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September 12, 2003

The Web - It's Not Just For Snippets Any More

A common lament about the Web is that it favors briefer chunks of writing, that it doesn't support the rigorous development of a thesis. That web readers just "scan" over articles, and don't really engage with subject matter.

This is patently untrue. And it's nice that I only have to point to one contradictory example that demonstrates the fallacy.

Last week I wrote about Landscapes of Capital, a website that takes a semiotic approach to "reading" advertising campaigns for high technology and finance. In the previous post, I discussed my appreciation of the site's content. Here, I'll address some of the formal aspects of the site, and why I think it's a bellwether of both academic and Web discourse.

From what I've seen, academia has been regrettably slow to embrace the Web. Since I've been writing this blog, I've conducted research that regularly carries me into the ".edu" domain. And by-and-large, what you see are web versions of print essays, with little to no attempt to capitalize on the Web's multimedia or hypertextual capabilities. From what I gather, students and professors have little external incentive to publish *for* the Web, so, understandably, their efforts focus on journals and books, media recognized by The Establishment as worthwhile.

This means that academics must look within for motivation, to realize that the Web is the optimal medium for presenting their ideas, and to hell with whether or not it helps them get tenure. And the authors of Landscapes of Capital, Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, and Noah Kersey, do this admirably.

Some elements of the website, and why they're important.

The heart of the site are the commercials under analysis. I've taken enough film classes to have the experience of reading books about film, which might include stills, but are frustrating because you can't watch the scene under discussion. Landscapes of Capital allows readers to see the ads in the context of their analysis.

It's also fantastic that the entire corpus of video upon which this analysis rests is made available through "the database.". Offering source material means others can conduct their own deconstruction. (Unfortunately, the interface to the database is abysmal. Too bad it's not browseable through Flamenco.)

Amount of Material
There are something on the order of 185 distinct pages on the site, suggesting that the size of manuscript is akin to that of a published book. This flies against the convention that the Web is better for brief material. And I can tell you that reading this stuff is not taxing -- the combination of words, images, and video kept me engaged for pages on end -- I probably spent a good hour or so when I first came across it.

One thing I find refreshing is that, at least as of yet, the authors haven't sought to turn this into a book, which, I would imagine, would be more lucrative for them. Their job, I guess, is just to publish this kind of material. They're paid to do so by their universities, so how cool is it that they've done so in a way that others can benefit for free?

It also made me realize that if they had "only" 85 pages worth of material, a web site would make even *more* sense, because manuscripts that brief are insufficient to warrant the printing of a book. (And are too long to be a chapter in a collection.)

Hypertext and Navigation
The authors took advantage not only of the multimedia capabilities, but also of the hypertextual possibliities. While there is a core linear path through the material, there are a variety of ways to approach the work differently. The "Map" presents the main sections in a circle, suggesting that there's not necessarily an appropriate order, and encouraging exploration.

Other pages feature associative linking. In Decontextualized Labor, the picture of the hard hat and the briefcase link to the "signifying clusters" page about work, which presents a series of signifiers and their meanings.

The promise of hypertext notwithstanding, I found this hierarchical index the most helpful tool for getting around the site.

Still, It Could Be Better
This is an excellent attempt at hyperlinked multimedia. How could it be improved?

Some usability would help. The text buttons on the left side of the home page ("About This Project", "About the Icons", etc.), don't take you to a new page when clicked, which is expected. They change the text in the paragraph below the main picture. It took me quite a while of clicking on "About the Authors" to realize what was going on.

More intertwingling. The aforementioned linking to signifying clusters turns out to be a rare use of the associative link. This material screams out for such interconnectedness in it's authorship.

Recognizing the outside world. I don't think there are any links to any resources outside of the purview of this project. Doubtless there are other resources, be they source material, analyses, glossaries, or whathaveyou, that could help extend what is being discussed here. Similarly, this is the kind of site that's begging for annotation through some form of discussion boards.

But, In All, It's Pretty Great
One of my recurring laments is that there hasn't been a Web project that measures up to the best CD-ROMs that were produced by The Voyager Company. For me the standard-bearer is Who Built America? , which was little more than a multimedia history textbook. But it was so smartly produced, and the source material (text, audio, and video) was so rich, that it really showed the promise of the medium.

Now, it's clear that the Web hasn't really developed a solid business model to emulate what we had with CD-ROMs back in the day. (Frankly, CD-ROMs didn't have a really solid business model, but that's a separate story). Which suggests that until people are willing to pay for deep, rich, thoughtful content, it will be up to the academics and others who are "funded" to forge new ground in Web-based informative discourse. Landscapes of Capital might be the first site I've seen to suggest the promise that we began exploring 10 years ago on CD-ROM. I hope this isn't an aberrant blip, but truly a step forward.

Some Googling turned up the Who Built America? CD-ROMs. I hadn't realized a second one had been completed; it's disappointing that it's not a website.

Who Built America? was produced by the American Social History Project, whose site has resources worth clicking around.

I was also lead to the Center for History and New Media, a promising program out of George Mason University, with links to all kinds of interactive history presentations.

My primary frustration with all these sites is consistently poor usability for the sake of doing something "different". Let's innovate where appropriate, okay?

Oh, and it looks like Bob Stein has reclaimed "". And that Learn Tech, who owned the Voyager brand, is now out of business. I'm curious as to what will happen next.

Posted by peterme at September 12, 2003 04:28 PM

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In the vein of academics and their reticence to publish on the web, I have to inject a little endorsement for the work and spirit of a couple of members of the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, in which I study.
Mesoamerican archaeologist, Dr. Rosemary Joyce, and two of her colleagues created the experiment "Sister Stories" ( which allows the reader to engage with archaeological, fictional, or Aztec textual narratives in a non-linear environment that suggests an alternative to our standard academic voices.
Dr. Ruth Tringham, with the ample assistance of many graduate and undergraduate students, and faculty colleagues, has constructed the Multimedia Authoring Center for Teaching in Anthropology on Berkeley campus and on the web at Michael Ashley Lopez, the technical mind behind most of "Mactia"s web presence, is updating the site while I write this, which makes the links tricky but promises juicy new content over the next few days.
My point here is that academics who choose to look are finding funding for their multimedia and web-based projects, which often involve a classroom aspect. We'll soon be getting wi-fi all over the ivory tower.

Posted by: StacyK at September 13, 2003 01:51 PM

I've also found some academics to be pretty uninterested in the web. Other than those who want to use "multimedia" as a way to dig up grant money, many academics are basically distrustful of sharing information outside the traditional structures of conference, seminar, and publication. I wish that more people--like my wife--would write about their ideas in blogs. Half-formed guesses and off-the-cuff speculations about a topic might at least help find others in one's field. Wanting to do that is offset by copyright concerns, unfortunately. (Even though I would think that a blog would be a great way of proving exactly when one came up with a certain idea, maybe even better than a journal publication given the huge publishing lag times.)

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