Category Archives: social_software

“books are social vectors”

Some choice quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s terrific new Harper’s essay, “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading” (unfortunately behind pay wall):

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
…I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature -? art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage.

no longer separated by a common language

LibraryThing now interfaces with the British Library and loads of other UK sources:

The BL is a catch in more than one way. It’s huge, of course. But, unlike some other sources, BL data isn’t normally available to the public. To get it, our friends at Talis, the UK-based library software company, have granted us special access to their Talis Base product, an elephantine mass of book data. In the case of the BL, that’s some twelve million unique records, two copies Gutenberg Bibles and two copies of the Magna Carta.

unbound reader

CommentPress, be it remembered, is a blog hack. A fairly robust one to be sure, and one which we expect to get significant near-term mileage out of, but still an adaptation of a relatively brittle publishing architecture. BookGlutton – ?a new community reading site that goes public beta next month – ?takes a shot at building social reading tools from scratch, and the first glimpses look promising. I’m still awaiting my beta tester account so it’s hard to say how well this actually works (and whether it’s Flash-based or Ajax-driven etc.), but a demo on their development blog walks through most of the social features of their browser-based “Unbound Reader.” They seem to have gotten a lot right, but I’m still curious to see how, if at all, they handle multimedia and interlinking between and within books. We’ll be watching this one closely…..Also, below the video, check out some explanatory material by BookGlutton’s creators, Aaron Miller and Travis Alber, that was forwarded to us the other day.

The first, the main BookGlutton website, is a catalog and community where users can upload work or select a piece of public domain writing, create reading groups and tag literature. The second part of the site – its centerpiece – is the Unbound Reader. It has a web-based format where users can read and discuss the book right inside the text. The Unbound Reader uses “proximity chat,” which allows users to discuss the book with other readers close to them in the text (thus focusing discussion, and, as an added benefit, keeping people from hearing about the end). It also has shared annotations, so people can leave a comment on any paragraph and other readers can respond. By encouraging users to talk in a context-specific way about what they’re reading, Bookglutton hopes to help those who want to talk about books (or original writing) with their friends (across cities, for example), students who want to discuss classic works (perhaps for a class), or writers who want to get feedback on their own pieces. Naturally, when the conversation becomes distracting, a user can close off the discussion without exiting the Reader.
Additionally, BookGlutton is working to facilitate adoption of on-line reading. Book design is an important aspect of the reader, and it incorporates design elements, like dynamic dropcaps. Moreover, the works presented in the catalog are standards-based (BookGlutton is an early adopter of the International Digital Publishing Forum’s .epub format for ebooks), and allows users to download a copy of anything they upload in this format for use elsewhere.

penguin enlists amazon reviewers to sift fiction slush pile

In an interesting mashup of online social filtering and old-fashioned publishing, Penguin, Amazon and Hewlett Packard have joined forces to present a new online literary contest, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. From the NY Times:

From today through Nov. 5, contestants from 20 countries can submit unpublished manuscripts of English-language novels to Amazon, which will assign a small group of its top-rated online reviewers to evaluate 5,000-word excerpts and narrow the field to 1,000. The full manuscripts of those semifinalists will be submitted to Publishers Weekly, which will assign reviewers to each. Amazon will post the reviews, along with excerpts, online, where customers can make comments. Using those comments and the magazine’s reviews, Penguin will winnow the field to 100 finalists who will get two readings by Penguin editors. When a final 10 manuscripts are selected, a panel including Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the current nonfiction paperback best seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” and John Freeman, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, will read and post comments on the novels at Amazon. Readers can then vote on the winner, who will receive a publishing contract and a $25,000 advance from Penguin.

ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community

(Jeff Drouin is in the English Ph.D. Program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
About three weeks ago I had lunch with Ben, Eddie, Dan, and Jesse to talk about starting a community with one of my projects, the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. I heard of the Institute for the Future of the Book some time ago in a seminar meeting (I think) and began reading the blog regularly last Summer, when I noticed the archive was mentioned in a comment on Sarah Northmore’s post regarding Hurricane Katrina and print publishing infrastructure. The Institute is on the forefront of textual theory and criticism (among many other things), and if:book is a great model for the kind of discourse I want to happen at the Proust archive. When I finally started thinking about how to make my project collaborative I decided to contact the Institute, since we’re all in Brooklyn, to see if we could meet. I had an absolute blast and left their place swimming in ideas!
Saint-Lô, by Corot (1850-55)While my main interest was in starting a community, I had other ideas — about making the archive more editable by readers — that I thought would form a separate discussion. But once we started talking I was surprised by how intimately the two were bound together.
For those who might not know, The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive is an online tool for the analysis and discussion of à la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). It’s a searchable database pairing all 336 church-related passages in the (translated) novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes. The search results also provide paratextual information about the pagination (it’s tied to a specific print edition), the story context (since the passages are violently decontextualized), and a set of associations (concepts, themes, important details, like tags in a blog) for each passage. My purpose in making it was to perform a meditation on the church motif in the Recherche as well as a study on the nature of narrative.
I think the archive could be a fertile space for collaborative discourse on Proust, narratology, technology, the future of the humanities, and other topics related to its mission. A brief example of that kind of discussion can be seen in this forum exchange on the classification of associations. Also, the church motif — which some might think too narrow — actually forms the central metaphor for the construction of the Recherche itself and has an almost universal valence within it. (More on that topic in this recent post on the archive blog).
Following the if:book model, the archive could also be a spawning pool for other scholars’ projects, where they can present and hone ideas in a concentrated, collaborative environment. Sort of like what the Institute did with Mitchell Stephens’ Without Gods and Holy of Holies, a move away from the ‘lone scholar in the archive’ model that still persists in academic humanities today.
One of the recurring points in our conversation at the Institute was that the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, as currently constructed around the church motif, is “my reading” of Proust. It might be difficult to get others on board if their readings — on gender, phenomenology, synaesthesia, or whatever else — would have little impact on the archive itself (as opposed to the discussion spaces). This complex topic and its practical ramifications were treated more fully in this recent post on the archive blog.
I’m really struck by the notion of a “reading” as not just a private experience or a public writing about a text, but also the building of a dynamic thing. This is certainly an advantage offered by social software and networked media, and I think the humanities should be exploring this kind of research practice in earnest. Most digital archives in my field provide material but go no further. That’s a good thing, of course, because many of them are immensely useful and important, such as the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Some archives — such as the NINES project — also allow readers to upload and tag content (subject to peer review). The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive differs from these in that it applies the archival model to perform criticism on a particular literary text, to document a single category of lexia for the experience and articulation of textuality.
American propaganda, WWI, depicting the destruction of Rheims CathedralIf the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive widens to enable readers to add passages according to their own readings (let’s pretend for the moment that copyright infringement doesn’t exist), to tag passages, add images, add video or music, and so on, it would eventually become a sprawling, unwieldy, and probably unbalanced mess. That is the very nature of an Archive. Fine. But then the original purpose of the project — doing focused literary criticism and a study of narrative — might be lost.
If the archive continues to be built along the church motif, there might be enough work to interest collaborators. The enhancements I currently envision include a French version of the search engine, the translation of some of the site into French, rewriting the search engine in PHP/MySQL, creating a folksonomic functionality for passages and images, and creating commentary space within the search results (and making that searchable). That’s some heavy work, and a grant would probably go a long way toward attracting collaborators.
So my sense is that the Proust archive could become one of two things, or two separate things. It could continue along its current ecclesiastical path as a focused and led project with more-or-less particular roles, which might be sufficient to allow collaborators a sense of ownership. Or it could become more encyclopedic (dare I say catholic?) like a wiki. Either way, the organizational and logistical practices would need to be carefully planned. Both ways offer different levels of open-endedness. And both ways dovetail with the very interesting discussion that has been happening around Ben’s recent post on the million penguins collaborative wiki-novel.
Right now I’m trying to get feedback on the archive in order to develop the best plan possible. I’ll be demonstrating it and raising similar questions at the Society for Textual Scholarship conference at NYU in mid-March. So please feel free to mention the archive to anyone who might be interested and encourage them to contact me at And please feel free to offer thoughts, comments, questions, criticism, etc. The discussion forum and blog are there to document the archive’s development as well.
Thanks for reading this very long post. It’s difficult to do anything small-scale with Proust!

a million penguins: a wiki-novelty

You may by now have heard about A Million Penguins, the wiki-novel experiment currently underway at Penguin Books. They’re trying to find out if a self-organizing collective of writers can produce a credible novel on a live website. A dubious idea if you believe a novel is almost by definition the product of a singular inspiration, but praiseworthy nonetheless for its experimental bravado.
penguins.jpg Already, they’ve run into trouble. Knowing a thing or two about publicity, Penguin managed to get a huge amount of attention to the site — probably too much — almost immediately. Hundreds of contributors have signed up: mostly earnest, some benignly mischievous, others bent wholly on disruption. I was reminded naturally of the LA Times’ ill-fated “wikitorial” experiment in June of ’05 in which readers were invited to rewrite the paper’s editorials. Within the first few hours, the LAT had its windshield wipers going at full speed and yet still they couldn’t keep up with the shit storm of vandalism that was unleashed — particularly one cyber-hooligan’s repeated posting of the notorious “goatse” image that has haunted many a dream. They canceled the experiment just two days after launch.
All signs indicate that Penguin will not be so easily deterred, though they are making various adjustments to the system as they go. In response to general frustration at the relentless pace of edits, they’re currently trying out a new policy of freezing the wiki for several hours each afternoon in order to create a stable “reading window” to help participants and the Penguin editors who are chronicling the process to get oriented. This seems like a good idea (flexibility is definitely the right editorial MO in a project like this). And unlike the LA Times they seem to have kept the spam and vandalism to within tolerable limits, in part with the help of students in the MA program in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, who are official partners in the project.
When I heard the De Montfort folks would be helping to steer the project I was excited. It’s hard to start a wiki project with no previously established community in the hot glare of a media spotlight . Having a group of experienced writers at the helm, or at least gently nudging the tiller — writers like Kate Pullinger, author of the Inanimate Alice series, who are tapped into the new forms and rhythms of the Net — seemed like a smart move that might lend the project some direction. But digging a bit through the talk pages and revision histories, I’ve found little discernible contribution from De Montfort other than spam cleanup and general housekeeping. A pity not to utilize them more. It would be great to hear their thoughts about all of this on the blog.
So anyway, the novel.
Not surprisingly it’s incoherent. You might get something similar if you took a stack of supermarket checkout lane potboilers and some Mad Libs and threw them in a blender. Far more interesting is the discussion page behind the novel where one can read the valiant efforts of participants to communicate with one another and to instill some semblance of order. Here are the battle wounded from the wiki fray… characters staggering about in search of an author. Writers in search of an editor. One person, obviously dismayed at the narrative’s dogged refusal to make sense, suggests building separate pages devoted exclusively to plotting out story arcs. Another exclaims: “THE STORY AS OF THIS MOMENT IS THE STORY – you are permitted to make slight changes in past, but concentrate on where we are now and move forward.” Another proceeds to forcefully disagree. Others, even more exasperated, propose forking the project into alternative novels and leaving the chaotic front page to the buzzards. How ironic it would be if each user ended up just creating their own page and writing the novel they wanted to write — alone.
Reading through these paratexts, I couldn’t help thinking that this was in fact the real story being written. Might the discussion page contain the seeds of a Tristram Shandyesque tale about a collaborative novel-writing experiment gone horribly awry, in which the much vaunted “novel” exists only in its total inability to be written?

*     *     *     *     *

The problem with A Million Penguins in a nutshell is that the concept of a “wiki-novel” is an oxymoron. A novel is probably as un-collaborative a literary form as you can get, while a wiki is inherently collaborative. Wikipedia works because encyclopedias were always in a sense collective works — distillations of collective knowledge — so the wiki was the right tool for reinventing that form. Here that tool is misapplied. Or maybe it’s the scale of participation that is the problem here. Too many penguins. I can see a wiki possibly working for a smaller narrative community.
All of this is not to imply that collaborative fiction is a pipe dream or that no viable new forms have yet been devised. Just read Sebastian Mary’s fascinating survey, published here a couple of weeks back, of emergent net-native literary forms and you’ll see that there’s plenty going on in other channels. In addition to some interesting reflections on YouTube, Mary talks about ARGs, or alternative reality games, a new participatory form in which communities of readers write the story as they go, blending fact and fiction, pulling in multiple media, and employing a range of collaborative tools. Perhaps most pertinent to Penguin’s novel experiment, Mary points out that the ARG typically is not a form in which stories are created out of whole cloth, rather they are patchworks, woven from the rich fragmentary litter of popular culture and the Web:

Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, ‘originality’, an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious ‘authoritative’ quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.

Penguin too had the whole wide Web to work with, not to mention the immense body of literature in its own publishing vault, which seems ripe for a remix or a collaborative cut-up session. But instead they chose the form that is probably most resistant to these new social forms of creativity. The result is a well intentioned but confused attempt at innovation. A novelty, yes. But a novel, not quite.

no, dammit that’s not what i meant . . . .

I had a very interesting discussion in London the other day with Seb Mary, a brilliant young woman who is exploring ways of using the online world to encourage new forms of community in the offline world. Mary’s most exciting initiatives, which are quite relevant to our interests here at the institute, are still under wraps and i promised not to write about them yet, but she did mention having coined the phrase “offline social software.” Amazingly when i typed the phrase into Google i got back “Did you mean “online social software.” Is Google trying to tell us something? Is the very concept of an offline existence unthinkable in the Googlesphere?
did you mean.jpg

the ethics of web applications

Eddie Tejeda, a talented web developer based here in Brooklyn who has been working with us of late, has a thought-provoking post on the need for a new software licensing paradigm for web-based applications:

When open source licenses were developed, we thought of software as something that processed local and isolated data, or sometimes data in a limited network. The ability to access or process that data depended on the ability to have the software installed on your machine.

Now more and more software is moving from local machines to the web, and with it an ever-increasing stockpile of our personal data and intellectual property (think webmail, free blog hosting like Blogger, MySpace and other social networking sites, and media-sharing sites like Flickr or YouTube). The question becomes: if software is no longer a tool that you install but rather a place to which you upload yourself, how is your self going to be protected? What should be the rules of this game?

social powerpointing, or, the darker side of flash

SlideShare is a new web application that lets you upload PowerPoint (.ppt and .pps) or OpenOffice (.odp) slideshows to the web for people to use and share. The site (which is in an invite-only beta right now, though accounts are granted within minutes of a request) feels a lot like the now-merged Google Video and YouTube. Slideshows come up with a unique url, copy-and-paste embed code for bloggers, tags, a comment stream and links to related shows. Clicking a “full” button on the viewer controls enlarges the slideshow to fill up most of the screen. Here’s one I found humorously diagramming soccer strategies from various national teams:

Another resemblance to Google Video and YouTube: SlideShare rides the tidal wave of Flash-based applications that has swept through the web over the past few years. By achieving near-ubiquity with its plugin, Flash has become the gel capsule that makes rich media content easy to swallow across platform and browser (there’s a reason that the web video explosion happened when it did, the way it did). But in a sneaky way, this has changed the nature of our web browsers, transforming them into something that more resembles a highly customizable TV set. And by this I mean to point out that Flash inhibits the creative reuse of the materials being delivered since Flash-wrapped video (or slideshows) can’t, to my knowledge, be easily broken apart and remixed.
Where once the “view source” ethic of web browsers reigned, allowing you to retrieve the underlying html code of any page and repurpose all or parts of it on your own site, the web is becoming a network of congealed packages — bite-sized broadcast units that, while nearly effortless to disseminate through linking and embedding, are much less easily reworked or repurposed (unless the source files are made available). The proliferation of rich media and dynamic interfaces across the web is no doubt exciting, but it’s worth considering this darker side.