have something very fundamentally in common with “self-published” publications – namely that pretty much the entire cost of publication is born by the message creator, only self-publishing is commonly singled out as being disreputable. This is probably because usually, to self-publish is interpreted to mean to publish “for profit” – in other words: not to make public per se, but rather (again) to publish only to a limited group… of paying customers.

However, since there is widespread agreement that the cost of many types of publication has become so infinitesimally small (and since the cost of consuming many types of publications has also become negligible), most publications today are indeed approaching true publication in leaps and bounds. Yet self-publication oddly remains plagued with something like the aura of a filthy undertaking. People continue to prefer reading the stuff “established publishers” (like Google or Facebook) publish – even if it is demonstrably “fake news” (in traditional publishing, this was also known as “propaganda”).

I find this very curious. I am not sure it is actually something someone might call a “rational behavior”.

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