Martin Luther: trade-off between textual control and distribution

Early in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther’s work rapidly spread across Europe. Luther issued his Ninety-Five Theses in Latin on October 31, 1517. They became known across Europe in about a month. The Ninety-Five Theses and other subsequent works of Luther were widely reprinted. Between 1518 and 1519, there were about 1,350 reprintings of Luther’s tracts. By 1524, over a million copies of Luther’s writing were in circulation in Europe.[1] An obscure monk in 1517, Luther by 1521 was one of the most famous persons in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

No one directed or controlled the distribution of Luther’s work. Luther wrote in Latin and in German. German was the language of most persons in German lands. Latin connected Luther to an educated elite across Europe:

The educated élite who could understand Latin and theological debate was no longer composed only of churchmen and professors. [Luther’s theses] were initially read by a small group of learned laymen who were less likely to gather on the church steps than in urban workshops where town and gown met to exchange gossip and news, peer over editors’ shoulders, check copy and read proof. There, also, new schemes for promoting bestsellers were being tried out. [2]

Without the constraint of legal doctrines of copyright or any other controlling authority, religious and commercial innovators and entrepreneurs freely shared, reprinted, adapted, translated, and sold Luther’s work. Their interests and Luther’s interests were loosely joined:

The printers at Wittenberg at times even published material that Luther did not want to have published. This aspect of the matter annoyed him no end, but on the other hand he was glad to have their services and had no serious objection to these sometimes overly enthusiastic colporteurs of his message.[3]

Luther’s writing and ideas were appropriated and incorporated in works directed at popular readership outside German lands:

very few of Luther’s writings were translated into non-German vernaculars — a few into Dutch, and two or three into English and French. On the other hand, many of Luther’s early German writings were translated into Latin and, as the case of William Tyndale so tellingly shows, he was extensively plagiarized.[4]

The interpretations and presentations of Luther’s ideas in non-German vernaculars were not authoritative, but they had great communicative effect.

The institutional Church controlled communication much more tightly and communicated much less quickly and much less widely. The Council of Trent, an important response of the Church to the religious turmoil of the early sixteenth century, met three times from 1545 to 1563. Pope Pius IV’s bull accompanying the concluding decrees of the Council set out a tightly controlled communication system for the decrees:

that these things may come to the knowledge of all men, and that no one may use the excuse of ignorance; We will and ordain, that, in the Vatican Basilica of the prince of the apostles, and in the Lateran church, at the time when the people is wont to assemble there to be present at the solemnization of masses, this letter be publicly read in a loud voice by certain officers of our court; and that, after having been read, it be affixed to the doors of those churches, and also to the gates of the Apostolic Chancery, and to the usual place in the Campo di Fiore; and be there left for some time, to be read by and to come to the knowledge of all men. And when removed thence, copies being, according to custom, left in those same places, it shall be committed to the press in our good city, that so it may be more conveniently made known throughout the provinces and kingdoms of the Christian name. And we ordain and decree, that, without any doubt, faith be given to copies thereof written or subscribed by the hand of a public notary, and guaranteed by the seal and signature of some person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity.[5]

Interpretative and derivative works were also controlled:

in order to avoid the perversion and confusion which might arise, if each one were allowed, as he might think fit, to publish his own commentaries and interpretations on the decrees of the Council; We, by apostolic authority, forbid all men, as well ecclesiastics, of whatsoever order, condition, and rank they may be, as also laymen, with whatsoever honor and power invested; prelates, to wit, under pain of being interdicted from entering the church, and all others whomsoever they be, under pain of excommunication incurred by the fact, to presume, without our authority to publish, in any form, any commentaries, glosses, annotations, scholia, or any kind of interpretation whatsoever of the decrees of the said Council.[6]

By the early sixteenth century, an independent, decentralized, commercially oriented, competitive printing and book-selling business had developed in Europe. The Church organized communication of the decrees of the Council of Trent so as to keep it outside of the new printing and book-selling business.

In retrospect about five hundred years later, the split between Luther and the Church seems to have been mainly a communication problem.  Communication problems are difficult problems.  For a communicative endeavor to succeed, it must have actually necessary and feasible control within a sufficiently effective communication system.

* * * * *

[1] Hillerbrand, Hans J., “The Spread of the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century: A Historical Case Study in the Transfer of Ideas,” The South Atlantic Quarterly LXVII (Spring 1968) p. 275.

[2] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vols. (Cambridge University Press: 1980), vol. I, pp. 308-9.

[3] Hillerbrand, “Spread,” p. 275.

[4] Ibid. p. 282.

[5] Bull of Pius IV, February 7, 1564, printed after canons and decrees in The Council of Trent, The Twenty-Fifth Session, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848).

[6] Ibid.

challenges for citizen journalism

Persons live in specific places. Citizen journalism potentially can support local events and build community. I’ve tried to make some contribution here, here, here, and here.

Below I document one of my failures.

The rules for citizen journalism aren’t clear. Many organizations need to think about such rules. The challenge, it seems to me, is to recognize fears, to address them rationally, and to demonstrate the additional value that new media possibilities offer. That’s a job for everyone.

** original post to purple motes **

Title: NBB Basketball Highlights
Posted: Tuesday, January 09th 2007, about 10:45 pm

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming on the mind-boggling media transformations to bring you NBB Basketball Highlights. With networked journalism, you’re in the game.

** email 1 **

From: Douglas Galbi
Sent: Tuesday, January 09, 2007 10:51 PM
To: [third grade girls basketball coordinator]
Cc: [league commissioner]
Subject: basketball video

Dear [third grade girls basketball coordinator],

I brought my video camera to last Saturday’s [team 1] v [team 2] game (my first ref assignment) and ask the mother of my co-ref to shoot some video. I then put together a brief news report that I hope others might enjoy and perhaps find funny. The news video is available on my blog at

I’m aware of the importance of on-line safety. The video does not include any names of participants, does not identify the place of the event, nor the league. Because the video resolution is low, only persons familiar with the players and their numbers are likely to be able to recognize players from the video. In addition, while the video is served through YouTube to my website, the video is not available through the YouTube website (I’ve set it up as a “private” video). It can be viewed only on my blog. I think that the video does not present any risk to the children. But if you have any concern about the video, please let me know.

A whole new world of media is upon us. I think it can be used for good.

Douglas Galbi
1’st year ref

** email 2 **

Subject: RE: basketball video
From: [league commissioner]
Date: 1/10/2007 6:16 PM
To: Douglas Galbi


My name is [league commisioner] and I am the commissioner of [league]. I really appreciate you sending your note but I have to say, I am uncomfortable with you videotaping our games. I know they are only available through your blog but it still makes me extremely uncomfortable. If you would please remove it, I would appreciate it. Anyone can get on your blog and we would need permission from all of the parents of all the kids on the video for me to be OK with you posting it.

Thank you and I appreciate your cooperation.

[league commissioner]

** email 3 **

Subject: Re: basketball video
From: Douglas Galbi
Date: 1/10/2007 7:10 PM
To: [league commissioner]

[league commissioner],

Thanks for your reply. I’ve deleted the video (and the blog post).

Perhaps for next season, you and the Board of Directors might consider how [league] could take advantage of possibilities for non-traditional reporting, with due concern for safety and consent. With respect to consent, it seems to me that timely news reporting cannot require the consent of the persons who are the subject of the story. That would make such reporting impossible.  Typically community sports events include in the liability weaver a proviso for consent to use of images of persons participating in the event. Reporters of course are not party to such a waiver. My understanding is that such waivers cover publicity photos/videos that the organizers of the event use to promote future such events.

I’m impressed with the excellent organization of [league], and I look forward to working further as a referee.


a theatrical exploration of Shakespearean sense

In Shakespeare’s time, controversy raged about the values of words, images, and actions. Is God’s word meant to be proclaimed in liturgy, or is God most effectively encountered in personal reading of scripture? Can images and physical gestures support communication with God? Authorities across the sixteenth century suppressed physical practices of worship, white-washed interiors of churches, and burned books, images, and persons in fierce struggles over sensuous forms.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in debate about whether Shakespeare wrote for theatrical performance or sought to author literary works. Many persons who attend Shakespeare’s plays leave exhausted from struggling after words that can be heard but not fully grasped, a vortex of language that touches down in many different places across a vast range of experience. When Shakespeare’s words are fixed on the page, they can be read slowly, savored, contemplated, and studied. That Shakespeare wrote for readers makes good sense to many modern theater-goers.

But words, whether in performance or written, fail to bound Shakespeare’s art. After Romeo and Juliet flirt in a dialogue that plays with the outlawed devotional practices of pilgrims and takes the literary form of a sonnet, Romeo kisses Juliet. Then Juliet calls forth laughter after what was surely a passionate kiss, “You kiss by th’book.” At the end of The Tempest, Prospero implores the play-goers, “release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands. / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails….”

Shakespeare’s art is best expressed in events such as Shakespeare in Washington, a DC-wide festival that runs from January to June of 2007. The festival includes theater, music, dance, films, and art exhibits. It leads into the opening of the new Harmon Center for the Arts. Gesture in Shakespeare is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-gesture.

Synetic Theater, a company based in the Washington, DC area, has pioneered wordless performances of Shakespeare’s work. Synetic’s first such production, Hamlet…the rest is silence was a critical and popular success. It will be performed again at the Kennedy Center from March 31 to June 17, 2007 as part of Shakespeare in Washington. Synetic Theater is also contributing to this festival a new wordless production of Macbeth. Synetic’s Macbeth is at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington, Virginia, from January 12 to February 25, 2007. Not only is Synetic’s Macbeth spectacularly pleasing entertainment, it also profoundly explores Shakespearean art.

The witches are major figures in this production. Played brilliantly by Philip Fletcher, Meghan Grady, and Katherine E. Hill, they look like characters one might find dancing at a gothic party in Hell. They crawl out of stage-bottom holes spewing corrupted air and double with a bishop, a rabbi, and an imam in the world-cracking beginning of the play. Macbeth’s first words, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” are realized in the witches reappearing and disappearing throughout the play. They show that Macbeth’s personal problems are also problems of the structure of the world.

This wordless production poignantly communicates Macbeth’s combination of personal and worldly effects. Verbal dialogue ordinarily absorbs much of the weight of revealing persons to each other and the audience. In this production, the actors communicate solely through actions, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes. While words might be imagined to come from somewhere within, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes are readily understood as material actions like the actions of the rest of the world. Dispensing with words helps to bring together the actors and Macbeth the play-world.

The effect is exquisite in Macbeth’s relationship to Lady Macbeth. George and Martha’s living room death-match in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the cosmic necessity of a Greek tragedy like the Oresteia both play out through Irakli Kavsadze’s and Irina Tiskurishvili’s superb acting. They’re just an ordinary couple who enjoy a drink together, sexually taunt each other, and desperately need each other. But their relational problems lead to the murder of the King of Scotland and murders of many other truly beloved, real persons. In an artful production choice, Macbeth’s victims appear to Macbeth at the end of the play like the Erinyes of Greek tragedy, like a self-curse that Macbeth cannot subsequently dispel.

The wordless production may have enabled some spectacular staging. Ben Cunis as Macduff displays impressive fighting skills in vanquishing Macbeth. That fight could be in a conventional production, or in a Hollywood action film in which the action figure is actually a good actor. Military personnel swarming in chaotic, beautiful patterns about the darkened stage, with flashlight-tipped guns shooting light darts around the intimate, frozen Rosselyn Spectrum theater, probably also could be transferred to a conventional production. In the comic highlight of the evening, Courtney Pauroso in the role of the porter puts on an impressively expressive drunken soldier act. Words from the drunk might detract from the art of that acting.

The hugely successful banquet scene probably depends on wordlessness. Macbeth’s unwilled turning inside out and the Lady’s desperate swerving to maintain the form of the event produces moments in which horror and comedy meet. The silent ghost of Banquo stands in every host’s fear of conversational topics not to be discussed at a convivial evening. Appropriate for a banquet is conventional social conversation. The guests can hardly make social conversation in unison, but they convincingly gesture that way. Towards the end of the debacle, the guests in unison stick their figures over the table, nervously strum them, and emerge from under the table. That is a great moment in wordless Shakespearean play.

The pleasure of attending this play does not depend on theatrical sophistication or any level of prior knowledge of the plot and characters. The Macbeths’ ambition, fears, and their unraveling in carnage are clearly communicated within this production. Shakespeare connoisseurs might hear in their heads specific phrases at certain points in the action, such as Lady Macbeth’s call for sexual negation: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty.” A reviewer who described a three-hour production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as “that rare example of a long night’s journey you only wish could go on longer” surely would enjoy attending this production many times. If you are just looking to see an action movie, or to feel like you do at a horror film, you can get much of those effects from this production, and much more.

The Synethic Theater’s production shows unforgettably the unheroic tragedy of Macbeth. At its center is a pedestrian domestic drama (except, perhaps, for the erotic sadism that the Macbeths prominently display). Macbeth, like a middle-manager scheming to become acting chief executive officer of a major corporation, imagines his ambition to encompass the globe. While Macbeth’s actions are preternaturally ruthless, they also are like the actions of ordinary life: contingent, done without a coherent, well-thought-out plan. For Macbeth, a tragic ordering of the cosmos is a matter of hearsay: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.” The world of Macbeth has no more sure balance than the particularities of an ordinary person’s psyche.

Synetic Theater’s Macbeth is a profound exploration of Shakespeare’s work. It’s a play not to be missed.

Synetic Theater presents Macbeth, January 12 – February 25, 2007, at the Rosslyn Spectrum, Arlington, Virginia. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Performances Thurdays through Saturdays, 8 pm, Sundays, 3 pm. Tickets $30-$35, $5 off for seniors and students, $15 student “rush” tickets; free parking available. See for more information.

unsocial non-networks

Most blog posts did not include any links. A recent study selected 44,362 blogs in a way biased toward finding linked posts. Among all 2.2 million posts in those blogs in August and September of 2005, 98% of the posts had no incoming or outgoing links.[1] This isn’t a matter of A-List bloggers exclusivity or blogger masses languishing at the bottom of an influence hierarchy. Most blog post don’t even have any outgoing links.

Most bloggers probably blog in a room by themselves, sitting down, typing on a keyboard. Much blogging seems to be about self-expression, like writing in a diary back in the days of secret, personal histories, or about news reporting, like that in traditional media, but with much smaller audiences.

Humans in physical proximity are naturally social. Silence is awkward. Not making eye contact raises suspicion. Persons with nothing in common and no reason to communicate will nonetheless communicate when in physical proximity without a strong alternative focus of attention. Only persons united in an intimate connection are likely to feel comfortable being together in silence when communicating is an authorized possibility. In physical proximity, self-expression and monologues without regard for communication tends to be interpreted as offensive.

Alternative circumstances of communication evoke remarkably little of this natural human sociality. Communicative circumstances are important. Blogging is not like being in a room with other people, even though other persons’ blogs are readily available to a person blogging. Bloggers forlornly lamenting that no one links to them should realize that this does not mean that no one would talk to them.

* * *

[1] Jure Leskovec, Mary McGlohon, Christos Faloutsos, Natalie Glance, and Matthew Hurst (2007), “Cascading Behavior in Large Blog Graphs: Patterns and a model,” Paper to be presented at SIAM International Conference on Data Mining (SDM 2007), Minneapolis, MI, USA, Apr. 26-28, 2007 (pdf). Blogs were selected through link traversal (see Sec. 4.1 of paper). For share of isolated posts, see Sec. 5.3.

systematized personal recommendations

User-to-user recommendations within a large online retailer’s recommendation system generated a very small share of sales. With keen business sense (see Netflix) and with praiseworthy regard for the common intellectual good, this retailer allowed some experts to analyze freely a large database of its users’ recommendations and to publish publicly their analysis. The database includes all recommendations that the online retailer’s users made for books, music, and movies from June, 2001 to May 2003.

The online retailer’s recommendation system worked as follows:

Each time a person purchases a book, music, or a movie [DVD or video] he or she is given the option of sending emails recommending the item to friends. The first person to purchase the same item through a referral link in the email gets a 10% discount. When this happens the sender of the recommendation receives a 10% credit on their purchase. [1]

The database includes persons who purchased and made a recommendation, and persons who received a recommendation. The database does not include persons who made a purchase but neither made a recommendation to another person nor received a recommendation from another person.

Purchases that generate recommendations generated few recommendations. Persons who purchased a book and recommended that book made on average 2.0 recommendations per purchased book.[2] Notice that this statistic by definition can be no less than 1: purchases that produced zero recommendations were not recorded in the dataset. To estimate the average number of recommendations per purchase, one needs an estimate of purchases that did not produce a recommendation.

Only a small share of purchases generated a recommendation. Persons who received a recommendation and then purchased the recommended book forwarded the recommendation to another person in about 24% of such purchases.[3] Imitation and concern for social norms have a pervasive and powerful effect on human behavior. The share of purchases in which a person who did not receive a recommendation for a book, but nonetheless purchased it and recommended it is surely less than 24%. That implies that the total number of books purchased per year was higher that 6.1 million, probably much higher. Two plausible figures are 100 million and 30 million.[4] These figures imply shares of purchases that generated a recommendation at 1.4% and 4.9%, respectively.

The overall ratio of recommendations to purchases is much lower than 2. Suppose that the retailer was selling 100 million books per year (the results are qualitatively the same if the retailer was selling only 30 million books per year). Given 2.0 recommendations per book purchase for purchases that produced a recommendation, the overall ratio of recommendations to purchases is 0.028. Making a recommendation created the possibility of a 10% credit for the recommender and a 10% discount for the receiver. Nonetheless, relatively few recommendations were made.

The share of purchases that resulted from user recommendations is miniscule. If the retailer was selling 100 million books per year, then less than a tenth of one percent (0.04%) of purchases followed from users’ recommendations. User social networking through a systematized recommendation system wasn’t a major driver of sales.

Nonetheless, the user recommendation system may have net positive value to the retailer. About 43,000 book purchases per year can plausibly be attributed to user recommendation of books through the retailers’ system.[5] Suppose that the average book price was $30 and the average gross margin was 60%. Then the user recommendation system generated a gross margin of about $800,000 per year. That might be sufficient to make it a profitable feature.

Recommendation systems have major effects on sales. One unsourced report indicated that “35 percent of [Amazon’s] product sales result from recommendations.” Greg Linden, who should know, stated (see comments), “Personalization was responsible for well more than 20% of sales when I left Amazon in 2002.” Automated recommendations probably account for most of the sales through recommendations.

A trade-off between communicative control and potential social effects is an important aspect of social networking. Commentary on the recommendation analysis has largely neglected this issue (for relevant discussion, see here, here, and here, for starters). Being personally responsibility for an online retailer sending a specific purchase offer to a social connection has some social meaning that a potential sender might prefer not to evaluate, and in any case the user cannot change the message sent. The social diffusion of given names, and business successes that arose through social networking, such as Hotmail, Google, MySpace, Youtube, and others, depended on more loosely structured forms of communication.

* * *

[1] See Leskovec, Jurij, Lada A. Adamic, and Bernardo A. Huberman, “The Dynamics of Viral Marketing,” p. 3.

[2] See Leskovec, Jure, Ajit Singh, and Jon Kleinberg, “Patterns of Influence in a Recommendation Network (pdf), Table 1. The total number of book purchases was 2,859,096 over the 711 day period.

[3] Leskovec et. al., “Dynamics of Viral Marketing,” p. 8, Table 3.

[4] See Brynjolfsson, Erik, Michael D. Smith, and Yu (Jeffrey) Hu, “”Consumer Surplus in the Digital Economy: Estimating the Value of Increased Product Variety at Online Booksellers” (pdf), Management Science, v. 49 n. 11 (Nov. 2003) p. 1587, and Sandoval, Greg, “Amazon Losing Ground in Core Area: Books,” CNet (Nov. 5, 2001).

[5] Leskovec et. al., “Patterns of Influence,” Table 1 (figure annualized).