Legal Publishers dinosaursIn only 18 years since the advent of the web browser and only 10 or 12 years since mainstream use of the web, we’ve gone from portals to search to social.

This from Jonah Peretti, an Internet entrepreneur and a founder of BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, in a conversation with David Carr of the New York Times.

It’s so true. Remember Pets.com, Cars.com, and Books.com. Grab a domain name and build a portal to all things on a subject. Yahoo, Alta Vista, and Excite weren’t search engines, they were taxonomies of content, which also provided a portal to the web.

Then we had Google. The world became search. Why go to lawyers.com when I can key into Google that I am looking for a good divorce lawyer in Poughkeepsie? As a result, businesses chased search by buying SEO and cramming the net with content, good or bad, in hope that they could be found on a Google search.

Now we’re moving onto social. Rather than rely on the authority of a portal or a higher authority for information, we’re going to rely on others we trust. Others who have been empowered to publish and freely share insight and information online. And online is where we go to get most everything.

Look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders included in Facebook’s IPO filing for where we are headed.

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring. (emphasis added)

That’s a pretty bold vision per Mathew Ingram at GigaOm:

He is saying he believes social connections will rewire the entire structure of society, that it will become more like a network graph, with multiple connections among points, instead of a top-down hierarchy. He says that a more open and connected world will “help create a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services,” because as people share their opinions, it makes it easier to “improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

The move to social and a bottom up world can be good or bad news for traditional legal publishers such as Reed Elsevier, Reuters, Bloomberg, Wolters Kluwer, ALM, and even legal academia, with its law reviews.

Good, if they embrace this inevitable change by building and supporting publishing platforms from which the masses can publish and connect. Good, if they use their editorial skills to curate content and people in a way that enables people to consume and spread information.

Bad, if they try to hold on to legacy business models of publishing from the top down and selling access to information on a closed network. Bad, if they only give lip service to open source legal publishers by having best of law blog contests and forming a meaningless list of blogs and calling it a network. Bad, if they take open source legal information and put it behind pay-walls, as ALM has recently done by selling legal content to LexisNexis.

Legal publishers who believe the world is not going social with the re-wiring of the way people consume and spread information do so at their peril.

I remember when LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell used to travel to Mountain View, California to try and cut a deal by which Google would index Martindale’s directory of lawyers. You see, Martindale, just 10 or 12 years ago, did not allow Google to index their directory. Martindale bought ads on the net to draw traffic to its portal. Ironically, lawyers.com, also owned by LexisNexis still does so today.

Look at where Martindale-Hubbell is today. On the verge of extinction.

Had Martindale moved to open search via Google, as I and others suggested, the company would have prospered. Law firms had a need for someone to do the editorial work on their law firm profiles and attorney bios and get them indexed on Google. Martindale blew a golden opportunity resisting the inevitable.

There are a few people who can move the web and society to conform to their vision. Rather than predict the future, they make it. Andreesen (Netscape), Gates, Bezos, and now, Zuckerberg come to mind.

Zuckerberg and the Facebook effect of re-wiring the consumption and spreading of information are going to forever change the game of legal publishing.

That’s good news for law bloggers and companies such as LexBlog, Fastcase, Justia, Avvo, and the like. Bad news for traditional legal publishers, unless they can adapt.