Web 2.0, Text Wars, and Building the Better Book: How the Internet Changes Everything We Do

Today, The New York Times ran Jones County, Miss. – Civil War Fires Up Literary Shootout, a report by Michael Cieply about two conflicting books and a yet-to-be greenlighted Hollywood movie. At the center of everything lies Newton Knight, a white, landowning, Confederate deserter living deep in Mississippi, who famously tried to secede and form the Free State of Jones. Adding to the interesting story is the fact that during this time Knight fathered children with a slave known as Rachel, creating a biracial bloodline in the area that continued on and challenged Mississippi’s social standards for the next century.

In 2003, UNC Press published a book on the matter by Victoria E. Bynum, titled The Free State of Jones. Movie rights were purchased by Universal Pictures and producer Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Tale of Despereaux). Last month, Doubleday published The State of Jones, a book by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer that was based on Ross’ screenplay. Now, the authors of the two books are at odds over historical accuracy. On the website Renegade South, Bynum was largely critical of the new book, especially taking issue with what she viewed as over-dramatizations and factual errors in the text. In response, Jenkins and Stauffer were equally critical of Bynum in a post for Civil War Memory, suggesting that scholarship wasn’t truly the reason for her displeasure. Community members from Jones County and descendants of Knight joined the conversation online, making their opinions known on blogs and in comment sections at Amazon.com. Things snowballed, and this relatively under-the-radar spat is now a story in a paper with a circulation over 1 million.

Mind you, this post is not about taking sides (although, of course, we have great confidence in the scholarship Bynum presents). What it does concern however is the role of the Internet in making books today. In the article, Cieply writes,

David Paletz, a professor of political science at Duke University, pointed out that run-ins between Hollywood and the academy are nothing new. . . . What has changed, Mr. Paletz said, is that the Internet has made the current dispute instantly public. “Without the Internet, where does she go?” Mr. Paletz said of Ms. Bynum and her objections. “Maybe she writes a letter to a historical journal.”

Paletz’s observation is key, but the truth of the matter lies not just in the Internet, but Web 2.0. Before 2004, in the first generation of web use, most of the Internet was one-way traffic: a site-owner wrote something, someone read it, then moved on to the next page. However, in the past six years, user-generated content (and nonstop discussion) has become the footprint of second-generation web use through social-networking, wiki sites, Youtube, and an endless line of blogs. Over at Pop Matters, Jason Gross recently offered a compelling argument on how Web 2.0 is drastically altering the way music journalism reaches the masses. To think that book publishing will continue as is, without being influenced by the same forces, would not be wise.

Case in point: at UNC Press, the utilization of Web 2.0 is underway. Currently, we are working with colleagues in Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement to create the Collaborative Publishing Platform, an application that operates as one part e-book, one part user-generated content. After a digital publishing workshop, LCRM’s Sylvia Miller said of the Collaborative Publishing Platform’s prototype,

It features a chapter of a forthcoming book on the North Carolina Fund by Bob Korstad and Jim Leloudis (The book, To Right These Wrongs, is still scheduled Spring 2010 publication -Ed.) which is slated to be published by UNC Press in the spring of 2010. The prototype presents the chapter online and allows the authors and others to comment on the text at paragraph level. To show what might be useful in teaching and research, the authors and the project team had written comments that pointed out research opportunities and provided links to archival photographs, oral history interviews, and documents. Each comment appears in a pop-up window and allows responses and continued conversations. . . . Before general discussion began, the authors commented briefly on the prototype. Bob Korstad suggested that publishing in this platform might be a useful response to two disappointments he had experienced after publishing his last book: (1) Interesting research was left on the floor that he could point out to others, and (2) scholarly debate that he had to cut out to make the book more accessible could be included in a different way; he could point out to scholars where the narrative makes scholarly contributions. He also saw the CPP as a way to turn the book into a memory project for people eager to reconnect and as a means in general for his scholarship ‘to live and work in this world.’

I dearly love my bookshelf and what it holds. I feel a sentimental attachment to books I’ve received as gifts, and I enjoy sitting in the library stacks that have that special book smell. But I’ve also found that when it comes to scholarship, electronic texts are often of much greater convenience and accessibility than physical books, and for that reason this development is extremely exciting. Just as the authors for each State of Jones book used the new Internet forums to vault their discussion into national news, programs like the Collaborative Publishing Platform will eventually use it to give us the opportunity to have our books in a way that was not possible before–with text, primary sources, author commentary, parallel scholarship, and reader notes all on the same page. The Internet is changing the way we approach so much, even things as time-tested as making and reading books.