the networked book: an increasingly contagious idea

pulselogo3.gif Farrar, Straus and Giroux have ventured into waters pretty much uncharted by a big commercial publisher, putting the entire text of one of their latest titles online in a form designed to be read inside a browser. “Pulse,” a sweeping, multi-disciplinary survey by Robert Frenay of “the new biology” — “the coming age of systems and machines inspired by living things” — is now available to readers serially via blog, RSS or email: two installments per day and once per day on weekends.
Naturally, our ears pricked up when we heard they were calling the thing a “networked book” — a concept we’ve been developing for the past year and a half, starting with Kim White’s original post here on “networked book/book as network.” Apparently, the site’s producer, Antony Van Couvering, had never come across if:book and our mad theories before another blogger drew the connection following Pulse’s launch last week. So this would seem to be a case of happy synergy. Let a hundred networked books bloom.
The site is nicely done, employing most of the standard blogger’s toolkit to wire the book into the online discourse: comments, outbound links (embedded by an official “linkologist”), tie-ins to social bookmarking sites, a linkroll to relevant blog carnivals etc. There are also a number of useful tools for exploring the book on-site: a tag cloud, a five-star rating system for individual entries, a full-text concordance, and various ways to filter posts by topic and popularity.
My one major criticism of the Pulse site is that the site is perhaps a little over-accessorized, the design informed less by the book’s inherent structure and themes than by a general enthusiasm for Web 2.0 tools. Pulse clearly was not written for serialization and does not always break down well into self-contained units, so is a blog the ideal reading environment or just the reading environment most readily at hand? Does the abundance of tools perhaps overcrowd the text and intimidate the reader? There has been very little reader commenting or rating activity so far.
But this could all be interpreted as a clever gambit: perhaps FSG is embracing the web with a good faith experiment in sharing and openness, and at the same time relying on the web’s present limitations as a reading interface (and the dribbling pace of syndication — they’ll be rolling this out until November 6) to ultimately drive readers back to the familiar print commodity. We’ll see if it works. In any event, this is an encouraging sign that publishers are beginning to broaden their horizons — light years ahead of what Harper Collins half-heartedly attempted a few months back with one of its more beleaguered titles.
I also applaud FSG for undertaking an experiment like this at a time when the most aggressive movements into online publishing have issued not from publishers but from the likes of Google and Amazon. No doubt, Googlezon’s encroachment into electronic publishing had something to do with FSG’s decision to go ahead with Pulse. Van Couvering urges publishers to take matters into their own hands and start making networked books:

Why get listed in a secondary index when you can be indexed in the primary search results page? Google has been pressuring publishers to make their books available through the Google Books program, arguing (basically) that they’ll get more play if people can search them. Fine, except Google may be getting the play. If you’re producing the content, better do it yourself (before someone else does it).

I hope tht Pulse is not just the lone canary in the coal mine but the first of many such exploratory projects.
Here’s something even more interesting. In a note to readers, Frenay talks about what he’d eventually like to do: make an “open source” version of the book online (incidentally, Yochai Benkler has just done something sort of along these lines with his new book, “The Wealth of Networks” — more on that soon):

At some point I’d like to experiment with putting the full text of Pulse online in a form that anyone can link into and modify, possibly with parallel texts or even by changing or adding to the wording of mine. I like the idea of collaborative texts. I also feel there’s value in the structure and insight that a single, deeply committed author can bring to a subject. So what I want to do is offer my text as an anchor for something that then grows to become its own unique creature. I like to imagine Pulse not just as the book I’ve worked so hard to write, but as a dynamic text that can continue expanding and updating in all directions, to encompass every aspect of this subject (which is also growing so rapidly).

This would come much closer to the networked book as we at the institute have imagined it: a book that evolves over time. It also chimes with Frenay’s theme of modeling technology after nature, repurposing the book as its own intellectual ecosystem. By contrast, the current serialized web version of Pulse is still very much a pre-network kind of book, its structure and substance frozen and non-negotiable; more an experiment in viral marketing than a genuine rethinking of the book model. Whether the open source phase of Pulse ever happens, we have yet to see.
But taking the book for a spin in cyberspace — attracting readers, generating buzz, injecting it into the conversation — is not at all a bad idea, especially in these transitional times when we are continually shifting back and forth between on and offline reading. This is not unlike what we are attempting to do with McKenzie Wark’s “Gamer Theory,” the latest draft of which we are publishing online next month. The web edition of Gamer Theory is designed to gather feedback and to record the conversations of readers, all of which could potentially influence and alter subsequent drafts. Like Pulse, Gamer Theory will eventually be a shelf-based book, but with our experiment we hope to make this networked draft a major stage in its growth, and to suggest what might lie ahead when the networked element is no longer just a version or a stage, but the book itself.

12 thoughts on “the networked book: an increasingly contagious idea

  1. ray cha

    What is interesting to me, is how this would translate into reading fiction with hyperlinks. Because these links are highlighted and often nouns, my eyes tends to want to scan the text as one would scan a textbook rather than a non-fiction book. The links are like the BOLDED words that one could reference in the glossary in traditional textbooks.
    Would it be helpful to be able to turn off the links? Or it is a design issues, where if the link font color was more subtle?

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  2. Jesse Wilbur

    Ben,
    Designing a networked book is hard. Adopting the current tools available for online content generation and management (blog software) is a strategy that is good for two reasons: 1) easy to get the content out in multiple forms, 2) new forms push on the edges of the software, leading to innovation. But adopting the format of blogs is problematic for the reasons you mentioned above (a book that isn’t meant for serialization in a serial format).
    In general, writing for the web is suited to the material constraints of the presentation format, namely multiple scrolling screens. Text is (or should be) written in short scannable chunks. But reading a physical book is a different action, made up of viewing spreads and pages and holding together multiple ideas over the span of several pages. I know this is a long standing argument, and many web designers can (and should) argue against this point, but, for a networked book, I think there is something really important about the act of visualizing an entire chunk of text without having to scroll. Scrolling is an inherently disorienting activity – it’s not a gross motor movement like flipping a page.
    Pulse is a good networked book experiment that is moving in the right direction, but we need a parallel movement in presentational design for screen based media.

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  3. dan visel

    Like Ray, I find myself caught up with the idea of links and how they’re being used. The linked nature of every post is emphasized by the text at the bottom: “Linkology by Kate (all links are unofficial)”. “Linkology” is a neologism that Names @ Work seem to be proud of – they’ve put a modicum of thought into this, and if you go to that page you’ll find their reasoning spelled out.

    Part of the problem that I have with this comes from the sheer obtrusiveness of the links (the subject of their Rule 4 for links, which I’d argue that they’ve broken), which I’ll come back to. But a major problem in my mind is that the links aren’t those of the author— they’re those of Kate from Names @ Work. Let me zero in on two sample paragraphs, chosen not entirely at random:

    In 1909 a new art movement idolizing speed, aggression, and the power of machines burst upon Europe with the publication of F. T. Marinetti‘s “Futurist Manifesto.” In it he bade farewell to the whole classical ideal in art and culture, saying, “A roaring motor-car, which looks as though running on shrapnel, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

    With due respect to ancient Greece and its famed statue of “winged victory,” the effort to limit the impact on culture of machines was no longer a real contest. Whatever else may be said of Marinetti, he was right about the future. A popular echo of the winged victory survives today as a Rolls-Royce hood ornament.

    The Italian Futurists are an interesting example because they’re famously difficult to separate from ideology; it’s hard to say anything about them without making a political judgment. The same’s true about the choice of links, both in the choice of link-anchors and what they are linked to. Two links here form a mini-narrative of their own: “roaring motor-car”, which points to a history of the Hudson line of cars, and “the future”, which points to a blog about cars of the future. Are these links appropriate? Maybe, though the pedant in me points out that Marinetti couldn’t possibly have seen a Hudson when he wrote his manifesto. They act upon the reading experience in a strange and arbitrary way: when Frenay says “Whatever else may be said of Marinetti, he was right about the future”, does he mean that Marinetti was right about the future of cars, which the links imply? A linker could have as easily chosen other links, linking “shrapnel” to an article about how some of the Futurists went off to WWI and were killed on the battlefield, or linking “right about the future” to Marinetti’s sad end as an apologist for Mussolini.

    What exactly does Frenay think about the Futurists? I’m not entirely sure— the sentence quoted seems to indicate that he’s only given them cursory thought. The flippant links about cars serve to emphasize this (Marinetti was right about the hybrid cars of the future? hmmm), though I know this intent is not Frenay’s.

    What we have here is a hybrid text— it’s kind of akin to picking up a copy of Frenay’s book that someone’s scribbled in. It’s important that the person who scribbled in it was not Frenay— were that the case, we’d have something very different: we could see the author’s mind at work connecting things. Should we trust Kate? I don’t know. If I read this over time I’m sure I’d come up with a definite conclusion. If I’m trying to find out what Frenay has to say, it’s an editorial intrusion.

    Are there too many links here? To my mind there might be, simply because they’re not those of the original author. To some degree, they’re beside the point if you’re not a marketing machine and you’re just a reader. If I want to find out what exactly the “classical ideal” is generally conceived to be, I can highlight it, right click, and select “Google Search” in the contextual menu that pops up. If I click on their link, I can find out what Franklin Einspruch thinks the classical ideal is, though that might not be what Frenay thinks. As described on their Linkology page, Franklin Einspruch might notice that there’s a link coming into his blog, and go find out what Pulse is all about. This is great from a marketing perspective: you have more traffic. From an editorial position, it’s slightly skewed.

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  4. sol gaitan

    I suspect that we are going to be in these “transitional times” for a long stretch. The shift from digital to analog will require the closure of the digital divide, which is still quite wide between blacks, English-speaking Hispanics and whites in America alone, not to talk about the rest of the world. However, if the purpose of networked books is the aperture of the text to an enlightened exchange of ideas that will keep it evolving over time, it is difficult to resign oneself to the notion of a book that “will eventually be a shelf-based” one. I would like to believe that once a networked book reaches majority (which seems to mean going into print) its networked self would continue to exist.

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  5. Alex

    Maybe it’s because I’m more interested in fiction than non-fiction , but I’ve never found the idea of embedded links in text that that valuable. I don’t need a book to refer me to wikipedia for an image of a lake. I can do it myself – that’s why we have the internet. The perfect networked book is as simple as a browser with the right firefox extensions.
    What’s interesting about Pulse to me is the serialization the community that could build up around it. That’s the network – not block level links.

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  6. Steven Chabot

    Interesting, especially the future desire to publish the book in hardcopy. Assuming that the digital book remains networked and open-sourced, there will be a gradual drift between the hard and soft copies. For some reason Leaves of Grass comes to mind.
    Presumably, if this method of open production becomes widespread enough, could we see an entire new generation of academics and scholars whose pastime is to track versions of networked books. Scholarly papers tracking the evolution, through both the wiki’fied “history” pages and the various printed editions.

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  7. Antony Van Couvering

    We put Pulse together online, in the way we did, in part to generate the kind of discussion I’m reading here. It’s gratifying and challenging.
    The argument about links or no links, about how they detract form or improve the the text, is fascinating. There are two elements: the experience of reading, and the intent of the author.
    I have in front of me two (paper-based) books: a pocket-sized leather-bound copy Dante’s Inferno published by Dutton at the turn of the century, with the Italian on the left hand page, and an English crib on the other (with notes). The other is a later edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Both are examples of explanatory text interfering, for better or worse, with the experience of reading. The Inferno has a virtually unreadable English text, which yet has the advantage of being a literal translation to help the non-fluent reader get through the Italian text. The pages of the Decline and Fall are filled with a footnote which covers a page and a half. The choices that the editors/translators of these books very obviously impact the reading of the texts. Are they that different in kind from having links in a different color (not bold, by the way)?
    An author’s intent, even in a fairly modern text, even the best writer, is hard to fathom. With Pulse, it’s clear — the links are not those of the author, as we clearly identified. In this first part of the book, they are a layer of readership by Kate. Later in the book, others at Names@Work will provide links, and they will be individual, just as Kate’s are. The links are a personal commentary, and our hope (which this dicussion seems to bear out) is that they would spur engagement by readers.
    Everyone could disagree about which links to use. What cannot be argued is that anyone could know the author’s intent except the author himself – and his intent is shown by the text itself, which speaks for itself. So the links are personal, sometimes serious, sometimes quirky, but definitely establishing part of the network.
    It would be disingenuous to claim that the links are not intended to spur links back to the book. We do quite the opposite; we unapologetically set out the marketing aims of the links. What publisher since medieval times has not marketed books, often inventively, usually with the author’s approval — has anyone ever used this as a guage of the author’s intent?
    And yet the links are not by any means for commercial purposes only. The majority of them would seem to me to be entirely educational and uncontroversial: links to biographies of persons mentioned; links to books by authors referenced; links to overviews of subjects introduced. As for the rest, they are aimed at websites where the authors of those sites are likely to notice that someone is pointing to them, and are likely to respond. They are certainly under no obligation to respond, and, if they do, they are free to applaud, or decry, or just to yawn. I wonder how referencing sites whose authors are likely to respond is anything other than networking, compared to referencing sites where a response is very unlikely.
    As several commenters have noted, reading a book online is a different experience than reading it on paper. The paper edition, which can be readily purchased online or at a bookstore, contains no links, no lists of most-viewed sections, no lists of most commonly used words, no links to blogs and forums and carnivals covering the subject areas addressed in Pulse, no annotated bibliographies, no tag clouds, no tags at all. For those who find these features unattractive, the paper edition is almost certainly a better alternative.
    In this online edition (others are not precluded), these and other features do exist. They are choices made by us as readers/editors/marketers/producers/designers, whatever you want to call us. The text is there, not changed a jot or tittle. What we have done is add our gloss, with the stated aim of engaging the wider Net, and by and large we are pleased with the effort. Alex’s point in a previous comment that the network exists in a community rather than in links is certainly true, but I ask how likely it is that a community will form when it doesn’t know that the book exists. An important reason for the links is to do just that.
    One advantage of releasing Pulse serially is that we have time: time to make changes in the site, to improve the experience, to take comments like the ones made here and (when we agree with them) put them to use immediately.
    I think that ultimately the disquietude shown in the comments (and in Ben’s original post) has to do with the intrusion of another presence onto the text — that of Names@Work. We were hired to market the book, which I hope we are doing well. Does our mandated task make us less qualified to add our layer of readership? How is our intrusion different than the layer of readership added by a scholar, who has his or her own imperatives, some of which are also commercial (tenure, anyone?)? It certainly is different, but how? Can we speak of a “networked book” without an effort to engage a wider community? Is it more or less networked if that engagement is ineffective? Should our role have been hidden? Why?
    We made the decision that the best way to do this was to announce our role and make it transparent, and to challenge ourselves to respond to the text genuinely and personally and openly — because we believe that this is the essence any online network.
    Many thanks again for the initial article and the thoughtful comments. I hope my contribution adds to the discussion.
    - Antony Van Couvering, CEO, Names@Work

    Reply
  8. bowerbird

    ben said:
    > There has been very little reader commenting
    > or rating activity so far.
    in fairness, the book/site is still fairly new/recent.
    but i think there is a serious question extant about
    whether _any_ specific book will find a “community”
    that’s willing to become engaged in its construction.
    some will, yes, but how many? not many, i’d guess.
    and if an author wants to have a dialog with readers,
    s/he has to set up a place _where_ that will happen.
    it doesn’t have to be fancy — all we’re doing here is
    _typing_, for crying out loud — but there _must_
    be an agreed-upon place for that typing to happen,
    a place where the text is shared, a place where the
    discussion is _focused_ and kept on-point/relevant,
    presumably by the author who provided the “vision”
    – the coherent/cohesive gestalt — in the first place.
    to say — as it does on the site for this book — that
    you aren’t going to set up a bulletin-board or forums
    because you “want discussion to happen everywhere”
    is to doom it to failure to concentrate critical mass,
    such that instead the discussion happens “nowhere”…
    it’s important, too, i think, not to get ahead of things.
    a book that wants to be “merely” _read_ is not “inferior”
    to one that wants to be discussed, debated, “improved”.
    and a reader who’d rather go on to the next book than
    discuss the last one endlessly is _not_ a bad person…
    sure, there’s a lot of “hey what about this new twist”
    thinking that we’re doing here, and that’s a good thing;
    but at the same time, books have a long proud history
    as being “mere vehicles”, and we do well to honor that.
    to many of us, if the book communicates the story, it
    has done what we expected of it, and we say “thanks”.
    cyberspace gives authors and readers the chance to
    connect without all the middlemen previously needed.
    let’s bask in that capability for a while, and nurture it,
    and help it get strong and vibrant and out on its own.
    after we’ve accomplished _that_, then we can go on
    to develop those (probably much less common) books
    that turn into organic entities that grow on their own.
    i’m somewhat dismayed that we don’t have thousands
    (or even _tens_of_thousands_) of books online already;
    i think we’re missing a golden opportunity to break open
    the coconut of our new publishing capability and drink
    all the sweet milk inside before the publishing industry
    yanks it out of our hands with its massive deep pockets,
    focusing the attention of the public on their titles alone.
    if we _did_ have tens of thousands of books out there,
    then the few hundred that are capable of spawning a
    wide-ranging discussion in cyberspace would already
    be doing that. as it is, if we try to make this thing run
    before it has even crawled, we could cause it to stumble.
    unrealized expectations have already hurt e-books badly.
    > But this could all be interpreted as a clever gambit:
    > perhaps FSG is embracing the web with
    > a good faith experiment in sharing and openness
    take off the techie-colored glasses, rose… :+)
    this _is_ a “gambit”, but it’s _not_ particularly “clever”.
    it’s just plain old marketing, wrapped in r.s.s. samples…
    you’ll know the interactivity experiment is being taken
    _seriously_ when the _dialog_itself_ goes out as r.s.s.
    in which case we will have reinvented the listserve…
    (i don’t mean to sound condemning when i say all this,
    so i’m glad antony showed up here, so i could say it
    in his presence. marketing is one job of the publisher.
    it’s just that this type of marketing isn’t going to scale
    to hundreds of thousands of books published yearly.)
    ***
    jesse said:
    > Pulse is a good networked book experiment
    > that is moving in the right direction,
    > but we need a parallel movement in
    > presentational design for screen based media.
    nobody commented on my examples.
    few people are commenting on yours.
    i’m not sure people care about all this.
    but i myself think it’s fascinating. :+)
    so if you wanted to set up a wiki,
    where we could discuss and explore
    and fiddle with examples, it’d be fun.
    -bowerbird
    p.s. as to the question of links, my tack is to
    find ways that links can be applied _externally_,
    so anyone could “inject” their links into an existing
    document, and anyone else could specify _which_
    set of these external links they want to be visible.
    of course, then we’d be getting back to ted nelson
    and tranclusion, right? i always did like that old fart.

    Reply
  9. Tony Scotti

    I am excited by all the ‘shop talk I found on your site and would like to suggest a site where you may view a demonstration of our company’s newly patented software, something we call the AV Book. The software presents a ‘virtual book’ on the computer screen, narrates with a human voice,no scrolling required notetaking,searches,links,videos, anything digital can be integrated into the text. We are currently working with Comcast on a children’s program called ‘Around the Corner’ that will feature this technology as our company moves into the education arena. I would be very interested in the opinions of others in the industry after they have viewed a demo on our website http://www.idmminc.com

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