The Body of the Text: When Materiality is No Longer Marginal


Given that, as I mentioned in my last piece, and as Sally Ball touches on in her second missive, some writers fear new media and digital publishing, concerned both about the sustainability of Kindle, iPad, and Nook platforms and over whether an e-book will “respect” their line breaks and, by extension, authorial intent, where is the real innovation happening in digital writing and publishing? Which experiments look promising for the potentials of digital storytelling?

Publishers have embraced the enhanced e-book as the future, embedding additional materials around a text (like bonus features on a Laserdisc or DVD). These materials can certainly deepen the reading experience, but they are predicated on our interest in interviews, videos, typescripts, and manuscript editions of a given work (I do, actually, want this material when reading Shakespeare or watching a Merce Cunningham dance). But such material remains paratextual, it is extra, rather than being integral.

Some of the most interesting experiments in the book and bookishness are those in which form and content interlink—as they do in the artist’s book—treating the object as an interface we do not simply look through or beyond (Michael Simeone informs me that when we read, in fact, our eyes are literally focused on a point just beyond the surface of the page). These projects embrace the affordances (and work with the constraints) of digital platforms to create “books” that engage the act of reading as a physical, embodied experience, even when mediated through a screen. I am interested in reading experiences that embrace embodied (or haptic) reading via touch, gesture, and sound (especially interactive binaural audio). These projects are not “the future” of the book, but they are forays into the present moment, and experiments at the edge of possibility—immersive experiences that do not pretend reading is a disembodied experience, either on the part of the reader or the text itself (which, of course, has a body of its own).

I’m especially excited about Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro’s forthcoming Pry, a novel for iPad about a soldier dealing with PTSD whose memories and imagination are layered vividly upon one another in a narrative that is itself a palimpsest of video, text, and sound. Pry takes advantage of the potential of the iPad to facilitate alternative approaches to storytelling. Not a “book,” “game,” or “film,” the project encompasses aspects of all three, creating an immersive (not to mention beautifully-designed) reading experience. Perhaps more importantly to me, Pry makes the medium through which readers encounter it part of the text. Nothing is paratextual, all is integral to the work. By prying open the text with her fingertips, the reader goes deeper into the protagonist’s subconscious, learning more about why James has hidden certain memories away and masked others with imagined experience. Elsewhere, one can force him to open his eyes and confront the external world, which he can only do in bursts due to an injury about which we learn as the story unfolds (or as we unfold it).

[vimeo vimeourl=”78973518″ ][/vimeo]

Erik Loyer’s Opertoon has put out some of the most sophisticated app-based reading experiences I have seen, including “Strange Rain,” in which the reader can control the first-person speaker’s meditative state through touch as he watches the sky during a downpour. Opertoon recently ventured into gesture-based reading with Breathing Room, a project for Leap Motion that allows the reader to navigate a landscape with a wave of the hand. Unlike visions of heads-up augmented reality interfaces that act like invisible screens (drag items from one place to another with your hands, double click with your fingertips), this work uses gesture as a metaphor for the act of reading itself (or this is how I read the interface): when you wave your hand, a gust of wind tosses the trees onscreen, clouds drift and shift depending on the speed of your movement, and the sound of a breath suggests the landscape itself is breathing, the reader providing the oxygen that activates the text. Loyer describes the work as a graphic novel, in part because the images and text onscreen appear in panels that suggest time’s passage through juxtaposition. One can reverse time, however, dialing back the clock by spiraling one’s finger in space, a beautiful and rewarding experience in which the role of the reader in traversing a text becomes tactile and present.

[youtube youtubeurl=”01Kf9T7o2Zs” ][/youtube]

Even as publishers experiment with enhanced e-books that include a range of bells and whistles built around the text, these creators are integrating them into the narrative and aesthetic experience. These innovations are not driven by market concerns, but by the desire to tell specific kinds of stories using the material at hand, whether that be a beautiful accordion fold-out book like Anne Carson’s Nox, which Sally Ball has described, or in a short story we navigate through spatialized binaural sound. I admire the way the interface is integral to the work in both of the cases described above, and I am reminded of Johanna Drucker’s claim that the book is better thought of as a “call” to a storage mechanism that can take many different forms (2013). Or, as Craig Dworkin puts it in No Medium (2013):

As much acts of interpretation as material things, as much processes as objects, media are not merely storage mechanisms somehow independent of the acts of reading or recognizing the signs they record.

It’s not that the medium is the message, but that the message is aware of its medium and its reader, working with and against the technical supports that underlie it. Creative practices can be invigorated by these constraints, particularly if they avoid the trap of thinking of reading, in any form, as immaterial.

My trajectory in these essays/posts/parries has been from the immaterial to the material, from the way cut and paste scraping facilitates the printing of unpublishable texts to app-based books that integrate their interface into their narratives. Or is it the other way around? Those first books take part in the tradition of the artist’s book as democratic multiple, they give material form to work that could have remained purely conceptual. Perhaps immateriality does not exist at all, even in the sort of “asocial” reading Dennis Tenen describes, where it feels as though the world beyond the text has disappeared. The body of the reader and the body of the book may be taken for granted, but they never disappear, leaving print and digital reading intertwined by material threads.

Bad Links


It is my intention here to convince you that links are bad. They are bad when it comes to writing for the web in general, bad for books, bad for long-form journalism, and even worse in academic publication. It is not that I am against the idea of links. As we will see here, the problem lies in the way links are used. That is also to say that we can do something about using links better. But first, why are links so bad?

To start with, links are opaque. The worst of lot are links like this and this. Of the two “thises,” the first leads us to Google and the second to Bing. But your readers would not know that just by looking at the text. The best they can do is “hover” over the word with their mouse cursor, relying on the browser interface to show them where the link is going. And once they get there, there are no easy ways to get back. The writer must have faith in the browser to “do the right thing” in guiding the reader through an intertextual maze. And that is not right when it comes to writing. In most situations, the author should architect that experience explicitly. If you think about it, the old-fashioned apparatus of quoting an external text is itself a type of linking. But rather than quoting the whole text, the author only quotes the relevant bits. Sending readers away to do that work on their own is lazy and irresponsible. Imagine a tour guide who tells his tourists to “just go over there and look at some stuff,” and “come back when you’re done.” Links can be that disorienting.

Links disrupt the reading experience, and that is the second reason for why links are bad. It is possible that you want the reader’s experience to be disrupted. But in many cases you don’t. And the reader is already distracted by the proliferation of parallel windows and devices that augment their reading in some way. Do we need to make that distraction easier? Should I link the Wikipedia article on media multitasking or is it enough for my purposes to simply mention Wikipedia, or to trust my reader to look something up later, in a reference source of their own choosing? Or better yet, should I help the reader along by summarizing the findings? It mentions that most folks already read with a second screen in tow. It is not that unusual to see someone look something up on their phone or tablet while reading a newspaper or an e-book. Why? Because they don’t want to leave the flow of the first screen. There is great pleasure in immersive, uninterrupted reading.

Besides being disruptive, links are ugly. They are ugly together, as in when many links conspire to produce a tangled mess. And they are also ugly when naked on their own, like this: That string of characters is not meant for human consumption! The period at the end kills me entirely. Meaningless punctuation inside of links coupled with regular punctuation ruins the sentence and the paragraph. Of course, I could just tell you to read something on Google Docs. That looks much better, but then we are making the opaqueness problem worse by hiding the address behind words that may or may not be related to the destination. It seems that we are stuck compromising on either transparency, reading flow, or visual impact.

Links aren’t very secure to begin with, but hiding links behind words further compromises security. You’ve probably heard of link-baiting: the purposefully malicious attempts to trick a reader into revealing personal information when following a link that masquerades as a legitimate destination. You can visit my site to learn more about link-baiting. You shouldn’t have clicked that! (Don’t worry, that was the real Google login page.) But even if one means well, viruses and browser exploits can inject bad links into your otherwise legitimate ones. A common technique is to install a browser script along with some seemingly useful “search bar” that will redirect all legitimate links to a site that makes money by advertising. Worse yet, you could end up on a site that attempts to further compromise your computer. Links are not secure because in linking, we outsource the relationship between reader and content to the browser.

Links are opaque, disruptive, ugly, unsafe, and they rot. Links don’t last because the content at the address is dynamic. It is not guaranteed to be there decades, months, minutes after your initial visit. In that case, why even bother? The link works best for ephemeral output (like a tweet). We must think of something much more robust for any “serious” writing that hopes to survive to the end of the week. And for the really good stuff, the kind of stuff that is the purview of librarians, we need to cultivate sustainable, long-lasting, responsible practices of online citation. It should work as well, if not better, than the familiar bibliographic citation in print. This practice should combat digital decay, not aid it. We need to think about the ways our links can be accessed, mined, and preserved with the archive-grade zeal of the rare book librarian.

Finally, links are terrible for accessibility. It is bad enough that clicking on a small word like this is difficult for people with any sort of fine-motor control problems. Being a little older in itself can make the online reading experience painful. Things are much worse for those with Parkinson’s or for the blind. Sina Bahram, a blind usability expert (who is himself blind) reports that some sites contain thousands (!) of links in advance of actual content. Screen readers for the blind must read each one of them out loud. For the screen reader, there is no difference between garbage links and useful content. If you thought looking at links is disruptive, imagine listening to a robotic voice that pronounces every slash and every useless number in: And that is why Sina Bahram listens to his reader at 950 words per minute.

Any one of these issues alone should give us pause. Together, they are a cause of grave concern. How did we get here? And what can we do to make links good again?

How did we get here is not an easy question. A part of the story is surely the excitement we once felt about hypertext. Links were supposed to break the hegemony of linear narrative, ushering in a new interconnected world. To some extent the dream came true. But links also brought with them such things as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Google’s PageRank algorithm tracks, among other things, the number of incoming and outgoing links. This bias for connectivity encourages “link farms”: sites that attempt to game the system by aggregating links or cross-linking their own content. A sure sign of a vacuous SEO-driven piece of writing is a certain cynical and strategic use of links to other popular sources. How long until the SEO logic infects poetry, fiction, or investigative journalism?

What can we do to make links better? There are a few things we all can do now. First, let’s use links sparingly. Think smartly about whether you need to link or whether you can make do with a good, old-fashioned quote or citation.  Don’t link just because you can. Second, link explicitly: is better than this. Third, realize that online content is dynamic. It makes no sense to link a dynamic resource when the intent is to create a link to a static version of a document. Tools like the Save Page Now service, hosted by the Internet Archive, do just that. You can find this essay at but its earlier draft is best captured in a snapshot here: Finally, do not neglect the humble footnote. Footnotes provide a nice blend between usability, transparency, and good knowledge design.1


Interfaces and Commitment: Do Read the Comments?

LibraryThing logo

Extract from LibraryThing homepage (

To think about the ways that interface design and architecture contribute to the kinds of digital textual communities generated is to immediately be struck by the ballooning number of interfaces that are out there, and the fact that any single scholar can only grasp a small selection of them. (And also: what counts as a “text”? and what is a “community,” anyway? But those are questions that I hope we may address later on.) My way into this complex knot of problems is to take a small number of examples and to think about what it means to commit to them as a user. What’s involved in participation? And how does the level of a user’s commitment inflect the forms that their participation may take?

I think first of all about that most ubiquitous (and despised?) form of online textual participation: comments on articles. “Despised” because of the view that comments are invariably a cesspit of illogical, unsustainable, and poorly-spelled opinions: an interpretive community that the “don’t read the comments” meme tells us we don’t want to be involved in, either as readers or authors of the content being commented upon. The context with which I’m most familiar in this respect is the Guardian, a British newspaper with an overtly left-wing orientation whose reader-commentators, from their generally high level of spelling and orthography, could be broadly assumed to be middle-class and generally well educated. There is a very robust community that has grown up in the comments section, to the point where posters will refer to one another’s contributions in other threads, warn others about particular users (for example “we all know about [username x] – ignore him, he’s got a history of doing y”), and perform other behaviors familiar to anyone who participates in online discussions. What is interesting about this community is that its members have been very vocal about the technical limitations of the commenting platform, and eventually the paper made technical changes to its platform, including moving to threaded comments, which made following different conversational threads much easier. The newspaper has also recently begun to do little profiles of different commentators, which is a way of acknowledging both their presence and the value of their contributions. Despite this acknowledgement, the generally civil level of discourse, and users’ ability to shape, in a limited way, the form of the commentary platform, it’s striking that this comment space is still far from an utopian space of mutual enlightenment, and illustrates that this kind of online textual participation is, at its lowest level, drawn towards what could be termed “drive-by” commentary. Users’ comments aren’t necessarily subject to the same kind of filters (for civility, misogyny, racism, etc.) as exist in face-to-face communication, and at their most debased may be simply be a user’s rapid-fire opinion delivered, and published, without many consequences for future interactions or one’s real-world identity. The level of commitment required, in other words, is low.

Now consider Twitter. Also well-known as a hospitable home for drive-by commentary that can give voice to the kinds of opinions and text that are socially unacceptable in other contexts, its interface—in which one’s followers see one’s tweets—can act as a counterbalance to the freewheeling, putatively consequence-free discourse that can overwhelm the kind of spaces in my first example. You can, in other words, also use Twitter to do drive-by “critique,” but your followers will see what you’ve said, so that is a part of the context that shapes what you say. But participation on Twitter is of course also governed by the various interfaces one uses to access it. Simply using the website makes it hard to see others who, for example, are tweeting with the same hashtag; a desktop client such as TweetDeck or Janetter makes it much easier to see existing conversations, and hence to be inducted into the various social conventions that go along with that hashtag (which ties into the literacies/grammars of participation that others in this Textual Communities group will be addressing). A smartphone can also facilitate users’ ability to find groups of others who are tweeting on similar topics, though they make it more difficult to do other things such as reading long-form text to which other users may be linking. Twitter, then, requires a somewhat higher level of commitment than commenting on an online article.

My third example is the website LibraryThing. Billing itself as a site that “catalogs your books online, easily, quickly and for free,” LibraryThing is intriguing to consider in this context because it offers its users a range of ways to engage with other readers, and to respond to books. To take advantage of the full functionality of the site, you need to upload the titles in your personal library—whole or partial, real or imagined—into LibraryThing. Once this is done, the site gives you the chance to see a list of algorithmically-generated recommendations that might appeal to you, based on the similarities between your library and those of other site members. (It appears that subject headings also play a part in these recommendations, though LibraryThing is cagey about how exactly its algorithms work.) Previously, in order to obtain book recommendations of this sort, you needed to go through this process in “meatspace” with a few select friends whose physical bookshelves you were able to see and get ideas for your own reading list from. LibraryThing widens the net of such “friends” out to the global membership of the site, and adds a bunch of bells and whistles familiar from other social media: the ability to give one-to-five star ratings, to write reviews, to engage in threaded online discussions, and more. As an interface, LibraryThing provides some wonderful affordances for its users: the opportunity to see how your book collection stacks up against those of others; the chance to find out what others think of a book via ratings and reviews (also a feature of Amazon, though LibraryThing has important differences from Amazon, the most obvious being that it is not driven by commercial imperatives in the same way—they aren’t interested in getting you to buy the books); the chance to see how it has been tagged by other members. If I was to generalize, I’d say that these can be boiled down to seeing how a book “means” for others, and getting the chance to tell others how a book signifies for you. The price of admission, though, is a higher level of commitment still: inputting the details of some or all of one’s books and investing time in getting to know the different affordances of the LibraryThing website.

These feel like very obvious points to make about three digital spaces for reading, but they illustrate some of the basic differences that I see in the way interfaces call forth different behaviors in readers, and the varying levels of commitment that are engendered. As a final thought, I’d also like to think about how identity management, and how different reading interfaces, stimulate different forms of image construction: the extent to which someone is using their literary tastes, discussions about texts, and so forth as a proxy for their learnedness/hipness/etc. That is, of course, a part of the context of participation in an interpretive community that has always been in play, whether the space is digital, analogue, or at a place on the continuum somewhere in between.

The Calibans at Night



Mary: Ada, you’re good for a Calibans meeting?

Ada: What? I’m just coming home. Sorry. What?

Mary: Just you’re supposed to be one of the Calibans and we want to do a quick round-up on leading the discussion tomorrow. Dai and Sasha are good to go. Can you meet now?

Ada: I’m US-East, I was just headed to bed.

Sasha: You shared your location stream with us :)—you’re still at least 1500 meters from home.

Ada: Yeah, I’m out, but I’m about to walk in the door.

Mary: I know it’s late, can you give us 10 minutes just so we’re on the same page.

Ada: Same page…yeah, makes sense. I’ve just been out, and I’m a little spacey.

Sasha: Lightweight.

Mary: Can you see block text?

Ada: No, I’m reading from my hand-tat. I’ll be in front of a projector in 10. But I can tachiyomu if need be.

Mary: It’s just a short piece. It’s that main speech in Act Three. Tossing you a cursor now.

Ada: OK, got it, yeah.

Mary: We have your vitals and searches on that. We all had a bit of a heart-race on the “I cried to dream again,” but you had a peak right from the start and looked like you were really into it. It looked like you ran the first two lines four times.

Ada: Yeah, well, it just hit me hard for some reason. Where I grew up…well, whatever. My mother used to tell me not to be afraid, that the house was full of noises. Used to freak me out a little as a kid. Now…I kind of miss the noises. I live in new construction. Thin walls. So I have to choose between hearing my neighbor the aspiring opera singer or have phones on and block out everything. I saw Sasha peaked late on that phrase…

Sasha: No, I stubbed my toe. It was a false read…

Ada: And then did a lookup on the “twangling instruments” bit?

Sasha: Just wondered whether “twangling” was a normal word and was used contemporaneously or in anything modern.

Mary: I was manipulating the semantic net you put together. I like this bridge to “bangling” as well as the link to 20th century references to “twangy” country-western music. Anything worth teasing out there.

Tach: Sorry, excuse me for a moment. Can you help me and tell me the context for the “bangling” reference. It is not in dictionaries. And I have no access to this book Grace?

Sasha: Sending it now.

Tach: No, sorry, please no. I have no rights.

Sasha: Just one page then?

Tach: No, no page, no verbatim, please. Can you maybe read to me.

Sasha: Voice? Seriously?

Tach: No, nevermind. I will ask library to get rights so I can see.

Mary: Anyway, I found the “twangy” bit more interesting. He uses “twangling” in Shrew as well?

Ada: Sorry, y’all, I am still five minutes away from a screen, I can’t see the visualization of the semantic net.

Mary: You don’t need it, really. Basically, he uses “twangling” as a variant of “twank” which is the same as the modern “tweak.”

Sasha: So Caliban was a tweaker! I like him even more now…

Tach: Also, Twangdillo was used by many people in 1700s in English.

Mary: Cite?

Tach: Sent.

Mary: OK, good, so I want to make sure we are opening up an avenue of discussion here that no one has covered, and I like the country-western music theme. I did a lit review and no one seems to have picked it up. One of the badge requirements indicates “original insight” and I think this would count.

Ada: Actually, I know two of the sempai on the badge, want me to do a quick consult.

Sasha: Already Quorad it. Figured it was a good way to lay public claim to originality. Nobody has found any prior art so far, and it’s got over 1200 looks to date.

Mary: Ada, if you don’t mind, it might be good to see if there’s a good way to present it.

Ada: Just a sec, checking profiles, looks like I’ve got four friends with the badge. Let me just…“Thanks for the microconsult. Looking to present twanging in Tempest and Country-Western. Thoughts?” I’ll CC y’all if I hear back. OK if I provide them with some gradient permissions on our logs?

Sasha: OK with me.

Tach: Me also.

Mary: Yep, that’s OK. Ada, do you think we can work in the house sounds.

Tach: Maybe a Raymond Williams City and Country thing?

Mary: Yeah, how would you frame this?

Tach: I am sorry. Now I have to go to a meeting.

Mary: Can you go subvocal?

Tach: No tat, no subvocal. Very super old-school. I will check the log later. If you give me jobs I will do.

Mary: Thanks Tach. And can everyone go over our log and elect elements of our work for our portfolio.

Tach: Bye-bye everyone!

Sasha: Are you looking at the Google Alert from our discussion?

Mary: I have them turned down, is it any good?

Sasha: It’s constructing a search engine results narrative. It’s not bad, should I incorporate it in our log?

Mary: Can you just summarize it?

Sasha: It is already summarized.

Mary: I mean, like a human would.

Sasha: It does it better. It has my voice and face profile for a video version. We can always edit it together.

Mary: Let’s give it the badge.

Sasha: Google: It’s everything you’ll someday know!

Ada: I may be slow on responses. Elevator.

Mary: And then there were two…

Sasha: Actually, I’m going to have to go in a little while too. Real life and all.

Mary: Are you coming to London.

Sasha: Yeah, the Moscow People’s University is distributing crowdsourced travel funds among those with the Shakespeare L4 and above badges, as long as they also have the Open Collab badge. I’ve done an audit, and I think there are only three of us, so I should be good to go.

Mary: If we get the badge.

Sasha: Actually, I should be able to double-dip on our assessment tomorrow. Will you co-endorse?

Mary: Hold on. Have you already elected? Oh, OK, I see it…and…done. I gave you my full collaborator endorsement. I’ll attach evidence and context in the morning.

Sasha: You rock!

Ada: Can I get in on that too?

Mary: Yeah I’ll take a look when I get the chance…

Ada: Thanks. Anyway, I’ve been polling my personal archive for recordings of my old house, if we want to use it for some background audio. Also I’ve crossed reviews that mention “twang” and pulled up a playlist we can link out to as a sidenote in the doc, for fun and elucidation.

Sasha: I’ve already pulled in some of the other narrative assessments that reference this section. There are a lot of them. I will see which we might want to reference.

Ada: I’m at a keyboard. I’m going to bang out a text narrative to tie together our portfolio. I am a write-geek.

Mary: Why do you think we asked you to join our group? Thanks, Ada. Nothing like just-in-time production.

Ada: What makes the world go round. I’m going to run silent for a bit here to get some work done.

Sasha: You mean sleep!

Ada: Ha! Yes, that too. But I’ll stim up long enough to get this out to you tonight. Mary, you were going to sift our log for presentation permissions, yes?

Mary: Right. And Sasha, everyone but you has done a permissions and copyright check. Can you do that, like now?

Sasha: Not now, but within five hours. Good?

Mary: Yep, that’s fine.

Ada: Night. Catch you all live on tomorrow.

Mary: And hopefully in the flesh in London next month.

Sasha: Except Tach. I’m not sure he’s really a human.

Ada: So few of us are these days.

Ada palmed her connections closed. Emergencies only. She could still bang out text with the best of them. The OLED tattoo that made up her palm and forearm curled itself into a random image, a scripted quote from her namesake: “In this, which we may call the neutral or zero state of the engine….” She didn’t feel like writing. The buzz of the evening and the physical presence of old friends still had her excited. She heard a party somewhere in a nearby apartment and dialed in noise reduction. As she reached out to the keyboard, Sonify noted her vitals and her intention to write and constructed an appropriate playlist, heavy on the Ko Mak and German Cajun Chill bands like old Boozoo Bajou. But she found herself aching for the creaky sounds of her childhood home, and the voice of her mother.

She reached to a drawer and pulled out a ragged, dog-earned paperback with a missing cover. The title page read The Tempest and in the corner, in blue Bic ink and a neat hand, her mother’s name: Augusta King.

Rhetorical Interfaces and Designed Affordances

via flickr user Eric Holsinger

via flickr user Eric Holsinger

I was reminded recently when reading rhetorician Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd’s work on genre in the blogosphere (2009) that psychologist J.J. Gibson’s concept of “affordances” (further developed by his student Don Norman as “perceived affordances” and applied to the design of environments) emphasizes the ways that users’ experiences with interfaces are, in part, determined by the suasory qualities of its affordances. Miller and Shepherd note:

 An affordance, or a suite of affordances, is directional, it appeals to us, by making some forms of communicative interaction possible or easy and others difficult or impossible, by leading us to engage in or to attempt certain kinds of rhetorical actions rather than others. (p. 281)

In other words, what we can do with a designed tool or object is necessarily shaped somewhat by “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing can be used” (Norman, 1988). By their very nature, these “fundamental properties” are suasory—they shape and limit and push us to interact, interpret, perceive, and do (or not). Interaction is never without some kind of inferred restriction, whether material or rhetorical. We are always working within what we perceive as some kind of designed thing or space with its own capabilities, as we understand them from our own situated perspectives.

Therefore any basic interface engagement with a digital tool requires us to quickly assess what can and cannot be done with it. We tinker and push upon its limits like nonverbal toddlers exploring the limits of their own behaviors, pushing and hitting and biting until someone or something tells us “no.” And it’s interesting to think about the many ways that we almost instinctively push back on designs’ efforts to persuade us to use them only in the ways that their designers intended.

I’m reminded of when I once watched an expert gamer pick up a new first-person shooter for the Xbox. The first thing he did was readjust the controller’s settings, inverting the X/Y axis. He flipped to the inventory screen, assessing the character’s weapons and their damage capabilities. Within seconds, he had read the map and determined an exit strategy. And surprisingly (to me), he spent the next ten minutes repeatedly figuring out all the ways his character could die. I instantly realized that I had been playing the game all wrong: I hadn’t been willing to fail miserably as a method of learning how to play the game better. I needed to play with the affordances of the game in order to gauge my ability to master it. I wasn’t going to get better if I wasn’t willing to make mistakes. And I wasn’t going to be able to make mistakes if I didn’t push back on what the game was designed to allow me to do.

[Truthfully, this is exactly what good writers do best: break and remake language in order to push  it to the limits of its own design. We value those texts that most ardently force us to think differently about what language can and cannot do.]

My interest is in everyday literacies and the ways that people make meaning with texts within particular contexts. I am deeply interested in how we almost instinctively and habitually push back on designed technological affordances and mold them to our liking. We constantly seem to expect different tools to behave the way we want them to, and when they don’t, we abandon them. I like to think of this process as a response to an almost ambient argument: a designed tool or application has its own perceived affordances that, as Gibson argued, have suasory qualities. When we take up these designs, we are responding to their insistence that we use them in the ways they were intended. What’s funny is how often we naturally resist the rhetorical “argument” that the designed object is trying to make. We almost always want it to be and do something else entirely.

When the Google Android operating system was introduced, I tried switching from my iPhone in hopes that I would enjoy the Android interface better. I was in favor of the principle of what Google was trying to do and wanted to give it a shot. But the first thing I did was configure all of the phone’s settings to make it more familiar to me (i.e., I changed its settings to make it more like the iPhone). Predictably, I eventually went back to my iPhone because, as I think I said at the time: “although it does all the same things my iPhone does, it’s not my iPhone.” (The same is true now as I write this on my Chromebook: I’m wishing I had chosen to bring my Macbook to write on instead. As much as I love the Chromebook, it’s not my Macbook.)

I think that over time, these habits and practices and ways of “talking back” to designs are the foundations of the kinds of “textual communities” we’re writing about today. If we agree that the term “community” is to be broadly construed (we could also use the terms “networks” or “affinity spaces”) then we might see how this way of organizing ourselves by our interactivity can represent the starting point for larger nodes and networks over time. We might gravitate toward certain digital literacy practices (e.g., collecting images; buying and selling objects; curating resources) based on how different tools—and their designed affordances—respond to our attempts to redesign them. That’s why people who use Flickr regularly are a different community than those who use Instagram, and those who spend their days on DeviantArt share some overlap with those who use Imgur.

The “arguments” that designed interfaces make by attempting to determine what users can and cannot do are almost always taken up and redesigned by their communities, and this is a natural and organic process. If we are to become real fans and experts in our chosen digital communities, we must necessarily respond to the interface’s attempts to convince. To participate in an online textual community, passive response to interface is not an option.

Media and Immediacy in Online Community


How do interface and design affect our understanding of online communities?

As an English professor, I’m often thinking about the relationships between media forms and a text’s content: how does the form that a text takes change what its content will be? What important things change, for instance, when a text such as Frankenstein is adapted to another medium? Those questions are relevant to our understanding of the interfaces through which we participate in online communities, where we’re almost always producing new forms of knowledge and text. We’re almost always producing text, that is.

Often, we create images: what does that mean? As Todd Presner and company argued in Digital_Humanities (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner, and Schnapp 2012), one of the most exciting new potentials for digital scholarship is something that’s also exciting about the future of books and knowledge systems. In an unprecedented way, we’re able to take an active role in the design of the information we produce. Information design, and design more generally, are enjoying a new vogue. Design has become something that people care about, and talk about, more and more—from Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica to colorful responses to the NSA’s PowerPoint presentations.

There’s an interesting paradox about the way that we mix media forms: when we want to convey something that’s immediate—something that has a visceral impact—is when we most frequently mix media forms with particularly wild abandon. David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, who came up with this idea, wrote along these lines that “immediacy depends on hypermediacy” (1996). That is, in order to feel less like there’s a screen or other form of separation between yourself and a message (im­-mediacy), the thing we most often do is to throw as many forms of media at a moment as we possibly can. In Sherlock, virtually every scene that features Benedict Cumberbatch’s fetching cogitations also features scrolling text in 3D space onscreen, photographs moving around, 3D CGI renderings of spaces, and so on and so forth.

Arriving at last to online textual communities, this tendency toward what Grusin and Bolter call “hypermediacy” seems to be a key element of the ways that we communicate in online forums of all kinds. Of course, as the name “rage faces”—one of the best-known sources of viral images from discussion forums and comment sections—indicates, the immediacy that’s conveyed is often an emotional one, where rational discourse has broken down. The fad of the animated GIF, too, which dominates on Tumblr in particular, allows content creators to express an emotion using a repeating video fragment. The images created by…these forms continue to proliferate, and the repertoires of the commenters on the large blogs that allow these images have become quite vast.

I want to think about this proliferation of media forms on the web as a way that more people in online textual communities claim a voice and use hypermediation as a way to assert their presence in those communities. In what ways should the online communities that we design draw on the ever-expanding repertoires of media forms with which users express themselves?

The Sorry State of Peer-to-Peer E-Book Lending


For most of my awkward life, books have been a way to escape or avoid stressful social interactions. Only recently have I realized that books also allow me to serve a social function: recommending titles to friends and family members, based on my understanding of their interests and character. Some people find book suggestions obnoxious and presumptuous, but in my experience, some carefully thought-out picks can transform a nonreader into a book liker, if not a book lover. When a friend raves about a book and asks me to suggest another, I gloat a bit and then attack my shelves, to find another delightful tome to pass on.

But the e-reader! Oh, the e-reader. The Kindle is a childhood dream come true, an opportunity to carry with me enough titles to assure that if I finish a book, I will not be left to make uncomfortable small-talk on the plane. But it is ruining the one bit of social currency I can offer. In only limited circumstances can one lend a book to a friend, and when you are attempting to convert a nonreader, being able to give them the book instantly, for free, is vital.

Of course, e-book lending is a fraught topic for publishers and public libraries. In May 2013, the divine Ursula K. Le Guin laid out the absurd terms on which the “big five” publishers permit digital titles to be lent. But slowly, that situation is getting better; some months after Le Guin wrote her pierce, Macmillan announced that it would make its full backlist available. HarperCollins still demands that library obliterate a digital copy of a book after it’s been lent 26 times, which is an abomination. Still, this isn’t likely to last much longer; as Cory Doctorow detailed in a convincing column in September 2013, it’s in the best interest of the publishers to make libraries their allies.

But even as publishers and libraries warily come to agreements—slowly though they might—person-to-person lending remains nigh impossible. On the Kindle, for instance, digital rights management sometimes permits owners to lend a title—but only once per book. Most books don’t permit sharing at all.

Publishers’ concerns about consumers lending books to people they don’t know through book-swap sites could be ameliorated: For instance, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici has proposed a self-described “pretty good solution” that would entail people meeting in person, physically, to “bump” titles from one device to another. True, that would require social interaction, but I think I could handle that brief encounter.

Without creating a mutually acceptable way to permit easier, more widespread book sharing, the personal social networks that exist between readers will fray. While Americans continue to read at about the same pace as in years prior, the rate of e-book reading continues to rise, according to the Pew Research Center. The rise in digital book consumption is particularly sharp among 18- to 29-year-olds. This is despite the death of the e-reader, which websites have been predicting since at least 2011. Even if tablets render my beloved Kindle obsolete, e-book reading will continue to grow. Permitting readers to swap titles will only accelerate that adoption, not diminish it. Because reading truly is a social activity, no matter how solitary the individual curled up with a book may appear. One could even make notes or highlights with a particular fellow-reader in mind, then delete them or adjust them for subsequent borrowers. This would only complement the strong social networks for readers that have cropped up online.

So please, publishers. Don’t take away my only bit of social utility.