blogs and time (links for 11.1.06) 11.01.2006, 12:20 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Interesting links that crossed my path over the past few days that I haven't time to post on (and likely never will):
- "French publishers join fight against Google Book Search": Le Syndicat National de l'édition (SNE), a trade association of French publishers, has joined a suit brought against Google by the Le Martiniè re conglomerate in August for "counterfeiting and breach of intellectual property rights" in its book digitization program.
- outside.in is a new web service co-created by Steven Johnson and John Geraci that aggregates blog content according to zip code, giving you a regularly updated guide to where you live. It uses a little Google map as a navigation tool -- a dynamic table of contents.
- US intelligence agencies use wikis: The CIA and other agencies have begun using an internal wiki site called the "Intellipedia" where staff post current events updates and colloborate on intelligence assessments, supposedly to avoid repeating mistakes like Iraq WMD. "'I think in the future you'll press a button and this will be the NIE,' said Michael Wertheimer, assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analysis."
- Clay Shirky on "meganiches"
- Wikipedia and the academy: To contribute or not to contribute? Article in Chronicle of Higher Ed. on the fraught relationship between academics and the online encyclopedia. Among other things discusses troubling disparity in quality between science articles and humanities articles. Is there a "two cultures" problem in online scholarly collaboration?
- Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan: Glorious exhibit at the New York Public Library. A totally different way of thinking about books.
Should if:book serve as a filter and recommender, providing nutritious lists of links like the one above, or purely as a source of original ideas and commentary? If the answer is both, then what should be the ratio of shorter, "pointier" posts to longer, "thinkier" ones? Blogs are agnostic as to the varying size and speed of thoughts -- everything goes into the same sinking scroll, soon vanishing into the catacombs of the monthly archives and category pages.
This works fine for news cycle or daily diary-type blogs, but it's a handicap for a site like ours where longer meditations -- the kind that would benefit from longer exposure -- are the more common fare, and where extended, multi-post arcs on a relatively small cluster of central ideas are more what constitute the "story" of this blog than any given week's smattering of entries. As I write, there are several extended conversations taking place within posts that, though only a few days old, are being pushed further and further down the scroll as newer content accumulates. The only hint of their still being active is the "recent comments" link to the right, which is at best an overheard whisper.
Given these constraints, and figuring that it's the slower moving ideas that matter most, we generally try to avoid posting quick linkdumps like the one above -- useful as they might be for annotating our wider web readings and pointing readers to interesting sites -- simply because they have the unfortunate effect of pushing the other stuff down. But this only slightly mitigates the still unsolved problem of portraying complex movements of ideas over time on a dinky little blog.
As a side project, we're thinking about how we could redesign if:book to keep the thinky stuff visible for longer and tied to past related discussions, while also keeping a swift current of useful annotated links and shorter observational posts. This might mean dividing our content into two separate feeds, as on this site.
We've also thought about ways to organize content thematically rather than temporally, so what you see at the top isn't just the newest content, but a cluster of our most important and long-abiding conversations arranged by subject. We're also considering changes to the individual permalinked pages of posts, perhaps adding dynamically generated links to related posts.
We've played around a bit with thematic arrangements on Mitch Stephens' blog Without Gods. First, just below his banner there's this tag cloud, which serves as a mental map of Mitch's writing and interests:
Then there are four side menus with recent posts divided up by general area. "Bonner's Field" is current events, "Tales of Disbelief" deals with characters in his book, "Thinking Out Loud" is sort of free-form jamming on ideas, and "Book Writer's Journal" is meta-commentary on the writing process:
I'm also very taken with what this site, an NYU webzine on media and religion called The Revealer. They have a lovely section on the front page that divides articles and blog postings into three distinct tempos, or traffic lanes (which brings us back to the multiple streams/feeds idea):
"Time signature" is something we need to add to our design vocabulary for dealing with evolutionary, never-finished documents. Having multiple rates of movement in a single space can create interesting tensions and provide more points of entry to for the reader. I'm hoping we can put some of this into practice with if:book, and soon.
What are other sites that do a good job of handling time? Any other ideas as to how we might do better here?
Gary Frost on November 1, 2006 3:31 PM:
"Libraries are the living evidence of the highly skilled work of librarians, whose expertise includes not only the organization of texts, but also the organization of contexts. The library is a place where the context that makes the understanding of information possible is discoverable. It is the work of librarians that make this discovery possible without aimless wandering among linear miles of bookshelves or baffled staring at a computer monitor, unsure if the results on the first fifty screen (or the first hundred of six million search results) have anything to do with what the searcher is looking for." Walter Cybulski
FotB.org if:book should probably prepare itself for a realization that it should function as a library.
Karin Dalziel on November 2, 2006 12:58 PM:
I'm struggling with this on my own site (which I hope to redesign sometime in the next, oh, decade). What I know is- I almost never use sidebars. The "Archives" links are almost always useless. A search field is great, if it works correctly (I personally want it to keep me within the same blog and in the same interface.) Blog rolls are nice, but may be better served from a separate page with short descriptions of the links- especially since so many sites don't have meaningful titles.
Something I never see but often want is a "start reading from the beginning" link- it's often clunky to get to the beginning through the archives. Ideally, I would like a way to catch up on a blog- to read the most important entries from the beginning.
dan visel on November 2, 2006 1:55 PM:
I'm not sure how to best approach this. A couple of observations, strung together:
1. I generally find myself ignoring sidebars all together.
1.1. The main exception is for search, as Karin said.
1.2. On a couple of sites (including this one) I use the recent comments features to stay on top of the conversation.
1.3. And the first time I visit a site (and generally only the first time) I'll go through the archives, if they're not overly enormous.
2. Reading blogs through Bloglines (or any other RSS reader) enforces a model where a blog only has one stream of content, the main one. Bloglines is useful because it lets me keep track of a lot of things (I've crossed 150, which is a bad state of affairs), but the view of content it enforces is rather reductionist.
2.1. When I read a blog through Bloglines, I'll occasionally click on a post to read the comments. But this is usually the only time I visit the actual site.
2.2. I've yet to find a useful enough RSS thread of comments to actually bother to subscribe to it.
3. One data point: Design Observer ( http://www.designobserver.com/ ) went from a format of being a blog with occasional posts of interesting links to a blog with a side column of links. The side column doesn't have an RSS feed. As I almost always read Design Observer through RSS, I don't get the links; as I rarely visit the site any more, I almost never see them. I'll admit that this is something of a loss, but it doesn't strike me as being enough of a loss that I visit the site directly.
3.1. I also notice, when I do visit the site, that it's much harder for me to parse whether a link is interesting when it's smooshed into a small column rather than being set to a legible measure.
3.2. Although if they provided an RSS feed for links, I'd happily subscribe.
4. There should be a better way to access a particular site's history, especially when it's big - this one has around 800 posts, for example. I find annotated bibliographies (like the one Bob did of if:book's first year) much more useful than tag clouds. There's no narrative in a tag cloud.
4.1. Certain things tend to come up again and again. We've probably put up twenty posts that reference the Sony Reader device enough to merit a tag; of those, maybe ten are about the device itself, and maybe five are substantive enough to be useful in hindsight. We could easily point out the five important posts, though a reader coming to them through a tag cloud would have to at least skim them all to figure what's worth reading.
4.2. The flip side of this is that it's a lot of work to construct useful lists.
5. Sites with more than one sidebar almost invariably make me furious.
5.1. I don't know why this is, other than its being the logical extension of my general dislike of sidebars.
5.2. Maybe it's that my eye doesn't know where to return to (the start of the next line) at the end of a line of text?
5.3. Maybe this means that I am getting old & long for the simple one-column webpages of my youth.
Eddie A. Tejeda on November 2, 2006 2:54 PM:
I think if:book needs to move away from the chronological order in which blogs are designed for and move more towards discussion grouping and promotion.
There are discussions at if:book that develop over time, and it would be great if there was a way to present them together to see how the discussion has evolved.
I think this can be accomplished with tagging. You can create a two tier tagging system. The top tier tags can be considered 'conversation topics' and the lower tier tags can be considered 'descriptive' or 'metadata tags'. Posts that do not belong to a conversation are considered topical and do not get brought up again, unless referenced directly.
This will allow you to promote entire conversations to the front page and let topical issue fall from the front page more quickly.
Jesse Wilbur on November 3, 2006 1:03 PM:
In considering a redesign we're not only thinking about how to organize the content from our past, but how to structure the content for our future. We have only one single thread on the site, so we think that way: long posts. This is one of the things we're fairly good at (judging by responses). So even if start thinking in different time signatures, we should maintain the practice of creating longer posts.
I like two ideas from dan and eddie: that there is a curated series of posts that can bring you up to speed from the beginning, and that there are areas for ongoing discussion regarding those posts. We have idealogical posts in the ground. We should rally around them.
I don't harbor dan's distaste for sidebars, but I do have a strong desire for visual clarity. But I think the best capability that we have is the dynamism of the web: we can potentially configure our content in any number of ways to present it to support straight ahead reading, group discussion, annotation, and editing and compilation.
bowerbird on November 3, 2006 6:04 PM:
seems to me if you keep writing "long posts",
you're just making it that much more difficult
for new people who come along to get up to speed.
and every 2 years you'll be able to rewrite the
"'book' is a semantically overloaded term" entry.
if you built wikis that let you "rally around"
those "idealogical posts in the ground" instead,
and refactored them constantly to boil 'em down,
you'd be making it _easier_ to get up to speed.
so, do you want to pontificate, or educate?
doting dependent students, or smart co-creators?
i wrote up another version of this same thought
earlier, but it veered too far into land where
i'm sure it would have caused misunderstanding.
perhaps i'll post that next week...
for now, i'll just opt out of this rewrite,
before it travels too far into that same land.
Gary Frost on November 7, 2006 9:55 PM:
Screen reading advocates frequently consider the fixed linearity of presentation to paper as a restraint and limitation. But the screen reader is denied any longer view of the linear progression of blog discussion, any paratext conventions of print that help to navigate that linear progression and any opportunities for re-conception and second thoughts that the overt linearity in paper books provokes.
The Center for the Future of the Book should take a post-digital stance here (ALL conceptual works are now born digital) and publish a book. This book would describe the enclaves of interest, the conceptual approaches and the technical, educational and emotional investments in paper and screen reading. And just let the blog scroll in the background.
bowerbird on November 9, 2006 2:48 AM:
> Screen reading advocates
i guess i'm one of these.
except that i never seem to agree
with what you say that we believe.
perhaps you should let us speak
> Screen reading advocates frequently
> consider the fixed linearity of presentation
> to paper as a restraint and limitation.
i don't consider "fixed linearity"
as a "restraint" or a "limitation".
i believe it's often necessary to
structure things in a linear way
to "get a handle" on them...
what i find very useful with digital content
is that i can choose different linear orders.
for instance, with my e-mail, i can sort by
date (ascending or descending), or subject,
or sender, or various tags (e.g., listserves),
or often some combination of all of these,
depending on what serves my needs _now_.
with hard-copy, i'm usually stuck with the
one linear order that the publisher imposed.
dan visel on November 9, 2006 12:48 PM:
I had a discussion last night about television shows with friends who don't watch television about how difficult it is to watch television. One thing that's very much an issue in television now is linearity: with a lot of shows, you can't start watching at an arbitrary point or you'll miss many of the references or what's going on. This is maybe more noticeable for people who don't watch television and decide to start watching television and then feel compelled to start at the beginning than for those who watch television often and are fine starting in medias res.
It's much easier to watch a show like this if you're watching it on DVD, because then it's chronological and you can understand things. A good example of this is Arrested Development, which is fantastic on DVD, because watching it in a sequence you can't help but notice how the references pile up on each other, becoming funnier and funnier in the process. But the show more or less failed as a television program: if you just started randomly in the middle, it makes almost no sense and is extremely unfunny. So it got taken off the air, perhaps justifiably: it doesn't make sense in that medium. (Another version of this: for all the talk about how the web brings back serial fiction, very few people talk about how the constraints of serial fiction (chief among them, the threat of the audience forgetting what happens from week to week or month to month) tended to negatively inflect themselves on the writing, leading to episodic plots & so on.)
But this is a long-winded way of saying that I think there's something of the same problem with this blog. With each post, we build on what we've written previously. In a certain sense - namely, if you start reading this blog from the absolute beginning, a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone - this makes for a kind of openness or transparency: there's a complete record of the development of our thinking. Not everyone, however, has the enough interest or the luxury of enough time to start looking at the writing here from the beginning. And thus I think it becomes somewhat opaque: we use terms, phrases, or ideas in a way that contextually makes sense to us, but which probably doesn't make sense to outsiders. It's roughly the same problem with Arrested Development: you can dumb it down & spend a lot of time each episode reiterating what's happened before, or you can make it fantastic sequential entertainment. It's very tricky to do both.
ben vershbow on November 9, 2006 3:27 PM:
I love the thought of if:book as the Bluths!
I suppose we do already have a few of "different linear orders" that Bowerbird mentions, but they're not great. Readers can sort posts by date (monthly archives), by keyword (our frightful tag cloud), or through their own search queries. It would be nice to be able to sort by author too, and perhaps we'll add this when we next upgrade. For the moment, the problem is that these navigation controls are either buried way down on the sidebar (something we'll fix soon) or are hopelessly bloated or congealed -- who wants to browse through 24 months of archives, or through our nightmarish bog of tags? The irony is that blog navigation tools are often more useful to the blog's author, who knows the content intimately and is the one who created the tortured taxonomic schemes in the first place. Not infrequently, I find myself using the monthly archives or the tags to locate an old post that I want to link to, but I doubt many readers feel its worth their time -- to them it looks more like a glimpse of someone else's email folders.
So what does the if:book "DVD" edition look like? I think you're on to something, Gary, when you say it's more of a library than a single document. Producing some sort of print text would be an interesting project (if we only had time). More likely is some sort of curated page of links organized by theme and providing a window onto our major "enclaves of interest" -- a "best of if:book" perhaps, aggregated somewhere on our main site. This would certainly be worthwhile, but what this conversation has brought me back around to is that to a great extent a blog is a blog. And a blog scrolls. It scrolls and scrolls as time goes on. And that's largely how a blog is read -- in the present tense, without looking back. If we build something different -- an anthology, a library, a deluxe DVD edition -- something that is drawn from the blog yet deals with time in a more sensitive way and does a better job of telling the big story, it will be a great thing, but it won't be a blog.
There are going to be a few changes around here. We're probably porting everything over to Word Press soon, which we got to know doing Gamer Theory and which appears to be better than Movable Type in nearly every way. We'll also clean up some of the navigation, bump up the search field etc. But for the foreseeable future, if:book will keep on being if:book. A blog. A Bluth.
Gary Frost on November 9, 2006 10:20 PM:
A print book is has capacity to prompt reflexive activities. A typical sequence would be reading and writing and reading and writing and reading and writing. Another would be first thought prompting a second thought prompting a third. Another would be first reading contributing meaning to second reading contributing meaning to third reading. These are native, natural instigations of the print book.
A blog, to me, feels impoverished as a prompt to reflexive activities. Its like a train window with an interesting passing landscape that never ends. Some of the reflexive capacity is actually automated as navigational, retrieval and access routines are embedded in the application rather than in authentic reflexive activities of the reader. Most revealing are the transactions of participation. With the print book the reader IS the interface. With the screen there are many more transactions and some interruptions before assimilation. Our minds sense distinctions between screen and paper presentation even when we try to assimilate from both together. Our minds know that there is nothing more illegible than a dark screen.
Gary Frost on November 10, 2006 5:55 AM:
....Gary rarely makes sense and tends to interrupt more than contribute. Basically history will show that blogs are a mistake. The word mistake comes from the compositor's error when working from the case. It was unusual that the compositor would "miss take" from the case the wrong letter. Similar to a wrong musical note. Like the scribe, the letterpress compositor was in direct contact with the words conveyed. This was especially poignant with scripture copy.
Whenever transactions of electrons intervene, miss takes occur. This is apparent in on-line depictions of scripture where the server should be turned off on the Sabbath. This follows the injunction against fire on the Sabbath since the word of God should not be subjected to the flow of electrons.
Such legacy issues seem quaint now since we have easily transcended the opacities of the past. We know better and Gary should not delay the conversation.
Gary Frost on November 10, 2006 6:08 AM:
Actually, I agree that blogs don't moderate themselves well or mediate discussion well. What blogs need is an editor. An editor reads the discussion and then interjects questions that the conversation can answer. This requires italic presentation of the questions and some ability to direct the thread to a conclusion. I also agree that most blogs are more dependent on electron flow than on editorial managment.
Gary Frost on November 10, 2006 6:18 AM:
I think you are both right in your approaches to blog reform. An unnecessary divide between print and screen communication has forestalled progress toward more efficient and more enjoyable reading. Of course, who framed the conversation in-terms of such a divide to begin with? Wasn't it Gary? This is a mischief of his.
dan visel on November 10, 2006 1:18 PM:
Gary (is that you?) I'm a bit confused by what you're trying to do here, which is maybe your point? though it's never that hard to argue for lack of meaning.
Nitpicking: your etymology for "mistake" is tempting, but the OED suggests it's not correct:
a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.): Deut. (Bodl. 959) v. 11 Thou shalt not mystake the name of the lord thy god ydullich. a1387 J. TREVISA tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John's Cambr.) VII. 321 He hath noutht mystake as his owne that he hath i-fonge for a tyme.
And one points out that the same kind of electrons that put characters on a screen are used to transmit impulses from the eye to the brain to the hand.
Gary Frost on November 11, 2006 10:10 PM:
My-stake sounds just as interesting. I made up the attribution to the book production trades.
In 1993 I participated in a pioneer Compuserve listserv BookArts-L. I took the very unpopular stance at that time that there was only one subject in the entire universe that cannot be transacted on-line. Namely the traditional book arts. Now I am considering if the entire range of discussion on communication should be subjected to narrow bands and arbitrary format.
At first it seems that the book conservator must only preserve the past. But currently the future of the paper book is being challenged by more than physical deterioration. Books are now also at risk from search engines that dissolve bibliographic integrity, from on-line research methods that side step library classification systems and from information technology and communication agendas that discount scholarly needs.
The book conservator can play only a small part of the advocacy for print in the context of digital communications and screen based reading. But the conservator can play a specific and critical role. The conservator can counter the churn of transmission technologies by clarifying the attributes of print; attributes of legibility, haptic efficiency and persistence that easily identify the traditional book as the most advanced technology for reliable transmission of conceptual works across time and cultures.