Change This: Why PDF?

I must admit, I’m intrigued by Seth Godin’s latest noncommercial venture, Change This. It’s not a business, but a forum and distribution system for ideas that seek to change or challenge the way people view or do important things. It’s not just technology, business, and communication, but politics, science – you name it.

Very cool. I like what they’re trying to do. I just have some questions about how they’re doing it…

The model for Change This is that people will submit “manifestos” presenting the core of a change-oriented or challenging idea (length ranging from 5-20 pages). Then, as far as I understand it, Change This will format those as pdfs and distribute them.

As an example of this format, the Change This Manifesto is already available for download.

I understand why they want to aim for a format that falls between terse blog postings and books. I agree that modern discourse is generally lacking in the beyond-soundbite department. Sometimes you need a few pages to make your point well.

But why trap this in a pdf file? Why not just post these to the Web?

When it comes to media, I believe in offering the simplest solution with the widest access that will still contain and support the message as intended. Pdf files require a plug-in. Some Web users may be accessing the Net from locations where they cannot download files. And so on. Why burden the reader with all these extra complications?

The Change This Manifesto is indeed a beautifully designed and edited document. It’s very pretty and slick. And I would much rather have an HTML version that I could link to on the Web without putting my readers through the whole pdf rigamarole. At the very least, I think each manifesto should have an executive summary, so people don’t have to plow through 5-20 pages to get the point.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

  • Content quality control? Manifestos can be extremely pompous and not well reasoned. Will Change This be doing any editing or filtering of the content, at least for clarity and basic logic? If not, I’d be very pessimistic about the quality potential.

  • What’s a page? I think it would be more useful to quantify document length in terms of word count. Page count is meaningless on the Web, where a page can be any length – and it’s nearly meaningless in print or pdf, since that all depends on the page layout and design.

  • Tracking the spread of ideas? Change This wants to get more good, original, challenging ideas out there. It wants to generate discussion. Great. But people will probably lose interest in yet-another-idea-forum if they can’t see what kind of difference it makes.

    I hope that they’re planning to offer some way to track which ideas are spreading and which are not. Currently there are many innovative ways to track what’s being mentioned online and in the media. At the very least, they could provide their own mechanism for comments, discussion, and rebuttals.

For all I know, Godin and his Change This cohorts have these things under control. But I can’t say for sure – the current site is rather lean on information. All they’re saying for sure is that they’ll start releasing these manifestos in August. What other support or monitoring infrastructure they’re supplying, I have no idea yet. But we’ll see.

Seth Godin’s a bright guy. I’m sure he’s at least considered these points.

3 thoughts on Change This: Why PDF?

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  1. PDFs are fully searchable on the web and is an industry standard for sharing finalized docs. Change This seems to have their act together too.

  2. I don’t know, but here’s a thought to throw out on the table because I was also intrigued by this very retro approach to publishing: Could it be the glamour aspect is secondary to the more sinister goal of tracking the spread of these docs through the covert channels?

    Consider: These are not your everyday PDF files spit out by pdftex or default Word filters, these are very advanced and techically cutting edge PDF files, with built-in navigation, copious hotlinks …

    Could it be they seek to track referrer stats from clicks back to the source from within the wandering document copies?