United in Hate-Reading


The filter bubble is often discussed in terms of affinity: Online, the theory goes, we congregate around our likes and our passions, whether they are political causes or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But hatred also unites people—and I’m not talking about the loathsome outposts of racists and misogynists. Many people—most of us—cherish at least the occasional hate-read, delighting in something that irks, irritates, and infuriates.

In 2013, after the New York Times examined the hate-read phenomenon, my Slate colleague Katy Waldman captured the psychology behind it:

No doubt some hate-reading comes from a place of bored or dissatisfied loneliness. (Where are my betches? Why aren’t I in Vegas? I despise you, Instagrammed artisanal blueberry-clove cupcake-on-a-doily!) But maybe one’s deep scholarship of detestable crap on the Web is more than just the expression of an inferiority complex. Maybe it is an outlet, a way to access or exorcise extreme passion, sort of like watching a horror movie. The Greek tragedians knew that getting worked up is more than entertaining—it’s cathartic. And the experience of hate-reading is one part pure transport, one part fascination with the intensity of one’s own feelings, and one part something else. This third rail of hate-reading, I think, is what redeems it. At its best, hate-reading highlights something lighthearted and even anti-hateful in us: a playful capacity to be amused by (and thus step back from) our own contempt.

But hate-reading is not just a solo activity. Many an Internet community is built on such shared amusement and contempt. These are not trolls, in that they are not solely trying to provoke outrage, though they may delight in driving someone off—making a blogger “flounce” from the Internet. Rather, they are seeking and developing communities that are, in their own way, affirming.

Perhaps the best example is Television Without Pity, whose motto is “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” TWOP, which was purchased by NBC Universal’s Bravo Media LLC in 2007, offers a space for people to dissect the shows they hate to love and love to hate. In TWOP forums, viewers compete to find plot holes and, for reality TV, continuity flaws, or evidence of producer machinations; an earnest, as opposed to ironic, defender of a show may find herself mocked by commenter after commenter. Sourness and crankiness are virtues.

Similarly, bloggers who evince strident philosophies or worldviews—especially when it comes to parenting—may find their fan communities invaded by groups of those who wait eagerly for new posts to appear so they can cut them down. Sometimes, the hate-read contingent can bring a blogger down, either because she can’t stand the criticism any longer or because they uncover questionable information about her. (For instance, devoted critics of the mommy blogger MckMama dug into her bankruptcy and created not one, but multiple, forums where they could trade theories and rumors about her.)

When the uninitiated encounter such sites online, they often ask: Don’t you have a life? For many, the answer may well be no; if you are a rumormonger at heart but have no one about whom to gossip, snark communities like these can provide a target, peers, and affirmation that their hobby isn’t bad or unusual.

These hate-read-based communities can offer incisive observations about culture, entertainment, and politics, but the worthwhile material is often buried among vitriolic pointing-and-laughing and cheap shots. Smarter hate-readers give glimpses of being capable of creating commentary that rises above gossip and cruelty, and indeed they may do so elsewhere. But the lack of empathy for the subjects of their criticism—whether a parent blogger or the producers of a show—is notable, and makes me wonder: Are they venting in a way that allows them to be more kind and tolerant in their in-person reactions, or can rather mean-spirited thought processes online seep into “real” lives, thus leaving them more isolated and in need of hate-read communities more than ever?

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 RottenTomatoes.com) 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, TVtropes.com 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.

Vernacular Criticism


One term that has come up in our discussions at Sprint Beyond the Book is vernacular criticism, and it’s one that I think is worth picking up on as a useful concept for considering the relationship of readers to the machinery of textual production which Robert Darnton sets out in his diagram of the circuit of communications (recently updated for the late twentieth century and for self-published authors by Padmini Ray Murray and Clare Squires). A great deal of smart stuff has been written about this already, for example Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics (2000) and Jan Radway’s ethnography of readers of romance novels, Reading the Romance (1991), one of the foundational texts for the field of reception studies. In the contexts examined by these studies, the “real readers” in question had no opportunity for making their readerly preferences known, and for pushing back on the publishers and authors who produced content they may or may not have liked. Many of Radway’s romance readers described their dislike for insufficiently happy endings, for instance, but the only opportunity they had to register this discontent was to refuse to read and/or buy such titles.

Now, however, digital platforms that take account of reader preferences—both consciously delivered feedback and unconsciously delivered metrics about, for instance, how far a reader gets through a text before abandoning it—make it possible for those at the production end of the communications circuit to take into consideration aggregated data about reader preferences as they produce the texts those readers will consume. On my flight to Arizona, the in-flight magazine had an article about precisely this (Boyd Farrow, “The Happy Ending You Asked For”) and what struck me was not the content of the article—which is not news to anyone who studies digital books, or even keeps half an eye on the culture pages of major newspapers—but the fact that this disruption of publishing practices is sufficiently interesting to feature in a publication such as an airline magazine that is designed to appeal to as a wide a range of readers as possible. Farrow cites publishers who take reader suggestions on board and require authors to alter their storylines accordingly, and points to some historical precedents (the 18th-century rewriting of the ending of Romeo and Juliet). Digital interfaces for reading, however, have both sped this process up—reader feedback can be delivered to publishers far more swiftly—and allowed it to happen at a level of greater granularity (the exact page a reader stopped reading vs. a petulant letter to a publisher that might or might not reach an editor, agent, or even an author).

There are several ways to look at this development. One response is to be delighted at the disruption to conventional structures of literary authority whereby a small cadre of elites dictates who, and what, will be published, and a second cadre of elites of critics decides on where these published texts will sit within the field of cultural production: the cultural space where some artistic products occupy positions of prestige (e.g., “difficult” texts such as the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot), some are deemed popular (e.g., comics, television soap operas, romance novels), and others sit somewhere in between (e.g., “middlebrow” books such as might feature on the reading lists of book clubs). Self-publication has helped with this process of disruption: examples abound of feel-good stories of authors who began self-publishing fiction that had been summarily rejected by publishers, and found acceptance, fame, and eventually wealth through the magic of the interwebs. But for those who read rather than write, their preferences as readers now have the power to be examined by publishers, and to shape what those publishers deliver, in ways that may or may not be visible. If you are a reader who has ever been dissatisfied with the way a book has ended, or the way a character has been treated, these kind of readerly interventions may be appealing.

Another response is to think about this development in terms of the threat to authorial autonomy. An author has a vision for her text, and having to attend to, and fall into line with, readerly desires is unlikely to be conducive to that. Authors, of course, have never been free of external strictures: publishers put pressure on them to deliver certain kinds of texts, editors shape their prose, and many other elements contribute to a cultural product that is not conceived in isolation. But digital platforms for reading are delivering a whole new kind of reader feedback that—especially at a time when publishers are struggling with the financial implications of the advent of digital technology—make it easier for publishers to demand texts that deliver what the market wants. I’ll nail my colors to the mast here: part of me is horrified at the thought of the difficult, challenging narratives that I love being in some way tempered to fit audience expectations, in the way that blockbuster films produced by the major studios undergo audience testing so as to deliver the ending that audiences want. Think of twentieth-century literature without the magnificent polyphony of Ulysses, the bewildering ending of Coetzee’s Disgrace, the abjection of Dolores Haze at the end of Lolita, and the lack of closure of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Our cultural heritage would be the worse for it. I think of a study I did some years ago which looked at audience responses to Joss Whedon’s (hilarious) superhero musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, serialized and disseminated over a period of weeks on the Internet. When the final installment aired, fans were initially dismayed, as the narrative contained developments that did not initially appeal to them. But as they discussed their responses to the story together and tried to make sense of it as an interpretive community, they came to understand and appreciate the narrative in a different way, in part by resituating the text in a different genre, that of the origin story. (The study, which is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, is here, if you are interested.)

So: should vernacular criticism, and the voices of real readers, play more of a role than they have previously in the mechanisms of book production? Should literary criticism be opened up to a wider range of people than just book reviewers and literary scholars? Has this ship already sailed, and are these questions therefore purely rhetorical? I’d like to think that some corners of the literary field could be protected from too much encroachment, even as we welcome the changes to conventional structures of literary authority that have already begun to change the shape of the publishing landscape.

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: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TaGiFBG_WSEGKFey9sR0pafjjKK7Fuc0jhF5d4K1ouA/edit. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92pM6hJG6Wo. 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: Youtube.com 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 http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2014/02/bad-links/ but its earlier draft is best captured in a snapshot here: http://web.archive.org/web/20140208220625/http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2014/02/bad-links/. Finally, do not neglect the humble footnote. Footnotes provide a nice blend between usability, transparency, and good knowledge design.1

1: http://web.archive.org/web/20140208220625/http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2014/02/bad-links/

Interfaces and Commitment: Do Read the Comments?

LibraryThing logo

Extract from LibraryThing homepage (http://www.librarything.com/home)

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 Twitter.com 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.

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 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?

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.

Three Short Meditations on Interface



In a generation or two we will realize that the perception of reading as a solo activity had a short-life, lasting for no more than a few hundred years. And nothing tracks the changes better than the size of margins.

Well before Gutenberg perfected printing, scholarly books functioned as mnemonic devices. Professors and students stood around a table containing the one available copy and used the text as a jumping off point for discussion. They used the copious margins to record their commentary. As reading evolved  into a solitary experience, the margins diminished accordingly. For example, look at these two versions of Copernicus’ de Revolutionibus, a first edition (1543) and a current example.

The first edition has lots of room for annotation, the recent, almost none.

De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_024r     Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 1.37.17 PM

It’s not surprising, therefore, that as we see a return to social forms of reading, we also see a significant shift in the size of the margin. For example, here is a screen from the NY Times online with a very wide margin designed to accommodate an evolving culture of public discussion.




Comments Below, Comments Beside

In the early days of blogging and web commenting, the commentary ended up in a space below the text. This arrangement replicated and reinforced the hierarchy of print, with the author sending wisdom to the crowd below.

Beginning in 2006, however, we start seeing experiments placing reader comments in a margin to the right of the author’s text. One of the first was an early draft of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory (now published by Harvard University Press).

gamer theory

Designed in this way to accommodate Wark’s innovative non-linear writing style, many people realized immediately that the hierarchy of print had been subtly but importantly subverted as the author and the reader now occupied the same vertical space. Interestingly, you can see this in the discussion that unfolds as Wark and the readers increasingly interact as relative equals, working collaboratively to deepen their understanding of a complex topic.


The Difference Between the Water Cooler Discussion and Close Reading: 

The inherent value in enabling commentary to emerge inside of rather than around a text.

Goodreads and other online sites devoted to books enable what might be called asynchronous water cooler discussions. Someone makes a general comment about a book and the next person either responds or starts a new thread. There is value in such discussions but it’s not the same as being able to zero in on specific bits of text. In the first case you are essentially doing everything from memory, making it difficult to cite and go deep into the text. One thing that seems to happen when you enable readers to tie the discussion to specific bits is that the conversation tends to keep focus, allowing people to make syntheses which are not as easy to come to in generalized water cooler discussions. Here are two screen shots, the first showing a commentary in Goodreads ABOUT Huxley’s Brave New World, the second a discussion INSIDE of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Without commenting on the value of the commentary in either, one immediately sees that the discussion in Brave New World is not particularly cohesive, with successive comments not necessarily building on one another. In the second we see concerted effort on the part of readers to work through a problem together.