March 17, 2005

On Authorship, E-Lit, and Blogs

by Nick Montfort · , 10:04 am

[Text of my address today to the Atelier-Auteur (the Authorship Workshop) of RTP-DOC.]

Today, I will discuss two categories of digital writing that I know something about, and that I am an author of: electronic literature and blogs. My point in introducing two types of digital writing is to distinguish between them — and between these sorts of digital writing and other sorts entirely — to explain what is special about electronic literature and about blogs and blogging. Both of these rely on traditional notions of an author in some ways, yet challenge those notions in other ways. I believe that by creating electronic literature and by blogging, one can become not only an author but, for lack of a better term, a new media author, a digital author, or an electronic author.

I contrast this to installing a home page, writing email, posting messages on a newsgroup or other online forum, and chatting with people online. These activities are electronic writing, but they do not tend to give one the status of an author in the same way. To completely answer the question of why there are some types of computer writing and online communication that make one into an author, while other forms do not, will require more work by thoughtful people such as yourselves. But I will try to show that online communities do confer author status upon some types of writers, and that the activity of these writers is not monolithic. Some of it involves programming, markup, design, careful editing and revision; other sorts of authorial activity do not necessarily involve these, but entail keeping current with other online writing and cultivating a community that manifests itself in writing.

To begin with what is called “electronic literature:”

“Electronic literature” also goes by the names new media literature, computer literature, or digital literature. In this category we find work that uses the power of the computer in some way — for computation, multimedia display, interactivity, or networked communication — but which also has literary qualities and is connected to the literary tradition. People might include or exclude a few different things at the margins of this — some would say that computer games are too popular and vulgar to qualify, even if they are all-text and have literary themes and connections; others would argue that Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de poèmes is a sort of paper computer and should be included, or that it should be excluded because it is not electronic. So there are various definitions of this concept. A definition that I would approve of is “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.” Electronic literature is defined by the intersection of the computer and the literary, but it is not a single form; it includes hypertext, highly visual work, interactive fiction, and other sorts of digital art that can be written and read.

The Electronic Literature Organization, founded in 1999, is a nonprofit organization of which I am vice president, and is largely responsible for the inclusive term “electronic literature.” The ELO is dedicated to facilitating and promoting the writing, publishing, and reading of works of this sort. Our current activities include the ELO Directory, a sort of card catalog or index to electronic literature of all sorts; public readings and presentations of electronic literature; and the PAD project for the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of this new sort of work. The ELO’s challenges include a reading public (and writing public) that may not easily accept the idea of literary experience on the computer — the strongest proponents of literature often see it as inextricably tied to the printed codex, the symbol of the literary. Other challenges are the various double-edged swords of online publishing: work is available immediately all over the world for free, but there is (almost always) no traditional publisher to oversee one’s work, promote it, and lend credibility to one’s efforts.

Let me move quickly to show a few particular electronic literature works, since I know there are some questions coming about the Electronic Literature Organization after my talk — and, you are welcome to ask such questions, or any other questions, on my blog or by email.

First, I want to show a collaborative work, the hypertext novel The Unknown, mainly written by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, and Dirk Stratton. The novel was written collaboratively, each additional “scene” written by the authors alone or in collaboration and then the whole thing linked together once in a while. There are plenty of earlier hypertext novels that are in a somewhat different tradition: the most well-known of these, published by Eastgate Systems on floppy disc, were written in Storyspace, and include afternoon:a story by Michael Joyce, Victory Garden by Stuart Moulthrop, and Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson — which shows that electronic literature does sometimes have a traditional sort of publisher, as books do. But it is not necessary to have one in order to share one’s work with readers, as The Unknown, an award-winning and often-cited novel, clearly demonstrates. In terms of plot, The Unknown is about the wacky exploits of a bunch of authors who cross the country and the world on a book tour, consuming drugs, getting into trouble, and meeting famous writers with whom they consume drugs and get into trouble. The main characters in The Unknown have the same names and backgrounds as the people who actually wrote The Unknown, and pictures of the authors appear here and there to illustrate the work. When the authors present this novel to the public in a reading, they wear suits and take turns reading “scenes,” ringing a hotel bell every time a link appears and inviting the audience to shout out when they wish to leave the current page and follow the link. The text of The Unknown explicitly establishes the myth of its writers as famous authors and, more clearly than most other electronic literature, asserts that those who wrote it are authors. Although this Web-based, collaborative novel differs from earlier work published by Eastgate, those earlier novels were also very concerned with writing and the process of authorship, making metafictional references and setting up the people who constructed them as authors.

Next, I will show a very different piece, “The Speaking Clock” by John Cayley, who was winner of the first Electronic Literature Award in poetry. I will point out a few of the obvious differences. This is a poem, not a novel; it is a stand-alone program and can be downloaded and run without a connection to the Web; and it is by a single author, not a group of collaborators. It is also written in an “obsolete” system — the famous early hypertext system, Hypercard, by Apple Computer, and isn’t very easy to run. I was unable to open it on any Macintosh that is available to readers in our main library, and because it requires System 9, a Macintosh that you buy today will not run it unless you take the time to additionally install System 9. The piece is very visually beautiful, I think, but it does not involve any pictures, animations, or graphics: like a shape poem in print, it creates its visual effect through the arrangement of text. It is connected to this and other poetic traditions (such as the lyric and language poetry) just as The Unknown is connected to the traditions of the novel. And its moving text is part of an interactive system that responds to user input, although some poems presented on the computer are non-interactive and can still be quite compelling.

I’d now like to move to a piece that is gamelike in some ways, hypertextual as The Unknown is in some ways, and algorithmic as “The Speaking Clock” is in some ways. This is Reagan Library by Stuart Moulthrop, a longtime author of electronic literature who also wrote Victory Garden, which I mentioned. Professor Moulthrop’s work on this piece of electronic literature involved developing graphics as well as doing programming. There are both hypertextual links and images — at first, this seems like a traditional link-and-node hypertext with chunks of text connected by links. But this is a hypertext of a different sort: on each page, during your early visit to the page, randomized text appears here and there, indistinguishable from the “real” text but corrupting it. After repeated visits, the text will resolve itself into a finished form. This is the “reward” for rereading; there is also the “punishment” of moving to a different one of the four overall threads or spaces if you navigate more randomly. One important point that Reagan Library makes is that the use of randomness (or probability in general) does not destroy the intention of the author or even the shape of a specific text: here, particular stories appear out of random noise, rather than being subsumed into it. But this piece also shows that an author may have a lot of additional work to do besides writing and structuring a link-and-node hypertext.

My last example of electronic literature will be an instance of interactive fiction, a particular form that produces text and accepts text in reply, understanding this text and simulating action in a fictional, systematic world. This is Savoir-Faire by Emily Short. I think it is not very useful to see this interactive computer program as a hypertext, and more useful to think of it as a dialog system. It provides a simulation of a world which happens to be “rendered” in textual form to a reader, and it is capable of understanding some forms of textual input, at least within the context of that world. Of course the program does not understand everything you type to it, a love letter or a question about quantum chemistry, but it able to resolve simple commands to the main character, who quests through this strange world allowing the reader to discover its nature. There is, in Savoir-Faire as in most interactive fiction, something here that must be figured out or solved, as with a literary riddle, which both is a poem and which explicitly asks the reader or listener to solve it. I will close this quick survey of electronic literature by mentioning that within the IF community, Emily Short and others who write interactive fiction definitely have status as authors and are called such.

This is all the electronic literature I have time to show, but you should be able to see that there is a diversity of it, and that different authors do different things in creating it. Some program, some do not. Some create visual art, some do not. Some collaborate while others author alone. But they are all engaged in something that is connected to literary tradition, fashioning a work that somehow makes our ordinary world strange, connects to other literary texts by allusion and reference, and struggles with the questions of writing and meaning as well as the other questions that literature can take on. These are some of the reasons that the people who create these sorts of works are recognized — at least among those who believe computers and literature can coexist — as literary authors.

Now, I will move on to discuss the “blog” and blogging.

The “blog,” unlike “electronic literature,” indicates a particular form. A blog is a regularly-updated, chronologically-ordered website offering posts, often short posts, that may include links and may allow comments from others. Blogs all share these qualities, but the writing on them may be on any topic. They may be personal, academic, political, about one’s hobby, about specific topics like “design” or “gadgets,” or focused in some other way. “Blog” is a verb as well as a noun. I could say, “I’m blogging this,” meaning that I am writing about it for my blog, but fortunately I wrote my talk out in advance so I do not need to blog it now.

Some of you may know that a president of the United States was impeached — put on trial to be removed from office — because of something a blogger posted on his blog. Matt Drudge is an early blogger (he predated the blogging software like WordPress and Moveable Type that is commonly used today) who posted scandalous information and rumors that the mainstream press was to timid to publish, and it was because of his blog post that the public learned of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Then, because the Puritans came to settle in this country hundreds of years ago, Clinton was impeached.

Enough of history. I will quickly show you three blogs that I read. This is by no means a representative sample — all of these happen to be more or less academic blogs, but I selected them because they are blogs that I can say something about.

Language Log is a blog by linguists, including the University of Pennsylvania’s own Professor Mark Liberman. The tone is somewhat in between that of the serious university linguist and the newspaper column poking fun at people who put an unnecessary apostrophe at the end of their handmade supermarket sign. First, Language Log is a great resource where you can read commentary by major linguists on day-to-day language issues. Here you’ll find a very timely analysis of the things such as the speech hesitations and pauses that were heard in George Bush’s statements during the first debate, in order to determine whether or not he was being told what to say by means of some concealed earphone and a transmitter that showed as a bulge in his back. There are two somewhat unusual things about this blog: It does not allow comments from readers (although I would not claim these bloggers are recluses or cut off from their readers; they can be reached by email) and it is a “group blog” that is run collaboratively. Of course, the established academics who run Language Log do not need the blog to make them authors, but when this blog gets mentioned in an article in the British magazine The Economist, you can imagine that it is one of the things that continues to ratify them as authors.

Next I want to look at the blog of my friend Dr. Jill Walker, who seems to be the first Norwegian blogger. Dr. Walker’s blog is a “single-author” production (as is typical of blogs) and includes photos as well as comments from readers about her posts. She writes about research topics of interest to her (one of which is blogging itself) but she also writes about her experiences as a head of department and about aspects of her personal life. Dr. Walker is very much someone who is known as a blogger, and whose blog has a large community of regular readers. Her blog is a good example of how a blog can “make you an author” in the digital realm in the same way that a book makes you an author in the realm of book-readers. However good a home page you have, and however nice a collection of pages you’ve “published” on a non-blog website, it’s unlikely that you could establish yourself the reputation and regular readership that she has established by blogging. The people who would immediately say “I read Jill’s blog” if asked are more likely to say “I’ve seen your site” or “I visited your site.” So, although bloggers are not identified overtly as authors the way that electronic literature authors often are, I would argue that blogging establishes a similar place for them as writing a book does for an author.

Finally I want to stop by my blog — my and four other people’s blog, Grand Text Auto. Here we have a group blog like Language Log, but about an emerging field rather than an established one: new media — the creative uses of the computer. Since this is a relevant topic that I have today, I will be posting the text of my speech here on Grand Text Auto in just a bit, with links to the blogs and electronic literature works that I’ve discussed. You are very welcome to stop by and comment. I think there will be a question about my own blogging experience, but I will just mention here that we value conversation and communication from readers very much on Grand Text Auto, and we work hard to keep vandals and uncaring merchants from destroying the space our community has for discussion. Doing this work is a big part of being a blogger.

The last thing I want to mention is some ongoing research I am doing with Professor Michael Kearns to identify and characterize blog communities and determine connections between authors. We are using machine learning techniques and other computational methods to try to determine — to the extent that it is present in the text and links of blogs — whether or not bloggers read each other’s posts, and how the writing done on one blog influences another author. It would be very costly to put every book in the world into digital format so that we could try to find these sorts of connections among print authors — even Google would have a hard time doing this, I think — but blogs are all, by definition, online, and they even contain links and chronologically ordered posts marked with the time of posting. We hope that within the next few weeks we will be able to use these qualities of blogs to reliably identify communities of bloggers and to characterize these communities quantitatively.

I hope that is a good start to our exploration of authorship in its relation to electronic literature and blogging. I will be glad to take any questions.