New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts

operation iraqi quagmire

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The such next venture was, in certain ways, the most ambitious, and in other ways the most traditional: the Institute teamed up with Lewis Lapham, of Lapham’s Quarterly, to publish a commentable version of the Iraq Study Group Report. This version of the CommentPress templates carried over from “Holy of Holies” the ability of readers to discuss full sections of the text as well as comment at the more fine-grained paragraph level, but added two important innovations: first, a space for general comments about the report as a whole, and second, and most importantly, the ability to read comments organized not just by section of the primary text but also by commenter, enabling a reader interested in the responses of another particular reader to see those comments as a group.

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The Institute followed this with a treatment of President Bush’s televised address to the nation responding to the report, interweaving the transcribed text of the address with streaming video of the speech, opening the content and the delivery both to discussion.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Interestingly, however, the entire Iraq Study Group Report received a total of 92 comments, fewer than did Mitchell Stephens’s much shorter — and arguably much less pressing — paper. The reasons why in no small part have to do with the structure of the two social networks into which the texts were released: Stephens put his paper into CommentPress as a means of presenting it to a working group at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University; this group was organized around the discussion of texts like Stephens’s, and so the technology facilitated the interactions and exchanges some members of the group already wanted to have. However, the majority of commenters on the paper were in fact not affiliated with the working group, but had instead been following Stephens’s blog, hosted by the Institute, in which he had for some months been thinking out loud about the process and progress of his research. These readers were not simply interested in the same subject matter as Wark — as were the members of the working group, many of whom resisted online discussion — but were ready to use the technologies to facilitate that conversation.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 By contrast, Lapham’s project brought together what the site referred to as “a quorum of informed sources (historians, generals, politicians both foreign and domestic),” as well as a number of writers and reporters, all of whom had a vested interest in the material, but most of whom were unaccustomed to working either in such a mediated or in such an interactive vein. (In fact, over 1/3 of the comments on the report came from one participant, novelist and political writer Kevin Baker, who maintains an extensive web presence.) Other mitigating factors have to be considered, of course; for one thing, the Iraq Study Group Report had, at least initially, a closed commenter base, as opposed to Stephens’s paper, which was open to community input. Moreover, the timing of the report’s release by the study group — December 6, 2006 — meant that the Institute’s commentable version went online precariously close to the holidays. And even worse, by the time the commentable version was released, the Bush administration had already dismissed the report, making discussion of its proposals a significantly less compelling exercise.[16] I would hold, however, that the readiness for online interaction is the most compelling reason for the relative quiet on the Iraq report’s discussion channel; Stephens’s commenters were, by and large, not just attuned to the issues he presented, but actively engaged in other online reading and writing practices, which prepared them to be active contributors.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 All this is to say that no technology, whether CommentPress or another system, will be a panacea; even the most ingenious new structures for publishing a text online will not automatically get any randomly selected group talking. Technologies like these can, however, facilitate discussions among those who are both motivated and prepared to have them.

  • [16] Thanks to Ben Vershbow and Bob Stein for their additions to my thinking about the issues revolving around discussion of these two projects.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/cpfinal/operation-iraqi-quagmire/