Lately a number of sites have taken expression a step further, offering individuals the ability to "self-publish"--that is, post material online to avoid the politics of a given publishing industry or to break into the business if they are unable to get publishers interested in their material.
But with the self-publishing model being adopted more widely, one crucial question remains: How are mainstream consumers going to find material they like in a churning sea of free expression?
Just today, online bookstore Fatbrain launched a program that allows individuals, companies, and publishers to post their written material online, where interested customers can download them for a fee.
The program, dubbed eMatter, aims to make publishing more flexible. A reader could buy just a few chapters of a book, for example, or a writer could publish a paper that is too long for a magazine article but too short for a book, according to Judy Kirkpatrick, vice president and general manager of digital publishing for Fatbrain.
Yesterday, Yahoo unveiled Open Mic, a new feature within its Yahoo Digital offering that allows users to post their songs, images, and other material to the site for listeners' use. Artists also can submit their songs to the Internet Underground Music Archive or Liquid Audio's Liquid Music Network, which also makes them part of the Yahoo Digital artist directory.
Many sites say their audience provides a filter for other consumers.
"We've tried to make our site community driven," said Michael Robertson, chief executive of MP3.com. "All the content is ranked based on what people are doing" in terms of download and sales.
Fatbrain's Kirkpatrick said that to help users find material they want, the firm is "opening up our classification schema. It will be a similar classification model to eBay," with sets and subsets of information aimed at making the search process easier.
She also said the site will rely on users to act as filters for other users. "We'll provide a lot of user and community-type feedback to help people find what they want."
Still, to make a user-driven site work, someone has to be willing to sift through a lot of the material to find what they want and recommend it to others.
With self-publishing sites, "everything is mushed together in a flea-market fashion," said Mark Hardie, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "Some people are willing to go to flea markets and wade through a lot of junk to find one gem. But most of us aren't."
Kirkpatrick conceded that the community-rating model can be trying for consumers.
"We liken what we're doing to the ultimate democratization of publishing," she said. "But any time you try to bring democracy where there wasn't any before, it can be loud."
A little help?
Other sites are offering filters to help users get through the material. Music hub site Tunes.com, for example, which includes Rolling Stone and The Source magazines, offers services called "RollingStone.com Picks" and "TheSource.com's Unsigned Hype," in which editors from both magazines listen to material on the site submitted by unsigned artists and choose their favorites. Those artists' songs are featured along with the editors' ratings.
"One of the scarcest resources on the Web is time," said Howard Tullman, chief executive of Tunes.com. "If you have to spend all your time looking [for material you like], you don't have any time to listen.
"It's all about trusting someone to say, 'Hey, this is worth your time,'" he added.
Forrester's Hardie said the proliferation of self-publishing sites online presents an opportunity for other media companies to leverage their relationships with consumers.
Yahoo, for its part, is employing technology as one way to help users sift through its offerings.
For example, a partner in the Open Mic project is Internet music technology firm Beatnik, which offers tools to allow Web sites to embed music files so that users will hear music or other sounds when they use their mouse on the site.
On the Open Mic site, users who have downloaded a Beatnik plug-in can hear 4- to 5-second "microclips" of songs when they roll their mouse over album covers, according to Michael Latham, director of production for entertainment and media at Yahoo.
In addition, Latham said Yahoo is "experimenting with quick and easy ways for people to browse music" on the Yahoo Digital site.
"We built our whole business on helping people find what they want online," he said.