modern bedrooms with ancient problems

August 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

I feel like it’s time to start my blog again. So here’s a short, edited piece that I originally posted in rough form on my Goodreads account about an issue raised (kind of) in a short ebook I read recently (and recommend) called Reading in Four Dimensions, by a writer called Andrew Losowsky, whose website has a page with links relating to it here.

Alarm clock

I’m not interested in reviewing Reading in Four Dimensions, It’s a very good, thoughtful essay, and it forms a strong part of an ongoing discussion about digital mediums and the way they shape both what is written and how it’s read, fairly profoundly – as all form and mediums do. So here are a few thoughts about that, and the issues raised by the writing and reading of works that exist as timed, almost performance pieces, tied to the internet.

Losowsky gives a lot of space in this essay to discussing a blog that contains Samuel Pepys’s diary, and how it has developed out over a number of years, while still aggregating  the original diary entries faithfully. This can be treated like any other blog, and read all in one go after the act (or in various visits every few months, going back through the archives) or it can be followed through RSS feeds and so on. Blogs are tied to the internet in the sense that they often contain discussion, and pretty much always contain hyperlinks, which don’t work on the printed page. But most blogs don’t lose much if you read them a week, a month, or three years after you read them. The experience is largely the same. The blog can contain Samuel Pepys’s diary because the forms are very similar – one developed from the other. What is added is the community, the reading experience that allows the work to be read as if it were unfolding in something approaching real time. But really it just allows the reader to slow it down, to come back to it when they can fit it in, around their schedule, in a way that books do not always encourage us to do. It is the book broken apart, and our expectations of how long it should take us to read a book, broken along with it.

In contrast to this, the essay moves on to discussing fictional writing being posted on Twitter as works that only really make sense in those few moments following their publication, before the fast-moving feed that they are published into becomes swamped by something else, like people crying about Kim Kardashian’s wedding. I follow various fictional twitter feeds, but they’re largely joke-based – I did follow the Such Tweet Sorrow project a while ago (an RSC production where they got people to act out Romeo and Juliet on Twitter) but mostly, the more elaborately constructed Twitter works kind of pass me by, despite my interest in them. The ideas behind them often excite me (and I recently spent an afternoon at TextCamp11 discussing the possibilities of this sort of medium, some notes from which are here), but the problem is – I use Twitter and stuff when I have time for it. I check it throughout the day, but in various moments where I’m catching up and only see what’s just been posted. I have a job, and I can’t dedicate my life to what other people are sending out into the void every few minutes, even if I wanted to. Yes, to a certain level the inflexibility can add to the experience of work built like this – the idea that it is unfolding in its own time, and not the readers’, is kind of the whole point of it. Nobody expects you to read everything they post, and so fictional twitter feeds are often less based around narrative and more based around atmosphere, working on building up the kind of moody noise that often acts as the world-building or character-building behind a story driven by something else. But if there is more of a drive than this behind what’s being written, as in the fake Twitter account for Rahm Emanuel that got stranger and more apocalyptic as time went on, then there also reaches a point when readers with lives with schedules that don’t fit around the work can’t experience it, because going back through a Twitter feed after the fact is a different, clunkier experience. Sure, it could be funny to just every now and then see a joke message about disasters happening where you live when disasters aren’t actually happening where you live. I got this visceral thrill when searching for ‘Oxford’ on Twitter during the London riots (no, nobody has set the Cowley road Tesco on fire no matter how many times you claim that they have, thank you). But it’s more difficult to connect the whole story that has unfolded, to experience it as anything more than the odd disconnected joke.

And, then, what if you’re in another time zone to the writer of the story that you’re trying to follow? I’m in the UK, and a lot of these projects happen overseas. It’s an exciting new way to write and engage with the writing of others, especially as the real-time element changes what has always (to me at least) seemed like a pretty static medium to a fast-moving, shaky one – but the logistical elements of real-time publishing need to be thought about before we decide whether to tether what we write to these reasonably inflexible systems. Plays are repeated, and are usually presented in ways that minimise distraction – they are not filled with the noise of other people talking, of news channels updating us, of magazines trying to discuss our favourite foods with us, unless that is a deliberate point that they are making. Other real-time mediums are not so filled with the rest of the debris of our lives and conversations, are not so stuck in one single moment that won’t be repeated again. Do we want the people who can interact with our work in the way closest to how we intended it to be interacted with to always be those whose schedules are the most like ours? Those who are the most like us? Because that’s one of the outcomes of using Twitter and other social media sites to present stories in real time. And making your work only really accessible to those whose lives work like yours is a quick way of closing it off to a lot of valid, helpful scrutiny. It’s an interesting trade-off, and I’m not sure what can be done to get around it.

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