/ Editor's Gloss: Silicon Snake Oil and Branding

"I'm a naturalized citizen of the Net, not a native."

—Sherry Turkle, quoted in an article in Wired, April 1996, by Pamela McCorduck

Welcome to the newly refurbished Journal of Electronic Publishing, and thank you to Colin Day and the University of Michigan Press for continuing to support this journal and for allowing me to have my way with it. It's a heady experience, after a career as a reporter and writer, suddenly to be given the gift of doing to others what had so long been done to me. I only hope that as an editor I will improve submitted articles as much as my editors improved my articles.

We're in a strange place, those of us who are enthralled by the Web and its possibilities for publishing: We want to make the best of this opportunity, but have only the vaguest idea of how to do that. As one of JEP's editorial board members said recently, it's like some fields of science, where you keep redoing your work to get closer and closer approximations, until you can live with the solution.

Cliff Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, his exploration of the dark side of the Internet, made me reflect again on the strange virtual land in which we live.

Cliff, whom I interviewed many years ago on a memorable morning (take me out for coffee and I'll tell the story), hides in his somewhat zany approach to life a view of the world that is more morality play than circus.

In Silicon Snake Oil he writes that as it becomes easier to publish on line, the quality of online publication will drop.

A curious phenomenon is that every year, publishing online gets cheaper and publishing on paper gets more expensive. An obvious result of this is being ignored by almost everyone — namely, that people who have valuable things to say that others are willing to pay money to hear will publish in print. Those who have things to say that have the least commercial value will publish free online! It's Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out the good. The Internet is the land of the cheap, the home of the free.

I'd been mulling that, trying to find the right words to counter Cliff's very persuasive argument, when The Washington Post came to my rescue: "At a time when consumers are feeling overwhelmed by an ever-growing number of choices, the best way to be heard through the din is with the singular, potent message of a well-known, well-developed brand," said an article by Margaret Webb Pressler in the business section.

"I want it made easy for me, I want it explicit, I want it predictable," said one of the sources quoted in the article.

This issue of JEP is about what the Post says is the new corporate buzzword, branding. It is a look at how an established brand like a Max Planck Institute, an American Geophysical Union, an O'Reilly & Associates, or a University of Michigan Press might extend its franchise on the Internet.

Brands, the Post says, can build on their name recognition. "Once a company establishes a solid brand, the possibilities are endless. A strong brand can jump easily into foreign markets; it can reproduce itself, through brand extensions."

But for traditional paper publishers, publishing a journal on line can also be risky. As a corporate chairman tells the Post, "One of the mistakes you can make is to go out and put the brand on something that it's not appropriate for."

So this issue allows the editors of some branded products — scholarly, peer-reviewed, electronic-only journals — to explain how they established their publications in the belief that their brands would enhance their work, and their work would bring more credit to their brands. They are answering Cliff Stoll by showing that a publisher's brand can prove that the Internet is a place good for the publishing business, even for those of us who are naturalized citizens.


—Judith Axler Turner