Jason Ellis, now a prof at CUNY, made this video last spring to provide a detailed look at Voyager’s early efforts with electronic books.
This is the narrative text for an NEH Digital Humanities Start-UP grant we just applied for.
With the advent of the cd-rom in the late 80s, a few pioneering humanities scholars began to develop a new vocabulary for multi-layered, multi-modal digital publications. Since that time, the internet has emerged as a powerful engine for collaboration across peer networks, radically collapsing the distance between authors and readers and creating new communal spaces for work and review.
To date, these two evolutionary streams have been largely separate. Rich multimedia is still largely consigned to individual consumption on the desktop, while networked collaboration generally occurs around predominantly textual media such as the blogosphere, or bite-sized fragments on YouTube and elsewhere. We propose to carry out initial planning for two ambitious digital publishing projects that will merge these streams into powerfully integrated experiences.
Although the locus of scholarly discourse is slowly but clearly moving from bound/printed pages to networked screens, we’ve yet to reach the tipping point. The printed book is still the gold standard of the academy. The goal of these projects is to produce born-digital works that are as elegant as printed books and also draw on the power of audio and video illustrations and new models of community-based inquiry -? and do all of these so well that they inspire a generation of young scholars with the promise of digital scholarship.
Robert Winter’s CD Companion Series (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet, Dvorak’s New World Symphony) and the American Social History Project’s Who Built America? Volumes I and II were seminal works of multimedia scholarship and publishing. In their respective fields they were responsible for introducing and demonstrating the value of new media scholarship, as well as for setting a high standard for other work which followed.
Although these works were encoded on plastic cd-roms instead of on paper, they essentially followed the paradigm of print in the sense that they were page-based and very much the work of authors who took sole responsibility for the contents. The one obvious difference was the presence of audio and video illustrations on the page. This crucial advance allowed Robert Winter to provide a running commentary as readers listened to the music, or the Who Built America? authors to provide valuable supplementary materials and primary source documents such as William Jennings Bryan reading his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, or moving oral histories from the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.
Since the release of these cd-roms, the internet and world wide web have come to the fore and upended the print-centric paradigm of reading as a solitary activity, moving it towards a more communal, networked model. As an example, three years ago my colleagues and I at the Institute for the Future of the Book began a series of “networked book” experiments to understand what happens when you locate a book in the dynamic social space of the Web. McKenzie Wark, a communication theorist and professor at The New School, had recently completed a draft of a serious theoretical work on video games. We put that book, Gamer Theory, online in a form adapted from conventional blog templates that allowed readers to post comments on individual paragraphs. While commenting on blogs is commonplace, readers’ comments invariably appear below the author’s text, usually hidden from sight in an endlessly scrolling field. Instead we put the reader’s comments directly to the right of Wark’s text, indicating that reader input would be an integral part of the whole. Within hours of the book’s “publication” on the web, page margins began to be populated with a lively back-and-forth among readers and with the author. As early reviewers said, it was no longer simply the author speaking, but rather the book itself, as the conversation in the margins became an intrinsic and important part of the whole.
The traditional top-down hierarchy of print, in which authors deliver wisdom from on high to receptive readers, was disrupted and replaced by a new model in which both authors and readers actively pursued knowledge and understanding. I’m not suggesting that our experiment caused this change, but rather that it has shed light on a process that is already well underway, helping to expose and emphasize the ways in which writing and reading are increasingly socially mediated activities.
Thanks to extraordinary recent advances, both technical and conceptual, we can imagine new multi-mediated forms of expression that leverage the web’s abundant resources more fully and are driven by networked communities of which readers and authors can work together to advance knowledge.
Let’s consider Who Built America?
In 1991, before going into production, we spent a full year in conversation with the book’s authors, Steve Brier and Josh Brown, mulling over the potential of an electronic edition. We realized that a history text is essentially a synthesis of the author’s interpretation and analysis of original source documents, and also of the works of other historians, as well as conversations in the scholarly community at large. We decided to make those layers more visible, taking advantage of the multimedia affordances and storage capacity of the cd-rom. We added hundreds of historical documents -? text, pictures, audio, video -? woven into dozens of “excursions” distributed throughout the text. These encouraged the student to dig deeper beneath encouraged them to interrogate the author’s conclusions and perhaps even come up with alternative analyses.
Re-imagining Who Built America? in the context of a dynamic network (rather than a frozen cd-rom), promises exciting new possibilities. Here are just a few:
• Access to source documents can be much more extensive and diverse, freed from the storage constraints of the cd-rom, as well as from many of the copyright clearance issues.
• Dynamic comment fields enable classes to produce their own unique editions. A discussion that began in the classroom can continue in the margins of the page, flowing seamlessly between school and home.
• The text continuously evolves, as authors add new findings and engage with readers who have begun to learn history by “doing” history, adding new research and alternative syntheses. Steve Brier tells a wonderful story about a high school class in a small town in central Ohio where the students and their teacher discovered some unknown letters from one of the earliest African-American trade union leaders in the late nineteenth century, making an important contribution to the historical record.
In short, we are re-imagining a history text as a networked, multi-layered learning environment in which authors and readers, teachers and students, work collaboratively.
Over the past months I’ve had several conversations with Brier and Brown about a completely new “networked” version of Who Built America?. They are excited about the possibility and have a good grasp of the challenges and potential. A good indication of this is Steve Brier’s comment: “If we’re going to expect readers to participate in these ways, we’re going to have to write in a whole new way.”
Discussions with Robert Winter have focused less on re-working the existing CD-Companions (which were monumental works) than on trying to figure out how to develop a template for a networked library of close readings of iconic musical compositions. The original CD-Companions existed as individual titles, isolated from one another. The promise of networked scholarship means that over time Winter and his readers will weave a rich tapestry of cross-links that map interconnections between different compositions, between different musical styles and techniques, and between music and other cultural forms. The original CD-Companions were done when computers had low-resolution black and white screens with extremely primitive audio capabilities and no video at all. High resolution color screens and sophisticated audio and video tools open up myriad possibilities for examining and contextualizing musical compositions. Particularly exciting is the prospect of harnessing Winter’s legendary charismatic teaching style via the creative, yet judicious use of video.
We are seeking a Level One Start-Up grant to hold a pair of two-day symposia, one devoted to each project. Each meeting will bring together approximately a dozen people -? the authors, designers, leading scholars from various related disciplines, and experts in building web-based communities around scholarly topics -? to brainstorm about how these projects might best be realized. We will publish the proceedings of these meetings online in such a way that interested parties can join the discussion and deepen our collective understanding. Finally, we will write a grant proposal to submit to foundations for funds to build out the projects in their entirety. The work described here will take place over a five-month period beginning September 2008 and ending February 2009.
Some of the questions to be addressed at the symposia are:
• what are new graphical and information design paradigms for orienting readers and enabling them to navigate within a multi-layered, multi-modal work?
• how do you distinguish between the reading space and the work space? how porous is the boundary between them?
• what do readers expect of authors in the context of a “networked” book?
• what new authorial skill sets need to be cultivated?
• what range of mechanisms for reader participation and author/reader interaction should we explore? (i.e. blog-style commenting, social filtering, rating mechanisms, annotation tools, social bookmarking/curating, personalized collection-building, tagging, etc.)
• how do readers become “trusted” within an open community? what are the social protocols required for a successful community-based project: terms of participation, quality control/vetting procedures, delegation of roles etc.
what does “community” mean in the context of a specific scholarly work?
• how will scholars and students cite the contents of dynamic, evolving works that are not “stable” like printed pages? how does the project get archived? how do you deal with versioning?
• if asynchronous online conversation becomes a powerful new mode of developing scholarship, how do we visualize these conversations and make them navigable, readable, and enjoyable?
Video Demo for Who Built America? (circa 1993)
Video Demo for the Rite of Spring (circa 1990)
Introduction to the CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (circa 1989)
So Noah’s just wrapped up the blog peer review of his manuscript in progress, and is currently debating whether to post the final, unfinished chapter. He’s also just received the blind peer reviews from MIT Press and is in the process of comparing them with the online discussion. That’ll all be written up soon, we’re still discussing format.
Meanwhile, Ian Bogost (the noted game designer, critic and professor) started an interesting thread a couple of weeks back on the troubles of reading Expressive Processing, and by extension, any long-form text or argument, on the Web:
The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book…
…in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.
I want to give a shout out to a wonderful new project by a dear friend of ours. So When Are You Going to Retire? is -? or will be, or is in the process of becoming -? a book exploring questions of age, work and identity through the stories of people over 80 who continue, against the odds, to work for a living. As of very recently, the author, Ashton Applewhite, has begun documenting her research on a very attractive new weblog, and is inviting readers, writers and experts in the field to join her in conversations and story sharing that hopefully will shape the book’s development. In an email, Ashton explained to me why she’s doing this:
I’m a generalist writing about a broad topic: people in their 80s and 90s who are still in the workforce, and what we can learn from them. Following on the Institute’s work with Siva and Mitchell Stephens, I’m excited about using the blog as a mechanism for thinking out loud as I go through my material, formulate the themes of the book, and write the proposal. I think that ongoing feedback from experts (gerontologists, social scientists, demographers, etc.) and discerning readers will sharpen and inform my thinking -? in other words, that the network will help me build a better book. I also think i’ll end up with a valuable platform for leveraging and disseminating my work over the long run -? one that could radically revise conventional notions of shelf life. Cutting Loose, my book about women and divorce (HarperCollins, 1997) is still in print; imagine what sales would look like if it were at the hub of an ongoing social network, and what a rich site that would be?
Though this isn’t an officially Institute-sponsored project, we’ve done a fair bit of kibbitzing from the sidelines on the conceptual layout of the site and on general strategies for writing it (this being Ashton’s first foray into blogging). We’re also brainstorming with Ashton on that most crucial of issues: building an audience. Most of our networked book projects have been on technology or media-related subjects that naturally appeal to online readerships and get picked up easily in the blogospheric grapevine. Ashton’s book doesn’t have such an obviously built-in wired constituency, although its potential readership is far broader and more diverse than that of any of the works we’ve published. I imagine it will be a gradual, word of mouth kind of thing.
So check out Ashton’s rich and inviting site, join the conversation, and spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested. If you know of any specific sites or online communities that Ashton might want to connect with, let her know through the “email me” link near the top of her site. There’s already quite a lot to delve into since Ashton’s been blogging under the radar for the past several months, cutting her teeth on the form and piling up some wonderful stories (many of which you can listen to in audio). Help start building this network, and this book.
Back in December we announced the launch of Flight Paths, a “networked novel” that is currently being written by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph with feedback and contributions from readers. At that point, the Web presence for the project was a simple CommentPress blog where readers could post stories, images, multimedia and links, and weigh in on the drafting of terms and conditions for participation. Since then, Kate and Chris have been working on setting up a more flexible curatorial environment, and just this week they unveiled a lovely new Flight Paths site made in Netvibes.
Netvibes is a web-based application (still in beta) that allows you to build personalized start pages composed of widgets and modules which funnel in content from various data sources around the net (think My Yahoo! or iGoogle but with much more ability to customize). This is a great tool to try out for a project that is being composed partly out of threads and media fragments from around the Web. The blog is still embedded as a central element, and is still the primary place for reader-collaborators to contribute, but there are now several new galleries where reader-submitted works can be featured and explored. It’s a great new platform and an inventive solution to one of CommentPress’s present problems: that it’s good at gathering content but not terribly good at presenting it. Take a look, and please participate if you feel inspired.
Multimedia gallery on the new Flight Paths site
Two weeks ago, when the blog-based peer review of Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing began on Grand Text Auto, Bob sent a note about the project to Don Waters, the program officer for scholarly communications at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation -? someone very much at the forefront of developments in the digital publishing arena. He wrote back intrigued but slightly puzzled as to the goals, scope and definitions of the experiment. We forwarded the note to Noah and to Doug Sery, Noah’s editor at MIT Press, and decided each to write some clarifying responses from our different perspectives: book author/blogger (Noah), book editor (Doug), and web editor (myself). The result is an interesting exchange about networked publishing and useful meta-document about the project. As our various responses, and Don’s subsequent reply, help to articulate, playing with new forms of peer review is only one aspect of this experiment, and maybe not even the most interesting one. The exchange is reproduced below (a couple of names mentioned have been made anonymous).
Don Waters (Mellon Foundation):
Thanks, Bob. This is a very interesting idea. In reading through the materials, however, I did not really understand how, if at all, this “experiment” would affect MIT Press behavior. What are the hypotheses being tested in that regard? I can see, from one perspective, that this “experiment” would result purely in more work for everyone. The author would get the benefit of the “crowd” commenting on his work, and revise accordingly, and then the Press would still send the final product out for peer review and copy editing prior to final publication.
Ben Vershbow (Institute for the Future of the Book):
There are a number of things we set out to learn here. First, can an open, Web-based review process make a book better? Given the inherently inter-disciplinary nature of Noah’s book, and the diversity of the Grand Text Auto readership, it seems fairly likely that exposing the manuscript to a broader range of critical first-responders will bring new things to light and help Noah to hone his argument. As can be seen in his recap of discussions around the first chapter, there have already been a number of incisive critiques that will almost certainly impact subsequent revisions.
Second, how can we use available web technologies to build community around a book, or to bring existing communities into a book’s orbit? “Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in a provocative essay in the latest issue of Harper’s. For the past three years, the Institute for the Future of the Book’s mission has been to push beyond the comfort zone of traditional publishers, exploring the potential of networked technologies to enlarge the social dimensions of books. By building a highly interactive Web component to a text, where the author and his closest peers are present and actively engaged, and where the entire text is accessible with mechanisms for feedback and discussion, we believe the book will occupy a more lively and relevant place in the intellectual ecology of the Internet and probably do better overall in the offline arena as well.
The print book may have some life left in it yet, but it now functions within a larger networked commons. To deny this could prove fatal for publishers in the long run. Print books today need dynamic windows into the Web and publishers need to start experimenting with the different forms those windows could take or else retreat further into marginality. Having direct contact with the author -? being part of the making of the book -? is a compelling prospect for the book’s core audience and their enthusiasm is likely to spread. Certainly, it’s too early to make a definitive assessment about the efficacy of this Web outreach strategy, but initial indicators are very positive. Looked at one way, it certainly does create more work for everyone, but this is work that has to be done. At the bare minimum, we are building marketing networks and generating general excitement about the book. Already, the book has received a great deal of attention around the blogosphere, not just because of its novelty as a publishing experiment, but out of genuine interest in the subject matter and author. I would say that this is effort well spent.
It’s important to note that, despite CHE’s lovely but slightly sensational coverage of this experiment as a kind of mortal combat between traditional blind peer review and the new blog-based approach, we view the two review processes as complementary, not competitive. At the end, we plan to compare the different sorts of feedback the two processes generate. Our instinct is that it will suggest hybrid models rather than a wholesale replacement of one system with another.
That being said, our instincts tell us that open blog-based review (or other related forms) will become increasingly common practice among the next generation of academic writers in the humanities. The question for publishers is how best to engage with, and ideally incorporate, these new practices. Already, we see a thriving culture of pre-publication peer review in the sciences, and major publishers such as Nature are beginning to build robust online community infrastructures so as to host these kinds of interactions within their own virtual walls. Humanities publishers should be thinking along the same lines, and partnerships with respected blogging communities like GTxA are a good way to start experimenting. In a way, the MIT-GTxA collab represents an interface not just of two ideas of peer review but between two kinds of publishing imprints. Both have built a trusted name and become known for a particular editorial vision in their respective (and overlapping) communities. Each excels in a different sort of publishing, one print-based, the other online community-based. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts and suggest a new idea of publishing that treats books as extended processes rather than products. MIT may regard this as an interesting but not terribly significant side project for now, but it could end up having a greater impact on the press (and hopefully on other presses) than they expect.
All the best,
Noah Wardrip-Fruin (author, UC San Diego):
Hi Bob –
Yesterday I went to meet some people at a game company. There’s a lot of expertise there – and actually quite a bit of reflection on what they’re doing, how to think about it, and so on. But they don’t participate in academic peer review. They don’t even read academic books. But they do read blogs, and sometimes comment on them, and I was pleased to hear that there are some Grand Text Auto readers there.
If they comment on the Expressive Processing manuscript, it will create more work for me in one sense. I’ll have to think about what they say, perhaps respond, and perhaps have to revise my text. But, from my perspective, this work is far outweighed by the potential benefits: making a better book, deepening my thinking, and broadening the group that feels academic writing and publishing is potentially relevant to them.
What makes this an experiment, from my point of view, is the opportunity to also compare what I learn from the blog-based peer review to what I learn from the traditional peer review. However, this will only be one data point. We’ll need to do a number of these, all using blogs that are already read by the audience we hope will participate in the peer review. When we have enough data points perhaps we’ll start to be able to answer some interesting questions. For example, is this form of review more useful in some cases than others? Is the feedback from the two types of review generally overlapping or divergent? Hopefully we’ll learn some lessons that presses like MITP can put into practice – suggesting blog-based review when it is most appropriate, for example. With those lessons learned, it will be time to design the next experiment.
Doug Sery (MIT Press):
I know Don’s work in digital libraries and preservation, so I’m not surprised at the questions. While I don’t know the breadth of the discussions Noah and Ben had around this project, I do know that Noah and I approached this in a very casual manner. Noah has expressed his interest in “open communication” any number of times and when he mentioned that he’d like to “crowd-source” “Expressive Processing” on Grand Text Auto I agreed to it with little hesitation, so I’m not sure I’d call it an experiment. There are no metrics in place to determine whether this will affect sales or produce a better book. I don’t see this affecting the way The MIT Press will approach his book or publishing in general, at least for the time being.
This is not competing with the traditional academic press peer-review, although the CHE article would lead the reader to believe otherwise (Jeff obviously knows how to generate interest in a topic, which is fine, but even a games studies scholar, in a conversation I had with him today, laughingly called the headline “tabloidesque.”) . While Noah is posting chapters on his blog, I’m having the first draft peer-reviewed. After the peer-reviews come in, Noah and I will sit down to discuss them to see if any revisions to the manuscript need to be made. I don’t plan on going over the GTxA comments with Noah, unless I happen to see something that piques my interest, so I don’t see any additional work having to be done on the part of MITP. It’s a nice way for Noah to engage with the potential audience for his ideas, which I think is his primary goal for all of this. So, I’m thinking of this more as an exercise to see what kind of interest people have in these new tools and/or mechanisms. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience that MITP can use as we explore new models of publishing.
Hope this helps and that all’s well.
Thanks, Bob (and friends) for this helpful and informative feedback.
As I understand the explanations, there is a sense in which the experiment is not aimed at “peer review” at all in the sense that peer review assesses the qualities of a work to help the publisher determine whether or not to publish it. What the exposure of the work-in-progress to the community does, besides the extremely useful community-building activity, is provide a mechanism for a function that is now all but lost in scholarly publishing, namely “developmental editing.” It is a side benefit of current peer review practice that an author gets some feedback on the work that might improve it, but what really helps an author is close, careful reading by friends who offer substantive criticism and editorial comments. Most accomplished authors seek out such feedback in a variety of informal ways, such as sending out manuscripts in various stages of completion to their colleagues and friends. The software that facilitates annotation and the use of the network, as demonstrated in this experiment, promise to extend this informal practice to authors more generally. I may have the distinction between peer review and developmental editing wrong, or you all may view the distinction as mere quibbling, but I think it helps explain why CHE got it so wrong in reporting the experiment as struggle between peer review and the blog-based approach. Two very different functions are being served, and as you all point out, these are complementary rather than competing functions.
I am very intrigued by the suggestions that scholarly presses need to engage in this approach more generally, and am eagerly learning from this and related experiments, such as those at Nature and elsewhere, more about the potential benefits of this kind of approach.
Great work and many thanks for the wonderful (and kind) responses.
To mark the posting of the final chunk of chapter 1 of the Expressive Processing manuscript on Grand Text Auto, Noah has kicked off what will hopefully be a revealing meta-discussion to run alongside the blog-based peer review experiment. The first meta post includes a roundup of comments from the first week and invites readers to comment on the process as a whole. As you’ll see, there’s already been some incisive feedback and Noah is mulling over revisions. Chapter 2 starts tomorrow.
In case you missed it, here’s an intro to the project.
An exciting new experiment begins today, one which ties together many of the threads begun in our earlier “networked book” projects, from Without Gods to Gamer Theory to CommentPress. It involves a community, a manuscript, and an open peer review process -? and, very significantly, the blessing of a leading academic press. (The Chronicle of Higher Education also reports.)
The community in question is Grand Text Auto, a popular multi-author blog about all things relating to digital narrative, games and new media, which for many readers here, probably needs no further introduction. The author, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a professor of communication at UC San Diego, a writer/maker of digital fictions, and, of course, a blogger at GTxA. His book, which starting today will be posted in small chunks, open to reader feedback, every weekday over a ten-week period, is called Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. It probes the fundamental nature of digital media, looking specifically at the technical aspects of creation -? the machines and software we use, the systems and processes we must learn end employ in order to make media -? and how this changes how and what we create. It’s an appropriate guinea pig, when you think about it, for an open review experiment that implicitly asks, how does this new technology (and the new social arrangements it makes possible) change how a book is made?
The press that has given the green light to all of this is none other than MIT, with whom Noah has published several important, vibrantly inter-disciplinary anthologies of new media writing. Expressive Processing his first solo-authored work with the press, will come out some time next year but now is the time when the manuscript gets sent out for review by a small group of handpicked academic peers. Doug Sery, the editor at MIT, asked Noah who would be the ideal readers for this book. To Noah, the answer was obvious: the Grand Text Auto community, which encompasses not only many of Noah’s leading peers in the new media field, but also a slew of non-academic experts -? writers, digital media makers, artists, gamers, game designers etc. -? who provide crucial alternative perspectives and valuable hands-on knowledge that can’t be gotten through more formal channels. Noah:
Blogging has already changed how I work as a scholar and creator of digital media. Reading blogs started out as a way to keep up with the field between conferences — and I soon realized that blogs also contain raw research, early results, and other useful information that never gets presented at conferences. But, of course, that’s just the beginning. We founded Grand Text Auto, in 2003, for an even more important reason: blogs can create community. And the communities around blogs can be much more open and welcoming than those at conferences and festivals, drawing in people from industry, universities, the arts, and the general public. Interdisciplinary conversations happen on blogs that are more diverse and sustained than any I’ve seen in person.
Given that ours is a field in which major expertise is located outside the academy (like many other fields, from 1950s cinema to Civil War history) the Grand Text Auto community has been invaluable for my work. In fact, while writing the manuscript for Expressive Processing I found myself regularly citing blog posts and comments, both from Grand Text Auto and elsewhere….I immediately realized that the peer review I most wanted was from the community around Grand Text Auto.
Sery was enthusiastic about the idea (although he insisted that the traditional blind review process proceed alongside it) and so Noah contacted me about working together to adapt CommentPress to the task at hand.
The challenge technically was to integrate CommentPress into an existing blog template, applying its functionality selectively -? in other words, to make it work for a specific group of posts rather than for all content in the site. We could have made a standalone web site dedicated to the book, but the idea was to literally weave sections of the manuscript into the daily traffic of the blog. From the beginning, Noah was very clear that this was the way it needed to work, insisting that the social and technical integration of the review process were inseparable. I’ve since come to appreciate how crucial this choice was for making a larger point about the value of blog-based communities in scholarly production, and moreover how elegantly it chimes with the central notions of Noah’s book: that form and content, process and output, can never truly be separated.
Up to this point, CommentPress has been an all or nothing deal. You can either have a whole site working with paragraph-level commenting, or not at all. In the technical terms of WordPress, its platform, CommentPress is a theme: a template for restructuring an entire blog to work with the CommentPress interface. What we’ve done -? with the help of a talented WordPress developer named Mark Edwards, and invaluable guidance and insight from Jeremy Douglass of the Software Studies project at UC San Diego (and the Writer Response Theory blog) -? is made CommentPress into a plugin: a program that enables a specific function on demand within a larger program or site. This is an important step for CommentPress, giving it a new flexibility that it has sorely lacked and acknowledging that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Just to be clear, these changes are not yet packaged into the general CommentPress codebase, although they will be before too long. A good test run is still needed to refine the new model, and important decisions have to be made about the overall direction of CommentPress: whether from here it definitively becomes a plugin, or perhaps forks into two paths (theme and plugin), or somehow combines both options within a single package. If you have opinions on this matter, we’re all ears…
But the potential impact of this project goes well beyond the technical.
It represents a bold step by a scholarly press -? one of the most distinguished and most innovative in the world -? toward developing new procedures for vetting material and assuring excellence, and more specifically, toward meaningful collaboration with existing online scholarly communities to develop and promote new scholarship.
It seems to me that the presses that will survive the present upheaval will be those that learn to productively interact with grassroots publishing communities in the wild of the Web and to adopt the forms and methods they generate. I don’t think this will be a simple story of the blogosphere and other emerging media ecologies overthrowing the old order. Some of the older order will die off to be sure, but other parts of it will adapt and combine with the new in interesting ways. What’s particularly compelling about this present experiment is that it has the potential to be (perhaps now or perhaps only in retrospect, further down the line) one of these important hybrid moments -? a genuine, if slightly tentative, interface between two publishing cultures.
Whether the MIT folks realize it or not (their attitude at the outset seems to be respectful but skeptical), this small experiment may contain the seeds of larger shifts that will redefine their trade. The most obvious changes leveled on publishing by the Internet, and the ones that get by far the most attention, are in the area of distribution and economic models. The net flattens distribution, making everyone a publisher, and radically undercuts the heretofore profitable construct of copyright and the whole system of information commodities. The effects are less clear, however, in those hardest to pin down yet most essential areas of publishing -? the territory of editorial instinct, reputation, identity, trust, taste, community… These are things that the best print publishers still do quite well, even as their accounting departments and managing directors descend into panic about the great digital undoing. And these are things that bloggers and bookmarkers and other web curators, archivists and filterers are also learning to do well -? to sift through the information deluge, to chart a path of quality and relevance through the incredible, unprecedented din.
This is the part of publishing that is most important, that transcends technological upheaval -? you might say the human part. And there is great potential for productive alliances between print publishers and editors and the digital upstarts. By delegating half of the review process to an existing blog-based peer community, effectively plugging a node of his press into the Web-based communications circuit, Doug Sery is trying out a new kind of editorial relationship and exercising a new kind of editorial choice. Over time, we may see MIT evolve to take on some of the functions that blog communities currently serve, to start providing technical and social infrastructure for authors and scholarly collectives, and to play the valuable (and time-consuming) roles of facilitator, moderator and curator within these vast overlapping conversations. Fostering, organizing, designing those conversations may well become the main work of publishing and of editors.
I could go on, but better to hold off on further speculation and to just watch how it unfolds. The Expressive Processing peer review experiment begins today (the first actual manuscript section is here) and will run for approximately ten weeks and 100 thousand words on Grand Text Auto, with a new post every weekday during that period. At the end, comments will be sorted, selected and incorporated and the whole thing bundled together into some sort of package for MIT. We’re still figuring out how that part will work. Please go over and take a look and if a thought is provoked, join the discussion.
On New Year’s Eve, I got lost in Yonkers trying to take my son’s gently-used toys to the Salvation Army. The Yonkers store was the only one I could find willing to take them. The guy on the phone hesitated, “Are they in good condition?” he asked, clearly unhappy about my impending donation. I assured him they were, and he sighed and told me to come on over.
On principle, I try (really hard) to give away anything that is not completely worn out. But it is getting harder and harder to do. Nobody wants my old furniture or clothes or books. And they especially don’t want used children’s toys. My attempt to give them away was ill-fated. A police barricade stopped me at Nepperhan Avenue (a construction site disaster). Then I drove around for forty minutes until I found an alternate route but was twarted at Ashburton Ave (building on fire, streets blocked). I gave up and went home. With stomach full of guilt, I put the plastic toys in the dumpster. My son didn’t mind because he had a brand new pile of toys in his playroom, Christmas gifts from relatives and friends who couldn’t be dissuaded.
Point is, it seems increasingly difficult to opt out of the cycle of waste-creation. Plastic kids’ toys are just one example. I’m also guilty of consuming and transforming lots of other things into waste: clothes, computers, cell phones, magazines, all sorts of complicatedly-packaged food and beverage items, etc… So yesterday, when I contemplated how best to spend 2008, I decided to focus on figuring out how to create a more sustainable lifestyle. And since I work in book publishing, job one is to figure out what it means to create a sustainable book. Lots of models come to mind. Good ones like Wikipedia (device-neutral and always in the latest, free, edition) and bad ones like the Kindle, (which tries to create a market for an ebook reader with designed obsolescence).
Anyway, I thought it might be useful to weave the sustainability discussion into if:book’s ongoing consideration of networked ebooks, because at this stage in their developement, networked books could be shaped with sustainability in mind. So, I’m hoping to stir up some interesting discussion and serious contemplation of the perfectly sustainable book: one that is constantly revised, but never needs to be reprinted (or repurchased); one that is lean and simple and doesn’t require a small server farm or a special device; one that makes an enormous impact, but leaves a teeny tiny carbon footprint; one we can live with for ever and ever without getting bored or satiated.