The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The new lingo

One of the most valuable contributions a person can make to an emerging field is to help build its vocabulary. It can be neologism (as in cyberspace) or it can be reappropriated language (as in stock and flow) or it can simply be strong words used with care—as in the following example.

Craig Mod, in his terrific essay Post-Artifact Books & Publishing, provides a taxonomy for digital books:

  • Formless: ePub, Mobi, HTML
  • Definite: PDF, EPUB3 (HTML5/CSS3)
  • Interactive: iOS / Android, EPUB3 (HTML5/CSS3)

And he explains:

Formless refers to content that has no inherent visual structure, and for which the meaning doesn’t change as the words reflow. Think: paperback novels.

Definite refers to content for which the structure of the page—the juxtaposition of elements—is intertwined with the meaning of the text. Think: textbooks.

Interactive is, of course, for works that necessitate some interactive component: video, non-linear storytelling, etc.

Formless and definite in particular (also discussed in an earlier piece from Craig) are the terms that best articulate the tension I feel today with the Kindle. On one hand: I love it. On the other hand: the uniform typeface… the arbitrary pagination… books aren’t just strings of characters!!, I want to scream. And yet, sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re formless. Aha. I get it now.

Here’s the true test of new lingo: does it stick in your head and present itself, again and again, in the face of fresh experience? So far, the answer for me with Craig’s trifecta is yes. These are the words I use to organize my own experience of the (crazy new publishing) world, and just as importantly, these are the words I use to scheme about its future. (P.S. I’m totally on Team Definite.)


Tim Carmody says…

But I think we have to be wary of conflating “meaning” or “form” as such with author-defined or editor-defined meaning/form.

One of the things that’s nice about genuinely formless content is that it allows for endless user restructuring and reshaping of that content. It’s liquid: it’ll fill up whatever container I can create for it.

You can argue that the problem with the Kindle is that it doesn’t preserve author-defined form (for “author” here, read “author/editor/publisher/designer/etc,” aka all of the collaborators on the production end). But you could also argue that it doesn’t provide the user with enough freedom to restructure the text the way that she likes.

Really, the problem is device & platform limitations that feel 1) arbitrary and 2) waayyy too confining. That hurts producers AND users, because the structure of the content is being defined by the people who have the least ability to determine what will work best: the middlemen who have no direct stake in a varied user experience or degrees of freedom of any sort.

Yes, well put! It’s a crappy Java E-Ink display driver w/ its heel on our throats.

It’s funny, though. The Kindle’s ability to resize text is obviously a Good Thing—I mean, obviously. And yet it rankles. I know it shouldn’t, and perhaps with time, it won’t. But… words get so ugly when you blow them up like that! The particular shade of gray, the particular visual rhythm of the words on the line—things you might have spent time thinking about, things you might have designed—all lost.

But, okay, I don’t want to make it seem like some great swooning death-of-art moment here. I know filmmakers have been saying the same thing about movies in the theater vs. movies at home for ages. You’re right—any piece of content’s final form, as experienced by a reader/viewer/user, is a collaboration. It has to be. And the arc of the content universe is long but it bends towards awesomeness.

One really fascinating example of this is the design of magazine pages/web pages vs the services (Instapaper, Readability, Safari Reader, Read it Later) that strip them of form. You see the people at, say, Wired, are super proud of the magazine that they put together and the arresting visual design and style of the whole thing. I have been told by People Who Know that they take a lot of pride in the theming of the front of book and all the little side bars and sub bars and so on and how they fit together.

And I couldn’t give a damn. I am playing good money to have someone else run a service that strips that out for me. I mercilessly “read on one page” and “print” and “save to Instapaper” away all the web page designs and carefully chosen fonts that we’re doing so much work to gets into CSS (there are start-ups around webfonts!)

Partially that’s because the designers and I disagree about how much excellence their work brings to the page. It just isn’t as important to me as portability and ability to integrate the work into my workflow (it’s more important to me to be able to save and read and share and bookmark and search the stuff I read than it is to benefit from the harmony of design).

But it’s also partially because designers aren’t just designing for me. They’re designing for the advertisers. And I’ve got a pretty hostile relationship with those guys.

I’m fascinated by the microcosmic Economics education of all this. Each of the three contain their own little Minsky Moments:

Tim’s doing it wrong and paying people good money to turn Definite into Formless. All aided by armies of curators aiming to go super-linear with obsessive and increasingly skilful blockquoting.

Transmedia types are intent on taking Definite to Interactive.

Lazy people are consuming Interactive in Definite digests. (I hardly ever watch TV, but I love TV reviews and, recently, I’ve become addicted to Movie Spoilers – go figure.)

And it’s easy to see Formless evolving into all kinds of interactive stuff along the lines of Massively Multi-text CYOAs. (It’s not *exactly* the same, but what these Transmedia types are doing with ‘Noisy Attention Graphs’ is a sign: perhaps?)

I missed out Interactive to Formless, but I’m sure somebody’s working on making money out of that too.

Right there, publishing business models go from shifting type to Polonial Balkanisation at roughly the same speed we can label them.

/breathless comment.

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