How the Internet Is Replacing the Book

The other day I got a copy of Stephen Walt’s 2005 book Taming American Power:The Global Response to U.S. Primacy and was surprised to read the section on the Israel lobby. It was nearly as forceful as the paper on the same subject that he and John Mearsheimer published three months ago in the London Review of Books. It had many of the same ideas (including the red-hot assertion that the Israel lobby helped propel us into the Iraq war). Yet I didn’t know Walt’s name till the day in March that his LRB piece appeared, when a political friend emailed it to me after he was sent it by a realist friend of the authors. And when Walt spoke last month at the Naval War College, lieutenant commanders weren’t bringing up the book; they were bringing up copies of his paper to be autographed. Walt himself said that the paper had been downloaded from the Kennedy School website over 200,000 times in the first month or two after publication. Wow. I wonder how many copies of the book Norton has sold.

New ideas are exchanged on the internet. That’s the thoroughfare. Walt and Mearsheimer might be able to sell a big book contract now, because people want to curl up on the couch at night with a good solid story about something they know is important, but the flow of new ideas is all electronic.

A similar point was made to me a couple weeks back when I reported a piece for the Nation on Yale’s politicized rejection of Middle East studies scholar Juan Cole, the formidable blogger who started his blog when he realized how many lies were being told about the Mideast post-9/11. When Yale shot Cole down, a member of the jilted search committee lamented that the school had no way of weighing on-line scholarship.

Joshua Landis, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma who has the leading Syria blog, laid out this new terrain in an email to me:

“[T]he blogging world is terra incognita in academe. Universities have no procedure or tradition for evaluating an academic’s work outside of his published books at respected presses and refereed journals, all of which are peer reviewed by three anonymous experts. This system has served academe well in the past, but it is rapidly becoming outdated.

Self-publishing on the web, whether through blogs or by posting articles in web-journals, is rapidly eclipsing traditional academic venues in its ability to serve the public and popularize knowledge. For example, I have an impact on policy making in Washington and capitals across the globe through my blog, which has close to 2,000
readers a day. Many of my readers are from a blue-chip list of policy wonks who have email tags from the leading think tanks and government agencies. Moreover scores of journalists are reading my site every day. I speak to at least 10 journalists a week, who use me and my site for story ideas, background information, and contacts. I was quoted in over 1,000 articles last year while living in Damascus. If my relatively modest, country-specific site is having an impact, Juan Cole’s is many times larger. He was getting a quarter million readers a month at the height of the Iraq war. Web-publishing and blogging is reconnecting academics to main-stream intellectual discourse.

It is a revolution. That is why Juan Cole’s candidacy at Yale created such a thunderstorm of protest and why he found so many enemies. It was the journalistic and policy world that took such umbrage at his appointment. He had scooped them all. His expertise had blown most of them out of the water.