small steps toward an n-dimensional reading/writing space 12.06.2006, 4:30 PM
posted by ben vershbow
A few weeks ago, Mitch Stephens came to us with an interesting challenge: to design a social reading environment for a paper he will be presenting this Friday, Dec. 8 at a conference on religion and media at New York University. The paper, "Holy of Holies: On the Constituents of Emptiness", is now live. This paper draws on the research Mitch has been doing for his book-length study of the history of atheism. It concerns the 1st century B.C.E. episode of the Roman general Pompey's incursion into the tabernacle of the Second Temple. What he finds there... well, you'll see. It's a fascinating piece, which makes some interesting connections between belief systems and media systems, and it's ready for your comments, annotations and criticims which you can post paragraph by paragraph through the text. It's a new format that we're playing with that could give new meaning to the idea of the "working paper." We're still fixing bugs and adding new features, but the basic apparatus is there. Take a look.
Over the past few months, Mitch has been moving out of the research stage and into full-on writing of his manuscript, and as a result he's been thinking about workshopping larger chunks of text on his blog. This presents something of a quandary, however, as the short, pithy format of the blog, so good at sparking discussions generally, is not very good at dealing with longer expository texts. Earlier in November Mitch posted a draft of his book's prologue with the hopes of getting substantive feedback from readers. The response was interesting but meager, largely owing to the fact that the discussion (on the blog) was so totally divorced from the actual text (a Word doc download). He had opted not to publish the prologue directly onto the site, since that would have meant breaking it up into multiple posts to create more points for commenting. This struck him as too clunky, especially considering the reverse-chronological order of the blog would necessitate posting the paper back to front. So he went with the download option. With his new paper he hoped to do something better, so he came to the Institute, or the "garage" as he calls it, to see if we could engineer a new approach.
We had of course already done this with Gamer Theory. Our goal there had been to create a more richly interactive reading environment than was typically found in things broadly designated as "e-books," an environment that offered multiple entry points for discussion and which placed reader input on roughly equal footing with the author's text. This led to the deck of cards structure with comment areas to the side. Networked marginalia you might say, but far from marginal in its impact. As we had hoped/suspected, the discussion became a vital part of the book as a whole.
Now keep in mind that Ken submitted himself to a rigid rule set in writing his book: a uniform number of paragraphs per chapter (25), a strict word limit for paragraphs (250 or less), chapter titles in alphabetical order etc. In many ways, this made our design job easy. Just learn the rules and play the game. But it didn't leave us with a tool that we could handily apply to other expository texts that are less consistently structured than Gamer Theory.
This experimental paper of Mitch's is first stab at such a tool. Our solution was simply to give every paragraph (or block quote, or image) its own comment area. The commenting happens, as in Gamer Theory, alongside the text in the right margin but since the text isn't broken up into cards, the comment area moves with you as you scroll down the page, changing its contents depending on which paragraph you've selected. It's a small step, and although we're pleased to be inching along toward better social document design, we're painfully aware of the limitations, both technical and conceptual, that we have still to surmount.
Placing reader contributions alongside a text tends to involve breaking things up into columns, boxes and tabs, all of which are legacies of paper and print (not a crime in itself, but the point of this work is to move beyond simple mimicry of print into genuinely new structures for the electronic screen). In the digital environment, we can do nifty things like make boxes and columns overlap, hide areas of text behind other areas, or place windows within windows with multiple scrollbars, but we're still thinking in two dimensions. We're still thinking about the flat page. The question is, how many 2-D spaces can we layer together on a single flat plane before the whole thing collapses? How far can we hack Word Press before we rip open a worm hole that takes us to a reading/writing space where altogether different rules apply?
In October, a few of us went to see a fascinating panel (nominally on the topic of blogging, though it went off in various other directions) at the Hyperpolis conference at Brooklyn Polytechnic. It brought together a terrific lineup of internet theorists: Jodi Dean, Steven Shaviro, McKenzie Wark and Geert Lovink:
Ken showed Gamer Theory and discussed its successes and failures. On the one hand, he was delighted that we'd managed to build something that allowed readers to get intimately (and socially) involved with the text. On the other, he was dismayed that to do this we had to construct what Jodi Dean described as "a textual fortress," a hyper-structured reading space with strictly prescribed parameters for reader participation (two types of input were permitted: paragraph-specific comments and general discussion in the forum). This is not to mention the other fortress-like attribute of the site: its brittleness. We built the site according to the blueprint of Ken's manuscript, which made it prohibitively difficult to adapt to other texts, or even to accomodate revisions of restructuring of the present one.
If these forms are to be adaptable to a wider range of writing endeavors then we'll need, in Ken's words, "a new spatial architecture for dealing with text....like a nine-dimensional string theory space. An n-dimensional space is needed."
I like this way of putting it, an n-dimensional space. And we're still stuck on two. Social reading, collaborative authorship and multimedia are all introducing new variables, but at best we're hovering somewhere just shy of 2.5 dimensions in our ability to design for these new conditions. Although... maybe a rich 2.5 is actually what we should be striving for, at least as far as text is concerned. If we venture into 3-D (into Second Life?), don't we shed that degree of abstraction that is best suited for conceptual thought? 2.5 then, perhaps with flashes of three (like this zooming interface after Jef Raskin) for moving between texts in ways that explore the semantics of spacial relations. We'll have to keep tinkering...
This is not to say that we're not optimistic about where this modest experiment with Mitch's paper might lead. We're going to continue to develop this format and will be using it, or variations of it, for a number of projects in the near future. We're also working on something that allows highly flexible line by line, even word-level, commentary. So go read Mitch's thought-provoking paper, use the discussion areas, and tell us what works and what doesn't, keeping in mind that this is a rough prototype that we threw together in a very short amount of time.
Kudos especially to Jesse for the beautifully understated design, and to Eddie for making such elegant pretzels out of the Word Press architecture. Thanks also to Jack Slocum, whose work was a great inspiration to us.
Georgia Harper on December 6, 2006 5:03 PM:
It is wonderful to see how the ideas for books as conversations are continuing to evolve on your site. Based on the article I read by Ben V. about the social life of books, it occurred to me that one of the things I might want to "layer" into the social book would be a second text version with links to other things, both links created by the author and links created by others. Ultimately, the author would evaluate the links, like he/she evaluates comments and integrate as desired. I wonder if it is possible to enable linking into a second tab, a second version of the text, without enabling full-scale editing?
James on December 6, 2006 11:37 PM:
It's good to see innovative forms being applied in fields that are not directly related to the newest of new media. As someone who is interested in the impact of new media (in my case, printed books) on religious traditions, I wonder if there is the possibility of incorporating some of the possibilities offered by the internet, etc. into the writing of my dissertation. So often, uses of electronic resources in the humanities seems irrelevant, behind the times, and gimmicky.
bowerbird on December 7, 2006 2:36 AM:
does sophie shed any light on these questions?
because it seems to me that among the most thorny
of the problems here are the technical ones that
occur around pulling off collaborative editing...
and making a browser jump through these hoops
probably only makes the job even more difficult.
(if you insist on this particular direction, however,
would writely be able to be used in this manner?)
i'd think a desktop app with good online savvy
would make the thing a _lot_ more manageable...
ergo, what up with sophie?
Georgia Harper on December 8, 2006 12:47 PM:
Yes, what is up with sophie? Like James, I am working on my MSIS, soon to be Ph.D, in info studies and want to network and socialize everything I write for the entirety of this 3 - 4 year experience. Need help! Writely, let's see, that's Google Docs, which I have used, but it doesn't really do what I want it to, at least not yet.
Brian Downey on December 8, 2006 12:51 PM:
This hack of the commenting feature, para-by-para, in WordPress, is freaking brilliant.
If/when you folks get this nailed down and can package it as a WP widget or plugin, please shout about it, won't you?
It's brilliant. Or have I said that already?
ben vershbow on December 8, 2006 3:39 PM:
Thanks, Brian. As you can probably tell, it's still a work in progress. But once we've ironed out all the wrinkles, and added a few other features, we do indeed plan to make it available as an open source Word Press theme. Can't make any promises as to timing, but we're hoping within then next month or two. Stay tuned.
Mike Hetherington on December 8, 2006 3:41 PM:
Know it or not, you have just built the foundation for 21st century literary discourse. Congratulations and please hurry with the Wordpress plug-in!
bob stein on December 8, 2006 5:45 PM:
thank you for the generous vote of confidence, but realistically this is still incredibly early. it's a decent first pass on paragraph-by-paragraph commenting, but not more. the system we've got working now doesn't do anything yet for commenting on the paper as a whole or on related ideas in different parts of the paper. we'll be adding new features in the days and weeks to come to address some of these issues.
an additional thought, is that 21st century discourse won't be limited to pure text. audio, video and still images will surely be part of the mix. the wordpress system can certainly handle rich media but we're hoping that this is also where Sophie comes in.
bowerbird on December 8, 2006 5:55 PM:
i would think that an ability for people
to remix -- lift, graft, reformat, etc. --
would be a vital part of what you build.
maybe it's just me, but hacking through
the dense c.s.s. vegetation in your source
seems to me to be unnecessarily difficult.
i'd have no idea how to tap into this,
even doing something as dirt-simple as
making a link to one specific comment...
i admire much of the interface, and i truly
respect the hoops you've had to jump through
to make this work as nicely as it does, so i
really hope you can understand the perspective
that the a.p.i. needs to be more transparent,
and are planning to help us out in that regard.
Gary Frost on December 10, 2006 9:29 AM:
Sophie is a magnificent reflexive writing environment with no content at the moment and if:book is magnificent content. Can the two converge? I imagine the key word here is reflexive. The book reader is motivated to read and write, write and read and read and write. Writing and printing, printing and publishing, collecting and arrangement of books, and librarianship; these are all reflexive actions of the reader. The editor, diarist, compositor, bibliographer and many others are all subsets of the reader. Together they present an array of circulatory, reflexive and persistent reading behaviors. if:book verges on the familiar reflexive forum of the book. It may be useful to conduct If:Book within Sophie.
MT on December 11, 2006 11:59 AM:
A feature I missed at Holy of Hollies is being able to click on commenter's name and see their comments collected. Or being able to link to other comments or or other Web sites ("site cites"). Commenters who could see their own thoughts collected are liable to produce more collected thoughts. Linkability of comments could spare people from quoting and paraphrasing themselves or others unnecessarily. I guess these features would require a login and maybe even moderation, and even so the commentary might get more meta or tangential than you want.
Laura Lemay on December 14, 2006 8:09 AM:
Your system is nearly identical to Jack Slocum's inline commenting system for wordpress, which in turn was adapted by Django (a web framework) for thier online book. Are you using Jack's code or rolling your own?
I think I prefer your sidebar comments to the popup method both Jack's test page and the Django site use. I've been thinking of adapting this inline comment system for a project of my own, so when this post popped up on if:book, I thought, ah! There it is again!
Also in the PDF world inline comments are called annotations, which seems a more familiar and comfortable phrase, at least to me. When Jack's system started getting press on the blogs there was some discussion over this terminology.