Changes in the ‘contents’ industry – blurring the line between reader and writer

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

This post talks about changes in ‘contents’ industries brought about by the internet. Nothing I’m writing here is remarkably original, but it’s important to rearticulate things, and clearly define how these changes are influencing the model we’re building.

One of the reasons Marco Polo Project is such an exciting venture to develop is that it shares the challenges of other ‘cultural contents industries’ currently going through radical changes – journalism, publishing, film and music. Until recently, these industries were in charge of producing contents which was then distributed in a certain media format; people – consumers – finally paid to access or own a copy of that content.

The internet has radically changed the game, by transforming the way cultural contents is produced, distributed, and consumed. To put it simply, the same device (a computer, tablet or smart-phone connected to the internet) is now used to produce, distribute and consume a large proportion of all writing, film and music. Physical objects still exist – books, CDs, DVDs, rolls of film – as well as live venues; but more and more cultural products are read, watched or listened to directly from computers.

This transformation has a series of consequences.

The first is a drastic reduction in the cost of distributing contents. I’m not talking about fraud or illegal copies, which is a separate issue. An e-book, a digital copy of a film, or a music track do not need to be stored or transported; making new copies to meet demand can occur instantaneously, and disposing of unsold products can be done at almost no cost. This is great for the consumer, this can be great for the producer, but is dramatic for distributors – as well as many trades involved in the production of physical media carrying cultural contents.

The second consequence is a blurring of the distinction between production and consumption of cultural contents. Writers not only write books for print or articles for printed magazines: they have a blog, and a twitter account where they interact with their audience; and many people in their audience also have a blog and twitter, on which they produce contents not dissimilar in nature. Many people produce videos and music, and share them on youtube or myspace. Some imitate or reproduce existing hits – karaoke versions of popular songs, samples and montages – or take place in the universe of a particular book or film – fan-fiction. And for the news, citizen journalists complement the work of traditional media by providing direct videos or pictures – while the comment thread (once you filter out the trolls) can provide additional depth to their articles.

Finally, with the huge inflation and diversification of contents, curation has taken an increased importance. People share and recommend blog-posts, music-tracks or videos they like, sometimes adding a line of their own. And facebook pages, twitter accounts, google readers or flipboard devices bring together the various strands of each individual reader’s online engagement, which become part of one’s online image and identity.

The model proposed by the Marco Polo Project rests on the possibilities opened by these transformations. Our platform was conceived with that new paradigm in mind, and therefore does not directly align with models that existed before.  The Marco Polo Project is a cultural magazine offering Chinese contents in Mandarin and translation. The Marco Polo Project is a language learning website. And the Marco Polo Project is a cross-cultural online community.

If the lines between consuming and producing contents are blurred, this applies to translation just as much. Our model embraces this ambiguity fully, by combining the act of reading a text in a foreign language, and that of translating it. Our new website interface will be redesigned to better integrate both types of action – offering bilingual text alignment, a quick change / ‘improve as you go’ widget, and a validation model for existing translations.

Our proposed improvements also include discussion forums, acknowledging that comments and discussion are a full part of online reading. More than simple forums, we plan to develop an advanced track back system connecting comments in a forum thread to a particular spot in a text, and a particular user. In the future, we wish to create new plugins allowing us to import the Chinese comment thread from the original text, and export translations of comments done in other languages to the original, to facilitate a multilingual discussion.

Finally, we believe that individual contents curation is a crucial part of online reading. As a first step in that direction, we plan to create a personal user page, listing all interactions to the website: translations, comments, shares, etc. In the future, we plan to develop plugins that will help users identify texts most suited to their level, vocabulary they want to learn, or subject matter of interest to them. We also plan to create a customized, tablet-compatible magazine where users can subscribe to texts from a certain category, or level of difficulty.

This is what we plan to do – but maybe we’re missing out on something – we’d love to hear what you think of our plans, and where you think we could improve!


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