Who publishes you?
It sounds like a strange question, I know, but an interview on TVO's Search Engine got me thinking about it. Host Jesse Brown recently interviewed Professors Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, editors of the The Offensive Internet, and given the title of the book it's not hard to guess where the professors stand on the internet. One thing that did actually get me thinking, though, was a complaint they raised during their interview. Nussbaum and Levmore are faculty at the University of Chicago Law School, and the crux of their complaint seemed to be that the internet, by fostering unrestricted freedom of speech and providing for potentially total anonymity among commentators, is a dangerous place full of offensive and terrible things, and that the only way to stop this tide of heinous media is by making it easier for lawyers to sue people for defamation, libel and slander.
Of the 'problems' Levmore and Nussbaum identify about the internet, one of the most annoying is their repeated attempts to define just who is being published, and who is doing the publishing. The professors compare the internet to a newspaper and its letters page, to television and to books, complaining about the obvious nature of the publishers in those cases and the great question mark on the internet. Levmore even straight-out asks Brown, "not to be Socratic", who the publisher is when it comes to the internet. And the reason their obsession with identifying a publisher is so frustrating is because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and reality of the internet itself. The answer to the question of who's the publisher is, of course, the commenter. The internet is a realm of self-publishing.
And as annoying as it might be to professors Levmore and Nussbaum, that's only going to be more and more the case as we go forwards. Every comment is going to be the work of each individual commentator, every post and tweet and awful YouTube comment is going to be a self-published work, more like speech than written works as far as the common understanding is concerned.
For those curious, the Search Engine podcost can be found here, and The Offensive Internet can actually be read on Google Books, here.