And academics, unsurprisingly, often want to talk. After their first successful experiments with CommentPress, the Institute began receiving numerous requests from academics and other authors hoping to use the templates to publish their papers. They agreed in a few cases, using CommentPress to help Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg publish a HASTAC working paper, as well as using a modification of the theme as the engine behind the first release of MediaCommons’s ongoing video discussion feature, In Media Res. This growing demand spurred the Institute on to further development, working on compiling the various hacks and templates that, to this point, they had been tweaking manually into a releasable, documented, open-source theme easily installable and usable with any WordPress installation. CommentPress 0.9, a development release, was first made available to testers on 21 July 2007. The following day, I used my web hosting provider’s one-click install function to load a new installation of WordPress, installed and set up the CommentPress theme, loaded in the draft text of this article, and did a bit of tinkering with formatting and the like, taking a draft of the article on which this chapter is based from a Word document to “published” (including, arguably, founding the publisher!) in under three hours [see screenshot 3.5].
The original releases of CommentPress provided two “skins” from which users could select: one more traditionally blog-like, in which excerpts from posts appear in reverse-chronological order on the site’s front page, but full post pages provide paragraph-level commenting parallel to the original text; and one for “documents,” which presents a table of contents on the front page linked to each of the document’s sections. In either skin, comments were readable in multiple modes: clicking on a small dialogue bubble to the right of a paragraph revealed comments on that paragraph, or a combination page/bubble icon to the right of a page’s title showed comments on the whole page. Readers could also browse all comments, either organized by commenter or by section of the text; browsing in this way provided links back to the portion of the original text on which the comments were made. In the months following the beta release of CommentPress, the Institute updated and advanced the software to release 1.4, adding features such as a widget-ready theme, allowing users to quickly and easily customize the sidebar of a text. Moreover, as CommentPress was released as an open-source project, users were able both to get the tool quickly into use — it was adopted, for instance, for a web-based version of the Ithaka report, “University Publishing in a Digital Age”[3.22] — and to repurpose and redistribute it in ways that have the potential to enrich the possibilities the project presents for electronic publishing.
My experience of using CommentPress left me quite enthusiastic about the form; I was able to get the kinds of feedback on my article draft that I required, as well as to have a record of the responses the draft produced. The draft received a total of 59 comments, just over a third of which were my own responses to issues raised by other readers. Those issues ranged from the factual to the interpretative, and in every case pressed my thinking about the article forward. In fact, though the Journal of Electronic Publishing, which published a revised version of the article, offered to have it peer reviewed, I felt strongly enough about the reviews the article had already received to stick with the open process; rather than send the finished version to blind reviewers, I re-published it in CommentPress as well, receiving another 25 or so comments from a second group of readers. The kinds of feedback that I received helped me clarify that article’s argument as it continued to develop into this text.
In my experience, then, CommentPress became a useful tool not just for quickly and engagingly publishing a text, and not only for seeking feedback while a text is in draft form, but for facilitating an open mode of review. As I briefly discussed in the chapter on peer review, Noah Wardrip-Fruin similarly used a CommentPress-derived tool to facilitate the blog-based review of the manuscript for his book, Expressive Processing; his reflections on the process not only pointed out that “the blog commentaries will have been through a social process that, in some ways, will probably make me trust them more” than the traditional blind peer reviews he also received (“EP Meta”), but also that the blog-based review uncovered one of the manuscript’s weaknesses in an unexpected way. One of the reviewers, Ian Bogost, noted on his own blog that he seemed to be having trouble following the manuscript’s argument through the series of posts that comprised it, attributing that difficulty to the blog form’s serialized structure.[3.23] As it turns out, however, the traditional peer reviewers noted issues in following the argument across the text as well: “What had seemed like a confirmation of one of our early fears about this form of review — the possibility of losing the argument’s thread — was actually a successful identification, by the blog-based reviewers, of a problem with the manuscript also seen by the anonymous reviewers” (“Blog-Based Review”). In the end, the blog-based review was able to provide Wardrip-Fruin with more feedback, and with feedback that he trusted more, based upon the community out of which it arose.
Wardrip-Fruin also notes, however, that the pre-existence of the community was an absolute necessity for this project; while the Institute for the Future of the Book “sought to build new communities from scratch, via widespread publicity, for their projects” such as GAM3R 7H30RY, he argued, “this cannot be done for every scholarly publication — and a number of fields already have existing online communities that function well, connecting thinkers from universities, industry, nonprofits, and the general public” (“Blog-Based Review”). Making use of such an already existing community was necessary for the richness of discussion that Expressive Processing was able to receive. Similarly, a commenter on the revised version of my article noted that “in order to get the ‘liveliness of conversation and interaction’ requred, some kind of community has to exist. Maybe in the form of an established scholarly web site, journal portal, or blog” (Hillesund). Without such a community available and willing to discuss published texts, interaction will inevitably lag; one of the key tasks in building such technologically networked publishing environments will be maintaining the social network that it means to connect.
CommentPress ran into a series of problems early in its life, however, due in part to its dependence on the stability of the WordPress software on which it was based, as well as its reliance on the particular developer who originally wrote the plugin. In October 2007, the release of WordPress 2.3, which heavily revised some key aspects of the codebase, effectively broke CommentPress; current CommentPress users were required to refrain from updating their WordPress software, and new users were obliged to find an older release in order to create CommentPress sites. In the meantime, however, the developer of CommentPress had moved on to another project. The Institute was finally able to release a WordPress 2.3-compatible update for CommentPress in January 2008, but the project’s momentum had been severely compromised in the interim. Since that time, however, CommentPress has undergone two parallel development paths: the original developer has updated the code, re-releasing it as Marginalia 2.4, while the Institute has, following another successful project, overhauled the code as well, and is preparing to release CommentPress 2.1.[3.24]
In its most recent experiment, the Institute published the entire text of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook online, engaging seven women to read and discuss the text in the margin [see screenshot 3.6].[3.25]
This project produced robust discussion not just among the seven primary readers, however, but also among a wide range of other readers who participated in the connected forum. This division, however, between the readers who could comment in the margins and those who could only discuss in the forums became one of the most heated topics under consideration; as the project announced on its front page,
How come only the seven women can comment in the margins?
Good conversations are messy, non-linear and complicated. The comment area, a chronological scrolling field just isn’t robust enough to follow a conversation among an infinite number of participants. Seven may even be too many. (The Golden Notebook)
As one commenter noted in the forum, she understood why the “two-tiered structure” was necessary to “prevent chaos,” but was finally unhappy with the distinction that resulted: “Grad school all over again I guess” (marthaquest). The Internet hates walled gardens, and thus one of the clear challenges that a conversational publishing system like CommentPress will face is precisely that of managing the potential for chaos in large-scale open discussions. And though CommentPress has gone some distance toward imagining social interaction within and around texts, the fact that it still relies upon scrolling text windows suggests that, though we’re beginning to solve the larger-scale structural problems of native digital textuality, we still have miles to go before our interactions with the screen have the ease of our interactions with the book.[3.26]
The new kinds of interactions we need to develop affect authors as much as readers. Authors who publish via CommentPress will need to develop the hosting skills needed for such a conversational publishing strategy to succeed; as their texts are under discussion, authors will need to be present without being omnipresent, responding as called upon to reader comments without dominating and therefore closing down the discussion. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin notes, “the flow of blog conversation is mercilessly driven by time. While it is possible to try to pick up threads of conversation after they have been quiet for a few days, the results are generally much less successful than when one responds within a day or, better yet, an hour” (“Blog-Based Peer Review”). Authors will therefore be required to manage the labor involved not simply in producing the text but also in publishing it and in engaging with its audience, and our expectations with respect to faculty workload will have to reflect that labor: “generally pursuing blog-based review with time for full conversational engagement would require a shift in thinking around universities. It isn’t uncommon for authors to request release time for book writing and revisions, yet it has almost never been requested in order to participate more fully in community peer review. I hope that will change in the future” (“Blog-Based Peer Review”). As authors begin increasingly to publish in networked environments, we won’t be quite so able to walk away from a text in manuscript form and leave its dissemination and discussion to others; we’ll need to commit to being present in a text, for a time, and to engaging with the publishing process. This mode of participation is only one of the ongoing challenges involved in maintaining new digital publishing systems once they’re built; new forms such as CommentPress will require significant investments of labor, not just in the development, installation, and implementation of the technologies themselves, or in the design and release of texts through them, but in the maintenance of the texts post-publication. Publishing systems like CommentPress thus won’t relieve institutions of the infrastructural demands posed by current, analog press and library systems; if anything, as I’ll discuss in the next chapter, they’ll produce new kinds of requirements for preservation of the texts published through them.
That said, CommentPress demonstrates the fruitfulness of reimagining the technologies of electronic publishing in service to the social interconnections of authors and readers. The success of the electronic publishing ventures of the future will likely hinge on the liveliness of the conversations and interactions that they can produce, and the further new writing that those interactions can inspire. CommentPress grows out of an understanding that the chief problem involved in creating the future of the book is not simply placing the words on the screen, but structuring their delivery in an engaging manner; the issue of engagement, moreover, is not simply about locating the text within the technological network, but also, and primarily, about locating it within the social network. Bringing together the modes of interaction between readers and texts that CommentPress fosters with the modes of interaction among texts that are produced by database-driven scholarship of projects such as NINES — creating a publishing platform that will not only allow for ease of reading and for engaging discussion, but also for the curation and remix of existing texts and digital objects into more new exciting kinds of texts — could finally result in a digital mode of publishing that doesn’t just rival but indeed outdo the codex. Such a new publishing structure would invite the reader in, acknowledge that the reader’s engagement with the text is a mode of social interaction, and recognize that the reader is, in many cases, a writer too. This publishing structure would also demonstrate an understanding that all publication is part of an ongoing series of public conversations, conducted in multiple time registers, across multiple texts. Making those conversations as accessible and inviting as possible should be the goal in imagining the textual communications circuit of the future.