Monthly Archives: March 2007

MediaCommons paper up in commentable form

We’ve just put up a version of a talk Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been giving over the past few months describing the genesis of MediaCommons and its goals for reinventing the peer review process. The paper is in CommentPress — unfortunately not the new version, which we’re still working on (revised estimated release late April), it’s more or less the same build we used for the Iraq Study Group Report. The exciting thing here is that the form of the paper, constructed to solicit reader feedback directly alongside the text, actually enacts its content: radically transparent peer-to-peer review, scholars talking in the open, shepherding the development each other’s work. As of this writing there are already 21 comments posted in the page margins by members of the editorial board (fresh off of last weekend’s retreat) and one or two others. This is an important first step toward what will hopefully become a routine practice in the MediaCommons community.
In less than an hour, Kathleen will be delivering the talk, drawing on some of the comments, at this event at the University of Rochester. Kathleen also briefly introduced the paper yesterday on the MediaCommons blog and posed an interesting question that came out of the weekend’s discussion about whether we should actually be calling this group the “editorial board.” Some interesting discussion ensued. Also check at this: “A First Stab at Some General Principles”.

not just websites

At a meeting of the Interaction Designer’s Association (IxDA) one of the audience members, during the Q&A, asked “Why are we all making websites?”
What a fantastic question. We primarily consider the digital at the Institute, and the way that discourse is changing as it is presented on screen and in the network. But the question made me reevaluate why a website is the form I immediately think of for any new project. I realized that I have a strong predilection for websites because I love the web, and I know what I’m doing when it comes to sites. But that doesn’t mean a site is always the right form for every project. It prompted me to reconsider two things: the benefit of Sophie books, and the position of print in light of the network, and what transformations we can make to the printed page.
First, the Sophie book. It’s not a website, but it is part of the network. During the development and testing of a shared, networked book, we discovered that there a particular feeling of intimacy associated with sharing Sophie book. Maybe it’s our own perspective on Sophie that created the sensation, but sharing a Sophie book was not like giving out a url. It had more meaning than that. The web seemed like a wide-open parade ground compared to the cabin-like warmth of reading a Sophie book across the table from Ben. Sophie books have borders, and there was a sense of boundedness that even tightly designed websites lack. I’m not sure where this leads yet, but it’s a wonderfully humane aspect of the networked book that we haven’t had a chance to see until now.
On to print. One idea for print that I find fascinating, though deeply problematic, is the combination of an evolving digital text with print-on-demand (POD) in a series of rapidly versioned print runs. A huge issue comes up right away: there is potentially disastrous tension between a static text (the printed version) and the evolving digital version. Printing a text that changes frequently will leave people with different versions. When we talked about this at the Institute, the concern around the table was that any printed version would be out of date as soon as the toner hit the page. And, since a book is supposed to engender conversation, this book, with radical differences between versions, would actually work against that purpose. But I actually think this is a benefit from our point of view—it emphasizes the value of the ongoing conversation in a medium that can support it (digital), and highlights the limitations of a printed text. At the same time it provides a permanent and tangible record of a moment in time. I think there is value in that, like recording a live concert. It’s only a nascent idea for an experiment, but I think it will help us find the fulcrum point between print and the network.
As a rider, there is a design element with every document (digital or print) that makes the most of the originating process and creates a beautiful final product. So a short, but difficult question: What is the ideal form for a rapidly versioned document?

world without oil: democratic imagination?

I’ve written a couple of times recently about alternate reality gaming as an emergent genre of Web-native storytelling. But one of the things that’s puzzled and frustrated me is the fact that the stories played out in most of these games tend to revolve around sinister cults, reborn gods, out-of-control AIs, government conspiracies and suchlike: the bread-and-butter paranoias that permeate the Web. No criticism here, I should add. Asking ‘What if all this were true?’ can kick-start a very entertaining daydream.
But in exploring these games, and reading around them, it becomes clear that the way these stories are told is as interesting as their content. In particular, there is a tendency (see this paper by academic and game designer Jane McGonigal for example) for ARG-style collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.
In addition, the founding dramatic convention is “This Is Not A Game.” That is, the games are supposed to leak out into players’ lives. And this, combined with a chance to practice widespread collaborative problem-solving, is a phenomenally powerful and intriguingly democratic artistic form. So why, I wanted to know, is no-one using it to address contemporary politics?
No sooner do I formulate the thought than I discover that McGonigal’s latest project, trailed in a talk she gave at the 2007 San Francisco game developers’ conference , is an ARG called World Without Oil. Its central characters believe that an oil crisis is approaching on April 30 – the game’s launch date – and are trying to spread the word. Or are they…? Who is trying to stop them…? And we’re off.
I’ll be following this one closely. Rather than taking a fantastical theme, it invites players to think seriously about a situation which is increasingly imaginable in the near future. And it seems that people are ready to engage: since its appearance yesterday, the the Unfiction discussion thread about the game is already many pages long, and mixes discussion of the game with serious musings about the very real possibility of a world without oil.
It also looks as though it’s going to go way beyond asking its players to solve ROT-13 encryption for the next clue. In this Gamasutra interview McGonigal explains her ideas about collective intelligence and gaming, and outlines the way in which World Without Oil will be not just a game but a collaborative storytelling process. Along with the narrative of the main fictional characters, players will be invited to create blogs detailing – as if it were happening – the problems they would face in a (so far) fictional world without oil. And the game will respond. So, in effect, it will invite players to take part in a huge collaborative exercise in imagining a very possible future.
Looking at this game, I was reminded of the RSA’s response to the Stern report on climate change, where it was pointed out that reactions to climate change and the like often lurch between optimism and pessimism without progressing beyond high emotion to imaginative or practical engagement with the situation. On a similar tack, Dougald Hine wrote an article recently for opendemocracy discussing climate change as a challenge to the democratic imagination: “Whether or not we succeed technically in mitigating its effects, it is all too easy to envisage the result as a more or less unpleasant authoritarian future. The task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy.”
It may be too soon to tell. But if it goes well, I have some hope that World Without Oil may manage to engage not just collective fear but a collective and collaborative imagination to address some increasingly urgent questions.

MediaCommons editorial board convenes

Big things are stirring that belie the surface calm on this page. Bob, Eddie and I are down on the Jersey shore with the newly appointed editorial board of MediaCommons. Kathleen and Avi have assembled a brilliant and energetic group all dedicated to changing the forms and processes of scholarly communication in media studies and beyond. We’re thrilled to be finally together in the same room to start plotting out how this initiative will grow from a rudimentary sketch into a fully functioning networked press/community. The excitement here is palpable. Soon we’ll be posting some follow-up notes and a Comment Press edition of a paper by Kathleen. Stay tuned.

pay attention to the dance

Sean Stewart and Elan Lee, creators of two of the most successful alternate reality games to date, gave the keynote speech at this year’s Arg-Fest-O-Con, a conference of the alternate reality gaming community. The whole video is over an hour, but well worth a look; the theme of the speech is ‘trust’.
When I wrote a little while ago about ARGs as an emergent genre of storytelling entirely native to the Web, I identified some ways in which an ARG differs from the conventions of fiction in print form. In particular, part of the pleasure of an ARG is that it blurs the line between fact and fiction. There is a strange thrill to not knowing whether the latest link in the trail is fact (out of game) or fiction (in-game). It is also participatory and collaborative: the story does not unfold unless readers (players) collaborate to follow the trail of puzzles, hidden clues and hints. And though the story itself is ‘authored’ – the sites are prepared ahead of play, the story is worked out, and the whole operation is meticulously planned – it is always in a sense improvisatory. If the players pick up on a mistake, the ‘puppetmasters’ (game creators and operators) will work as fast as they can to incorporate it into the story if possible, so as not to destroy the fabric of the game.
Stewart and Lee describe the process of unfolding an ARG as a dance between players and puppetmasters, in which players are invited to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story. Within the invitation, they explain, is a promise that you won’t be made to feel stupid for playing along. And behind all this is trust on both sides.
This is important, he says, because no-one really knows how this genre works. Printed books bring with them a whole host of familiar protocols around how you read. People are familiar with the physical conventions of a book and the formal conventions of particular genres of book, and hence the experience is codified in a way that allows for a degree of detachment between producer and consumer. In contrast, ARGs as a genre are (in their current form, at least) less than ten years old and have very few established generic or formal codes. So in lieu of a tradition, the genre needs trust between participants.
It’s also important because in an ARG suspension of disbelief works very differently. Whereas I know my novel stops being ‘real’ when I put my book down, an ARG inserts itself into my life in a much less clear-cut way. The game might phone you up, email you, post things to your house; all these events would be part of the story. Unlike a novel, it does not have edges. This lack of edges is typical of the Web. A blog is never finished, there is always a new link, and so on. But for fiction, this poses problems: if I’m suspending disbelief so I can enjoy the story, I want to know that I’m not going to be made to feel stupid for going along with it. I also need to know at what point to snap out of it and start taking things literally again. So it is no surprise that two prominent exponents of a kind of storytelling with no formal boundary-markers (no proscenium arch, if you will) emphasise the importance of trust between creators and participants in such a story.
The late Susan Sontag’s recent piece in the Guardian is a passionate plea for the cultural and moral importance of novels. Narratives, she says, are of vital importance in helping humans make sense of their reality. I am one hundred per cent with her on this. However, she confines this faith in the improving power of stories specifically to the novel, while managing to sidestep both the cultural specificity of novels as a form, and role of oral storytellers, court poets, bards, folk tales and the countless other narrative traditions throughout history.
In the course of her rallying-cry for the novel (also, incidentally, a phillippic against those claiming the book to be dead), she inveighs against television (which rant I rather liked), and also proposes ‘the hypernovel’ as her main example of why fiction on the Net will never work. This ‘hypernovel’ as she describes it, is characteristically multiple-choice, notionally endless, possibly multi-authored and directionless narrative with none of the salutary benefits of stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And this, she implies, will simply not do. Readers like stories.
Given the ahistoricity of her approach to stories in general, it seems likely to me that Sontag takes for granted the established model of print authorship. This by necessity assumes a writer radically severed from its readership – which, as it is a paper book, cannot join the conversation – by a complex and time-consuming book-production process. The way she discusses debates around ‘the hypernovel’ clearly assume an equivalent level of detachment between the this notional hypernovel’s creator and its consumers. But the model of separation between author and readers simply does not work on the Web, a medium characterised by minimal publication lead time and a conversational dynamic. However, this does not mean that, on the Web, storytelling is impossible. Nor does it mean that that nothing is ever authored. It just means it works differently.
The Web is a young medium. And ARGs are – by its enthusiasts’ own admission – a very new genre. I would be very surprised if it did not evolve much further. But I’d be interested to know what Sontag might have made of a genre of storytelling that used not print but the Web; and yet, was not directionless or multiple-choice but collaboratively played out; that was authored, but with room for improvisation; and that took as its founding principle a delicate consensual suspension of disbelief rooted not in clear boundaries between ‘fact’ (the world outside the book) and ‘fiction’ (the world inside it) but in trust between all participants in the story.

cathy davidson of duke on the value of wikipedia

Cathy Davidson at Duke continues to impress me with her willingness to publicly take on complicated issues. Here’s a link to an article she wrote for this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (re-blogged on the Hastac site) in which she takes one of the most progressive and positive stances in relation to Wikipedia that i’ve seen from a senior and highly regarded scholar. [and here’s a link to a piece i wrote a few months back which takes on Jaron Lanier’s critique of Wikipedia.]

networked journalism in action

An excellent piece in the LA Times this weekend looks at how Josh Marshall’s little Talking Points Memo blog network led the journalistic charge that helped bring the US attorneys scandal to light. As the article details, TPM’s persistent muckraking was also instrumental in bringing national attention to the 2002 racial gaffe that cost Trent Lott his Senate leadership, to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, and to the initially underappreciated public opposition to Bush’s plan to privatize social security. Truly a force to be reckoned with. And most important, it was all achieved through sustained collaboration with its readership:

The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.
In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.
For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.

This is precisely what Jeff Jarvis means by “networked journalism“: a more nuanced notion than “citizens journalism” in that it doesn’t insist on a strict distinction between professional and amateur. The emphasis instead is on a productive blurring of that boundary through collaboration and distribution of labor. There’s no doubt that what we’re seeing here is a democratization of the journalistic process, but this bottom-up movement doesn’t mean the end of hierarchy. Marshall and his small staff are clearly the leaders here, a new breed of editors coordinating complex chains of effort.

screenreading reconsidered

There’s an interesting piece by Cory Doctorow in Locus Magazine, a sci-fi and fantasy monthly, entitled “You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen.” discussing the differences between on and offline reading.

The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so — they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.

And he illustrates his point by noting throughout the article each time he paused his writing to check an email, read an RSS item, watch a YouTube clip etc.
I think there’s more that separates these forms of reading than distracted digital multitasking (there are ways of reading online reading that, though fragmentary, are nonetheless deep and sustained), but the point about cognitive difference is spot on. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, most people have indeed become quite comfortable reading off of screens. Yet publishers still scratch their heads over the persistent failure of e-books to build a substantial market. Befuddled, they blame the lack of a silver bullet reading device, an iPod for books. But really this is a red herring. Doctorow:

The problem, then, isn’t that screens aren’t sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren’t screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It’s great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn’t take off or the line is too long at the post office. It’s cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It’s excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.
But the numbers tell their own story — people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I’d like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they’re in a tiny minority.
There’s a generation of web writers who produce “pleasure reading” on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon’s 90th percentile and below. They’re not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn’t be web writers.

On a related note, Teleread pointed me to this free app for Macs called Tofu, which takes rich text files (.rtf) and splits them into columns with horizontal scrolling. It’s super simple, with only a basic find function (no serious search), but I have to say that it does a nice job of presenting long print-like texts. By resizing the window to show fewer or more columns you can approximate a narrowish paperback or spread out the text like a news broadsheet. Clicking left or right slides the view exactly one column’s width — a simple but satisfying interface. I tried it out with Doctorow’s piece:
I also plugged in Gamer Theory 2.0 and it was surprisingly decent. Amazing what a little extra thought about the screen environment can accomplish.

amazon starts to close the loop

About two and a half years ago, when the institute was first developing the idea of the “networked book,” we started a thought experiment which tries to imagine what would happen if Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto today and posted it to the web in a form which captured the extensive “conversation” that the essay provoked. About a year ago i made an image for a talk which cobbled together thumbnails from various books on Amazon which were related to the Communist Manifesto:
manifesto pic.jpg
The point of the image was that these books, which are a concrete manifestation of the conversation, exist as isolated islands which at best can reference each other but which are not connected in the way we might imagine in the networked world being born.
Well, amidst all the discussion of the pluses and minuses of both Google and Microsoft book search, for the past two years Amazon has been quietly doing something exciting.
manifest citations.jpg
If you go to the Amazon page for an edition of the Communist Manifesto, you’ll see a reference to 2061 books in Amazon’s list which reference the Manifesto with a hot-link to each reference in each of the books.
manifest citations 2.jpg
The only big missing piece is an interactive semantic map with links between all 2061 books.