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Or more subtly: reading online isn’t the same as reading on paper, yet we continue to treat the web as a distribution tool rather than as a medium with its own material constraints, both suited and unsuited to certain kinds of content. I’ve been thinking about this recently after I started reading a lot more scholarly writing online. Let me give a couple of examples.

Example one. Noah Wardrip-Fruin has written a new book called Expressive Processing, a revision of his dissertation work at Brown. The book will be published by MIT Press next year, and as an academic press publication it requires peer review. Noah realized that he’s enjoyed considerable intellectual benefit from comments on Grand Text Auto, a blog he co-authors. And so, since January he has been bravely posting the text of the book on that site, where it is being subjected to an experimental online peer review.

The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book. For my part, I am finding it hard to follow the argument all the way through, despite the book’s excellent use of specific examples per-chapter and Noah’s top-notch writing. This isn’t Noah’s fault; he’s written what seems like a terrific book. But a terrific book for print, not for the web. I’m not sure I’ll be able to read it properly until I get the thing in my hands.

Example two. Online open-access peer reviewed journals are enjoying considerable growth and acceptance as a venue for academic publishing. Driven partly by young scholars and those working in digital media research itself, the argument for open-access online journals is compelling: these are articles people of all walks of life can actually find and read, while traditional journals fester, dead, in the mausolea of academe — if those crypts can even afford to purchase them from their greedy publishers. Nick Montfort recently called the latter form of productivity “anti-publication,” since it does precisely the opposite of making work public.

Over the last couple days I’ve been reading the latest issue of the online open-access journal Eludamos, a “journal for computer game culture.” The articles are of immediate interest to me, including one on Simulation versus Abstraction and Transformation in Sports Videogames Design by Fares Kayali and Peter Purgathofer. But once again, I’m finding it difficult to read a sustained argument in web form. A typical (print) journal article is around 8,000 words, and the Kayali & Purgathofer piece weighs in right around that figure. It’s enough material with enough density of ideas that it takes time to read, at least to read well. Even ignoring the horrific typography of Eludamos, just parsing these ideas on the screen ties my neurons in knots. But when I read similar work on the airplane, the train, or the couch I don’t have that sensation.

What’s going on in these two cases? Here’s one idea: in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.

I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.

Instead, perhaps we should focus on a different question: what would it look like if we translate our interactions with particular kinds of print media online, rather than just moving the characters that comprise them from ink to pixels? Ereaders like Sony’s and Amazon’s are one possible solution, not without their own issues, but are there others?

published March 7, 2008

Comments

  1. Walter

    I also find myself subject to the increased difficulty of concentrating on long-form arguments online. Part of it is definitely the inability to mark up, dogear, etc. (which is why the Kindle is still a long ways from being an adequate e-reader device), but I think the brunt of it has to do with the fact that online text is situated so “closely” among every other online text, each accessible with one or a few flicks of the finger. The mind ends up continually bombarded by a sense of the opportunity costs of sticking with the currently loaded text (which is only intensified by the presence of a hyperlink or some novel term that warrants a lookup).

    Reply
  2. Greg J. Smith

    Ian, I’ve had the exact same issue with Noah’s text as well. I’ve been keeping an eye on it since his “public” peer review was announced and I can’t keep up with the updates. I have a enough hard time staying on top of my book hitlist! I realize the way I read online is quite different than when dealing with bound texts. I can read lengthy essays online, but book length texts are a different manner (even if they are broken up). I just gave up trying to keep up with the waves of Expressive Processing content. I really love the politics of Noah’s experiment, I just can’t discipline myself to keep up with it! I guess I’ll just wait for the book to come out. :P

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  3. Ian Bogost

    @Walter

    I think the very small switching cost is indeed a part of it. Not to mention all the other stuff running in the background — email, IM, etc.

    @Greg

    Is it because the lengthy essays are all on one page?

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  4. Brett

    Walter’s comment is an excellent take on the problem, one I hadn’t considered before. When we talk about the benefit of hyperlinks as the ability to see and respond to connections more readily, we’re somewhat assuming we’ll always *want* to follow them when they appear. But that very benefit becomes a detriment when we shift from short- to long-form text, as in your example. It reminds me of those freeware utilities you see occasionally that frame your work by specifically *hiding* everything but the text you’re focused on. But again, this seems to be undercutting the benefits of the medium itself.

    I do want to emphasize the role of comment upon (literally) the text a bit more than Walter did, though. For me, having a pdf (or even a wiki-style presentation in some cases) that discourages or even disallows the ability to write in the margin makes for a too heavily one-directional conversation with the text that I find distracting and off-putting.

    Even if the text is separated into chunks with comment space following each, that’s still not the same as being able to star or underline a particularly provocative sentence with a word or two (or just a “?” or “!”) in the margin. This is even more important in some ways if you’re a peer reviewing a text than if you’re making jottings for your own later use.

    Perhaps if there were a browser plugin that would allow you to highlight and comment on any text, Word-style? (There probably is one already.) So that each time you come back to the page your comments will be right where you made them? Would that recapture something of the way I interact with my bound books now?

    But then there is the fact that when I read a longer-form anything, I often like to have it in my lap as opposed to at my desk. And the clamshell design of most laptops is just not conducive to long periods actually on your lap.

    So, just design an ebook reader with a touch screen the size of a tablet that doesn’t get hot, and is always connected to the net. Isn’t Apple supposed to be working on this or something? :)

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  5. noah

    I think you’re absolutely right that the form of the blog post makes it hard to read Expressive Processing as a book. But, actually, I’ve found it very productive for people to approach it as a series of blog posts. Most anonymous peer reviews of book manuscripts (my own included) focus almost exclusively on the high-level argument. The blog-based peer review of EP, on the other hand, has resulted in some very useful discussions and thinking about the specific examples and local arguments.

    So my hope is that people (including Ian) will drop in on the review whenever they feel interested. This week we’ll be talking about things like SimCity, The Sims, and Facade. I’m interested in the thoughts of anyone who knows about these games, not just people who have fully read and digested the previous seven chapters of EP.

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  6. Ian Bogost

    @noah

    I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you think what the online readers are reading is something different from the book? That may very well facilitate the kind of detailed fixes that a broad-based blind peer review does not, but it seems to me that it’s a qualitatively different kind of reading. The counterpoint, I suppose, is that people don’t read books all the way through anyway, so it’s more representative of a typical reading.

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  7. noah

    Right. Every nonfiction book gets read multiple ways, sometimes even by the same reader. My hope is that the blind peer review organized by MITP will give some important broad-strokes feedback. Meanwhile, I think the blog-based peer review has given me great insight into how the book will be experienced by “strategic” readers who engage individual sections, looking for my take on particular issues or projects.

    Since I want the book to work for different kinds of readers, I’m glad to be getting both kinds of review. Of course, this isn’t the only kind of broadening the blog-based review provides. I’m also getting comments, in the blog-based form, from people who would be unlikely to participate in the press-sponsored, blind review of the complete manuscript. So right now my thought is that, if I write another book any time soon, I’ll very much want to do this dual review again.

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  8. Jose Zagal

    Reading online (on-screen, actually) is also harder in the physical sense. Not only is there the comfort aspect, but there is a well-studied issue with eyestrain due to the much lower resolution that current screen technology has w/r to paper. There are other issues as well such as contrast, glare, etc. Essentially, reading from a screen REALLY is harder. It’s physically more demanding.

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  9. Ian Bogost

    Noah, I can’t help but guess that the sentiment you just reported couldn’t have been something you foresaw when planning the GTxA review. Am I right? Given your new knowledge, how would you change the method and form of such a future review? Right now you’re using the if:book tools more or less out of the box. What would you do differently.

    And a devil’s advocate question: can one only get a “blog-style” bits and pieces readership online? Is it possible to get the through-and-through, complete readership of a traditional book? Or are you suggesting that such a reader isn’t really realistic anymore, so why bother? If so, one might ask, why write a book?

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  10. Greg J. Smith

    @Ian re: “bits and pieces readership”

    That is how I feel like I supposed to process content in my RSS reader. I’ve trained myself to be a scanner (like a Grad student.. searching!) and I need to recondition myself to read a series of posts which form a broader, more cohesive text. I guess my commentary is really outside the “peer review” side of Noah’s experiment. Like Jose, I’m just commenting on my comfort zone for working through (more involved) material on a screen.

    All of that said, and Noah’s comments about “welcoming anybody with any perspective to share to any EP post” considered – I have no excuse not to dig into the recent Simcity content!

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  11. Ian Bogost

    @Greg

    But don’t you feel like RSS bits and pieces reading is — or should be — of a different kind from careful reading?

    Also, you bring up an important point. I am not critiquing the peer review part of Noah’s experiment. I tried to be quite careful about suggesting the success of that process compared to my trouble reading the book. One really has to treat it as an example of reading a book online.

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  12. Aaron Lanterman

    The Ents will be angry with me, but I wind up solving the problem by printing out a lot of articles. Then I can take them into the bathtub with me.

    I want an e-reader I can safely immerse in water.

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  13. Mark Nelson

    This seems sort of like a case of a half-hearted effort to move online not being likely to succeed. Eludamos provides HTML versions of their journal articles which are, well, HTML versions of a journal article. Other internet-based open-access journals get around the problem by not even pretending to use the internet as anything other than a distribution method: for example, JMLR just provides print-formatted PDFs that you can download. The expectation is that you’ll either print them out and read offline, or read on the computer in a PDF viewer, but approach them basically as print-formatted text. This (online distribution of print-formatted PDFs) seems to be the standard in computer science (and math and physics) academia, anyway, with HTML versions being much less common.

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  14. Gary Frost

    This discussion is filled with clues. To begin with there are exclusive, native attributes of paper and the same for screen. These separate traits are not fungible or interchangable. And the dismissal of these distinctive traits as paper is suited-to-linear reading and screen-to-ramified reading is way too unexplanitory.

    I consider the trilogy of legibility or immediacy of meaning, haptic efficiency and persistence as exclusive paper traits, but these are inadequate by themselves. A more curious dependancy is at work. One aspect is the curious difference between attentive regard for content and an attentive ulterior motive for reading. A distinctive paper affordance is an easy capacity to track both author content and reader ulterior motivation in a sustained, long paced exchange and to afford assured re-access to any specific concordance between.

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  15. tim bulkeley

    The key to this discussion has seemed to me to be the recognition that (a) different genres of academic writing “work” differently in my discipline I’d characterise the two extremes as monograph (book length work with a central coherent sustained argument) and commentary (a work which provides information and explanation about another work, often focused on its detail) (b) different forms of writing “work” differently – in particular the straight text form is very different from the hypertexted form. Some genres are more suited to one form than the other. As the discussion above notes the medium (e.g. print vs. online but one might include oral delivery etc.) also interact with this more fundamental difference. (See my article “Form, Medium and Function: The Rhetorics and Poetics of Text and Hypertext in Humanities Publishing”, International Journal of the Book 1, 2003, 317-327, text at http://bigbible.org/papers/bookconf.htm).

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  16. Mark

    Well it is true that its just not the same … reading online and on the peice of paper in shape of the book …. But every medium has its own significance…. and what we can share and do here .. can’t done done in a book form…

    Like the blog you have here and people from all around the world can read it and comment on that too … this is the beauty of reading online .. again agreeing to the fact that reading experience is just not the same..

    Mark

    Editor

    http://www.212articles.com

    Reply
  17. Ed Webb

    @Brett you should try Diigo (http://www.diigo.com) for annotating online text – it’s social as well, if you choose it to be, so your annotations can be private or shared with a group. Doesn’t work with PDFs, though.

    I find my online reading experience has got much better since I got hold of a convertible tablet (by Fujitsu) allowing me to read docs in something more like a Kindle form – on my lap while traveling, for example. Yet I concur with most of Ian’s points about the experience, and think Walter’s comment particularly apposite.

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