Category Archives: magazine

a serious shot at screen reading

Another new online magazine: Triple Canopy (noted by Ed Park). Unlike Issue and Rosa B. this isn’t a design magazine – although the content is very interesting – but like them, it’s a serious attempt to construct a new kind of magazine for the screen-reading environment. While Rosa B.‘s design uses the affordances of dynamic layering, Issue concentrates on reader annotation, Triple Canopy simply does away with the scroll bar.
Removing the scroll bar is an obvious idea for improving screen reading that’s only rarely implemented: when you read text with a scroll bar (like this blog), the reader is forced to remove their concentration from the text to scroll down and then to find where the reading left off. It’s something we’re all quite used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s an advantageous reading behavior; we put up with because we rarely have a choice. Triple Canopy reverts from the scroll bar to the paged model of the codex book: if you click on the “+” sign to the right of the page, a new page slides in. It’s obvious where to resume reading. The text itself is well-cared for: it’s presented in columns of legible width, another lesson of print design that’s too often ignored in the online world. Worth noting as well is the way that images are integrated into some of the texts; again, there’s a clear and understood model for how reading works. Video can be slotted into some of the pieces without causing a disturbance or overwhelming: it appears on a page by itself, meant to be the primary focus of attention.
It’s not entirely perfect: while the “+” sign always advances a page, “–” sometimes goes back a page and sometimes goes to the previous article (if clicked on the first page of the article). I wish clicking the “triplecanopy” at the bottom took you back to the issue’s table of contents and not the magazine’s front page. Because the site’s made in HTML, the design breaks if you increase or decrease the font size in your browser. And the Powerpoint-style wipe when the pages change quickly grows tiresome. But these are minor quibbles with a design that’s overwhelmingly successful. I’ll be curious to see if this is sustainable over more issues.

the institute on the millions

There is a piece about the Institute on the book/literary blog the millions, by Buzz Poole, a writer who came down to visit us for a long afternoon late last summer. Buzz takes solid a crack at describing what we do and why. He starts out by briefly sketching out the increasingly unstable ground that defines contemporary publishing, and nails one of the major problems we often lament here:

In the realm of publishing, however, especially mainstream publishing, the concerns and campaigns are geared to getting better at selling books, not to how the very nature of books is, and has been, changing for years.

Poole then describes the Institute and the intellectual and material history that we come out of, namely Voyager and similar interactive multimedia development. But then he says something that I think is really on point about us and our work:

The most influential people behind the Institute are not so much about the technology; rather they are about intellectual economies where theory and practice are equally valued. The Institute wants to do more than democratize information; it wants to reappraise the exchange of information and how it is valued.

The next section is all about our projects, our forays into the intellectual economies and our attempts to participate in the wide world of the web. (You can get a sense of our projects on our site). Poole closes with a discussion of what his text would be like if the Institute conceived of the format: how it would include reading lists and links (and probably full texts, if we really could have our way), examples of media, drafts/versioning, and the ability to interact with the author. What he doesn’t say is that this piece was originally being pitched as a magazine article, which fortuitously landed on a blog instead. We like being written up in paper, but even the most common digital form allows for a much wider range of instantaneous interaction and investigation. The fact that this piece is on a blog—and not an expanded (expandable?) format—is a testament to how much further the tools and practices of writing still need to advance before we begin to approach our vision of ‘networked book’.

the new

Harper’s has a new web concept designed by Paul Ford of F Train. History bears heavily on the refurbished site, almost overwhelmingly — especially compared to the stripped-down affair that preceded it. But considering that Harper’s has a more than ordinary amount of history to cart around — at 157 years, it’s the oldest general interest monthly in the United States — it makes sense that Ford and the editors had time on the brain. A journal that has published continuously since before the Civil War, on through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, civil rights, the 60s, the Cold War, right up to the present carries a hefty chunk of the national memory — and a lot of baggage, good and bad. So it’s fitting that the new design is packed with dates, inviting readers to dig into the past while also surveying the present. I can’t think of another news site in which the archives mingle so promiscuously with the front page spread. The result is a site that feels as much like a library as a periodical.
Directly beneath the title banner and above stories from the current issue is a highly compressed archive navigation, three rows tall. On the top row, Harper’s 16 decades fan out from left to right. Below them are the ten years of a given decade. Below that, the twelve months of a given year. Thus, every issue of Harper’s ever printed is just three clicks away. Of course, you need a subscription to view most of the content. (A hint, though: articles between the 1850 debut issue and 1899 are all available for free at the website of Cornell’s Making of America project, which undertook the task of scanning the first half-century’s worth of Harper’s.)
Clearly, the editors have been thinking a great deal about how to use the web to bring Harper’s‘ long, winding paper trail into the light and into use. The new design may be a little over-freighted, but shine light it does. By placing current events in such close proximity with the past, things are nested in a historical context — a refreshing expansion of scope next to the perpetual present of the 24-hour news cycle. Already there are a few features that help connect the dots. One is “topic pages” that allow readers to track particular subjects through the archive. Take a look, for example, at this trail of links for “South Africa”:

  • 4 Images from 1983 to 2001
  • 67 Articles from 1850 to 2007
  • 2 Cartoons from 1985
  • 44 Events from 2000 to 2007
  • 10 Facts from 1999 to 2006
  • 4 Stories from 1888 to 1983
  • 2 Jokes from 1881 to 1912
  • 4 Photographs from 1987 to 2001
  • 1 Poem from 1883
  • 6 Reviews from 1887 to 2005

A smart next step would be to let readers trace, tag and document their own research trails and share those with other readers. This could be an added incentive for a new generation of Harper’s subscribers: access not only to an invaluable historical archive but to a social architecture in which communities and individuals could interpret that archive and bring it into conversation with the contemporary.

sharing goes mainstream

sharing.gif Ben’s post on the Google book project mentioned a fundamental tenet of the Institute: the network is the environment for the future of reading and writing, and that’s why we care about network-related issues. While the goal of the network isn’t reducable to a single purpose, if you could say it was any one thing it would be: sharing. It’s why Tim Berners-Lee created it in the first place—to share scientific research. It’s why people put their lives on blogs, their photos on flickr, their movies on YouTube. And it is why the people who want to sell things are so anxious about putting their goods online. The bottom line is this: the ‘net is about sharing, that’s what it’s for.
Time magazine had an article in the March 20th issue on open-source and innovation-at-the-edges (by Lev Grossman). Those aren’t new ideas around office, but when I saw the phrase the “authorship of innovation is shifting from the Few to the Many” I realized that, for the larger public, they are still slightly foreign, that the distant intellectual altruism of the Enlightenment is being recast as the open-source movement, and that the notion of an intellectual commons is being rejuvenated in the public consciousness. True, Grossman puts out the idea of shared innovation as a curiosity—it’s a testament to the momentum of our contemporary notions of copyright that the cultural environment is antagonistic to giving away ideas—but I applaud any injection of the open-source ideal into the mainstream. Especially ideas like this:

Admittedly, it’s counterintuitive: until now the value of a piece of intellectual property has been defined by how few people possess it. In the future the value will be defined by how many people possess it.

I hope the article will seed the public mind with intimations of a world where the benefits of intellectual openness and sharing are assumed, rather than challenged.
Raising the public consciousness around issues of openness and sharing is one of the goals of the Institute. We’re happy to have help from a magazine with Time’s circulation, but most of all, I’m happy that the article is turning public attention in the direction of an open network, shared content, and a rich digital commons.

serial killer

Alex Lencicki is a blogger with experience serializing novels online. Today, in a comment to my Slate networked book post, he links to a wonderful diatribe on his site deconstructing the myriad ways in which Slate’s web novel experiment is so bad and so self-defeating — a pretty comprehensive list of dos and don’ts that Slate would do well to heed in the future. In a nutshell, Slate has taken a novel by a popular writer and apparently done everything within its power to make it hard to read and hard to find. Why exactly they did this is hard to figure out.
Summing up, Lencicki puts things nicely in context within the history of serial fiction:

The original 19 th century serials worked because they were optimized for newsprint, 21st century serials should be optimized for the way people use the web. People check blogs daily, they download pages to their phones, they print them out at work and take them downstairs on a smoke break. There’s plenty of room in all that activity to read a serial novel – in fact, that activity is well suited to the mode. But instead of issuing press releases and promising to revolutionize literature, publishers should focus on releasing the books so that people can read them online. It’s easy to get lost in a good book when the book adapts to you.

slate publishes a networked book

060313_Fict_Unbinding.gif Always full of surprises, Slate Magazine has launched an interesting literary experiment: a serial novel by Walter Kirn called (appropriately for a networked book) The Unbinding, to be published twice weekly, exclusively online, through June. From the original announcement:

On Monday, March 13, Slate will launch an exciting new publishing venture: an online novel written in real time, by award-winning novelist Walter Kirn. Installments of the novel, titled The Unbinding, will appear in Slate roughly twice a week from March through June. While novels have been serialized in mainstream online publications before, this is the first time a prominent novelist has published a genuine Net Novel–one that takes advantage of, and draws inspiration from, the capacities of the Internet. The Unbinding, a dark comedy set in the near future, is a compilation of “found documents”–online diary entries, e-mails, surveillance reports, etc. It will make use of the Internet’s unique capacity to respond to events as they happen, linking to documents and other Web sites. In other words, The Unbinding is conceived for the Web, rather than adapted to it.
Its publication also marks the debut of Slate’s fiction section. Over the past decade, there has been much discussion of the lack of literature being written on the Web. When Stephen King experimented with the medium in the year 2000, publishing a novel online called The Plant, readers were hampered by dial-up access. But the prevalence of broadband and increasing comfort with online reading makes the publication of a novel like The Unbinding possible.

The Unbinding seems to be straight-up serial fiction, mounted in Flash with downloadable PDFs available. There doesn’t appear to be anything set up for reader feedback. All in all, a rather conservative effort toward a networked book: not a great deal of attention paid to design, not playing much with medium, although the integration of other web genres in its narrative — the “found documents” — could be interesting (House of Leaves?). Still, considering the diminishing space for fiction in mainstream magazines, and the high visibility of this experiment, this is most welcome. The first installment is up: let’s take a look.

nature magazine says wikipedia about as accurate as encyclopedia brittanica

naturem.jpg A new and fairly authoritative voice has entered the Wikipedia debate: last week, staff members of the science magazine Nature read through a series of science articles in both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and decided that Britannica — the “gold standard” of reference, as they put it — might not be that much more reliable (we did something similar, though less formal, a couple of months back — read the first comment). According to an article published today:
Entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature’s news team. Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
It’s interesting to see Nature coming to the defense of Wikipedia at the same time that so many academics in the humanities and social science have spoken out against it: it suggests that the open source culture of academic science has led to a greater tolerance for Wikipedia in the scientific community. Nature’s reviewers were not entirely thrilled with Wikipidia: for example, they found the Britannica articles to be much more well-written and readable. But they also noted that Britannica’s chief problem is the time and effort it takes for the editorial department to update material as a scientific field evolves or changes: Wikipedia updates often occur practically in real time.
One not-so-suprising fact unearthed by Nature’s staffers is that the scientific community contained about twice as many Wikipedia users as Wikipedia authors. The best way to ensure that the science in Wikipedia is sound, the magazine argued, is for scientists to commit to writing about what they know.

the big picture

Though a substantial portion of our reading now takes place online, we still chafe against the electronic page, in part because today’s screens are hostile to the eye, but also, I think, because we are waiting for something new – something beyond a shallow mimicry of print. Occasionally, however, you come across something that suggests a new possibility for what a page, or series of pages, can be when words move to the screen.
I came across such a thing today on CNET’s new site, which has a feature called “The Big Picture,” a dynamic graphical display that places articles at the center of a constellation, drawing connections to related pieces, themes, and company profiles.
CNET big picture.jpg
Click on another document in the cluster and the items re-arrange around a new center, and so on – ontologies are traced. But CNET’s feature does not go terribly far in illuminating the connections, or rather the different kinds of connections, between articles and ideas. They should consider degrees of relevance, proximity in time, or overlaps in classification. Combined with a tagging system, this could get interesting. As it stands, it doesn’t do much that a simple bullet list of related articles can’t already do admirably, albeit with fewer bells and whistles.
But this is pushing in an interesting direction, testing ways in which a web publication can organize and weave together content, shedding certain holdovers from print that are no longer useful in digital space. CNET should keep playing with this idea of an article ontology viewer – it could be refined into a legitimately useful tool.

hacking nature

Slate is trying something new with its art criticism: a new “gallery” feature where each month an important artist will be discussed alongside a rich media presentation of their work.

…we’re hoping to emphasize exciting new video and digital art–the kind of art that is hard to reproduce in print magazines.

For their first subject, they don’t push the print envelope terribly far (just a simple slideshow), but they do draw attention to some stunning work by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who (happily for us New Yorkers) has shows coming this week to the Brooklyn Museum and the Charles Cowles Gallery in Manhattan. Burtynsky documents landscapes bearing the mark of extreme human exploitation – the infernal streams flowing from nickel mines, junked ocean liners rusting in chunks on the beach, abandoned quarries ripe with algae in their cubic trenches, and an arresting series from recent travels through China’s industrial belt.
These photographs carry startling information through the image-surplussed web. But Burtynsky disappoints in one vital, perhaps deciding, respect:

…his position on the moral and political implications of his work is studiously neutral. He doesn’t point fingers or call for change; instead, he accepts industry’s exploitation of the land as the inevitable result of modern progress. “We have extracted from the land from the moment we stood on two feet,” he said in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “The entire 20th century has been a revving up of this large consumptive engine. It’s not a question of whether we are going to stop consuming. It’s not going to happen…”

As someone who believes that struggling to prevent (or at least mitigate) global ecological disaster should be the transcending narrative of our times, I find Burtynsky’s detachment deeply depressing and self-defeating. His images glory in the sick beauty of these ravaged scenes, and the cultural consumers that will no doubt pay large sums for these photographs at his upcoming Chelsea show only compound the cynicism.

blogs — trying to fit round pegs into square holes

i’ve been without an internet connection for a few days. was catching up on if:book posts and finding myself delighted by the wonderful range of interesting posts my colleagues had managed in just a few days. which made me want to send a note to lots of friends and acquaintances urging them to check out our blog. but then my more nervous, modest side took over and convinced me that urging people to sample a blog as wide-ranging as if:book is a dicey proposition since sampling one day’s posts doesn’t necessarily indicate the extent of our interests. the structure of blogs favors the chronology of entry; thematic categories are listed on the side but without much fanfare. wonder if we could re-arrange the “front page” to be more magazine like, where for example “recent posts” would be one feature among many.