A number of projects underway attempt to reimagine reading as a socially situated process. Among the most significant of these projects is CommentPress, a blog-based publishing engine developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book, which seeks to promote dialogue within and around long-form texts in two primary ways: first, by structuring those texts around chunks that can be interlinked in linear and non-linear fashions, and that can take advantage of the ability to link to (and receive links from) other such texts in the network; and second, by allowing those chunks of texts to be commented and discussed at various levels of granularity, ranging from the document as a whole, to the page, all the way down to the paragraph. The goal of CommentPress, as the project’s “about” page describes it, stems from the desire
to see whether a popular net-native publishing form, the blog, which, most would agree, is very good at covering the present moment in pithy, conversational bursts but lousy at handling larger, slow-developing works requiring more than chronological organization – whether this form might be refashioned to enable social interaction around long-form texts. (“About CommentPress”)
Such interconnections and discussions are possible in large part because CommentPress builds upon a popular blogging engine, WordPress. Blogs are arguably, as I noted in the last chapter, the first successful web-native mode of electronic publishing, and their rapid spread and relative robustness suggest that their tools might be applicable to a range of other potential digital publishing modes. The structure of a blog of course privileges immediacy — the newest posts appear first on the screen, and older posts quickly lose currency, moving down the blog’s front page and eventually falling off it entirely, relegated to the archives. Such a presentist emphasis works at cross purposes with much long-form scholarship, which needs stability and longevity in order to make its points. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, such scholarship might adopt from blogs their community-oriented structure, in which posts are generally made to elicit comment, and in which responses from other authors produce links on the original posts to which they refer.[3.19] CommentPress allows commenting technologies to be usefully appropriated to a number of forms of scholarly publishing, ranging from the article to the long-form monograph, making manifest the recognition that readers of scholarly texts are nearly always themselves authors in other venues.
I have worked with the Institute for the Future of the Book for the last several years, most notably on MediaCommons, an electronic scholarly network focused on the field of media studies, that hopes to reground the purposes of scholarly publishing in the desire for communication amongst a group of peers. The Institute has conducted a number of experiments focused on new textual structures, seeking to devise ways to publish long texts online in engaging, readable formats. These experiments, by and large, have sought to 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:
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, “Books 2.0”)
CommentPress is one of the primary tools through which the Institute hopes to facilitate some of that conversation. The deep origins of CommentPress lie 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. Because of the text’s structure, 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. However, 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 the “original” 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 3.3] that would place the text and the comments side-by-side, emphasizing the conversational principle that the publication hoped to foster.[3.20]
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, as the interface required too much manual tweaking to be readily adaptable for more general publishing purposes.
The next phase in the Institute’s development of CommentPress was its publication of Mitchell Stephens’s article “Holy of Holies: On the Constituents of Emptiness” as what they termed a “networked working paper,” imagining this paper, as their blog entry announcing its publication suggested, as “small steps toward an n-dimensional reading/writing space” (Vershbow, “Small Steps”). In part, this new experiment was designed to help develop means for publishing texts that aren’t as quite so self-chunking as Wark’s manuscript was, so that a reader could simultaneously have a sense of the text’s whole and pay close attention to its individual parts. In the design for “Holy of Holies,” the Institute gave each paragraph of the text its own comment stream, allowing the comment area to the right of Stephens’s text to become dynamic, changing as the user selects the comment icon next to each paragraph [see screenshot 3.4].
Each section of the text likewise allows for more general comments, which can be found by selecting the comment icon next to the section title; all comments that have been made on any section can be read by clicking on the “All Comments” tab above the comment window. Moreover, clicking on the small icon to the right of a commenter’s name highlights the paragraph to which the comment is attached.
The comments Stephens received on the paper — 104 of them — were by and large substantive, and they included a number of technical comments that allowed the Institute to continue developing the templates for publications with this kind of fine-grained commenting ability. 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. 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.
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 Stephens — 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.
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. 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.[3.21]
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.