I'm in UR Internetz, Revolutionizin' UR Genres

M. Gallagher's picture

I'm in UR Internetz, Revolutionizin' UR Genres

 

How many telegrams did you send when you had to dictate them over the phone to a  

   Western Union operator? How many emails do you send now that you can clatter them      

    off your WiFi laptop in your living room?

- Cory Doctorow, “Blogging without the Blog”

 

            As a student in Anne Dalke's Emerging Genres class, I have found my interest drawn most to the last portion of the course where we discussed blogs.  However, throughout the course we have used technology (blogging, course forums, etc.), so discussing the Web in general is not a particular disconnect.   As a user of the Web, much of this is written from experiential knowledge, thus many of the examples I use when discussing the “problems” we have dealing with the Web may not be established within the paper as I could be suffering under the misconception that these are common knowledge.  Feel free to read this- and my 3 other web papers- comments from any viewpoint/ personal history or requests for more information on a particular topic are more than welcome.

            One of the problems with writing anything about the Web as a general concept is not only the almost boundary-less properties, but the incessant stream of new data that is flowing constantly 24 hours a day.  Most of the authors who write about the Web comment that their research topic is changing even as they write. Every second spent away from researching and following feeds is an exponential quantity of new information missed; even if one could go through every page written primarily in English as it updated (which would be an impossibility on its own), that would merely be about 30% of the available content (Lovink xi).   So, what can I say that is useful, as I am primarily a user instead of a content-producer or theorist?  For one, I can say that in this age of the World Wide Web, the question should be why my statements would be any less useful or authoritative than another's.  Also, at the same time, this paper is acknowledging its inherent biases which may be more visible to an outside reader, and shall remain a work in progress and knowledge as long as I have access to the Web via the Internet.

            I am a devout convert to the power of technology.  However, I am just one amongst the millions who have not lived a day without sundry technological devices aiding and abetting every action.  In fact, my life (and likely that of many in my age group) has greatly paralleled the development of the World Wide Web.  I was born about the same time Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the proto-web at CERN to increase communication and the ability to share information quickly.  I was too young to use the (then mainly text-based) web until the mid-90s, when even at 7, I was fascinated.  Before I turned 10, I had used both CompuServe and AOL as ISPs and was using ICQ (the first world-wide instant messaging service for non UNIX-users) as well as visiting chat rooms, but my movements were restricted physically by my dial-up connection and intellectually by the lack of pages appealing to interests.  As the Web 2.0 boundary was crossed, I was already deeply embroiled in the use of the internet, but my use still changed to a great degree; I started a blog, I used Kazaa. I got a cable connection.  I was at Brown University in 2004 when John Perry Barlow (not only a Grateful Dead lyricist, but the fellow who is credited with first referring to the current Web as “cyberspace” via Gibson’s Neuromancer) was re-evaluating his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, Bill Zeller had come to discuss myTunes with us, I discovered Open  Source, and a few of my friends in Britain and Canada were being jailed for hacking-related crimes.

            Since then, my use of the Internet has become much less revolutionary. It is merely part of my existence.  I, like many, now use a multitude of applications including Facebook, read and write multiple blogs, follow a variety of feeds for my news, am writing this on an open source application (Open Office), and am listening to music that I certainly did not purchase.  That doesn't even begin to cover my use of the Web for academics, as a general knowledge source, and further entertainment (e-books, video, photos, etc.).  As Geert Lovink stated, the online culture has now become the culture, my culture (xii).  Heck, it is even a course topic these days.

            In the Emerging Genres class with Anne Dalke, we discussed the genre of the blog.  Five Tri-co professors, including Professor Dalke, also discussed some of the problems that arise in relation to blogging and the the communities which form around the blogs. I feel that some of these issues (authority, identity, etc.) are not specific to blogging, but rather to the whole of Web usage.  I feel that an underlying problem lies in treating the Web exactly as we have treated past technologies, not as the newly evolved form which I actually have seen it represent.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to address many of the problems in this paper, as each of them would require entire books.  Instead, I will try to address and highlight some of the changes between old and new technologies and their widespread usage.

            I mentioned in my last paper that I felt blogs were specifically suited to the Darwinian model of genre evolution, despite disagreeing with the theory ascribing novels the same attributes.  I felt that the idea of a blog was particularly fitting for its kairos, or space-time, as it allowed the public to increase its fixation on “capturing the rhythms of ordinary life” in an expanding technological environment (Miller).  The “speciation” from its myriad ancestors seemed particularly obvious.  However, I have been pondering why this particular example should fit the Darwinian model while I stated that the novel did not.  I think it has a great deal to do with having lived through the speciation, even if only partially.  More than that, though, I feel it is primarily focused on a revolution in technology, which required the literary forms to adadpt.  This created new speciated genres, which exist on a different technical plane, whereas the novel's “evolution” doesn't seem to have involved the seem technological revolution, possibly because I just did not experience it.

            I used to write in a journal, or a diary if you prefer- probably from about the age of 8 to 10- in a bound notebook about my daily life: how many Star Wars action figures I had collected, what I had eaten, who had won “Capture the Flag”, and what strange antics my cats had gotten up to (not much different from many of my blog posts, really).  The important thing is that it did not contain any content that I would mind telling others; however, one day my aunt saw it sitting out and read it.  I know this because she wrote a comment about how lovely my writing was and how much she had enjoyed reading it.  I was furious, not because she'd read my journal per se, but rather that she'd left a comment in MY journal.  

            Years later, when I began blogging, I wrote journal entries to get comments.  They weren't that much different in content- I don't even think the early ones contained that many links to what I had been finding on the Web- but it was on a different platform where I was expecting comments.  I soon evolved to writing entries sprinkled with links and different media forms.  It was an entirely different form of writing a journal, and I can feel the speciation from my early journal to my blog: they could never mate fruitfully because they were created on different technological platforms. Even the early blog is completely dissimilar from the current blog, which instead of discussing my outside life in detail is mainly based on a foundation of links of interest.  I cannot seem to see this with novels, letters, and poetry where they can all be combined willy-nilly and still be identified as one genre or the other.  I feel that this is primarily due to the introduction of a new technological infrastructure to which the journal was adapted.

            Another interesting (extraordinarily short) view on how the blog came about is detailed by Roger Ebert.  He states that fanzines (mimeographed science fiction magazines circulated by mail amongst fans before the Internet) contributed to the early culture of the web, and thereafter, blogs.  The fanzines were published with LOCs (Letters of Comment) from the readers of previous issues, and had a very similar tone of discourse to blogs as well as a propensity for coining words from acronyms that still runs rampant on the Web today.  They were circulated by young males who were geeky and obsessed with pop culture and the computer, and who really wanted to circulate their ideas- which sounds quite similar to the popular Web culture, actually (Ebert).  At any rate, these fanzines did not have the near instantaneous reply speed that the internet has, which allows such intense interaction to occur.  However, they seem to be a possible evolutionary link between the old print form and the new online interaction- simply with a bit more technology to aid the speed and effectiveness of the communication.

            Kate Thomas mentioned that the immediacy of the Web is nothing new, as we used to have six mailcoaches a day and a multitude of other quick communication devices (Thomas).  This may be a hyperbole on her part to emphasize another point, but it should be noted that the Web technology is almost instantaneous (unless it goes through a time-delayed moderation or something similar).  This is similar to the prior multiple deliveries of mail a day, but still an evolution adapting to the technology to  become the “best fitting” model.

            The “linkyness” of the Web that I enjoy so much is also an evolution predicated on this same advance in technology.  Many compare links to footnotes, which to some extent is an accurate comparison.  They both link the reader to other information that is used as a reference or further reading related to the topic.  On the other hand, it's also like comparing dogs to wolves: sure they're both Canis lupus, but one begat the other (and one's a whole lot friendlier).  For a footnote, you write down the information and go to a library to search for the resource- and if they have it- you can then read it.  For every single footnote.  However, a hyperlink can just be clicked to take you to an elaborate daisy-chained web of information which can be accessed and processed in a short period of time.  As hyperlinks can be processed more quickly, they are used more often and for more esoteric and holistic purposes (at least in my experience) in most online texts than footnotes are used in hard-print forms.  This ease means more people click the links to learn more, and when coupled with an increased number and breadth covered by hyperlinks, they allow for further understanding of a topic than a footnote provides.  This promotes further interaction and personal connections to a text.  As Lovink states, “the networked hyperlink encouraged participation from the start” (xiii).  Thus, I feel that the technological platform of the Web again separates the old (of footnotes) from the new (of hyperlinks), despite obvious evolutionary connections that allow them to be compared. 

            Another interesting evolutionary change which is still adapting was brought about by this new technology.  Cory Doctorow recently published an article in Locus entitled “Think Like a Dandelion” which offers further support to why he publishes all of his books under a Creative Commons license (ie: for free) after they are out in print.  The basic gist is that mammals, as organisms with very few offspring which they put a lot of effort and energy into raising so that their genes can be passed on effectively (k-selected species), represent what authors could be pre-Web 2.0.  Post-Web 2.0, authors should be like dandelions (r-selected species), producing large numbers of copies (seeds) available for free on the Web.  These seeds are let off with even a tiny breeze (or a tiny bit of interest), to go where they will and end up in any environment (or with any reader) because all they care about is that “every singly opportunity for reproduction is exploited”- and come spring, all the dandelion-friendly places will have dandelions growing strong, or at least the seed of the author's publication rooted strong (Doctorow “Dandelion”).

            This is an important development as it shows an adaptation in “reproduction type” due to different environmental factors.  In today's global world, an author can no longer cling to the old publishing house printing; the production costs of publishing are a limiting factor to the population of an author's readership.  However, the Web counters this by offering almost free production costs and cheap marketing, at the risk of losing track of consumption and/or audience control.  Many authors- at least of the Science Fiction bent- have found that releasing free e-versions of their books increases their overall sales (Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow do this through their blogs to name a few). This is mirrored in the existence of the meme, as Richard Dawkins termed them.

            It's not just authors, either.; the band Radiohead made the most money on any single album to date by allowing the latest to be downloaded for whatever price the consumer wished to pay.  This is indicative of the need for a paradigm shift with this new technology that is the Web, which is only happening very slowly.  For in this Web of sites so plentiful and vast that we rely on other sites to aggregate and help us find the interesting ones, with a population streaming data as an “unending NOW of moments and distractions and wonderments and puzzlements and ranges” (Doctorow “Dandelion”), it is not giving away free copies of your work which hurts you, it is the obscurity into which you fall by not doing so.

            Of course, electronic versions of print material are nothing particularly novel (the full scourge of the corny pun intended).  Journals and newspapers of all sorts have been doing it for years.  Many science publications exist primarily online- in fact, Bryn Mawr College pays many science publications for access to their online material without purchasing print editions.  According to Brendan Maher, a writer and editor for the prestigious science journal, Nature, the majority of their active readership is online (Maher).  However, even this is not terribly impressive as an evolution of what the technology of Web 20 has brought.  But what's happening in Second Life (and other programs like it) is.

            Second Life, or SL, is a well-known open-ended platform based in a metaverse made so that people can do what they do in normal life (socialize, work, shop, even have sexual encounters) on the Web.  It's pretty much aiming for what it says on the proverbial box, a “second life”.  While known widely for recreational and business activities, an increasing number of science islands are growing.  This not only provides a valuable resource within the metaverse, but connects with the world outside of Second Life and the Web (Terra Questi).

            Nature and the American Chemical Society both have islands within Second Life.  So does Drexel.  Conferences can be held by real scientists so that people from all disciplines all over the world can attend- even conferences happening outside of SL can be streamed as “mixed-world” events; according to Troy McConaghy, “virtual conferencing is one of the fastest-growing SL activities”(Terra Questi).  Jean-Claude Bradley augments his Drexel organic chemistry class via virtual races based on getting the right answer to questions in-game, which result in real prizes. Students at the University of Arizona have created an interactive timeline of the Earth's history.  A Drexel neuroscientist has created a virtual ecosystem model to watch evolution at work (Terra Questi).

            This plethora of user-created content is another definitive feature of the Web.  Before, printed text would have to be inspecting and passed by publishers and editors in a drawn-out process.  Now, users can create a vast array of interfaces with practically no outside censoring (assuming that they aren't being moderated by a site moderator or by the glorious Patriot Act).  This results in the multitudinous new uses of places like Second Life for both completely virtual and mixed-world existences that simply were not feasible in any scope with the old technology.

            Until recently, “mass media have been created for the masses, not by them” (Lovink xxiv).  With advent of the technology to give the freedom of creation to the masses, an old trait has been hyper-expressed; that is the formation of communities.  Where there were communities which met monthly or bi-monthly based around books, or magazines based on a population's love of of science fiction, now user-created communities have skyrocketed.  It seems almost every website or application is based upon community (appealing to the human social need), and this is no fluke. As Cory Doctorow stated, unlike previous print formats where content was the end-all be-all, on the Web, “conversation, not content, is king” (Doctorow “Science Fiction”).  Even Lovink agrees that people “flock to the Web for conversation” (xix) over any other motivating factor.

              I've even recently found an application called PMOG (the Passively Multiplayer Online Game- fresh out of beta), which makes one's everyday surfing of the Web into a community.  It works as an extension to the Firefox browser, which allows you to register at their site and take on an “Association” based on how you interact with the Web community as a whole (you're a Destroyer if you lay mines, a Pathmaker if you lay out missions for other users to take, and of course with my love for linkyness, I'm a Seer who lays portals [read:links] for others to follow).  There are badges available for certain things (reading BoingBoing.com every day for a week, for instance), and users can get gold the more URLs they visit, tools they use, or missions they complete.  This gold can then, in turn, be used to buy more tools to use.  Think of how connective this new technology allows us to be!  It's like an evolution of scrawling in the margins, much akin to how links are the evolution of footnotes.

            Wikipedia, an ever-expanding and increasingly popular wiki which provides encyclopedic information, depends solely on viewers to create articles and edit it for accuracy, breadth, and depth.  This is, of course, also the source  of the major controversy surrounding Wikipedia as an academic resource; this concept is linked with the “perceived” freeness of the Web, which many protest. Both of these issues are tied to an old technology form of thinking, which I have been describing in this paper as continually hindering our actions on the Web and which is possibly the source of many of the perceived problems.

            First and foremost, the conception that a community edited source will not be correct is a logical concern, but one based on old technologies.  With a large enough base of contributing members dedicated to the cause of disseminating knowledge, everything will be policed at least as well as publishers and editors do (from mere misconceptions and conscious efforts to pervert the articles).  Wikipedia is not the only website with this ideology (h2g2com is similar, though less structured- and likely more palatable as it's based off of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sci-fi comedy books), it is merely one of the ones with the most traffic.  

            This mindset that non-academics cannot possibly be in the know or the right is a definite response to old technology where information is a  commodity only provided by a select few to the population.  With Web 2.0, a mass democratization of information-sharing has been revolutionized.  The way to learn something on the Web is not merely to read one site, but to follow the links or Google multiple pages.  Sure they may contradict one another, but there will still be a majority of pages relating to the “correct” definition. This way, “the knower” (if you want to get epistemological) gets not only the basic information, but a true sense of how the subject of interest is related to many other fields- and can post any discrepancies they find themselves-  in mere seconds.  They get closer to “grokking” the subject material, if you will; I know I certainly do.  And while majority may rule, remember that on the greater scale, it's a democratic majority without an overriding agenda to pervert the information that they are sharing; whereas in the past, a higher echelon decided what went into the book- and more importantly, what stayed out.

             In conclusion, this merely scratches the surface of the revolution in ideology needed in this new cyber age.  As Lovink has commented, “the Internet has not delivered the revolution it promised...this means that the ideology, and not the world, will have to adjust” (xxvii).  There’s a huge possibility- far beyond what has already occurred- for the interaction of the Web and daily life (or “meatspace” if you’re a Gibson fan or hip young web individual), including the expanding field of virtual reality.  While we can still use old ideologies and theory to help us comprehend the new changes, as all of the new Web 2.0 tools have evolved from classic forms (links from footnotes) and thus share many similar characteristics, it is important to keep in mind that it is still a new technological platform that we’re dealing with.  Besides, I think Derrida might even have like the World Wide Web.

 


Works Cited

Doctorow, Cory. “Blogging Without the Blog.” Locus Magazine. January 2007. 16 May

2008.   <http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2007/01/cory-doctorow-blogging-

without-blog.html>.

 

Doctorow, Cory. “Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to

Steal on the Internet.” Locus Magazine. July 2006. 16 May 2008.             <http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/07DoctorowCommentary.html>.

 

Doctorow, Cory. “Think Like a Dandelion.” Locus Magazine. May 2008. 16 May 2008.             <http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2008/05/cory-doctorow-think-like-

dandelion.html>.

 

Ebert, Roger. “Fanzines Beget Blogs.” Chicago Sun-Times Blogs. 4 May 2008. 16 May

2008.   <http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/05/fanzines_beget_blogs.html>.

 

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York, NY:

Routledge, 2008.

 

Maher, Brendan.  Adventures in Science Writing. Biology Department 2007-2008

Lecture Series. Park Science Building, Room 229, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn

Mawr, PA. 21 March 2008.

 

Miller, Carolyn R. and Shepherd, Dawn. “Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis

of the Weblog.” Into the Blogosphere. 30 November 2004. 27 April 2008. <http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogging_as_social_action_a_genre_analysis_of_the_weblog.html>.

 

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: boundary Stories a     bout Virtual     Cultures.” Cyberspace: First Steps.  Ed. Michael Benedikt.

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,        1991. 81-118.

 

Terra Questi. “Scientists Get a 2nd Life.” Science News. 9 May 2008. 16 May 2008.             <http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/31953/title/Scientists_Get_a_2nd_L

ife>.

 

Thomas, Kate. A Conversation. Emerging Genres Class. Dalton Hall, Bryn Mawr

College, Bryn Mawr, PA.  17 April 2008.

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

where's the revolution?

M.--

This essay is useful to me on two levels: first, you call my attention to a spectrum of activities I knew nothing about-- post Web. 2.0, dandelion-like reproduction, science islands in SL, mixed-world existences, the "hyper-expression" of communities, the passively multiplayer online game which makes everyday web-surfing into a community....

Whew!

Now, knowing about all this....

if I could only (!) assign you one more paper for this course, I'd ask to hear more about your notion--and the implications of this notion--that on the Web, "conversation, not content, is king." As an academic who is most interested in knowledge-production (and in connection as a means to the same), this valorization of connecting is troubling to me. So, the frank question is where (or what) does all this connecting get us?

Which takes us to the second question/level. You identify the need for a shift in our ideology about what constitutes "thinking" in the internet age. You contrast the "old technology form of thinking," which hinders our actions on the Web, with what you call the revolutionary "mass democratization of information-sharing."And yet you say that your own use of the Internet has, in time, become "much less revolutionary."

So: where's the revolution? What's it look like, or what might it look like, in classes such as ours? What does that mean, on the ground? What happens in eduation, generally, in courses specifically, @ BMC in ever more particularity?

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