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of clockwork men

Reading, and Digital Literacy

One of the most interesting aspects of the un-Launch on the 16th was the presence of a reading audience in the same room as me. I wrote this with a solitary reader in mind, trying to replicate the reading experience I had with, for example, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (although I’m nowhere near his league). I read that book as, I hope, an educated reader – I had a dictionary by my side (Wolfe teaches us new words and new ways of seeing old ones), and a notebook to scribble things down in. I was, I think, 14 or 15. I imagined my readers working in a similar way – scribbling down file names and links between sections and characters, between hints in the text and references to short pieces of film footage. I never imagined those readers would gather in a room and ask me questions.

And the questions were the most revealing part of the process on Monday evening. I’d been surprised by the amount of chatter on twitter, and then as that faded to a background hum, wondered if the thing actually worked. Website stats were moderately healthy, downloads of content were steady, if centered around the video pieces and not the text (analytics, sadly, never quite managed to produce a reliable chart showing where you all clicked, which would have told me tons about designing a visual narrative online).

One of the things that I learned, although I think I knew already, was that this was too big. That an audience would want to see connections and trace elements from one piece to another I don’t think is a mistaken, or flawed idea – it’s how everyone reads online anyway – but the scale of the thing might have been skewed. Let me explain. When we’re reading a linear text, the journey in front of us is clear. Not necessarily in a formal manner, but in that we have a set number of pages, a distance of time to the end of the film, and the sure knowledge that an author / director / editor has prepared all of that for us. We’re being entertained, and that’s part of the contract with the text. Online reading, the reverse. We click from item to item, we’re not permitted the same relationship with the physicality of the text that we have in the analogue world (think of a digital newspaper and it’s physical equivalent, and then consider how you read each one), and what’s usually important is the journey we’ve taken, and looking back at the connections. Often, only then do we see everything laid bare. We’re the authors now.

And to an extent, I muddled the message with this project. Showing the scale of the thing was a deliberate echo of the ‘pages left to go’ feeling from reading a book. I’ll talk another morning about digital fiction and time, but it was important to signal how much there was of this. And within that, the central navigation motif was threads between items, a journey that demonstrated meaning when it had been taken, rather than offering a preconceived, sure, pattern.

Not a disaster, but something to think about next time.


2 comments for “Reading, and Digital Literacy”

  1. You know, the analytics would have been a lot clearer had the entire thing been in HTML. That would have made it easier to see how the reader navigated back and forth in the text.

    I don’t think the size was a problem. What got in my way as a reader (albeit a reader who was more informed about the project than others) was that the project lacked clear boundaries for what sort of activities were expected of me. If you had an UI that made it clear that the reader was supposed to collect, connect and order the texts – along with a few built in tools for the purpose – then you would have seen much more uptake on that.

    That’s what happens online. The browser has a history, bookmarks, built in links, a search engine, and a competency in using all of those things.

    I don’t agree with your representation of online reading, it has a plurality to it that you rarely get in offline media, and that does not give the reader any sort of authorship, any more than peaking ahead makes a reader the co-author of a detective novel. The reader has more options and more capabilities, but they can only act on structures and work others have set in place. Unless they start to create on their own (blogging, tweeting, etc.) but that’s a different thing that changes their role.

    “Not a disaster, but something to think about next time.”

    Absolutely. The hallmark of a good project is the ideas it inspires, questions it raises, and the options it opens up. In that regard this is nothing short of a smashing success.

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | May 23, 2011, 11:39 am
  2. [...] suggests two things in his comments on “Reading..”. The point about online reading is a disagreement, and we’ve been there before, but he [...]

    Posted by other things | We call upon the author to explain | May 24, 2011, 6:51 am

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