Tech It or Leave it

I may sound like a broken record by the end of PUB 802. Each week, I’ve inevitably taken a philosophical or spiritual route to express my views on topics relating to technology. I am conscious that some of my thoughts have taken a wide arc to arrive at certain conclusions. The tech class was more about the journey, rather than a particular destination.

For me, the class was less about what I know, but more about what I need to know and may never know. How technology evolves during my lifetime (whatever it may be) is anyone’s guess. The tech class helped me put things into perspective the potential of human communication and knowledge sharing. It also presented me with some hard truths about how technology can be misused or misinterpreted.

If there is one clear takeaway I have from this course, it is awareness. Through the entire course, we waded through a wide spectrum of topics relating to technology and publishing, in particular. I appreciate the learning and insight I have at the end of this course. But most of all, I appreciate the conscious thought I have about technology and how it affects me as person, and how I inevitably affect the society as a whole.

The course made me aware of what my contribution and interaction means in the bigger picture. I realised that I am not separate from the system I am part of. I know I need to examine my routine actions (digital footprint) more closely. Technology is a two-edged sword.  Either I use it consciously, or it’ll end up using me.

I am also thankful to my amazing cohort for bringing different point of views to the table. I enjoyed the discussion on annotations and how it was carried forward into the class. Even though I had my reservations about the self-driven pedagogy of this course, I was more than happy with what each and everyone in the class contributed to the conversation. In a way, this course was a perfect example of collective and conscious group effort, which eventually became greater than the sum of its parts.

This course, in a nutshell, gave me perspective, objectivity, consciousness and awareness . . . not only about technology, but myself too.

Thanks Juan, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Reflection of Learning

After having spent the past several days moving out of my apartment in Vancouver it feels like PUB 802 was so long ago. The content of this course was something that I was already enthusiastic about and had a basic working knowledge of many concepts, however the discussions that occurred both in class and within the online annotations certainly pushed my thinking and challenged my beliefs.

I spend a considerable amount of my leisure time watching educational YouTube videos including video series about the history of the internet, intellectual property, and machine learning. As these were topics that were discussed within the course, this prior exposure to concepts allowed me to contribute during class discussion as well being able to share these resources with classmates within annotations as well as in the MPub facebook group. The fact that I regularly seek out this type of information for fun shows that this content is something that I have a keen interest in and am consistently looking to further expand my understanding. This course provided additional resources to continue to learn about these topics and to build upon my existing knowledge.

There were times throughout the course that my opinions and believes were challenged. There were two areas that pushed my beliefs the most, the first was digital tracking. Prior to this course I was aware of digital tracking however I was not of the opinion that this digital tracking was wrong, something to be alarmed by, or that this data could be used in malicious ways. After news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke it caused me to reflect on how this information could be used and for what purposes. I had previously thought of digital tracking to be solely for the purposes of marketing and advertising. While it is sometimes unsettling to see an ad for the pair of shoes you were just browsing for on Amazon, there is nothing inherently nefarious about Google Ads. I was surprised by the sheer number of my classmates that had installed different ad blockers on their web browsers because I firmly believed that ad blockers were morally repugnant and punishing online content creators for not wanting their content to be placed behind pay walls. What pushed my thinking was the sheer number of trackers that were installed on websites and how the information they were harvesting could be used to influence politics. This use of digital tracking is something that I find much more unsettling than Google Ads and while I am not about to install an ad blocker onto my web browser, the discussions in this course have resulted in me installing Ghostery and thinking more critically about the potential for digital tracking. Another topic in the course that has challenged my thinking is the idea that companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (GAFA) alter people’s consumption habits. While I was willing to admit that these companies had a tremendous amount of influence over people I had not considered how Amazon opening a physical retail location was for the purpose of shaping people’s shopping habits to better suit the business model of Amazon. Unlike my thoughts on digital tracking this was nothing something that I had a firm stance that was contrary to the course discussions, but rather that it was not something that I had considered as motivation prior to PUB802.

Both of the topics that challenged my thinking the most within the course are areas that I would consider to be the somewhat alarming reality of how technology (and giant tech companies) shape and influence individuals. My first blog post in this course rejected Adam Gopnik’s categories of  “Never-Betters”, “Better-Nevers”, and “Ever-Wasers”. While I did not align myself within a particular category, and I still believe that people’s interactions with technology is a spectrum and cannot be easily fit into three neat categories, I would consider myself to be between the Never-Betters and the Ever-Wasers at the start of the course. I still maintain a level of optimism that I think it a defining feature of the Never-Betters, however this course has caused me to reconsider certain areas and as a result I have moved more towards a more realist understanding of technology and therefore am closer to the Never-Betters on the spectrum that I was in January.

The Life of Text Online

The life of text online – each word makes sense on its own, yet what an odd concept to grapple with. We talk about stories coming alive, we are thirsty for narratives in books or films, but our interaction is from creator to receiver. In reading articles like Audrey Watters’ Un-Annotated or Brent Plate’s Marginalia and Its Disruptions, I realized that this world of “interaction with and shaping of the text” was entirely new to me. To better portray my shock, I need to give two examples that define my behaviour: I have loved books so much ever since I was a child, I considered leaving a mark, any mark of any sort, to be… like, the eighth Cardinal Sin. I particularly ached when I saw ear-marking as a substitute for a purchased or self-made bookmark. I eventually found a more sane balance in university, when I found highlighting and annotating to save me time. I actually enjoyed it for the first time, to leave commentary that I could then review at a later time.

This is pre-social media.

Then, similarly, online commentary for me has been incredibly scarce (mostly due to my scarce time) and always of a positive nature. I mean, you know what they say, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” For example, I follow my artist friend’s journey because I purchased a piece from her over Etsy. We’ve never met in person but we’ve become close through our appreciation for the art. She’s also American so it’s been highly educational to compare the fate of art and artists in Canada vs the US. So coming from this perspective, I am naturally bewildered by the vast amounts of negative or trolling commentary. I just don’t know when people have the time, really, and that’s what horrifies me – how many people devote time to this kind of interaction.

Coming from this perspective, I just think that a writer does indeed have the right to define who comments, and moreover, to carefully review and curate what kind of “life” is given to their text. This sounds extreme but to soften the perspective, I have to say that I also believe this to be context-based. The kinds of magazines that I enjoy reading, like Discover, National Geographic and The New Yorker, they have geeky readers like me that engage in super interesting commentary. Sometimes it’s fun just scrolling down past the article to read a few thoughts or debates, they’re equally “alive” and entertaining.

However, Watters’ writing on the vast amount of “threats of sexualized violence” had me contemplate on the purpose of texts online. Many years ago, I read this moving piece on the initial purpose of “the online world” versus what it has ended up being over time. A review of the development of Internet is this article but the article I read was in a magazine (Google and I tried our best but to no avail). Long story short, the view of scientists was positive and uplifting, this world of resources, knowledge, and limitless interaction of global proportions – but over the decades, it’s exploded into this universe of galaxies near and far, where so much ugliness and uselessness has crept up (like porn and trafficking and such tragic things).

So yes, sometimes, audiences could do with some parameters and limitations in their online socialization over a text. Some texts online can be “alive and well” just on their own, without any trolling or #pwning or whatever you may call it. Some texts can do just fine being left alone.

Anna Stefanovici

PUB802 – final essay

Coming into PUB802, I was worried that I would have to have programing knowledge of some kind. It’s not like I don’t think practical knowledge of programming or coding is important, but very often that gets prioritized over actual discussion about the role of technology and I am glad this course gives preference to theory over application. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed the required reading for any other course like I did for this one. I felt like each reading of each class opened my mind to something I either did not know before or knew about but had not thought about it in a certain way. For instance, I knew that people’s internet activity was tracked. That’s the reason I have Ghostery on my browser. But I did not know the details about how it works, what it tracks and what implications that has on my personal information. The extent to which data is tracked these days, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica case, is truly astounding and I am glad I got to study this.

I also did not know much about AI, beyond that yes, it exists! And so, to learn about AI and its various offshoots like Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Natural Language Processing, was extremely fascinating. Both tracking and AI have a huge role to play in the publishing industry. As someone who is about to enter the book industry, it was very useful to know the ways in which these technologies can impact and change the publishing landscape. I also really enjoyed annotating each article. I am glad that this was enforced. Sometimes just annotating an article required me to read more articles so that I could offer some meaningful food for thought, and there were times that this, no doubt, felt like a chore, but I am still glad this was enforced. It forced me to read carefully and not skim over the articles. It was also the first time ever that I was using Hypothes.is. It seemed intimidating to me at first. But I am amazed at how you can install it within minutes and start annotating. Like others, I have been tempted to annotate other articles I read on the web, just because Hypothes.is gives me the option to do so. I think the annotations played a huge part in creating a sense of community within our cohort. I liked reading what my class mates had written and responding to them. I also enjoyed the class discussions. Most of us – and I might be wrong here – don’t usually read the kind of articles that we did for this course. I had a lot of apprehension about writing an essay each week and compulsorily annotating 5-6 articles. The “contract” only heightened this apprehension. But the workload was doable because the articles were short and manageable reads. I thought the discussions in class were helpful and important. Writing the blog every week was tough at times, especially because some research was needed to be able to write a thought-provoking piece, but I think this was a worthwhile exercise. I had never written about technology before, so the blogs helped me expand my writing vocabulary.

PUB802 is a unique course in that it forces us as students to do nothing but immerse ourselves in thinking and philosophizing about technology. I feel like this is a luxury, one that when we start working, we will no longer have.

If you love something, set it free

I am a supporter of marginalia. Written works do not exist in a vacuum: society will always surround anything that we write, and by publishing something once and expecting it to never change is a good way to ensure that it fades from people’s interests very quickly. Our thoughts are never the same one moment to the next, so why should we expect our written work to stay stagnant? School textbooks release new editions every year or every few years for this very reason; information is always changing, adapting, and updating, and there is no reason that we should have to keep learning old information. Being open to the idea of readers commenting on a written work is a great way to make sure the publication stays up to date with society, not to mention the benefits this has for archival purposes. Reading a manuscript from a hundred years ago is interesting to be sure, but consider how much more interesting it is if you understand the social field of the same time. By allowing our works to be commented on, we are allowing society to flood its pages, giving depth to the work as a whole.

Before the introduction of the printing press to Western Europe, the way people (I am thinking here especially of poets) spread their work was to read it aloud in front of an audience. For some, poetry was a performance art more than it was a written one. If a listener enjoyed the poem, he or she would write it down. Frequently, these copied-down poems would take on a life of their own, with frequent  mishearings, misspellings, and misinterpretations. The copier-downer was free to write down the poem as they liked and how they saw relevant. Furthermore, the poet him or herself would often adjust their poem to suit their audience or their feelings as the situation saw fit. Their poem was a fluid document. When the printing press and movable type was introduced to Europe, some poets were unhappy with the permanence this gave their poems and chose to reject its use. Some poets believed that publication would deemphasize a poem’s intimacy. The social aspects of poetry preserved a closeness with the reader or listener that was difficult to duplicate through print at the time.

I see current society’s interest in marginalia as a return to this era of “social publication.” “Meaning exists in the exchange, and contrary to modern print assumptions, not solely on the page” (Wollman, 91). By allowing readers to comment on and add their thoughts to a published work, it becomes richly socially-charged in a way that hasn’t really been the norm for centuries. Marginalia adds new life and personality to a text. A text should never be one thing and one thing only: there are so many benefits to opening up your work to the world to see what society has to add to it. As the old adage goes, if you love something, set it free!


Works Referenced:

Slizak, Annie. “The Importance of Print Culture in Seventeenth-Century Poetry.” April 8, 2014.

Wollman, Richard B. “The ‘Press and the Fire’: Print and Manuscript Culture in Donne’s Circle.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 33, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1993). (1993): 85-97. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Comments: On

I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, but seeing as this is the last response of the course, let’s have one more for good measure: in regards to the social life of online texts, writers, readers, and publishers all need to think forward about not only how text is currently received and interacted with online, but also about the possibilities for interacting with these interactions. Of course bracketing all of this is how these parties must deal with the challenges of fully public discourse in the face of hatespeech or trolls, the Internet’s native fauna.

In week 4 I talked about Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that the invention of the Web would cause a societal shift from a print/written culture to an electronic/oral one, and how this would signal a change in the public’s interaction with media and each other. I want to go a step further in thinking about texts. Within print culture, interactions with text were mediated through a culture of discourse where one publishes an idea and any responses to that text move lineally onward, either publicly in a similarly published form or lecture, or privately, in the form of marginalia or conversation. The scope of responses in this mode were greatly limited by both the classic “gatekeepers” standing at the doors of publishing and education. The electronic oral age brings a culture of participation, where the public may not only be content publishers but also content critics. Couple this with the looping, tangled, multi-dimensional way in which texts exist and interact on the Web. This is worrisome for those comfortable in the previous era, especially authors or content producers who fear negative– or just, opposing– conversation around their work. However, the advent of the Web and social accessibility means that social hierarchy has the opportunity to be levelled, and that all opinions can at least be publicized. Obviously, in today’s context, this is threatening to a neoliberal society of creators or intellectuals who have been trained to protect and capitalize their unique gifts of wordsmithing and critical framing. If any Average Joe can respond and even challenge a published text, modern civilization will surely descend into anarchy and chaos.

Which is why I say “Comment on!” Nothing grows or evolves without challenge. I might even add–cautiously– that the truly negative or insidious commenting that takes place is a necessary part of a democratic ecosystem. For a writer receiving trolling on their work, a new kind of critical eye must be honed. First, publishers and writers must learn to distinguish real criticism or opposing views worthy of discourse from comments that are not only inflammatory but more importantly, meaningless. Second, they must learn how to respond (to those where response might be productive) in a way that grows the work, or the public’s relationship to the work, in new or more nuanced directions. Dylan Marron’s podcast “Conversations with People who Hate Me” is one such example of how an author might learn from and interact with trolls in a productive, and I daresay transformative way. In each episode, Marron calls up people who had left hateful comments on his online work and engages them in an open conversation about their experiences. More often than not, the hatespeech the commenters espouse comes either from a place of ignorance or from their own seat of trauma and online conflict. When actually listened to and questioned, as Marron does, these commenters are able to see themselves critically and possibly the ways in which they would change in the future. 

The Sound Of Silence

The question about the rights of a writer and a commenter is full of gray areas. It used to be pretty straightforward when publishing was limited to print. Readers used to write letter to authors and editors. Reviewing of text was in the hands of few critics or peers who had the credibility to comment. Books used to exchange hands via libraries and used books stores, gaining annotations along the margins with every exchange. The chain of dialogue was always consecutive and never concurrent.

Online publishing does not enjoy this privilege.  The web has opened the flood gates of social interaction. Anyone can express any opinion and find a large audience with few measured efforts. Publishing your thoughts is easy. So is commenting on it. We live in a day and age where everyone is “Google expert” and feels it’s their right to express opinion. We rarely stop to think – what, why, who, when, where and how we should articulate our thoughts.

Lack of barriers means there is a growing gap between what gets published and what actually needs to be published. Similarly, who comments on what is a complicated concept. In both instances, someone decides that it is a good idea to break the silence and write about a topic or for someone to comment on someone’s work.  Perhaps this Zen story can convey the conundrum of social interaction:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?”

The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

Each monk broke the silence for a different reason. The first monk became distracted by one element of the world (the candle) and so lost sight of the rest. The second monk was more worried about rules than the meditation itself. The third monk let his anger at the first two rule him. And the final monk was lost to his ego.

There is no right or wrong way of looking at who gets to moderate feedback or who is entitled to give one in the first place. What we, as a society, need to spare more thought to is our reasons for breaking silence. Yes, freedom of speech gives us the write to express ourselves, but this fundamental right comes attached with duty. We’re responsible for what we express. And that applies equally to the writer and the commentator. Self-moderation is what we need, where online text is concerned.

Maybe there was a fifth monk in the story, who slept through peacefully, blissfully unaware of the value of his silence.

 

 

Let the authors and publishers determine the terms

My answer to this week’s blog prompt is more complex and complicated than a yes or no. I do not think that my stance is firmly grounded on one side or another. For me, it depends largely on a case-by-case basis whether or not the writer has the define who can comment or not.

Most likely, it is inevitable that even if there is not a convenient means to comment, create annotations or marginalia notes that that shuts out all online socialization over a text. There will be another platform to discuss, comment or make notes about the work through forum communities and websites like Reddit. For example, if a Youtuber disables comments on their video then that community can easily jump to that YouTuber’s subreddit and create a discussion post about the video. While the writer or content-creator can discourage it, and make it harder for online socialization to occur, I can only imagine that it is nearly impossible to completely shut it all out.

Then again, Audrey Watters brings up a great point in her blog post Un-Annotated where she says: “This isn’t simply about trolls and bigots threatening me (although yes, that is a huge part of it); it’s also about extracting value from my work and shifting it to another company which then gets to control (and even monetize) the conversation.” This brings up the messy ground where the authors also have the right to protect themselves from those trolls and bigots. Especially women on the internet who face a higher level of these types of attacks and threats all the time.

However, in some other cases where the writer writes a controversial or ignorant piece and disables comments to keep their echo chamber up then that is where I would take issue. If there is no constructive criticism, peer review or annotations then that can also be very problematic.

Although it is not a specific written piece, the arguments on both sides reminds me of the case where Discord, a private instant messaging app, began to shut down neo-Nazi, alt-right and other various hate-speech servers. It is important that it is also the publishers or server’s responsibility to shut down these types of toxic and hateful content. Websites like Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress, Medium and even YouTube (for the case of digital content publishers) should also have the right to shut down online socialization just as much as the author.

It is all hard to say. But ultimately, text that has a vibrant commenting section is a clear indicator of how much buzz it is generating and allows the writer to connect with their audience. Disabling the comments would mean to sacrifice all of that. On the other hand, the author may want to protect themselves for good reason and to keep their content securely within their copyright and no outside influence. It all really all depends on what your goals, why you decided to write the piece or create the content you did and what message you want to perpetrate.

 

REFLECTION

Being a user of technology at every seconds of my life, I was excited to learn more about technology in this course. PUB 802 was a very interesting course; I have learnt as evidence by this reflection.

My lecturer, Mr. Juan Pablo Alperin, has afforded me the opportunity to learn more technological terms and trends. We were also exposed to different materials highlighting the importance of integrating technology in the publishing industry. As I reflect on the course, I must say that I have really learnt a lot.

I believe that technology integration continues to increase in the publishing industry. It is important that we, as future publishers, possess the very skills and behaviours to better survive in a digital age.

Applying technology at school has had a great impact on me as it has given me more knowledge, such as sannotation, e-book and Amazon. This course has taught me different ways that I can use to plan effective technological integration for working in the industry.

In this class it was challenging at times, especially with the weekly assignments but I have learned to use different technological tools. I opted to try different things even though I wasn’t sure how it would work, but because of my determination and curiosity, I did it anyway and it worked. I guess this says that I take risks in learning on my own at times.

As I willingly accepted the opportunity to explore educational technology, my darkened state was lit as it was brought to my attention how technology savvy the 21st century learners are. However, as the course progressed new information surfaced. At some point in the course I felt frustrated, but I continued to do what I had to do, knowing that it would only redound to my success.

As I continue to reflect I realize that this course has helped me to understand that the use of interactive educational activities can promote higher order thinking skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. I have proven this to be true, based on the discussions and group activities done in the class. This course has helped me as I work with my colleagues and we collaborate and make decisions to create meaningful, learning experiences.

Without a doubt technology has become a vehicle for educational growth and I am happy to be a part of this vision. This course has definitely helped me to realize it.  

A book is a book is a book: On Marginalia and Authority.

Publishing is to make public”. This is a statement that has been repeated plenty of times over. To publish is to seek out eyeballs. Whether it is done on the individual level (via self-publishing) or the collective level (traditional publishing), when work is put out there, audience engagement in some form, is sought out. “Eyeballs” are multidimensional: audiences do not only read works but they form opinions of works and make them known. They comment, they highlight, they leave marginalia on texts, both online and in print. Do they have the right to interact with texts that have been made available to them? Yes, they do.

Is marginalia authoritative if it is never found, never made public or if it never garners an audience? It has been argued that marginalia in print is long-lasting however in my opinion, it is less likely to gain an audience of more than a handful of the same people. For example, if a codex has a print run of 10 000, distributed all over Canada. And a person finds marginalia in one of the 10 000 books, possibly on a library shelf buried besides other books, their likelihood of being able to trace back to the original creator of the marginalia is low and their ability to create an instant community around the musings is even lower. In the digital sphere, however, marginalia is usually credited to a specific person (eg. on Hypothes.is) and as much as S. Brent Plate argues that this marginalia is ephemeral, the likelihood of more people interacting with it quicker is higher. Furthermore, the ease of community building around online marginalia could also be based on the fact that everyone is commenting on the same article despite their geographical location. In print, the marginalia might be in book 528 of the 10 000. Unless posted online (yet again), can this marginalia reach the author and be in conversation with them? The likelihood is no. I take into account that entire communities have been formed around print marginalia but these are the limitations of it in this digital era.

The point I am getting at here is that both audiences in print and online should be allowed to interact with texts if those texts have been made public. Whether they can “shape the text” however will be determined by the visibility of their marginalia and the community they can build around it.

Writers are also able to determine who can comment on their work by the simple act of defining the public it reaches and not publishing to all groups. They can choose language that deters certain people from engaging with their works for example. This has a tendency to be discriminatory however. By censoring interactions the writer becomes  a propagator of an opinion vacuum.

To summarise:

1) Audiences can react to texts if those texts have been made public. To publish something is to garner eyeballs. Interactions between published work and reader are part and parcel of the publishing process.

Marginalia requires an organised public of its own to be authoritative.

2) The writer can determine how their work is disseminated thereby deciding who has the right to comment on it. This can be discriminatory.

3) Should authors seek out eyeballs and subsequently not allow those eyeballs to engage with their works? I think not.

Small fun fact, on this topic of marginalia: I am a person who had first edition Jane Austen books and doodled in them because a book is a book is a book.

 

Give the Reader What They Want—In a Way That Works for Everyone

Audiences have always interacted with text, whether it is hand-written marginalia as Plate describes itor online comments and annotations as Watters describes it. Some people have no problem annotating and commenting online, but despise it when others write in physical books. Other people hate online comments sections, but enjoy making notes in the margins of their books. Everyone has their own opinions and, ultimately, you cannot please everybody.

Personally, I took notes in the margins of my school textbooks all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same in the books I read for pleasure. Reading comments sections on most websites makes me sad because most often comments tend to be negative and fights break out; however, I do comment on specific websites and forums frequently—places I know are more professional and people are less likely to cause petty fights. I suppose I’m a happy middle in between the two people described in the last paragraph.

I had never thought of marginalia and comments being a problem—if you don’t like the comments section, stay away from it, and if you don’t like people writing in books, make that clear when you lend a book to someone. Stay in your happy bubble and everything will be okay. However, that is thinking about it purely from a reader’s point of view—what about the author?

I definitely think it is up to the reader whether or not they want to interact with the text, however they may choose to do so. I had never thought about it from the author’s point of view, and what if they don’t want people interacting with their text in that way? Watters makes an interesting point in her blog post “Un-Annotated” about not wanting comments, annotations, marginalia, or anything like that on her websites. I understand her point about not wanting to “wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas,” but I’m not sure I understand why she went from allowing comments to not allowing any—surely there’s a middle ground we can work with here.

I’ve always been told that having people comment on your blog post (and social media, for what that’s worth) is a good thing. It allows your audience to connect with you in a way that they normally can’t in person, and this can drastically improve the way your audience sees you if you’re responding to and engaging with them. However, as stated above, I hate most comments sections because of exactly what Watters is describing. In an ideal world, we would have control over that. Perhaps a step between allowing commenting and disabling it altogether would be to install a plugin that filters out comments that have certain words or combinations of letters that could indicate a negative comment (negative here meaning hurtful, not “I don’t agree with you” because those comments are valuable). Many websites aimed at kids already do this (Neopetsand Runescape, for example). Obviously comments can still sneak through, but filters can be improved and it will reduce the number of negative comments being posted. I think something like this is at least worth a shot before completing removing the ability for readers to comment altogether—give them the chance to continue the conversation.

Author, Authority, Authoritarian

While thinking about the dichotomies involved when we talk about authorship of a work, it struck me that when I think about the word “authority” I don’t usually associate it with the word “author” — though pretty clearly that was the idea behind the concept whenever some old Latin guy or gal coined it yesteryear.

As Wikipedia lays it out for me:

Middle English: from Old French autorite, from Latin auctoritas, from auctor ‘originator, promoter’ (see author).

[I “see author”]:

Middle English (in the sense ‘a person who invents or causes something’): from Old French autor, from Latin auctor, from augere ‘increase, originate, promote.’ The spelling with th arose in the 15th century, and perhaps became established under the influence of authentic.

So now we’ve conglomerated a family of meanings and associated terms: author, authority, and authentic denoting originality, promotion, and invention. In the most denotative sense of the term, authority stems from the original author or writer’s creation of a thing. They have (?) the innate authority — or power, as we’ve come to view the term — over that work.

In the digital age of global marginalia and annotations, we’re now challenging those ideas of authority, or perhaps redefining them. There is nothing in particular in the etymology of the word authority that gives us an idea of a timeline; we can decide, perhaps, that an author has authority over a piece until it is passed to the next person (Copyright law, anyone?), or we can decide that an author has authority over a piece ad infinitum. At some level, I think the discussion is one of respect, but on another I think that publishing something — making it available to a public — is in the act itself asking for a response from your audience.

Though their complications with audience interaction didn’t manifest in the same way, I believe Audrey Watters‘ views on marginalia echo those of fiction author Anne Rice. Rice, back in the early 2000s was so vehemently against fan’s appropriation of her content for fanwork purposes — art, fanfiction, et cetera — that she sought legal action against her fans. The contention then was that she was alienating her own fanbase. Though many authors who shared Rice’s opinions turned around and came to accept fan culture, those sentiments are still harbored by many today, as we can see. A public is hard to form if the members of that public have no way to communicate with one another, and an effect of that is that the author/authority of that content works against their own interests.

So, should readers be able to interact with or shape the text? Should is hard to say, but will is definite. It’s an inevitability that authors will have to face. And annotations software like Hypothes.is don’t affect the original copy of the work; that maintains its shape.

Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? The writer has the right to give that comment context, of course, but to define “who can comment” is inherently discriminatory. In practical terms, most writers aren’t in control of the platforms they publish on anyway, and most websites have some means of moderation. Ever more popular these days is also the Reddit-style peer review system in which readers of a particular piece up and down vote comments according to how valuable they feel that comment to be. Peer reviewed community commenting seems to me a lot more reader-friendly than banning a particular group of people.

Should audiences be limited in their socialization over a text? Not if authors want an audience. But ultimately, it is and should be up to the author.

“The More One Knows, the Quaggier the Mire Gets” – Sarah Vowell*

Having recently prepared a project that relies on the concept of “digital fatigue,” I have read a lot of information online on the topic. There are blog entries, such as Frank Buytendik’s futurist-focused one, where he writes, “we are moving towards a #digitalsociety. Not only business changes, not only work changes. Life itself changes.” At the same time, there are medical warnings against the continued and growing exposure to screens. For example, Dr Aizman’s talks about ocular muscle strain and writes, “digital eye strain is very common because of our reliance on digital technology.”

Yet if you put these two observations together, you’re in Quagmire Land. Somewhere somehow, the eyes (which recent studies say are part of the brain and not separate organs) have to both do the work you’re demanding of them, and preserve themselves as part of providers of one of your five senses. Perhaps this is why content-retention when reading materials online is not as reliable – there is ocular and brain stress that steals away from the energy one devotes to reading and reading comprehension.

So – should publishers care? is a question that one wonders as a budding publisher. I think the most reasonable answer is, “it depends on the publisher.” When I was finishing my Graphic Design diploma, the Head of the Department and Portfolio instructor had us do rigorous research in terms of our “dream companies.” I had learned about Scholastic through my part-time work with children and made it one of my three winning companies. Now, at the tail end of the academic portion of my Master of Publishing, I know that if I were to indeed become a part of the team, I would use the type of medical and psychological research being done to encourage children to read real books, as well as educate parents on the necessity of perpetuating this method of reading. In fact, if you haven’t heard this interesting factoid, it has become public knowledge over the last few years that the children of Silicon Valley techies attend no-technology schools. While this New York Times article is a bit outdated, it offers a peek at some of their methodologies, such as  “Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.”

Isn’t that so ironic? That the masterminds who brought personal computing to global levels are segregating their own children from their inventions? They must know something we don’t know.

So that’s if I were involved in publishing geared towards children and education.

Now, on the other hand, given Buytendik’s prediction that our future lives are inescapably digital and will become more so over time, I can imagine improvements to technology that publishers could (and would have to) take advantage of. I have not seen any VR-reading yet but sci-fi films often touch upon scientists finally unravelling the mysteries of the brain and plugging materials directly into neurons, the way we transfer data via cables or miniSDs into devices in the present. While growing up I was never much of a sci-fi fan, it never ceases to fascinate me that all writers’ “predictions” from past decades are now part of our daily lives. A vast majority of people are so ungrateful, too, in their unquenchable thirst for “better” “faster” “more.”  So with this new technology, new reading formats would inevitably dictate the way readers would access information. Thus publishers would have to indeed lend an ear, if they wished to survive into the 22nd century.

I’m 31 now and know that life will be so vastly different when I am 81.

*Vowell said this about American History but I find it applicable to everything in life.

Anna Stefanovici

Who Can Comment?

Occasionally throughout this last year, the definition of publishing has been thrown around the classroom: to make something public. And if something is public, then I believe that others should have a right to interact with it, comment on it, share it, and so forth. If you are producing something for the public to consume, then they should have the right to respond or interact with it in some way. It should not be a one-sided conversation.

If we didn’t allow interaction with text then there would be no criticism, and the counter public would have a much harder time organizing and affecting change. Without discourse, culture would not evolve—it would be the same people in positions of power saying the same things. We need to be able to hold people accountable to their words, and one key way we can do this in a democratic society is by having discussions in public spaces, such as in the comment section online. To stop people from commenting would be to censor people; and would be just another, more obvious way that we decide who has a voice and who doesn’t (the other way being deciding who gets published in the first place).

And while the majority of the time I think audiences should be allowed to socialize and discuss publications, it is also important to recognize that there are times when this can become dangerous. As we know, there is a difference between free speech and hate speech, and the latter has no place in public discourse (or anywhere!).

For example, in 2015, CBC decided to temporarily close comments on stories about Indigenous Peoples due to what they referred to as “uncivil dialogue” taking place in the comment section. Comments are still closed today (although not on the Facebook comment section), and I would argue for good reason. Often, the comments added nothing to the discussion about the story or the issue, but were racist generalizations. In this case, the cost (harm caused to people who read these comments) outweighed the benefit (people being allowed to engage in conversation). People’s well-being should come before everyone else’s two cents.

Similarly, if people abuse their right to comment (such as issuing death threats on Twitter), then I support them losing their ability to contribute to the broader conversation. If we are going to have discussions about texts, then we must do so in a way that does not attack a person or group of people and cause real harm.

Let’s get more digital content goin

Publishers are stuck in the age of print, and are trying to force the digital environment to conform around print standards. While ereaders are great for their portability and convenience, for a lot of readers, there’s not enough that’s different to draw them away from print. As Hachette Group CEO Arnaud Nourry put it, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.

I half agree. While there can be much more done, ereaders are still in their infancy, and will grow to incorporate enough features to be worthy as a whole new media-consumption tool, separate from books. Some features I would like to see added to ereaders include:

  • Audiobook Incorporated with text
    • In which audiobooks also come with the text of the book, and a highlight follows the words of the text currently being read. This is for accessibility and further reading assistance for those with greater barriers to reading.
  • Pop-up glossary
    • The ability to highlight a word and have definitions appear in a hoverscreen. It would look much like how hovering your mouse over a hyperlink in wikipedia opens a small hoverwindow with a glimpse into that hyperlink’s page.
  • Annotations
    • This should be obvious.
  • This.

However, it’s not realistic for a publisher to just make a better ereader. Instead, there are other digital content strategies a publisher can adopt. Talking about digital content actually makes me reminisce a lot on book project last term. My group spent a long time devising how to include digital content in our publishing plan, and what we came up with is exactly what I would like to see done in the real world.

So without further ado, I’ll take a cue from CuePub.

One thing I learned during the book project exercise is how much variety there is to possible digital content. We managed to come up with four unique ways to use digital content to enhance the four books, rather than just port them to a digital platform.

One of my favourites was what we did for the graphic novel – we envisioned an environment for fans to create and upload their own fan stories. As a publisher, helping and encouraging communities, especially for serialized publications, helps grow and strengthen the fan base. If you have a series that inspires strong attachment to character, a series that people will write fanfiction for and upload somewhere else anyway, why not host the community yourself and encourage their attachment to the series?

However, what I most want incorporated in a publishers’ business plan is not digital content to complement a printed book, but digital books that are a completely separate catalogue from printed books. What penguin is doing in india with mini-books for mobile is genius. Finding ways to create digital-only content, to neither be secondary to nor replace the print book, is something more publishers should be doing.

Audio for Small Publishers. Hooray!

In 2014 I founded Kamaria Press, a not-for-profit African and Caribbean publishing house. The original business plan was to publish the works of Black authors using Amazon CreateSpace for the production and distribution of print books. As a student with not much experience in the publishing industry, I assumed that the works that Kamaria Press was to release needed to be in print for the company to be validated/recognised as legitimate. A long history of viewing print as the default book format influenced my early business plan.

It took me a while to realise that as a startup publisher with no external funding, printing with CreateSpace as beneficial as they portrayed it to be would run me into a loss within my first year of business. (Not-for-profit presses need to make surpluses too in order to carry out their mission). I was then introduced to eBook publishing as a viable business model but a lack of tailored expertise on how to produce them in-house meant that I did not pursue this route.

But as we all know digital publishing is not limited to eBooks and a survey I did amongst Black readers in the UK proved that audiobooks would be a popular reading format for them (my target audience). With this knowledge, I am looking to create an audio-only imprint which will be a significant part of Kamaria Press’ offerings going forward. Despite claims of audiobooks being extremely expensive to produce (insert the advice from Kevin Williams, publisher at Talon Books), I believe that small presses such as Kamaria Press can incorporate audio content using certain practical steps.

 Set-Up

According to Dr Hannah McGregor, publishing professionals can use USB or preferably analog microphones to achieve high-quality sound when recording podcasts and audiobooks. They are relatively easy to find and can cost as little as CAD$500 (a small investment when placed in the bigger picture). Here is a list of 25 of the best podcasting microphones, some of them can easily be used to record audiobooks too. I plan to invest in an analog microphone because of the elevated “warm” sound that they produce. I also plan to use built-in recorders such as Garage Band and Hindenburg to save and edit my books. This strategy is, for the most part inexpensive, and I want to start recording multi-page stories before moving on to longer texts.

Public libraries such as the Vancouver Public Library have recording studios and microphones which can be used by members whenever available. Depending on them is not a sustainable business strategy but it is viable start for an up and coming publisher.

Furthermore, if I or one of the Kamaria Press volunteers enrolls into an audio editing course then the knowledge capital of the organisation will increase as well as the ability to edit audiobooks in the long run. Another one-off investment. I, for example, will not have to hire outside help to edit thereby keeping costs low something that is crucial for startups.

Another option would be to use Amazon’s self-publishing audio arm, Audible’s Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) but I am trying to avoid the same problems I had with CreateSpace. Creating as much financial autonomy is a key part of  Kamaria Press’ business strategy.

Final Thoughts

As the fastest growing segment in publishing, it has been reported that “books in every imaginable genre [are selling] better as spoken rather than written word – four times as well” to be exact. It is of utmost importance that digital content particularly audio content be integrated into current business plans even for small publishers. I have attempted to discuss cost-effective ways of incorporating audio content into a small/growing publisher’s business plan. I truly believe that audio is for both the big and the small.