January 22, 2008

Expressive Processing: An Experiment in Blog-Based Peer Review

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 3:02 am

Expressive Processing is the name of my forthcoming book about digital fictions and computer games, scheduled for publication next year by the MIT Press. Now is the time, in traditional academic publishing, when the press sends the manuscript out for peer review — anonymous commentary by a few scholars that guides the final revisions (and decisions). As Jeff Young reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education today, we’ve decided to do something a little different with Expressive Processing: asking the Grand Text Auto community to participate in an open, blog-based peer review.

Blogging has already changed how I work as a scholar and creator of digital media. Reading blogs started out as a way to keep up with the field between conferences — and I soon realized that blogs also contain raw research, early results, and other useful information that never gets presented at conferences. But, of course, that’s just the beginning. We founded Grand Text Auto, in 2003, for an even more important reason: blogs can create community. And the communities around blogs can be much more open and welcoming than those at conferences and festivals, drawing in people from industry, universities, the arts, and the general public. Interdisciplinary conversations happen on blogs that are more diverse and sustained than any I’ve seen in person.

Given that ours is a field in which major expertise is located outside the academy (like many other fields, from 1950s cinema to Civil War history) the Grand Text Auto community has been invaluable for my work. In fact, while writing the manuscript for Expressive Processing I found myself regularly citing blog posts and comments, both from Grand Text Auto and elsewhere. Now I’m excited to take the blog/manuscript relationship to the next level, through an open peer review of the manuscript on the blog.

This project started when Doug Sery, my editor at the MIT Press, brought up the question of who would peer review the Expressive Processing manuscript. I immediately realized that the peer review I most wanted was from the community around Grand Text Auto. I said this to Doug, who is a GTxA reader, and he was enthusiastic. Next I contacted Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book to see if we could adapt their CommentPress tool for use in an ongoing blog conversation. Ben not only agreed, but also became a partner in conceptualizing, planning, and producing the project. With the ball rolling, I asked the Committee on Research of UC San Diego’s Academic Senate for some support (which they generously provided) and approached Jeremy Douglass, of our newly-formed Software Studies initiative, who also became a core collaborator — especially (and appropriately) for the software-related aspects.

As for the book itself, Expressive Processing engages projects from the history of story, character, and play in digital media — from artificial intelligence research to mainstream computer games. It introduces a framework for understanding digital media, which serves as the basis for interpretations of the processes that drive these works, not just the surface outputs seen by audience members. This approach produces a series of lessons for creators and critics of digital media — as well as broader lessons about the software systems that we must increasingly engage in order to understand our evolving society.

Obviously, those are some ambitious aims, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions over the coming weeks. In particular, at the most basic level, please let me know if I get anything wrong. The project is very interdisciplinary and I know some of you are experts in areas where I’m still learning. More generally, please let me know what you think of the arguments. Are there further points calling out to be made? Are there elements that should be clarified or removed? Are there other projects or writings that I should be sure to engage — either for this book or my future thinking? Also, I hope GTxA people will feel free to offer thoughts that aren’t specific suggestions for me. If Expressive Processing gets you thinking about something new, I’d be glad to hear about it!

Finally, I’m interested to know what people think of the blog-based peer review process itself. While the future posts in GTxA’s “expressive-processing” category will be the best place to discuss the specifics of the book, this page seems like a good place to begin meta-discussion. Do you think you’ll participate? What kind of feedback would you like to offer? Feel free to share thoughts here or just start by commenting on the manuscript. The Expressive Processing project launches today — and will continue each weekday for about ten weeks. I’m looking forward to it.

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