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 memegenerator.com…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?