Reading is Reading is Reading is Reading is…

The summer I discovered fanfiction, I started to do the bulk of my reading online. I was thirteen years old at the time, reading on homemade fan sites and platforms that had either been co-opted or were fanfic-friendly with awful interfaces (those spaces were not the web libraries Frank Chimero envisions, let me tell you). Still, I have been reading online for years, and if my experience with digital reading has taught me anything, it’s that:

  1. We definitely have to train our brains to read digitally.
  2. People can be just as snobby about how they read online as how they read books.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that cultural capital of digital reading is already less than that of print—though the reasons why could fill an entire semester’s worth of blog post and won’t really be covered, here. Suffice it to say that there is something about the digital medium that makes it be perceived as lesser than to its print counterpart. Therefore, it’s no surprise that within the digital medium, those forms that most resemble print (i.e. eBooks, online articles) are the forms that hold the most cultural capital. Though I don’t agree that one from of reading is more “pure” than another, I do feel that the sentiment exists.

Audiobooks are a great example of this. Associate professor of education Beth Rogowsky of Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania says she viewed audiobooks as “cheating.” This implies that listening to a print book is not a form of reading, but a way to consume stories that is viewed negatively due to its accessibility and ease of use; it’s a short-cut for people who don’t want to spend their time reading Real Books.

The act of reading a book traditionally is something that requires a certain degree of privilege: one must know how to read, which means having the ability to attend school. Traditionally reading a book also requires leisure time, whereas audiobooks can be listened to on the go—while driving, working, etc. This supports the idea of audiobooks as being less valuable, or as a technology that is used to “cheat.” The expectation is that it’s what you listen to when you can’t get to a Real Book, not as a valuable piece of technology in its own right. There are even misconceptions that we do not retain as much information when listening to audiobooks.

Essentially, these arguments use the same logic surrounding the question of what books have and do not have literary merit: those use plain, easy-to-understand language, and can be read quickly—like romance, crime, and erotica—are considered to be commercial fiction, which are considered to be low brow for many reasons, but mostly for their accessibility (in language, in price point, etc.). Commercial fiction is not Important, and is therefore not part of the literary canon, which is curated by tastemakers and the Academy. Not called an ivory tower for nothing, university English departments are still rife with snobby professors who believe that the English literary canon, for all its lack of diversity and generally inaccessible language and writing (James Joyce, I’m looking at you)—is the only thing people should be reading. In my opinion, this argument has merely been superimposed onto the question of form in digital environments; instead of viewing commercial fiction as lesser due to its accessibility, we think of audiobooks as such. The scope has shifted from what you read to how you read, despite the fact that the underlying arguments are the same.

So, yes, I think that there continues to be a belief that “pure” or “tainted” reading experiences exist—but I want no part in them. People who feel this way about audiobooks do not consider how helpful they can be to those learning how to read, or those who can’t read in a traditional manner due to accessibility issues. I believe that as technology changes, our ways of reading change as well, and no one method is not better than the other.

Time to Say Goodbye: A Review of PUB802

Before taking this class, not only did I not think critically about anything involving the digital technology in my day-to-day life, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about anything tech-related in a serious way. Now, at the end of the semester, I can hold my own in a casual conversation about technology-related events and trends, drawing on the various lenses through which we looked at the digital technologies to do so.

Objective One
This class has definitely whet my appetite for thinking about the role and effects of digital technologies, and how they relate to the content I consume. Learning about the Web versus the Internet in our first class immediately captured my interest. In the future, I’m curious to learn more about some subjects than others—as a fan and frequent remixer, I’m still very interested in learning about copyright as laws continue to change—whereas I have less interest in online business models. In short, my eyes have been opened with regards to critically thinking about technology and the tech industry; the way the Web has evolved over time, the way we think of data collection and privacy versus what’s being collected and how that data is used, the dangers of using only one business model both on and offline, and the web as a space as it pertains to design were all of special interest to me.

Objective Two
As I said in my first blog post, this course has provided me a vocabulary and framework to analyze and talk about technology-related concepts, events and trends. I’ve become much more cognizant of how I interact with technology in the digital spaces I frequent, and now have the framework to be critical of them. I can analyze any platform through multiple lenses: business model and data privacy, measuring and tracking user behaviour, design as an integral part of the online experience, etc. As such, I’ve been able to develop my own thoughts regarding various aspects of technology—especially concerning the issue of data privacy, and user measuring and tracking. After reading and discussing in class, I’ve managed to better understand what my comfort level with regards to these things are, and why I feel the way I do.

Objective Three
While I have a very good grasp of copyright law, XML, various online business models (subscriptions services, the Patreon model, advertising, etc.), and how the Internet works, I wish we had learned more about how to implement a lot of the technologies we talked about, such as spending time learning to code. That being said, I definitely understand how the technologies we covered work, and can implement this knowledge in my future endeavors. My knowledge of metadata comes to mind, here; knowing how it works as well as its function permits me to understand why it’s important and how it can be better used to help publishers in the future.

Objective Four
After completing all required blog posts, annotating all the readings, and posting my Wikipedia assignment, I can confident say that I have experience with all three of these digital publishing tools. I really enjoyed annotating all the readings—I feel that they helped me grasp the material, and the sense of community created within the annotations was a welcome addition to the class, and provided further learning opportunities through links, explanations, and anecdotes. I’ll continue to use them. I found the blog posts to be extremely difficult to keep up with—they were very time consuming and the expectation for the assignment was unclear until later in the semester, which I found frustrating. That being said, I think I’ve hit my stride with regards to the assignment objectives and requirements; I’m linking, tagging, and adding gifs to my posts and have balanced the narrative reflection with information and analysis.

I’m very happy the Wikipedia assignment was optional; the weekly blog posts and annotations are a lot of work by themselves, but combined with that assignment and my other classes, the class workload was impossible to keep up with. It was still very difficult—I wish there had been fewer blog posts with longer word counts, and that they had been presented as mini-essays or articles.

All told, this class provided me with a solid framework to understand, use and analyze various digital technologies, and I’ve come out of it better equipped to be critical of the online world.

Hot Take: If I Were a Publisher (Which I’m Not. Thank God.)

As a consumer, the idea of someone collecting any kind of information about me to use in any way is disturbing… but as someone who is now intimately familiar with the plight of small publishers, I can also understand the value of data collection. If I were a publisher and had access to any data out there, this would be my hot take on data collection without impinging on personal privacy (and how I’d later use collected data in my business model):

I’m okay with the collection of certain things, as long as it’s grouped and made anonymous. You want to know my age? Great, make me one of a thousand 25-year-olds. As a publisher, I’d only look at what can be easily anonymized—what cannot be traced back to readers should there be a breach. Age, for example, and how fast a person reads a particular book. What they read. If they finish the book. How many times they bookmark. How often they highlight/comment. Though I know that the latter two have the potential to violate privacy, when immediately grouped as and made anonymous (ex. 234 people read this Chuck Tingle book), it becomes very difficult to trace. I would not collect names, gender, or location, and I would not collect what readers highlight/comment. In short, I’d stay away from anything that could result in a person being easily identified.

I’d collect this data by way of asking consumers—exactly like Jellybooks. I think their model is incredibly clever: not only do they ask for data and seem to be transparent about their collection, giving readers advanced copies creates opportunities for free publicity. All this being said, there are a few changes I’d make to Jellybooks’ model. Most importantly, I’d lay out for the consumer that all data would be grouped and anonymized immediately in order to protect privacy, and that this data would be only for my company’s own use. I’d also be very clear that the goal of collecting this data would be to better connect books with the audiences interested in reading them. Though there undoubtedly needs to be a Terms and Conditions attached to this data collection project, I’d provide a plain language cheat sheet in order to be totally transparent.

As a publisher, the collection of the kinds of data listed above would allow me to understand what types of books are being most widely read and what age group is reading them. This would aid in optimizing marketing initiatives. I’d also be able to understand what kinds of books tend to be annotated, finished and how fast they do so. Over time, this would create a data set of the kinds of books that people tend to engage with and read the most, which would help with acquisitions.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve learnt that data collection is a really complicated and touchy subject, and that there are no easy answers. There are undoubtedly implications for privacy that I haven’t thought of in the collection of the data listed above; this is serious stuff, and business owners have to make hard ethical choices regarding what data they want to collect and what they want to use that data for. All of this being said, if I were a publisher, the above is the approach I would take. I’d try my very best to find a happy medium between data collection to help my business, and protecting my consumers’ identities in the event of a breach.

(But all of this is a lot of pressure, so thank god I’m not planning on being a publisher.)

Loving Big Brother: What Facebook’s Recent Business Decisions Say About Its Vision for the Future Web

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is apparently shifting the company’s focus to users’ privacy. In a blog post, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook “plans to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so that people can communicate privately and directly across networks”. These communications would be fully encrypted, preventing anyone—even Facebook—from seeing the content shared on their services.

While this sounds fantastic in theory, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal early last year, we should wait before cracking open the champagne… Zuckerberg’s new vision for the Internet is, in many ways, more vulnerable to an Orwellian future than our current one reliant on a model of near constant surveillance.

We’ve talked a lot about what the Web used to be and what it has become. We’ve also talked about nostalgia for the days when it was a community which functioned on the dissemination and sharing of ideas rather than a commercial marketplace. One thing I remember distinctly about these conversations was a warning against the Stream and a platform-based Internet—every author we read advocated for a diverse Web with an equally diverse array of websites and voices.

This is something I could not stop thinking about while reading Isaac’s article.

This is a good time to mention that I’m just as creeped out by Facebook’s surveillance as the next person. I’m not comfortable with the company collecting my data and selling it to the highest bidder, and I’m not comfortable with its algorithms inferring my sexuality and interests based on my friends and online behaviour. What I’m even less comfortable with, however, is the already arguably more homogenous Internet becoming a monopoly of a handful of platforms—and I honestly cannot think of anything more terrifying than the general experience of the Internet becoming a single app.

This is essentially what Zuckerberg is advocating for. His decision to merge Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp as well as create a private and secure messaging service is the first step of this, no doubt consciously mimicking China’s incredibly popular app, WeChat. WeChat is a one-stop shop for everything from investing to takeout to intimate conversation—and something the government surveils vigorously in order to collect information on its citizens. Though Facebook promises end-to-end encryption and assures us they will not be hosting their data in countries with questionable human rights reputations, I trust them about as far as I can throw them. Furthermore, even if they do fulfill all these promises, the merging of all three apps—and we can’t forget its newly released answer to Patreon—is a very deliberate step in the direction of a future Internet that resembles an Intranet more than anything else. Why use any other service or website when you can do it all in one place? Though incredibly convenient, it will also put everyone’s data in the hands of one company. And what then? What happens when Facebook is no longer content to keep their private data encrypted? Or when they decide to share it with the government in the interest of safety and security?

I’m also incredibly curious as to how Facebook plans to stop the spread of misinformation if it won’t be looking at what’s being shared on its new messaging service. AI can only moderate to a certain degree; will their algorithms be fact-checking? If so, this presents a whole slew of other problems in terms of how we use language to communicate (will their AI understand hyperbole? Sarcasm?). Will the service be integrated into WhatsApp? Will their public data continue to be sold to the highest bidder? Will their encryption truly prevent even Facebook from seeing users’ content? How am I supposed to trust any of this when Facebook is still beholden to its real clients: its investors? Needless to say, I am made of questions… but according to Isaac’s article, Zuckerberg is tight-lipped about the entire project.

All I’ll say is this: I would much rather have my data gathered, anonymized and then sold before I see Facebook create a monster app that takes over the Web. I am not comfortable with using the same service and company for all my needs; it kills any and all innovation in the market… and I question anyone who doesn’t see Facebook’s recent business decisions as a move towards a singular, app-based experience of the Internet. If a government were taking these steps, people would be alarmed. Why not for a private company who is beholden only to its investors? Whose mission is to protect its own interests over anything else?

Conglomerates and monopolies put great amounts of power and wealth in the hands of a select few. When paired with the Internet, this can turn a tool that was previously used to freely disseminate a wide range of ideas into a singular point of view very easily, especially when those most vulnerable in a society do not have the luxury of boycotting it.

 

Something’s Gotta Give: The Perils of Dominant Business Models in Online Environments

The general consensus seems to be that the current online advertising system is broken. People don’t like online ads (based on views and/or clicks), so AdBlock Plus is extorting publishers and content creators like some kind of digital mafia boss, with those who rely on ad revenue helpless to stop it. This makes actually making any money very difficult, especially when we tend to pass on the responsibility of dealing with the current broken advertising model, and then use the excuse of “neutral” platforms, software and extensions to explain why it is not our job to fix them/why they cannot be fixed. Of course, no platform, software, or extension is neutral. At some point in the process, a biased human being is on the other side of the screen making very biased human decisions about how things are designed, and how they operate. If we want to fix the system, we shouldn’t “[…] build systems that let us pass the buck to someone else, in exchange for passing them a few bucks”; we should demand and take responsibility for the things that affect us. Or, at least, that’s Anil Dash’s argument.

I think this is easier said than done.

The problem with a single business model becoming dominant in an online environment, and in fact in any environment, is that no one model is infallible. Being completely reliant on a single revenue stream makes you vulnerable should that stream dry up. Furthermore, when a business model becomes dominant, it limits the incentive for business owners to create or build new models or go looking for other revenue streams—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! This stagnancy and lack of creativity makes the model vulnerable as the market evolves, until everyone is in crisis because, say, traditional online advertising no longer works as effectively (if at all) in a digital environment. This “panic mode” either forces creativity and an evolution of the model, or demands its replacement with something more sustainable—and the cycle continues. This loop can be seen in the evolution of TV and radio advertising: forced to compete with Netflix and rapidly changing social climate, TV advertisers have been forced to become clever in their ads.

With the rise of ad blockers, it looks like we’ll soon be seeing the same shift in online advertising—though if advertising will change, or if business models will shift to remove it from their revenue streams completely still remains to be seen. Either way, something’s gotta give.

To Pay or Not to Pay? Why I’ll Start Supporting Creators

Though I’ve only very recently begun to think about paying for subscriptions (the last two years or so), I can pinpoint the exact moment when my thinking began to shift: I had been complaining to my brother that one of my friends was going to charge me for art I’d asked her to make for a piece of fanfiction I was writing, and had been really upset that she hadn’t offered to do it for free. I had written her a ton of fic in the past, I’d changed my travel plans to visit her in both Germany and Italy during the semester I’d been in Europe, and I’d been shocked that she hadn’t offered to do this for free when I thought we were friends.

My little brother was not sympathetic.

He first asked why I didn’t think my friend should be compensated for her labour, then pushed further by inquiring if I didn’t want to support her in her creative endeavours. I was gobsmacked.

I had honestly never thought of paying my friends for their creative labour before. Mostly, this can be attributed to how I grew up: I was always taught that you don’t charge your friends (or you at least give them a serious discount) because you love them, and that’s just how you behave towards the people you love. Other parts can probably be explained away by the general undervaluing of the arts: even in last year’s federal budget, the Canadian government failed to recognize the precarious position of 650,000 cultural workers, and “some forms of museum funding still remain at levels lower than they were in 1972”. That’s not even considering the fact that the arts are severely underfunded in Canadian grade schools[1]… which is where you’d generally learn to appreciate and value various kinds of art.

Needless to say, my opinions shifted. Later, when I began to consider the possibility of publishing written fanworks in printed anthologies, I became aware that my attitudes towards monetizing print and visual art were also very different. Namely: I believed visual art to be inherently more expensive. I was willing to pay $20 to commission a piece of fanart, but I couldn’t conceive of compensating a fic writer for the same service. For a printed anthology, fine… but where I was willing to pay for art whether I received a print or it stayed on my screen, an online fic was something I very firmly believed was and should stay free of charge.

I think this might have had to do with a subconscious viewing of fanfiction as lesser due to its primarily female reader and authorship—but I think it also had to do with the way Western society values the visual over text. When was the last time you went into a place that displayed and showcased books? Museums don’t tend to have selections of books on display unless they’re very old, and libraries are not viewed as having nearly as much cultural capital as museums. Furthermore, if you want to have access to a special collection, you need permission to do so. Part of the reason as to why this is may also be is due to the fact that text is so very ubiquitous, both in print and online—we’re so used to seeing it that we have certain expectations when we do. I think that a lot of these expectations have to do with form: I expect to pay for a newspaper, so I’ll subscribe to a newspaper. I expect to pay for a print book, so I pay for a print book. But the idea of monetizing long-form content unaffiliated with traditional news sources, or monetizing the creation of online fanfiction, are fairly recent and had been indiscriminately free when I started using the web.

I have never paid for a subscription to any online magazine or blog. I tend to find quick fixes through switching browsers, or moving on to view free content. This is, I think, for all the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that my historical lack of disposable income has meant I’ve had to be very selective in where I allocate what few dollars I have to give. That doesn’t mean I’ll never pay, but right now, my priorities revolve around rent and groceries and allowing myself the odd night out when I spend all day reading on a screen. After I graduate and get a job? Chances are, my priorities will have shifted towards wanting to read long-form articles—ones I pay for, this time, in order to properly compensate authors for their labour.

 

[1] If the linked article doesn’t convince you due to its 2013 timestamp, take a look at this one, written specifically about Ontario and it’s practices (2018).

The Idealistic Room: Strengths and Weaknesses of Framing the Web as a Library

I think a lot of what the readings this week taught me is that there’s nostalgia for what the web used to be, owing to both its past infrastructure and its potential: What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it? The web was originally a tool for the open and free (non-monetized) communication and dissemination of ideas[1], and the authors of our readings all seem to be yearning for a time when things like the Stream and rampant commercialization weren’t present in online spaces. That’s not to say all is lost, however: in his article “The Good Room”, Frank Chimero asks us to reconsider all the old, exciting questions—What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it?—in a different context:

“In the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live. If we’re setting out to change the character of technology in our lives, we’d be wise to learn from the character of places.”

Chimero’s metaphor for framing this conversation is to think of the web as a library. This is similar to Adam Gopnik’s conception of it, though instead of focusing on the beauty and openness of such a location, Gopnik describes sleeping among the stacks in a way that can be overwhelming. I really enjoy the idea of the web as a library, though I tend to imagine it as an infinitely ever-expanding room with shelves so high they can barely be seen from the ground, where knowledge and information are ripe for the taking. I like the idea of spending a large part of my life in this space, reading and interacting with people in the stacks, until I get sleepy. And so I agree with Gopnik, but Chimero’s point also resonates with me: wouldn’t it be nice if the web was designed like a library? I should note that I don’t mean all libraries, here—the one in my hometown is dark and dismal at best. I never did any work there. But I like the idea of a beautiful library; a space that serves as an open area for community engagement and is designed with the goal of making us feel inspired and relaxed. I also really like this metaphor because would allow those of us whose libraries and community centres are dark and claustrophobic the opportunity to inhabit beautiful, inspirational spaces and create/learn within them.

Still, I think we should exercise caution when framing our idea of the web this way. The web as a library is a gorgeous image, but libraries are bounded in a way that the web is not. Furthermore, the library as a space is often romanticized (whether or not the web suffers the same fate probably depends on who you talk to); it is a carefully curated collection housed in a subsidized institution—and if the idea is to create a space free of outside, imposed curation, this particular establishment might not be the best metaphor.

Even the idea of emulating how one feels in a library falls through when you think of current technology’s physical limitations. The library is a beautiful place you visit in order to read/learn/work, and the space is designed in a way that encourages groundedness and being present only insofar as it allows you to become engrossed in your work. Say I go to the VPL to read up on history, or science, or to start a fantasy novel… the ultimate goal is not to remain rooted in the space, but to become captivated by the material in front of me, and the space of the beautiful library eases that transition. Unfortunately, this translates poorly when using the web: my eastside apartment will never feel like a grand library reading room no matter how beautiful the website on my screen is—the feelings of airiness and openness can’t transfer. The harsh light of our devices is something to consider here, as well: our bodies become fatigued while looking at a screen in a way that they do not sitting in a reading room.

I think it would be fantastic to make the web a library; the idea of everyone inhabiting an open space designed to encourage creativity and community for all is something I wholeheartedly support. But I also think we should know the limits of this particular way of framing what we want the web to be.

 

[1] Note that the free exchange of ideas was still very much subject to who had the financial means and overall ability to use the technology available. Unsurprisingly, most of these individuals were white men.

The Goldilocks Problem: Thoughts on Reductive Reasoning and New Tech

In his article, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us”, Adam Gopnik presents each position—Never-Betters (optimists), Better-Nevers (pessimists), and Ever-Wasers (neutral; humanity’s love-hate relationship with technology has never changed)—as having its strengths and weaknesses: technology can and has been used to enslave just as easily as it has been used to empower; cognitive exasperation runs just as rampant as cognitive expansion; the Internet and Web inhibit meaningful social interaction while it simultaneously acting as a hub of interconnectivity; and, finally, just as historical attitudes towards technologies tend to repeat themselves in a never-ending cycle, contemporary technology’s particular brand of omnipresence is something humanity has never encountered before. Frank Chimero, in his essay “The Good Room”, seems to agree with the latter point wholeheartedly, when he wrote: “technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live”. This is something I agree with as well.

I went into “The Information” thinking my own opinions regarding technology were so complex it would be impossible to fit them into a one tidy category, and upon finishing all the readings from last week, that position has remained the same—what has changed, however, is my ability to formulate and my thoughts and opinions more clearly. As it turns out, I am a mix of all three positions Gopnik lays out, and I feel that North American society as a whole[1] also fits into this new, complex category: where new technology is as exciting as it is scary, and something we both have and have not encountered throughout history.

When pushed, people tend to have slightly more nuanced opinions of things than they let on. I have observed this both in my personal life, and in my interactions with others. For example: at first glance, I tend to present myself as a Never-Better: I use modern technology for everything, I’m rarely seen without my computer and phone, and I truly enjoy all the benefits of modern tech awards me, and so defend them vehemently. That being said… technology also scares me half to death. The idea that companies harvest my information for commercial use is uncomfortable, I have a fear of getting doxed, and the commercialized Web (with all its negative implications) deeply upsets me. At the same time, I’m aware that most of my immediate resistance to new tech is a resistance to change, which is something humans tend not to enjoy—but I also know that humanity has never had such an intimate relationship with technology as we currently do, which makes me wary to write off any and all emotional and critical responses as part of an ancient cycle of human behaviour.

In short, the way I feel about new technology is a complicated mess. These feelings mirror those of my roommate, my brother, my parents, and I’m willing to bet, just about every other North American who has been exposed to technology within the past decade. The more complex technology becomes, and the more parts of our lives it irrevocably changes—the more it has us living inside the library, instead of visiting at our leisure—the more complicated and complex our relationship with it becomes. Furthermore, fitting such a large part of contemporary life into simplistic black and white areas is reductive and potentially dangerous. If the Stream has taught me anything, it’s that we should be wary of easy answers and neat, boxed-up solutions… they tend to radicalize in a way that makes it easy to suspend critical engagement despite our nuanced thoughts and feelings.

[1] It’s worth thinking about how we are define “society as a whole”: globally? The West? Canada? Vancouver? My experience of technology might be very different than someone who lives in China, or Georgia, so I’m using North America, based on my own experiences.