Digital Textual Community Case Study: The LARB


For our final sprint, the Digital Textual Communities group is taking case studies in…digital textual communities, especially those in which we have participated. Mine is the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), which is a site dedicated to reviews, essays, and interviews. It’s based out of UC Riverside, but with a public-facing humanities ethos that I and many other humanities scholars find promising as a model.

In my previous post, I was trying to expand a concept of “the book” to include all the digital paratexts—fan responses, reviews, and creative engagements, among others—that proliferate around contemporary fiction. This expanded concept of the book might be applied as easily to genre texts that have become fan phenomena to literary texts that make the rounds on blogs like The Millions.

As a writing group, we’ve been wondering what makes a successful digital textual community, and, of course, what criteria might be used to gauge success. A tacit point in our conversations so far is that the online textual community is usually something of a “planned community.” (An aside: there’s often a fascinating feedback loop between the interfaces that designers plan and the ways that sites are actually used, or perhaps rather a “redesign loop,” such as Facebook’s implementations of hashtags and emoji in response to client use.)

The LARB is an online community built around books and culture that, from my perspective as an occasional (well, twice) contributor, is driven primarily by ethos. The site is beautifully designed but also simple and not unusual, and, unlike the communities my co-writers are discussing, the language is pretty ordinary, too. The LARB started as a Tumblr site for most of a year before being redesigned and deployed as a stand-alone site, but in both forms its writers and readers have treated it as an increasingly ordinary genre, the online magazine—something just a bit more formal than a blog, by virtue of articles being pitched and revised by editors. The defining feature of the magazine (which is now also a print publication) seems to be not in its form or its language but its ethos. It features intelligent and lively—not academic in the bad sense, that is—engagement with great new books and literary and arts culture, written largely by humanities professors and students, as well as authors and other critics, for anyone out there who might be interested. It was a belief in this attitude about the great potential for public-facing humanities that got me excited enough about it to participate, both as a commenter and contributor.

My first point with this example is that ethos, a defining attitude and approach—rather than linguistic practices or the forms that interfaces might take—may well be the most important defining feature of online communities in general as we imagine them.

My second point reiterates my conclusion in my previous essay: the wide variety of online communities that cohere around books is something to be recognized and celebrated. Regardless of the form, the physical container, the word count, or the interface, the book—as shorthand for a site of sustained engagement with textual content that excites us—will probably stick around.

When Books Go Blu-ray


50 GB still seems pretty big to me. We can all date ourselves in the computer age by the amount of storage that first seemed huge. I was 11 when my father brought home a computer that had 220 Megabytes on its hard drive, and it was like the new sublime, until I tried importing a CD in WAV format; I remember looking in horror at how much of that space Pearl Jam’s Ten took up on that previously sublime amount of space.

But 50 GB, that’s still pretty big for a book, right? I take it from the standard size of Blu-ray discs of movies, which confer upon most blockbusters (and even movies that score very low—very rotten—on the laurels of multiple commentary tracks, interactive features,  making-of featurettes, and so forth. It feels to me like a “deluxe” treatment for a movie that came out last year.  Even though this treatment seems to be a purely industry-driven form of added value, at the same time, why not?

So: What would a 50-GB edition of a book look like?

Or, to ask it another way: what materials would be worth putting onto a sublimely huge edition of a contemporary book?

We have great models already, of course. The Norton Critical Editions series is great, and I teach with these all the time: they collect a good edition of a text with explanatory footnotes, letters from the author, information about different editions of the text, early reviews of the novel, and excerpts from critical essays. The edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novel about an African American woman passing for white in 1920s New York, contains news clippings and other materials about a major contemporary court ruling on a “passing” case, as well as excerpts from many of the other books from that era that also addressed passing as a social issue. I love teaching students from this edition, and it’s just paper, but: this is still in the Mere Megabytes. (It would even have fit onto that 220 MB hard drive in 1992.)

There are lots of terrific online archives for authors like Walt Whitman, the pre-Raphaelites, Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, and many, many others. These stretch our imagination about what a “deluxe” treatment would be for a great book—images, sound recordings, films, and more that can enhance the experience of learning about a text—and they’re also edging into Gigabyte Territory.

The big change with contemporary fiction in the age of the web has been just how much readers and critics respond to texts on fan sites, discussion forums, fiction sites, and in other creative modes—I think that’s how we fill our Blu-ray book. And I think such a book would be an amazing record of what books do—and what we do with books—in the world. The Blu-ray book would trace as much of the network of a book’s presence on the web as possible, aiming for the maximum. We could have an edition of Twilight that aggregates fan fiction, discussion forums, records of cosplay events, and so forth.

Would we read it all? Probably not, but we could create features that would make it navigable. If we want to read fan stories with particular tags—centering on a particular character, with a certain number of “thumbs-up,” or in a particular alternate world of the novel. And sure, this “edition” of a novel is already how the most avid readers interact with a text already. Imagine the way a Harry Potter fan might scour the web for more fiction and discussion about Ronald Weasley’s further adventures at Hogwarts.

The 50-GB book would have to be dynamic. (Wait: okay, if our hypothetical book has to be an object, then let’s say it’s a rewritable Blu-ray disc). Scripts could aggregate the kinds of materials from fan sites I’ve mentioned already, along with allusions, entries (the Wikipedia of the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and more), reviews of the book in publications and on websites like Amazon and GoodReads, and so forth. We could add feeds into it, and it would change every time someone tagged a new allusion.

Most crucially to the Blu-ray book, we’ll be able to use computational methods to “zoom out”: we could make, say, word clouds, network visualizations, and other sorts of snapshots of the big phenomena that literature make in the world. The ability to zoom in and out, to consider the phenomena of literature as big data and as individual and collective stories, is certainly exciting to me.

And there is, to me, something both exciting and reassuring about the possibility of seeing the big-ness of the book, of bringing a text and its world well into Gigabyte Territory (for now). The Blu-ray book would be a demonstration of an important message for humanists, for publishers, and for policymakers: that people are as enthusiastic about good books now as they’ve ever been.

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?