Wk6: Reading Up on Digital Text

His lyrics make more sense when read from the end anyway

The digital age has changed the way we perceive the world on all levels – especially the small ones. In recent years, the rise of live updating (or live-blogging) using tech like Twitter has become the fashion. But isn’t it all a little, um, upside down?

Take Gizmodo’s recent Verizon iPhone live blogging event (link). It works well when you follow it at the time, but an odd thing occurs when you read them after the fact. You have to start at the last page, and work backwards – and upwards – back to the front page.

In short, the timeline of events moves in the opposite direction to what we’ve been used to for centuries.

If I want to read about that Verizon launch as it unfolds, I’d have to start from the finish. Even if I take a break and come back, I have to start again on page 3 or something, and work my way back to page 1.

Does anyone else find this odd? Or have we already adapted to a new way of reading?

In modern English, text flows in a pre-defined, accepted way. Along the right, then down. To follow the text along time, you simply follow this flow.

Live updates (like this one) don’t. It flows right, then down a line or two, then UP. We have broken that flow.

Once you notice this, you will see it everywhere. My Facebook wall and Twitter updates also read “backwards”. Yes, those events are less connected.

And then blogging as a whole. New articles are at the top of the page, pushing everything down. People who discover list blogs like Stuff White People Like (link) will start at #132, not #1.

Comments can also work this way (although some don’t). But when you start wading into comments on some sites, you’ve started midway through a conversation, like at 9to5mac (link). And of course, Forums are built on this format.

The UK newspaper The Guardian does handles live blogging the same way – new posts jump to the top – but then flip them when the event is over. Check out the recent One Day International coverage (link) and see how easy it reads. They’ve spotted the problem and have tried to solve it.

Of course, we write this off as just kind of how it works. HTML (and all other web languages) loads from the top. It reads the code and unfolds it down the page. When you load any site, the default is you start at the top. And it’s taken as given that we want to see the newest info first.

But there is an alternative. One that most people are familiar with. One that works differently to webpages, and reads well both during-the-event and after-the-event. And it’s not an obscure thing – it’s ubiquitous.

It’s every chat program.

Let’s look at the popular Facebook chat function. It pushes old text UP. New messages are slotted in BELOW what’s been said before. It causes no confusion. It really is just a scrolling issue.

Another idea, perhaps more feasible, is a simple sort function for micro-blogging. Sort-recent and sort-date? Or perhaps someone will make an app that natively scrolls up as part of it’s environment. There are some ideas out there.

The latest version of Safari has an excellent “reader” function. With one click, any page that looks like an article can be altered. The main article pops up in a light-box (with easy to read black text on white), every side bar and banner ad fades to the background. Better still, articles split over several pages are one easy-to-read scroll. Safari can identify text and put it in order and make it look readable. So we are almost there.

Your computer screen is not a page – it’s a window. And you can move that window in any direction. Sure, there are technical limitations. They probably have to rewrite HTML from scratch. But the internet wasn’t built by bolting on new ideas to the old. It’s about visions that smash the old to bits.

Is it even a problem though?

It seems we are coping with this change without to much trouble. References to old articles for new readers can be easily linked. Personally, I find it easy to ignore and scroll past recent articles if I want to read from the start.

I don’t think technology itself can kill off any form of expression. But take something like serialised fiction. Or daily comic strips – those legendary Calvin & Hobbes adventures that would last for days. We either find a new way to sort, or their creators find a new way to express.

Either way, this low level dissonance can’t last. The note will have to resolve itself.

The way we are reading has changed over the centuries. And the fundamental way we read, and the text flow, is evolving right now. Question is – do we let technology dictate how we read, or do we come up with a better way?

Examples of “broken flow” articles – http://live.gizmodo.com/http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1353734/Wolves-v-Manchester-United-live.html

Corrected “broken flow – http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/feb/02/australia-england-odi-live

The wonderful Stuff White People Like blog – http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/

The excellent 9to5mac blog, with it’s silly complicated comments system – http://www.9to5mac.com

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