Centralised or distributed (law) publishing?

Steve Butler at UKBlawgers argues for “a central source of legal information which is available to all at a very low price” and suggests a sort of grand law wiki as the solution.

Now the wiki is certainly a neat collaborative publishing tool and has many advantages over more conventional publishing systems and many valid applications. But a wiki of the type envisaged would be an ambitious project requiring a huge amount of time from a driving organisation and a team of editors, promoting the concept, establishing the guidelines, moderating the contributions and generally keeping it in shape and pointed in the right direction. It is not often recognised that the success of the best-known wiki, the Wikipedia, is as much down to the selfless effort of the founding fathers and the thousands of specialist editors as it is to the contributions of the millions of individual article authors.

In contrast to the wiki as a centralised source, the blogosphere is a collection of millions of disparate blog sites, bloggers and commenters. Each blog has its own identity and agenda, but all are linked together via the links in posts, in comments and in blogrolls. So communities of those with shared interests quickly form through these “conversations” and a shared source of information and comment emerges.

I’d call the blogosphere and the web in general “distributed publishing”. That does not seem to be a term widely used, but googling it I came across this abstract of an article from a physics publisher, written in 1998, which neatly summarises the concept:

No one publisher or content owner can ever hope to service all of a given user’s information needs. Thus a distributed system of publishing, whereby each publisher ensures that each “knowledge pointer” in their content links to and from all the other important knowledge pointers in given subject areas, ensures that users can go on “information trails”. These trails become a voyage of discovery and the junction points on these trails can often be databases, which aim to provide some comprehensive cover of a subject.

The problem with the large law publishers is that they do attempt “to service all of a given user’s information needs” in the legal domain. But the centralised source, however large and impressive, does not satisfy. We each like to pursue our own voyages of discovery. The same goes for smaller publishers attempting to cover more limited domains. There will always be good stuff out there that they don’t control and of course a vast corpus of public sector information that they would be foolish to republish.

There is no shortage of willing authors out there, but most like to do their own thing. Making sense of this widely distributed information and forging online communities is the focus of most current web development: search, syndication, aggregation, tagging, social networking …