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New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts

the future of the book

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Many experiments focused on the adaptation of such web-based technologies to scholarly publishing are currently underway, including, of course, my own project, MediaCommons. MediaCommons has grown out of two parallel convictions: first, that something in the current system of academic publishing is broken, and that radical change will be necessary to fix it; and second, that the purposes of such publishing must be regrounded in the desire for communication amongst a body of scholarly peers. My co-coordinating editor, Avi Santo, and I have partnered with the Institute for the Future of the Book in the development of MediaCommons, an electronic scholarly network focused on media studies, that hopes to address both of these issues by placing the technological network at the service of the social network, enabling scholars, students, and other interested members of the community to read, write, discuss, and develop new projects together. There are a number of problems that MediaCommons must work out, however, before it can spring fully to life; among these number, of course, the problem of peer-review in an open network environment, the problem of institutional acceptance of experimental publishing models as sufficiently prestigious for hiring and tenure purposes, and, most crucially for the purposes of this article, the problem of structure — devising ways to publish long articles and even monographs online in engaging, readable formats.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The Institute for the Future of the Book has proven an ideal partner in this venture, as their collective thinking about publishing’s future has circled around ways to facilitate the transition from pages to screens, imagining new structures that can, among other things, enable conversation in and around digitally published texts. As Bob Stein suggested to a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the electronic text can powerfully overcome the codex’s isolation:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 best of all would be if readers could talk to each other, and if readers could talk to the author, because the reason for a book is to afford conversation across space and time, and so why shouldn’t some of that conversation take place literally within the book itself? (Young)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 CommentPress, of course, is primary among the projects through which the Institute hopes to facilitate some of that conversation. CommentPress, has its deep origins in a project with McKenzie Wark who, in preparing the manuscript for his 2007 book, Gamer Theory, was persuaded to collaborate with the Institute in putting a draft of the text online. The online version, titled GAM3R 7H30RY (so that Wark could distinguish Google hits mentioning the online text from those mentioning the print book), easily adapted itself to publication through a blogging engine, but Wark and the Institute early expressed an interest in subverting one of the basic structures of the blogging hierarchy: rather than keeping each chunk of his text up top, with comments relegated to a spot further down the screen, Wark and the Institute’s developers collaborated on a design [see screenshot 1] that would place the text and the comments side-by-side, emphasizing the conversational principle that the publication hoped to foster.[15]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 screenshot 1

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 G4M3R 7H30RY lent itself to being published in this fashion in part because the text was already “chunked,” written in a hyper-structured, rigidly algorithmic structure, with 9 alphabetically sequential chapters, each containing 25 paragraphs, with a strict 250-word limit per paragraph; as the paragraphs themselves were often aphoristic, many of them stood alone well, and reader comments were thus able to be closely associated with each paragraph of the text. However, the translation of what was originally intended to be a traditional codex book into this nonlinear structure nonetheless created some complications: each paragraph looked a bit more free-standing than it really was; a reader couldn’t simply enter and exit the text at any random point; readers often left questions or comments on early chunks about issues that were addressed in later parts of the text. Moreover, publishing Wark’s text online was extraordinarily labor-intensive, requiring too much manual tweaking to be readily adaptable for more general publishing purposes.

  • “Doing the comments this way (next to, not below, the parent posts) came out of a desire to break out of the usual top-down hierarchy of blog-based discussion” (Vershbow, “GAM3R 7H30RY”).
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/cpfinal/the-future-of-the-book/