Remember when bookstores were simple spaces filled only with shelves and a checkout counter? Hushed as a proverbial library they were and serious places of business. Then, about 15 years ago, an odd thing happened: Suddenly, you were not only allowed to sit and read, you were encouraged to do so as bookstores came to resemble living rooms, with comfy chairs and conversation pits. And then, lo and behold, the cardinal rule “no food, no drink” was casually discarded as bookstores began to incorporate — gasp — cafes on their premises. To a classically trained librarian, taught to worry about silverfish and mold, this development was truly weird. But the bookstore had evolved and there was no regressing. The mere shop was on its way to becoming a Greek agora cum literary salon.
As if that were the end! No, evolution continues apace, and now it’s the book itself, rather than its place of residence, that brings us together. The book is now a place as well as a thing and you can find its location mapped in cyberspace.
Of course, books transport us to other places — some real, some imaginary. And books are places of a sort themselves, with a geography of pages, sections, and features such as tables of contents and indexes. A few even sport topographical features including pop-ups and clear overlays. But even though they inspire us to come together to talk about them, until now, books have not functioned as meeting places.
Enter the networked book: the new agora/plaza/forum where authors, publishers, and readers congregate to ponder, discuss, joke, enjoy, and refer. With the advent of blogging; the advent of Google, Amazon, and soon Microsoft book searches; and an audience of Web 2.0 collaborators, the book is becoming searchable, linkable, multimedia-able, comment-able, annotate-able, preview-able, aggregate-able, correlate-able, syndicate-able, feed-able, e-mail-able, Flickr-able, deli.cio.us-able, digg-able — in fact, divisible and mutable.
What Is a Networked Book?
But what is this multifaceted “networked book”? Let’s look at an example: The Institute for the Future of the Book in Brooklyn, N.Y., has mounted an experiment using a book called Gamer Theory [http://www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory], which the author, McKenzie Wark, spells GAM3R 7H30RY. Posted on the Web as a draft, this book, which looks at games as a major media form, invites reader comments, some of which Wark intends to incorporate into his final printed version. The idea is to test the hypothesis that feedback and conversations, both at the site and elsewhere, would lead to a better book.
GAM3R 7H30RY doesn’t look like other books. Carefully crafted as nine chapters of exactly 25 paragraphs each, the book appears as a set of clickable index cards, each containing one of the 25 paragraphs side by side with reader comments. Wark, an academic used to leading discussions, has taken an active part, answering questions and responding to readers’ points. Harvard University Press will publish the book in the spring of 2007; the institute will also provide a full online edition.
At the same time, the institute has been sponsoring another networked book: Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief by Mitchell Stephens of New York University [http://www.futureofthebook.org/mitchellstephens]. Unlike Wark’s book, Stephens’ experiment has taken the form of a traditional blog, with scrolling vertical entries and one-click-away comments from readers. However, the aim is the same. As Stephens says, “Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: ideas challenged, facts corrected, queries answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue.”
As these experiments have progressed, the Institute for the Future of the Book has maintained a blog to discuss not only the organization itself, but the networked book in general. At the if:book site [http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog], institute Fellow Ben Vershbow and colleagues have mused on the definition and implications of the networked book. Searcher caught up with Vershbow and colleague Jesse Wilbur and asked them a plethora of questions: What is a networked book? What are the implications for authors, publishers, readers, and librarians? Will networked books change the world? and more. Their answers will challenge, inspire, excite, and — perhaps — disturb you.
We begin with a definition: “A networked book is social,” explains Vershbow. “It incorporates feedback mechanisms and discussion platforms in its overall structure.” Sounds like a blog. He continues, “It has the possibility of being distributed in its composition rather than being a discrete media object, which is the way we’re used to thinking about books or really any kind of media.” In other words, it’s collaborative:
It could be a sort of frame placed around various remote assets that could be on disparate servers,” he says. It’s a collection, then — a way of looking at different things in different places as if, when taken together, they form a whole thing.
And I think — maybe most importantly — a networked book is organic and is more about process than product. It’s always evolving over time and being impacted and changed by the various interactions going through it, the various revisions that it’s going through, and various annotations that readers and other authors and other nodes in the network are adding to it.
So a networked book is many things: a hub, a facilitator, a lively entity that brings people together to discuss and experiment. It’s both process and product. And it’s organic, changing size, shape, texture — even its nature — over time. Kind of like a university, but available to everyone who has an Internet connection (and can speak the language). It’s the ultimate democratic instrument: seductive to many, threatening to others.
What Does a Networked Book Look Like?
What does this blog, hub, place look like? Well, since it’s Web-based, it can be just about anything you want it to. You can experiment to your heart’s content.
Wilbur explains what Gamer Theory looks like:
It’s got a specific design based on the way that McKenzie Wark wrote the book. He wrote the book in small paragraphs of 250 words or less, and 25 paragraphs per chapter, which allowed us to take something sort of like an overlaying card, a bunch of playing cards overlaid on top of each other, and put text on that. So the interface is a little bit different than you would normally get in, let’s say, a blog or a traditional Web site that uses scrolling to allow you to navigate through the additional content. In this case, you get to click on the different cards to bring up the paragraph, and at the same time, it brings up the commentary that’s associated with that card.
This design, conceived with radical intention, has allowed Wark and the Institute to realize interesting results. Wilbur continues:
I think that’s — in some ways — the most profound design innovation of the site, that we’re using blogging software to mount this book. It’s a highly customized WordPress. But generally in blogs and things like blogs, comments flow beneath in a kind of subordinate position to a parent post and [they] often aren’t even there on the initial page or there’s a link, “See comments,” and a number next to it. You click on it and it flows beneath and the conversation has perhaps been initiated by the post.
But putting the comments directly alongside it, and in fact suggesting to the reader that this page is not complete unless you have participated in it [Editor’s note: Emphasis is the author’s] in some way — unless you have responded — we think is a pretty interesting shake-up of the traditional hierarchies of reader and author. There’s much more of a collaborative relationship we’re trying to foster here between reader and author. But at the same time, the roles of reader and author are emphasized and strengthened and buttressed. It’s clear who the author is, and it’s clear that he has ultimate authority in this case over this text. But by inviting more activated and more critically engaged readers into the process of developing, or at least discussing the development of the text, it’s in some ways elevating the reader and really implying that the author may have something to learn from it, which I think is often the case.
What a revolutionary idea! A page or some other portion of a book is not complete unless the reader has commented on it. That means the author’s job is not only to write the book, but to engage the reader so completely that he or she joins the discussion. The reader is no longer anonymous and passive, but must step up and be counted, and the author has not successfully fulfilled his or her role unless that happens!
Networked Books, Authors, and Readers
If a book becomes a collaboration between author and readers, what happens to the idea of “author”? Who really writes the book, and who gets credit? What if an author doesn’t want to collaborate? With Gamer Theory, although the core content was written by Wark, Wilbur explains, “The commentary definitely has value. It definitely is on some level as important as the core text.” That’s a little scary for authors, isn’t it?
The students learn from the teacher, the teacher learns from the students, the students learn from each other, and in a sense, they all become co-authors. Nevertheless, the lead author does retain his or her status: When this book is published in printed form, Wark will have the authority to select for inclusion the comments he deems most illuminative of the text. (He won’t simply appropriate them. He will ask permission to include them in the work, which is being released under a Creative Commons license.) The fact that he has engaged readers and produced an improved book as a result reflects well on him and turns him into a leader as well as an authority.
Just as an aside, the fact that a given reader’s comments don’t make it into the final version does not mean they are any less valuable, says Wilbur:
Eventually what’s going to happen is that some of the comments will make it into the text, and some of the comments will just inform the way that he revises the text. And in all cases, I think the discussion has been helpful to him in terms of what he’s going to do as he goes forward with the revision of his book before he publishes it.
As described, the process sounds pretty warm and fuzzy, but of course, it can be anything but. People who comment on blogs and forums are often contentious and sometimes downright hostile. Putting an unfinished work out there is a big risk for an author, a breed of human already predisposed to sensitivity. What happens to the author’s ego in this collaborative environment? Must he or she develop a tough skin (a condition which dermatologists do not consider to be epidemic among authors)?
All these new forms and all these new processes are definitely rubbing up uncomfortably … I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. By no means are we implying with this that we think individual authorship is wrong or bad or excessively egotistical, although I think those things can happen. But we’re really trying to create a kind of more dynamic balance between a collaborative mode of engagement and an individual voice. In some cases, the collaborative effort is really more what it’s about, like in the case of Wikipedia. In the case here, there’s really an emphasis on the individual voice, but opening up to collective knowledge and critique.
I think this is not a way that everyone will want to work. I think that people who are used to working in the older, more insulated ways will not necessarily want to change. We’re working with authors who are open to having their egos prodded a bit. And in some ways, I think they’re operating from kind of an intuition, a hunch, that, at times, it’ll be painful. At times, it won’t be useful. At times it will just be annoying. But at other times, it will really lead to some of their assumptions being tested in profitable ways and open them up to other viewpoints and even just some readings. Sometimes people are suggesting, “You should also read this,” and maybe that will expand their pool of research.
So I think that most people — when they really think about it — understand that the development of ideas is always collaborative, is always building on the work of others. And what we’re doing is simply foregrounding that and trying to make it almost into an event, or something where the process is visible to a larger number of people. Because we think that the process itself is valuable to witness and trains people to think more critically, [it] trains people to get into discussions that lead to change in society. So in some ways, I think we’re just foregrounding something that’s always been there, and I think that’s good.
Peer Review on Steroids
What Vershbow is talking about is peer review — the age-old academic process whereby fellow experts vet one’s work, usually anonymously. But with the Web opening up books, the news, products, ideas, and more to public comment and discussion, all the world is able to participate, not just academics. He continues:
Making peer review a more public process, [means that] inevitably, red flags are waved. But reviewer anonymity is very important and it’s very crucial for honesty and the incisiveness of comments. We really think that the overall benefit of foregrounding this process outweighs those concerns … which is sort of what conferences are about. People present papers, and then there will be a panel of peers critiquing them openly. There’s a discussion, and, in many cases, I think that proves to be incredibly useful for the author of the paper. They [authors] go back and incorporate things. Some of their assumptions have been tested. Some things were challenged, but they said, “No. It led me to believe I really do stand on this.”
So that period of testing, that period of public engagement and working over, I think for that to be more visible to students, junior scholars, and the general public is incredibly edifying because you see processes of scholarship. You see people changing their minds sometimes. I think a great part of being an intelligent person is being able to change your mind when [you get] new information or open up to a new way of seeing things. And, in some ways, the frozen idea of authorship — these kinds of frozen bricks of authority that are handed down —have some very valuable, stabilizing effects and they allow things to be built. But, at the same time, they downplay and, in some ways, try to conceal that things are always a give and take and collaborative wrangling.
But nonacademic authors aren’t used to peer review. Sure, many of them ask friends and colleagues to look over their work, and of course, their editors read what they have to say, but it isn’t the same. If they are to engage with readers, then, will they need to develop new skills and become as charismatic as revival show preachers? The gents concede that the medium will require new arts of authors.
I think that the authors that will have successful networked books are going to be like the successful maitre d’s in great New York restaurants. They know how to make every person that comes into the site feel like royalty, feel valued, and to make the experience for everyone incredibly good.
The author becomes a host, then. Considering how introverted and marketing-averse many writers are, that means turning recluses into ersatz Perle Mestas or Johnny Carsons. But then, some writers are hams by nature.
Vershbow, however, thinks networked book authors may preside over something quite different from a restaurant or even a salon — something a bit rougher:
I’m also excited about the idea [that] if the networked book becomes active enough and people want badly enough to be in the discussion, that it can become a fierce kind of fray to get into. “Wow — you’ve made it into that book? You really got bruised in that book.” It’s exciting to think of when this can become a higher stakes arena where really this is a place … because this is unfamiliar territory.
We got a lot of comments, a lot of valuable reader feedback in this book. But it’s still very unfamiliar territory. The more people start working that way, then the author may not have to be so friendly. It will be like you’ve got to earn it — fight to get it. Let’s fight. Because good ideas often come out of arguments. So I’d love to see these as sites of incredible arguments.
Gulp. Not an environment your average author takes to, although some of us are Norman Mailers and Gore Vidals. But take heart, authors — there may be room for the rest of us, as Vershbow points out:
One thing I’ll say too, though, is that both McKenzie and Mitchell Stevens, with the blog on the atheism book, both of them have been very gracious and very skillful moderators in discussion, and I think that really comes out of the fact that they’re both teachers. They’re both professors. They both have classes and they’ve both, at various points, said it’s not all that different from leading a seminar, which they do daily. So for them, it’s a fairly natural step to take, and again, so many of the things that we’re working with, they’re not new. They’re just newly emphasized or newly foregrounded.
The fact that so many authors have curious minds may work in their favor, then, regardless of their distance from academia and habits of conflict avoidance. There are aspects of academia they may want to emulate, as Vershbow explains:
There are plenty of professors who will structure a class around a book they’re writing and really work with students to develop ideas and have them help with their research. And I think that those tend to be very exciting classes for students. They really feel like they’re in on something new and something exciting and something that’s developing, and [they] feel like they’re making an impact.
Hint, hint. Authors, listen up: This kind of interaction makes you look good! Empower your readers and they will stick with you.
But authors do not have to participate in networked books if they don’t want to. Vershbow continues:
I think that it may be a bigger leap for some nonacademic authors to take because they’re not used to leading seminars. But I also think … it’s important to say that we’re not positing this idea or exploring this idea of the networked book because we think it’s what should replace all books or all ways of writing.
In a lot of ways, the idea of the networked book is coming out of the idea of the open source software movement, and, in a lot of cases, what you’re doing there is a lot of people are benefiting from open source software. A lot of people use it and it’s often better than commercial equivalents. But the group of people that are actually building it and working on the development are a much smaller, hard-core user group, a leading-edge kind of group. And we might find that to be the case with a lot of networked books, that this isn’t how all books should be, but this is a really interesting way to develop books, especially books that are centered around big ideas that are really intended to facilitate discussion.
I think [there is] potential for it to be more open and more democratic than open source software because … we’re not dealing with computer languages and code, which I think will always be a minority [pursuit]. We’re dealing with ideas and language, and more people can engage in those. And there’s an element of a kind of civic participation … when the book is about civil issues or political issues. So it’s a more engaged way of being a reader.
However, if authors do get involved, they will need to see their projects through. Disappear in the middle of the process at your peril, says Vershbow:
But I will say that … if you do embark on this networked model, you really should want to. It should really be the way you want to work. You should be open to discussing things. And you should be, I think, willing to put time into being a presence on the site.
I’ll give one concrete example.: Something that came out shortly before Gamer Theory was this book Pulse. It’s a general science book from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. They embarked on a marketing experiment where they were going to serialize the book in a blog form and ultimately give the entire thing away for free on the Web. It had feedback mechanisms — commenting, rating of different sections — all sorts of ways you could plug it into different parts of the Web: linking, bookmarking, tagging. But apart from an intro letter from the author, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t really going to be there much. And there are other reasons why I think this experiment was not successful, but pretty much there were no comments ... And I think it was because [people thought] why comment if you don’t feel that the author is going to be responding?
More About the Networked Book and Comments
In this new world, there exist hierarchies of comments, and, by extension, “commenters,” such as the stars and ordinary students in a classroom, or top and run-of-the-mill reviewers on Amazon.com. But this phenomenon didn’t arise with the advent of online systems. Vershbow cites a famous example that’s centuries old:
A concrete example, but an ancient one, of a networked book would be the Talmud, which is a huge compendium of exegesis and scriptural commentary and law in the Jewish tradition. It’s an amazing thing to look at in terms of thinking about networked books because each page of the Talmud is a map of time. You have core text and then commentaries arranged around it, and the placement of those commentaries depends on the stature of that respondent, of that scholar when they commented, when their scholarship was being enacted on these texts. It’s an amazing feat of editorial selection and redaction.
And therein lies another issue: How do you decide which comments to include? Now the author becomes an editor as well, as Vershbow points out:
This brings up a lot of questions about what is the role of the editor and what kind of new responsibilities and tasks are set before the author when they choose to work in this open access workshopping way. What comments do you choose to include and how do you actually arrange them in the final text? [In the Talmud] … some people might argue with it or contest it, but the ways that they found to array these different commentaries on a single static page is quite astonishing. And in some ways, we have not figured out how to even match that in the electronic environment, which you would think much more flexible and much more dynamic.
One type of comment that nobody wants to sift through is the nasty work of spammers, trolls (provocateurs who try to start arguments and flame wars), and vandals (people who try to damage other Netizens’ electronic property and infrastructure). Better to weed those out before they make it into public space. One proposal to deal with such miscreants is to screen commenters — make them earn the right to comment by jumping through certain hurdles. Wilbur describes how that might work:
One of the things we wanted to do with Gamer Theory was to make sure that it was as open as possible to as many people as possible to encourage the most active discussion possible. But we’re definitely aware of spam — the automated robot spam — and also trolls. We did think about instituting some sort of moderation system on Gamer Theory in terms of having people rank other people’s comments to have them gain a level of trust. We’re using the technological backbone of WordPress to make sure that we don’t get the robot spam … it did actually bother us the first couple of days. We were trying to manage that and trying to figure out the right level of moderation to control that. But right now, the way that we have it is [that] if you’ve made a comment and we’ve approved it, you can continue to comment without additional moderation from that point on. So the issue of trusted commenters becomes relatively easy to maintain.
In terms of earning levels — and we did actually have some discussion about that, playfully joking about the idea of levels because this is a book about games — how do you get to the next level? [You might have] 10 people who have committed to being high-level respondents, persistent respondents, responding to all stages of the book and all parts of the book. Then you could create levels. Then maybe there would be some outer layer of more general commenters who want to get in, and maybe after three — I’m getting too specific here — but after three insightful comments, then they get access.
Networked Books and Librarians
As with all Web-based material, the implications of the networked book for librarians are profound. How do you catalog a book that’s changing all the time? Do you name all the contributors? How do you advise people about the ever-shifting content, whether it’s concerned parents or researchers looking for specific information? Do you wait for some “final” version before you archive it, or do you archive it at all? For that matter, what do search engines look at — every version, or just the current one?
Wilbur says that this is very hard to answer:
We haven’t been able to build in any of the structure to do that because currently we’re limited by the technology that we’re using. WordPress is wonderful stuff … but it is not enabled to do things like digital preservation. It’s very difficult to separate out things except by time, and we’ve actually instituted some plug-ins to make it easier for us to potentially roll back changes should Ken [McKenzie] decide to change his text. But in terms of collecting the commenters as a separate group and being able to pull them apart based on the time that they made their comments and the version of the book they made their comments on, that’s definitely an area that needs work. This is one of the things the experiment was meant to provoke in terms of finding the weak areas that people have not thought about yet.
Things that exist as software, things that exist on the current hardware of our computers, are extremely volatile, and they don’t have the lasting power of the bound book. I have a library and information science background, and a lot of my friends that are librarians really wonder about the future of digital preservation. There are efforts ongoing in the library community … to help create an infrastructure for digital preservation that will be transportable to different venues … Maybe one of the most well-known is the MIT ESPACE. But I’m not exactly sure how something like Gamer Theory can fit into a project like that, especially because one of the things that’s so important about this particular experiment is that it’s growing … and what it is today is different from what it’s going to be tomorrow. So it’s difficult to find the archiving points to figure out whether this is a particular version or not. The best you can do is back up frequently.
How do you trace conversation over an evolving document? We have some things on the back end here where we can record different versions of the text, other than correcting typos and stuff. This has pretty much been a stable draft in the course so far of the Gamer Theory experiment. But once you start actually having new versions of a text, how do you know which comments apply to which, and are some comments rendered irrelevant when you’re looking at the newer version of the text?
Going back to the example of Wikipedia: Wikipedia has this very detailed revision history with every article. That’s good. They could be more readable and more accessible, but they’re there, and they’re very useful. … They also have these talk pages, these discussion pages, where communities that are developing a page can write down discussions about different points that have been negotiated about an article, giving some basic information on how it’s being structured and pointers on what they’re doing. But those are two separate pages. The revision history is one page, the discussion page is another page, and the article is its own page. For the new kinds of reading and writing that we’re talking about, those need to be better integrated. How, it’s not totally clear. How can you integrate the discussion with the text when the text has been changing? So these are huge questions, and we don’t have all the answers. But we have a lot of the questions … Librarians are probably the most important people now.
He’s right about that!
Networked Books and Multimedia
Because of reader participation and because the networked book can encompass material from a variety of different sources, it can be a fertile showcase for multimedia. For example, readers might contribute images that illustrate a book (intellectual property issues duly considered, of course). You could even take a public domain book such as a Dickens or a Jane Austen and have people illustrate it.
Sure. It’s a new kind of reader annotation. Usually we think of annotation as a textual note, but annotation can happen in multiple media. So yeah, you add images. You record yourself saying the names of films. And actually, the core project of the institute that we haven’t talked about is a big piece of open source software called Sophie, which is a tool for building networked multimedia documents — books that are born digital and really are meant to be engaged with in a digital environment. The interplay of media forms will be very intuitive and very easy there. So I think the kinds of books people will be able to make using that tool will open up those kinds of avenues where it will be easy … to annotate in pictures or annotate in other media or re-illustrate the book or have different versions of the illustrated book.
Networked Books and the Future
Will networked books and the social networking that goes with them, such as the Web itself, change the way humans think and interact with the world?
Vershbow says that’s the central question of the institute. Wilbur thinks that networked books that foreground the process of thinking and show people changing their minds will create the sort of environment. It will be a type of environment where people can engage in a more democratic fashion overall with people who have written things. By responding to them in either written or film or audio — in any media, really — they can create a multimedia, multiperson conversation that will create a dialectic that improves humanity overall. According to Wilbur, this is a gigantic question that has no small answers. He says the best that we can do is to continue to make things a little bit different and a little bit better:
In many ways, [this is] not new. [It’s] a sort of Enlightenment idea, a society of readers. An enlightened society is one that’s critically engaged, with a salon culture of publicly discussing big ideas that impact society. With the proliferation of new media outlets, and the mass “amateurization” of publishing, and the challenge to the hegemony of mainstream media, and this kind of interplay that we see between grass-roots media and blogging and [mainstream] media, it’s very easy to see it as a romantic and positive story.
It is within this type of environment, Vershbow notes, that librarians thrive, with a familiar problem tailor-made for librarians:
A really big problem is the signal to noise ratio. There’s a lot of fragmentation. There’s a lot of repetition. It’s a mistake to assume that the Internet, because it’s about connectivity, really does break down all the barriers — really does connect everyone. In some ways, it just allows you to much more elaborately weave a shell of self-confirmation around you.
There are famous diagrams that show in the United States, the left-wing political blogosphere and the right-wing political blogosphere. They’re these fuzzy clumps, and you can see strands connect them when there have been people who read both or authors of some have commented on others. They are almost totally separate. There’s very little interaction between the two. That’s just a very obvious example of the way that all this connectivity doesn’t actually necessarily connect people or open up understanding.
To read intelligently in this new environment is actually incredibly difficult and challenging. To be able to hold all these sources alongside each other and to be able to filter out the noise from the signal and to compare the signals requires a really great critical nimbleness from the reader. So in a lot of ways, what we’re saying is that we’re really raising the bar. We’ve created a huge ocean of noise and communication, and we need to find ways to structure and build critical paths through it so that we can impact the real world and society.
This interview was derived from a podcast featuring Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur, and host Paula Berinstein of The Writing Show. You can find the show notes at http://writingshow.com/?p=170, where you can download the MP3. Please check for updates to this article at the Information Today, Inc. Web site [http://www.infotoday.com] and The Writing Show [http://www.writingshow.com].