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?

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.