In his book, Tools for Thought, Howard Rheingold asks, "If McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, what will it mean when the entire environment becomes the medium?" Since then, for some people at least, the internet has indeed become the entire environment in which they pursue their imaginative, social, and intellectual lives. This is especially true of many writers who have found their work transformed by the web.
One of the most stimulating aspects of web-based writing is the merger it forces between programming and art, and the energising tension this produces. It all happens in a creative milieu which is constantly evolving, becoming ever more sophisticated. Hypertexts, multimedia and collaborative texts are causing a conceptual shift amongst writers and artists, and at the heart of the process are new kinds of tools. Tools for thinking, collaborating, drawing, communicating, coding, talking, performing, exhibiting, imagining, visualising - and, of course, writing.
Earlier this year, trAce began a one-year research project, Mapping the Transition from Page to Screen, looking at the way writers move from print to the web. Novelist Kate Pullinger is the Research Fellow connected to the project, and she has spent several months learning how to read and write all over again. She has studied the basics of HTML, created her own web pages, and become acclimatised to the online environment. Prior to joining the project, she had some experience of working on the web through her teaching at the trAce Online Writing School, but she was unskilled in web page design and unfamiliar with new media texts.
Followers of Kate's online journal will know that the going has not always been easy. For example, her first task was to develop a new kind of literacy and learn to write HTML. She found it a frustrating experience. "What I really want to do is start to create a hyperfiction," she wrote in her first journal entry. "I've got the idea bubbling away in my head, but HTML is in the way. It's like I have to learn a whole new set of rules in order to be able to write once again. When, really, I just want to write the damn thing. But I can't, because I don't know how. How well and truly disorientating."
Although she quickly learned to build her own web pages, she wasn't sure she actually wanted to take it very far: "As a writer just beginning to think about the possibilities of hypertext. I am increasingly preoccupied by the notion that hypertext is essentially a visual art
(but) I'm a writer, and I've no desire to become a visual artist - writing is hard enough as it is!"
In contrast, learning web page design made poet Catherine Byron wonder whether perhaps she did want to become a visual artist. Working with trAce on the Poetry Society's scheme Poetry Places in 1999, she received training in Photoshop and was immediately seduced. "It was love at first sight for me with Photoshop. What a seductive combination - a flatbed scanner plus the potential for layering text over image
I want to eliminate text, with its inbuilt hierarchies and linearity."
Different tools suggest different ideas. For Kate, the hyperlink very aptly opened the door to the mechanics of new media writing. Her current fascination lies with that small piece of code which connects the web together - see her survey, 'What does the link mean to you?'. Catherine, on the other hand, is about to embark on a multimedia work using text and various types of glass, inspired by the materiality of the screen itself. Other writers have been enthralled by Flash, maps, GPS, traceroutes, email, 3D, MOOs, databases, chat, messaging, interactivity, multiplicity, and all kinds of multimedia.
Next month trAce will launch a survey to chart the process of movement from writing for print to writing for the web. We want to find out more about why and how writers move from print fiction to hypertext; from poetry to images; from screen-writing to Flash animations.
The survey will be followed early in 2003 with an online toolkit for writers new to the web and interested in exploring its potential. Right now, we are trying to decide what will go into it. It might contain advice on creating navigable hypertexts; common pitfalls beginners should avoid; examples of good practice; links to useful learning resources; systems for troubleshooting; suggestions for reading effectively online. There might be step-by-step guides, personal narratives of going online, and programming tips.
We'd like you to tell us what you think should go into the toolkit.
Your suggestions will be collected by trAce and used in our research and planning. We do not intend to publish them, although we might quote sections anonymously in the online toolkit. Thank you for your help.
- What would have been useful to you when you first started using the internet?
- What kind of software and hardware did you use and how did you learn them?
- What are the most important software applications; hardware; peripherals as far as you are concerned?
- Which web sites and publications have you found the most useful for technical information and support?
- What tips can you offer to writers starting to work on the web?
Mapping the Transition from Page to Screen
Kate Pullinger's journal
Catherine Byron's journal
Tools for Thought, by Howard Rheingold