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New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts

scholarly discourse networks

1Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This seeming digression into the practices of scholarly discourse is meant to suggest that, in attempting to reproduce the form of the book electronically, technologists have for too long focused on the isolated practices of reading — the individual reader, alone with a screen — rather than the communal practices of discussion and debate to which those practices are, on some level at least, meant to give rise. Scholars operate in a range of conversations, from classroom conversations with students to conference conversations with colleagues; scholars need to have available to them not simply the library model of texts circulating amongst individual readers but also the coffee house model of public reading and debate. This interconnection of individual nodes into a collective fabric is, of course, the strength of the network, which not only physically binds individual machines but also has the ability to bring together the users of those machines, at their separate workstations, into one communal whole.

2Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There’s nothing at all revolutionary in this insight; “the network can create virtual connections amongst otherwise isolated individuals!” is no more than the kind of utopian thinking that’s colored internet studies since Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community was first published in 1993. I do not intend to return us to this kind of uncritical technoboosterism by suggesting that community will solve all of the problems of contemporary scholarly publishing, but I do want to argue that understanding the ways that texts circulate within and give rise to communities will be a necessary component of any successful electronic publishing venture. Given that the strength of the network with respect to the circulation of text is precisely its orientation toward the commons, that many can not only read a text individually but also interact with the same text at the same time, developers of textual technologies would do well to think about ways to situate those texts within a community, and to promote communal discussion and debate within those texts’ frames. Simply publishing texts online, finding ways to replicate the structures of the book in digital form, will fail because the network cannot, and should not, replicate the codex; simply moving toward a more hypertextual form of publishing will likewise not work, as hypertext’s real interactivity is limited. As Richard Lanham noted in an early review essay on work in electronic textuality, “Digital electronic writing is a volatile, interactive, nonauthoritative medium which, of itself, alters the whole idea of scholarly originality, research, and production and publication” (Lanham 203) — but such transformations will only succeed if the medium’s interactivity and nonauthoritative structures are fully mobilized. It’s no paradox that my students resist hypertext while embracing Facebook; the generation celebrated by Time magazine as the “person of the year” in late 2006 — “you” — expects that the reader will likewise be allowed to write.

3Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 That scholars, and not just students, have a desire for such interaction might be seen in the speedy rise to popularity of academic blogging, and in particular in the success of a range of scholarly group blogs including The Valve in literary studies, Crooked Timber in political philosophy, Cliopatria in history, Language Log in linguistics, and so on. Many scholars feel themselves over-isolated, longing for new modes of collaboration and discussion, and such blogs have enabled a kind of conference-without-walls, in which new ideas and new texts can be discussed in something like real time. Moreover, contrary to the sense of some more curmudgeonly folks that the kinds of casual writing done on scholarly blogs can only detract from one’s ability to produce “serious” work, whether by stealing time or focus, or by encouraging speed at the cost of deliberativeness, in fact, many academic bloggers have argued that their blogging, and the discussions on various blogs, have been productive of more substantive work. By revitalizing discourse among peers, blogs have helped enable a return to the coffee house model of textual circulation.

4Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But this coffee house model still largely revolves around the contemporary equivalent of newspaper and pamphlet publishing, rather than the longer, more deliberative form of the book. One question that remains is whether the library model of the circulation of single-author, long-form texts, meant to be consumed in relative isolation, over longer periods of time, might similarly benefit from the kinds of interaction that blogs produce, and if so, how. The library in such a model would become not simply a repository but instead fully part of a communications circuit, one that facilitates discourse rather than enforcing silence. Many libraries are already seeking ways to create more interaction within their walls; my institution’s library, for instance, hosts a number of lecture series and has a weekly “game night,” each designed to help some group of its users interact not simply with the library’s holdings, but with one another. Patrons who use the library in such a fashion, it is hoped, would be more likely to use the library in traditional ways as well — more likely, for instance, to feel comfortable approaching a research librarian for help with a project.

5Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Given that libraries are already interested in establishing themselves as part of a scholarly discursive network, putting the emphasis in the development of electronic publishing technologies on an individualist sense of the book’s circulation — on the retreat into isolation that accompanies our stereotypical imaginings of the library — threatens to miss the point entirely, ignoring the ways that the book itself has always served as an object of discussion, and thus overlooking the real locus of benefit of liberating the book’s content from the form of the codex. Network interactions and connections of the types provided by blog engines can, I’d argue, revitalize academic discourse not just in its pamphlet/coffee-house mode, but also in its book/library mode, by facilitating discussion of a text, by promoting that discussion within the text’s own frame, and by manifesting the ways that each individual text is, and has always been, in dialogue with numerous texts that have preceded it, and that are yet to come.

6Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Blogs are arguably the first successful web-native mode of electronic publishing,[8] and their rapid spread and relative longevity suggest that their tools might be closely examined for their applicability 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 fall out of 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,[9] 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. These commenting and trackback technologies might 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.

  • [8] So argued Howard Owens recently on his blog: “Blogs are arguably the first web-native publishing model, so it only makes sense that blogs would provide a template for how to publish online” (Owens), as did Michele Tepper well before that, in the September 2003 issue of netWorker, describing blogs as “perhaps the first native publishing format for the Web” (20). This point always seems to be made with “arguably” inserted, as I have done, which suggests that the idea has managed to enter the conventional wisdom without anyone ever having done an empirical study to back it up. Interestingly, I posed the question of support for such a statement on my own blog, and provoked in return a compelling discussion about what the true value of blogging’s “firstness” would be and about the erasure of Usenet from histories of the digital in the wake of the web. See Fitzpatrick, “Again with the Blegging” and Fitzpatrick, “Blogging.”
  • See Fitzpatrick, “MediaCommons.”
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