Community, democracy and the future of law publishing

First published November 2006 in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.

The rise of social software

A phenomenon of the last two years has been the meteoric rise of services built on “social software” – services that enable people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities (popularly referred to using the ill-defined and often criticised buzzword “Web 2.0”). These curious things called blogs and wikis have I suspect not escaped your notice. And you will also have encountered, if not yourself or through younger members of your family, then in the business pages, names such as MySpace and YouTube, online communities that have grown from zero to hero in a very short space of time. These services have one thing in common: they enable their users to create and share content and ideas.

There is no strict definition of what comprises social software, but common to most definitions is the observation that some types of software facilitate “bottom-up” community development, in which membership is voluntary, reputations are earned by winning the trust of other members, and the community’s mission and governance are defined by the communities’ members themselves. Contrast this with the less vibrant collectivities formed by “top-down” software, in which users’ roles are determined by an external authority and circumscribed by rigidly conceived software mechanisms (such as access rights). See further the Wikipedia article on Social Software.

Foremost amongst social software is blog software, which enables anyone to create and publish an online journal. The communities created by bloggers (“blogospheres”) are virtual ones – created via the links between blogs and the conversations which take place in the comments to blog posts. There is a sense of community even at the global level, but like-minded bloggers naturally form smaller, more tight-knit communities. There is a small but thriving UK legal blogosphere which you can access via the infolaw law blog catalogue.

Wiki software enables users to collaborate and create online publications, each user being free to create content and edit the content created by others. The best known wiki is the Wikipedia, with over a million articles in English (and millions more in other languages). There is an increasing amount of UK law content on the Wikipedia and enterprising souls have set up specialist UK law wikis such as Wiki Crimeline and Wiki Mental Health.

Allied with the rise of social software has been the widespread adoption of RSS, the standard data syndication format that enables publishers to “feed” latest headline data and users to pick up these feeds in their applications. RSS can be used to syndicate any type of data, but it has, in particular, been adopted by all the blogging services and is a key ingredient in the rapid expansion of the blogosphere.

The democratisation of law publishing

These developments in social software are rapidly changing the playing field in most spheres of publishing – and law publishing is no exception. Blogs enable individuals or small groups easily to publish news and comment and showcase their expertise. Many bloggers are establishing themselves as leaders in their fields and winning attention previously focused on commentators in the traditional media.

Jordan Furlong, who edits the Canadian Lawyers Weekly, has this to say about how blogs and RSS feeds will democratise Legal Publishing in the 21st Century:

Legal publishers need to understand that the number of competitors [in legal news publishing] is not going to shrink – it’s going to multiply tenfold. And these competitors won’t have overhead, distribution, payroll or marketing costs to deal with – they’ll write when they want to, promote themselves by word of mouth, sell as much focused advertising as they like, and establish themselves as individual brand-name forces. blogs are going to create thousands of expert media outlets with a total staff complement of one. It’s already started.

Centralised or distributed law publishing?

Wikis are effective collaborative publishing tools and have many advantages over more conventional publishing systems and many valid applications. 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.

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 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.

Free law – then what?

There has been a huge improvement in the provision of “free law” this decade: starting with the establishment of BAILII, continuing with the ongoing and increasing provision of government, parliamentary and court documents, and finally culminating in the long-overdue Statute Law Database whose public release is slated for December.

But the incumbent law publishers are not going to wither any time soon because of this. At present LexisNexis, Westlaw and other specialist law publishers win and retain business not just because they provide comprehensive access to up-to-date law, but because of their valuable added commentary and other features. The freeing up of legal information will begin to have significant impact only when the potential for leveraging and adding value to that information is better understood. Marry the increasing amount of independent commentary from the web with the free, comprehensive and up-to-date source materials and they will start to hurt.

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 and social networking.