Servitisation of publishing (III): finishability

As I explained in my previous post, in my work as communications consultant at Frontinus, I find I’m constantly drawing on my publishing mindset.

A chief expression of that is that I tend to look for ways to make a communications project, from the point of view of reader, finishable.

That needs a little explaining.

Consider what the internet has done to communications. It has tended to make them, at least in principle, infinite. Take, for example, the mini-series of which this post is a part. How do you know when it’s done? When I started it, my intention was to write three posts. Now I intend to write four. But if at some point I decide I want to add a fifth, I can do so.

Even if I’d announced that it was ‘a series of four posts’ I could always come back in the future and say that, actually I’ve changed my mind: there’s a fifth. Or that I’m going to revise one of the existing four.

So communications become infinite in terms of time

But they can also become infinite (at least in practical terms) in space. That is, they can open out and take the reader on a journey across cyberspace.

Within this series I could, for example provide links to other posts on this blog. In fact, the use of categories and tags do so. But I can also link to other spaces on the web, as in fact I’ve done above. And then those spaces can provide links to other spaces. On and on, in an infinite opening out.

We can think of this as one of the attractions of the internet. It takes us on journeys of discovery, helping us to make connections and discover things we didn’t know were there and wouldn’t have thought to look for.

But it’s also a weakness. When we can never truly finish, how do we know when to stop? And when we do decide to stop, the journey is apt to feel incomplete.

I vividly recall interviewing a student at Exeter College in Devon, UK. I had been asking him about his study habits and had found that he preferred textbooks to Google.

I asked him why.

“Because when I search for something for Google I get a million hits and then I don’t know what to do with them. I think, I can’t read all these, and it does my head in [holds hands to head to express feeling of not coping]. But when I use this [holds up a textbook], I feel it’s all there and I can get to the end and when I do [taps cover] I know I’ve finished.”

The sense of motivation that derives from the finishability can be very strong. Think, for example, of the way that video games might divide a player’s path of progression into discrete stages, each one designated as a level and rewarded with something like a badge: each badge marks a kind of finish, just as gaining a BA or MA might.

If, therefore, you come from a background of publishing discrete objects, such as books, you can be the person who asks, when anyone starts something up, “And when does it end? And how will the user know when it is to end and when they have indeed reached that end?”

Finishability is by no means something that everyone thinks about at the start of a communicative project — and so it provides a way in which a publishing mindset can add value.

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