Reading and the new media revolution

beagley-thumb David Beagley
Email: d.beagley@latrobe.edu.au

 

First published on The Conversation on 22 November, 2012.

Authors and readers, authority and audience – all are in a state of transition.

Back in the 1960s, when computer programmers were still bending paperclips to punch holes in cards, and phone apps and blogging would be ideas that Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke could have dreamed up, the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that the initial form and content of a new medium simply matched the old medium it was replacing.

Very perceptive, given the explosion of online forms! We turn the pages of the “books” on our Kindles and iPads, and this article is a traditional, text-dense, literate construction from introduction to conclusion. As McLuhan went on to note, it takes time for a new medium to find out what it can do better than the old.

Movie-makers took a few decades to stop filming stage plays on a fixed set. When they realised cameras could move around, and learned about close-ups and pans, fades and hand-held, the medium came into its own.

In arenas of public and academic discourse the potentials of online features such as hypertext, embedded film and audio clips, animations and pop-ups are gradually being explored, but generally the default form of our e-texts is still the reproduction of the traditional paper version of days past.

We are still waiting for the revolution.

But the aspect of the “new” media that could offer the most challenge to our traditions of learned discourse is already firmly in place, slipping into acceptance so quickly we take it for granted: blogging and commentary.

Who’s who

It would seem obvious in our democratic world that anyone should be able to offer a point of view in a discussion – open and learned debate has been integral to academia since Plato and Socrates led their chat groups in ancient Greece.

But having and expressing an opinion is very different to making it public and actually having it heard. The current e-text default of traditional paper text form is not just a physical constraint for those texts: it also fails to recognise that the traditional roles of author, reader and editor are firmly in flux because of the possibilities in online discourse.

As an example of how this could play out, consider Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. This publishing phenomenon has catalysed the fan-site as an active element in children’s and young adult reading.

Meyer lists nearly 500 such groups on her own website and encourages their use. The thousands of participants integrate all the major “social media” forms in their sharing of thoughts, news and squealing: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on.

But one particular element raises an intriguing challenge – fan fiction.

Many Twilight fans, initially excited by the exotic human/vampire romance, were disappointed when Meyer kept Bella and Edward steadfastly chaste as the sequels rolled.

So they started writing their own versions and publishing them on the fan-sites. Nothing uncommon in that, except that now these amateur creations have immediate audiences of thousands all around the world who can comment, or rewrite endings, or introduce new characters, or start totally new episodes.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the phenomenally successful erotic novel by British author E. L. James, was developed from this fan fiction based on the Twilight series.

Very few of the rewritten or re-imagined works could be called “good” literature; it is mostly derivative, cliched and drips adolescent dreams. But what it does is blur the boundaries. Who is the author? Who is the reader? Who (most definitely!) is the editor?

Changing the story

Our concept of literary analysis for the past 50 years has been founded in the late American academic Louise Rosenblatt’s idea that meaning is created as a transaction between author, text and reader.

Each brings something from their place to the interaction, and each transaction creates valid meaning in its own way. So, if the new medium not only brings new physical ways to present its content, as McLuhan foresaw, but also challenges the very foundation of how it works, then the revolution is tapping on our shoulders.

If the author and the reader are the same, and the text is in constant flux (you blog your version, then I blog my changes, then Britte in Munich adds her bit, then Li in Beijing hers), how can we “judge” a work of literature?

How can it be considered a discrete “work” if it has multiple authors, multiple readers, and multiple versions?

Ilana Snyder of Monash University explained a key aspect of this quandary when she asked whether a computer game could be considered a narrative.

The traditional textual story is linear, providing a sequential arrangement of the narrative as a series of consequential events. It is a basic way of organising human experience which the reader/audience follows.

But computers are based on a database which, while it also organises human experience, instead offers a store of categorised possibilities from which the reader/audience/player can choose, to create an individual story.

Every player, therefore, can create and be both author and reader of the transient story. Each time they go into the “text” of the game, the story can be different.

Blurring the boundaries

The consequences of this role-blurring flows directly into formal academic discourse in the long-established insistence on recognised, peer-reviewed sources in everything from student essays, through research literature, to personal status and recognition.

Can a blog or discussion list be considered valid “literature” on an academic topic? The contributor might be a major voice in the field, who says exactly the same thing in an approved peer-reviewed article.

If that writer is a recognised authority, then what of the person who replies to them in the same blog? What if the conversation is between that authority and the student writing the essay – can the student cite themselves?

The back and forth of conversation is rapidly becoming the dominant form of online communication, replacing the single authoritative statement of the e-text that still models the traditional printed text.

The revolution of this new medium is not, therefore, in its physical form, as McLuhan considered with books and movies and concerts and recordings: it is going to be in its users – what they do and who they think they are.

This is the democratisation of the internet, blurring the boundaries of author and reader, authority and audience, expert and hopeful.

David Beagley is a lecturer in children's literature and literacy at La Trobe University.