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

30 for 30: Blogs

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

30. BLOGS

 

Kraftwerk live - you just know one of them is blogging

I have spent half my life making websites on the web.

I love what has come to be called “blogs”. I’ve been with them ever since they started – GeoCities, blogspots, tumblrs, wordpress, livejournals and all.

I know a lot of people are on the fence when it comes to this brave new world. At worse, it’s narcissistic indulgence. But I like it. And either way – it’s a big part of our culture now. Our stories are now on public record.

I started ‘blogging’ in 1996, with a GeoCities website. It mainly focussed on my obsession with comics. I became a part of the online community for the Legion Of Super-Heroes, my favourite comic at the time. I looked after a chronological timeline of these fictional heroes. I also did a complete annotation on the Batman mini-series The Long Halloween. Basically, I was a comic nerd who expressed his interest. And I met a few nice people too.

My interests changed to music, and so did my website. I started simply listing bands and posting photos of various things. It was so crude it’s ridiculous. Eventually, I decided the Australian band You Am I were my favourite band. My website became a shrine to both them and me – and renamed “You Am I And Me”. It started me on another journey completely.

The internet was very exciting at this time, especially if you had very particular interests. I jumped straight into the music online scene – webrings, fansites, newsgroups and more. Someone would decide to devote themselves to a band and create a page. Lyrics, photos, tabs and more.

You Am I were a big band and there were several other fan sites at the time – I thought I’d just be one of them. I did work hard on mine, in the way a teenage kid might customise their car. Pretty soon I was transcribing articles and scanning in CD single artwork. I think I did a pretty good job.

And the other You Am I websites fell away. It’s a continuing theme – dead sites. And I just kept at it. Newer You Am I sites started and fell away as well. Eventually, I decided to make it more seriously. Paul Stipack, who ran the fantastic Oz Music Central, and I made a deal. I would take some of his You Am I work and create the new You Am I Central.

My story with You Am I is for another time. But the You Am I site led me to meet the band, and the band officially endorsed me. It was something I became known for in the Australian music scene. I was also the common person for a whole country’s worth of You Am I fans.

It’s an amazing thing, in retrospect, that my little blog – of a lonely nerdy kid in suburban nowhere, Sydney – became somebody to some people. Just by putting myself out there with what I loved. And I got to meet people with the same interests. That You Am I website launched me out of being a nobody into the world of the Australian music scene.

Websites were very basic back then. I started with various wysiwyg editors – culminating in the long forgotten HotDog 4. But I also learnt how to do it all the HTML stuff from scratch. In my prime, I could make amazing websites with just a text program.

I also taught myself some javascript. I became very efficient at photoshop. No one taught me, I just spent hours in front of a computer. And instead of playing games, I made stuff. I made websites.

I developed a style and a sense of what I liked and what I didn’t like. For example – I still hate flash. Flash sites are all looks and no content. It’s graphic designers taking over – not people with something to say. Maybe it’s the Scott McLoud learning – just because it’s visual doesn’t mean it has to be just graphics.

I also read a lot of design blogs – the best being Jeffrey Zeldman. The man is a true internet pioneer, but I guess he might be considered old-school now. But there was a real movement there – the world of web standards and cross compatibility. Was a time you had to create a site for Netscape and other browser users would be damned.

I’ve not kept up my skills. I don’t have the time. I would come home from school and type code for 6 hours. I don’t have time to do that anymore. I can still make a decent website. But I lost it with php and mysql – database tables essentially. It’s the new backbone of the web, and I’ve lost the touch.

I maintained a personal page throughout this time (called Pop-aghanda), hidden away in the You Am I site somewhere. The internet was big news, and my work as getting recognition. I appeared on Triple J, age 17, talking about You Am I and then being the guest on a webchat with ‘fans’. The Australian Sound and Film Archive got in contact and asked for my permission to archive the site for historical importance.

People started to ask me about doing work for them. The only people I wanted to work for was Ivy League Records – my favourite Sydney label at the time. I volunteered to do their website and did so for a couple of years. It led to more contacts and more involvement in the music world. Along with working at a record shop and a radio station, websites became my way of contributing to music.

I would help other sites all the time. I would review and scan in rare CDs I had for other sites. I was more than happy to answer people’s html questions if I could.

I think of that generation of web creators and think – we were just obsessed kids. Instead of drawing guitars in our schoolbooks, the web let us make something that could be seen by others. With no recourse too. I could put anything I wanted online, and the only people who would find them are people with similar interests.

That era, the turn of the century, rise of the fanpage. Someone needs to write that story down. Maybe it’s too recent, but it’s a hell of a story.

You Am I and Ivy League fell away for me as well. I handed the reins over to others. Popaghanda died a slow death (although I have it archived somewhere – and it has my top ten albums of 1999 as an article). I had started my own band, and my web publishing and graphics skills concentrated on that.

I’m not sure if anyone is really monitoring trends for the web. For me, it seems there was an era where the web tried to be serious. After years of flashing graphics, clip art and fluoro colours – it seems like the web was starting to be a serious thing. Every small business got websites, and they couldn’t look like a 17 year old’s blog. Domain name costs plummeted, and a generation of web designers graduated and got to work.

Then there was MySpace, who took over a lot of what GeoCities and the like stood for. Free, easily formatted and easily linked – MySpace gave people an easy online identity. But MySpace was limited, even though it had a blog feature – some people want more than an identity.

Which was me. Having always written online, made lists and just basically being a self centred modern man – I needed something more than MySpace. So I started Gluing Tinsel To Your Crown, a random writing blog.

The design aspect of blogging has taken a backseat – at least for me. It’s to easy to use templates, and most of them are quite pretty. I know I can pay a bit more – get a domain name, take charge of the designs. But then I would be a ‘blogger’, and I have nothing against that – I just have a lot of other things to be first.

What has changed is what I write about – and how I approach it. I read a lot of blogs, and surf them randomly too. I know a lot about what I don’t like about blogs. Reactionary pieces. Repeating links and nothing else.

So, I approach blog writing with a philosophy. Yet another McLoud-ism comes into play – write like everyone you know is dead. I’m starting to get these long, loosely connected essays down. Writing in columns – like this 30 for 30 thing – also works, I think. Personally, I don’t like graphics to get in the way, and I like my text big and readable.

So ends 30 for 30. It’s back-to-basics blogging for me. Putting myself out there. Starting conversations. Keeping a record. Friends who have read an entry or two have taken time to talk to me about it, if it suits their interests.

I often ask people about what they write on their blogs too. It’s a give and take. All the links on the right are friend’s pages – and well worth checking out. Blogging isn’t for everyone, but I would love to see more people I know expressing themselves. If you have a blog and I’ve not included you, please let me know.

The annual top 10 albums of the year will follow in December, and a new writing project starts next year.

Leaps And Bounds started in 2005, ostensibly a travel blog, named after the Paul Kelly song. After what I learnt from Douglas Adams, I became a fan of blogging for bloggin’s sake. After mucking about with blogspot and then tumblr, before finally settling into wordpress.

I flirted with other things. An online version of my old paper zine (Strum) or my technology blog (Great Leap Forwards). But I realise I don’t have an agenda to push anymore – I’m not making websites for single bands. I’m writing to write.

Blogging technology has became pretty great as well. It was really easy to merge in previous blogs, even from other services. Now Leaps And Bounds is a happy little log of the last five years.

It’s not the last five years that’s interesting. It’s the next 30. It’s the fact that I’ve lost my very first few blogs, but I don’t think that’s possible now. This record will exist for all time.