In Autumn 2002 trAce conducted an online survey into the way writers used computers and the internet from 1991-2001. Part of our research project Mapping the Transition from Page to Screen, it was designed to chart the process of movement from writing for print to writing for the web and to define the creative skills and qualities common to writers moving towards writing for new media.
Whilst that movement is definitely happening, its pretty slow. Were talking tectonic plates rather than avalanches. Of the 397 writers from 28 countries who completed the survey, only 7% gave their primary genre as computer-based writing. The other 93% use computers and the web with huge enthusiasm and often a great deal of skill, but they are not primarily new media writers. They access the web to connect, collaborate and publish but even though 45% of them have their own websites, which many have built themselves, they have not extended their programming skills to making a hypertext or creating a Flash poem. They still think print, publication, paper.
So whats going on? Why so shy?
Our online respondents certainly know how to use the tools. As early as 1991, 17% of them were already using email, and since 1991:
- 96% have used word-processing software Word, WordPerfect etc
- 59% have used image-processing software PhotoShop etc
- 53% have used web-authoring software Dreamweaver etc
- 18% have used audio editing software CoolEdit etc
- 14% have used Flash
- 13% have used multimedia authoring software Director etc
- 7% have used server-side programming - .asp, .cfm etc
- 5% have used collaborative software Wiki etc
- 4% have used MOO programming available in 1991 but little known, and still apparently a well-kept secret.
They have also used a wide range of other applications and written their own programs from scratch. (see Survey Results for full list).
They are skilled in using the internet for collaboration. 136 respondents (34%) said they had worked online collaboratively with others during the period via a wide range of uses and environments. Many of these projects were quite lengthy, continuing for a year or more, and many collaborators worked together more than once. International projects were very common, and in a few cases respondents stated that the names of their collaborators were confidential and could not be revealed. Many saw themselves as collaborating when they had simply contributed work to an online project, but this seems to say something about the fact that they feel they are working together with others to make work even if this only means submitting a piece of writing rather than interacting over a period of time. Similarly, some editors who publish other peoples work on their own sites saw themselves as involved in collaboration with those writers, and some individuals collaborated with people who have no access to the web by putting their work online for them. Some had worked as professional online editors at corporate websites. A number of individuals who had taught online, or been students online, also saw themselves as involved in a collaborative relationship, especially when teaching or studying collaboratively. The very broad interpretation of the meaning of the word collaboration is evidenced in the range of projects described, many of which began as experiments:
- online performance in a public online space e.g. MOO or chat room usually coordinated by a group of performers, sometimes also inviting public involvement
- writing submitted by email or a web form, usually moderated or edited e.g. trAces Noon Quilt http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/quilt/
- collaborative production teams where the creative and coordination roles are distributed through the group
- co-writing and editing of print books using email to exchange manuscripts
- writing partnerships for workshopping and feedback
- working on projects together ezines, newsletters using email and live chat for meetings
- translation work
- mailart projects with multiple and diverse opportunities for collaboration a good example is Fatima Lasays Imaginero http://www.geocities.com/imaginero/mailart/ based in the Philippines
- pass-along stories where writers compose sections of stories and pass them on to others for development one respondent cited the example of Elfwood http://elfwood.lysator.liu.se/elfwood.html
- rule-based time limited projects, e.g., round robins etc
- group novels
- collaborative hypertexts for example Linda Carroli and Josephine Wilsons *water writes always in *plural http://ensemble.va.com.au/water/
Anecdotal evidence shows that the initial impetus to begin making new media writing often comes from an initial first exposure to the field. When M.D.Coverley attended a 1995 summer seminar organised at UCLA by Katherine Hayles, it turned out to be an intensely significant moment in her creative career. "We read the current texts, met every morning for lecture and discussion, spent afternoons working together on the computers, and whiled away evenings talking about how this field might function and develop. It was a transformative experience for me in so many ways. First, I came to know Kate and benefit from her deep understanding of literature and its manifestations in electronic media. Second, I was able to meet many people who have stayed in the field Stephanie Strickland, Joe Tabbi, Jaishree Odin, Paul Harris, Ellen Strenski and who I continue to work and collaborate with. Finally, I was able to organize the resources to conceive of the Califia hypertext as a concrete possibility and actually begin the work on it. The first screens of Califia were my 'project' for the summer."
Working with others also brings the opportunity to exchange skills and provide mutual feedback on content, programming and design. Elizabeth James, on a distance learning training attachment at trAce sponsored by the Poetry Society in 1999, also found that working with others provided both inspiration and support both during and since her training: "Several collaborative relationships have been extremely positive. Each has been a distinct experience, and offered different sense of potentials."
For writers interested in innovation and experimental techniques, new media offers a huge variety of experiences, but the path is not always an easy one. Not only does it take a while to learn the techniques, but the concepts dont necessarily sink in straightaway. Dan Gudgel, who was trained in situ in the trAce office in 1999, looks back on those days and says "It sounds awfully basic, but the realisation that the internet is a visual medium really took me some time. Coming at it from a pen and paper background, I was first trying to make a sort of 'book' online. And that was just deathly boring to me. If I wanted to make a book, all I needed was a photocopier and some staples. The realisation that I was tying my own hands to start with was, I think, the key moment of change. Once I started thinking of each page as a sort of painting that is also attempting to 'present' a poem, the pieces really started coming together a lot quicker."
I began this article by pointing out that adoption of new media writing seems to be rather slow, and asking "Whats going on? Why so shy?" The answer seems to reside in the difficult task of finding the correct mix of three quite different variables:
New media writing is often so materially different from conventional literature that it has to be seen and experienced before the possibilities can be understood. It takes time to acquire literacy in new media writing, just as it takes time to learn and appreciate the construction of a sonnet, or understand the conventions of a detective novel, or read the visual narrative of a film. And as with any art form, an awareness of the reader/audience experience is vital to effective reception of the work.
Successful use of the tools is essential to the making of successful works. Not only that, but an understanding of the potential of the medium facilitates collaboration. The writer might not be expert at writing HTML, but if they at least comprehend the mechanics of hypertext they can work with a programmer or designer to produce a joint piece. However this does not mean that we can afford to be complacent and allow someone else to do all the work. Technical skills develop much faster when the beginner is supported by knowledgeable people who help them work their way through difficulties rather than fix problems for them.
Most writers are not necessarily unsociable but they do tend to work alone and often enjoy being physically solitary. The web offers controlled contact with a worldwide community of support, advice and inspiration. Communities of interest provide easy access to technical resources like software downloads, help manuals, expert information and discussion groups. In addition, interactive and performative works require a fluency in the appropriate tools chat, message boards, MOOs etc. so it helps to be a regular user.
Any or all of the above can lead to the right chemistry for another new media writer to be born, but make no mistake, this pursuit is not for everyone.
To illustrate this, a story. In October 2002 I travelled to Los Angeles to interview new media writers and update myself on the current state of the art. On my days off I visited a few tourist attractions and of course I went to Hollywood. It was there that I engaged with another, earlier, transition.
Singin' in the Rain, made in 1952, was about Hollywoods own transition not from page to screen but from silent films to sound. In a scene about the making of an early talkie, The Duelling Cavalier, its clear from the start that the leading lady, already a star of the silents, just cant deal with the new technologies. Critic Tim Dirks writes "She is first instructed to talk directly toward a microphone hidden in a fake bush, and when that fails, an attempt to use a concealed microphone in the bosom of her low-cut dress is also a catastrophe - it only records her heartbeat. A third vain attempt is made to hide the microphone in a corsage on her shoulder, but the wires cause Lina to take a very unfeminine flip backwards when a visiting producer on the set trips over them."
Of course, Linas fate is sealed anyway because her whiney speaking voice is totally inappropriate for her glamorous appearance, and we know that even if she eventually copes with using the mike she still wont survive this particular transition. Her career is coming to a rapid end.
While I was in Hollywood I pondered upon this story, on the jeering laughter which greeted the early talkies with their inappropriate overblown acting styles imported direct from the silent films, their embarrassingly clunky technology, and the general lack of understanding within the industry itself about what was needed to make good films with sound. They didnt know how to make good talkies because nobody had ever done it, and so they had to learn. Nascent sound engineers and editors suddenly discovered their vocation. Dozens of actors and directors who had been unsuccessful in silent movies suddenly found a voice and a style which suited the new medium.
The situation with new media writing is not quite the same. I dont believe it will replace books in the same way that talkies replaced silent films and I dont even know if it is likely to survive in its current form probably not. But I do believe that it is already giving rise to a new sensibility which didnt exist before, with new kinds of artists and writers, and along with them new kinds of programmers, designers, directors and engineers.
At the Incubation 2002 Conference on Writing and the Internet, new media artist Paul Brown said he felt that already the old men of digital art (and he counted himself among them) were having to give way to new modes of thinking. The innovators had already become the traditionalists, he said. On the other hand, Leonardo editor Roger Malina recently wrote: "We are in the Stone Age of the digital arts, and it is likely that the future of the digital arts will have little to do with the digital and everything to do with the aesthetic and ethics that emerge from the new situation, just as the Renaissance was not about the technology of perspective but more about the new vision that emerged of the place of humans in nature and the future of human society."
In the same way, Hollywood was not about the technology of celluloid, and our networked society is not about the technology of hypertext.
Our survey into the way writers use the internet, reported here, was devised to attempt to answer the question "How can writers who are only using the medium for distribution and communication be brought to work with artists and writers who are using it as a new form of expression?" With hindsight, I realise now that this was Stone Age thinking.
The fact is that the above question is irrelevant. In actuality, these two groups are much further apart than I had at first thought. I had imagined there to be a continuum of learning but really the issue is about something much more fundamental. Its about how we perceive the world, about what satisfies us in terms of narrative, about the pleasure we do or dont take in the programmed and networked environment that computers have given us, and about how we determine our own creative interactions with the technology. Just as sound recordists could not have existed before the microphone, so maybe new media writers could not have existed until now. And just as painters and photographers are generally different animals, so too perhaps are novelists and hypertextualists. And although the two may cross over, there is no clear line of transition between Spanish guitar players and digital music mixers, so why should there be one between print and new media writers?
Thus, I end with a new question, one to be pondered upon by those who have started making or reading new media writing and been defeated by its complexity, as well as those who have developed a proficiency in its reading and making. I have asked it of several people already and I will continue to ask it because this is now, I believe, the core question. Its not about transition at all. And it may not be about writing, although I continue to use that term for the sake of discussion. Its about a new sensibility:
If a painter needs a good eye, and a musician needs a good ear, what qualities are necessary for a new media writer?
Link to Survey results
Link to previous survey
Link to guide
Link to toolkit
Links to sites mentioned in article:
Singin' in the Rain
Survey responses to follow in the coming months:
Q: Please describe any key positive and/or negative moments in your use of the web related to writing.
Q: Has working online affected your interactions with your peers, publishers and editors in the print world? If so, how?
Q: Please tell us about your personal relationship with technology. Feel free to reminisce and be as anecdotal as you like.