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Announcement: Definition of Online Reading

A full definition of online reading—of its range, structure, technologies, practices, innovations, and problem areas—will be the final outcome of the Transliteracies Project. (By 2010, the project will produce “framework of online reading” that blueprints the research development plans, recommendations for best practices, and implementation and evaluation procedures for an integrated range of technological, social, and humanistic approaches to “improving” online reading. (See Project Plan). But along the way to a full definition, Transliteracies will periodically post a brief working definition of its current understanding of the scope of the problem (arrived upon in the course of project research and meetings). This working definition will be revised as needed, and the history of revision may be read as the record of the evolution of the project’s thinking on the topic.

Working Definition of “Online Reading” (v. 1.0, January 7, 2006)

“Online reading” may be defined as the experience of “text-plus” media by individuals and groups in digital, networked information environments. The “plus” indicates the zone of negotiation—of mutation, adaptation, cooptation, hybridization, etc.—by which the older dialogue among print, writing, orality, and audiovisual media commonly called “text” enters into new relations with digital media and with networked communication technologies. Aspects of this “plus” include:

1. The negotiation between technology and usage to create a material practice of reading, where “material practice” indicates the necessarily blended realms of technology and human experience. Just as historians of the book have detailed the relation between the invention of printing and the way people communicate, think, and live, so future historians of “online reading” will need to study contemporary innovations in both technology and usage.

  • Toward the technological side of the continuum, specific topics of interest include: hardware inventions for the fixed or portable display of text, networked transmission technologies, search and browsing technologies, human factors interface (HFI) innovations, text-encoding or “markup” innovations (e.g., XML and TEI), graphic design innovations.
  • Toward the usage side of the continuum, specific topics of interest include: browsing, searching, scanning, jumping, filtering, aggregating, organizing, and other kinds of discontinuous, low-attention, peripheral-vision, or machine-assisted reading practices that only partially map over predecessor practices of literacy. But also: new ways to focalize or intensify reading among the clutter (as in the ability of RSS and similar tools to create a virtual “my newspaper”).

    2. The negotiation between individual and social practices of reading. Networked, digital environments not only alter the way an individual reads with the enhancement of a standalone computer, PDA, or cell phone; it also brings back into prominence the historically important social, collective dimension of reading (as instanced by Web blogs or the Google search-engine technology that filters hits according to popularity or relevance in a community of referring Web pages). Specific topics of interest include:

  • The formation and conduct of geographically distributed social groups at various levels of scale on the Internet based on such means as email, listservs, blogs, social-networking Web sites, and so on.
  • The currently underdeveloped technologies and practices for reading online together at a single location, as in a classroom.

    To some extent, the problem of online reading and social groups is shadowed by a technological facsimile of that problem: the pseudo-community of machines reading autonomously from each other across platforms and applications through the XML-based technologies that underlie the new online text archives, “Web services,â€? and RSS newsreaders.

    3. The negotiation between media. “Text” has historically existed as a negotiation between media, including oral, written, print, visual, and from the nineteenth-century on, electronic media. Currently, it is a constitutive element in the age of “multimedia” at both the level of displayed communication (as in the intermediation of text, graphics, and animation on a Web site) and of underlying code. Specific topics of interest include:

  • The reconfiguration of text in relation to audio, graphic, and tactile (haptic) elements in contemporary information design.
  • The way that changing standards of “information literacy,” artistic practice, and even hacking are altering the relation between reading the intended communicational “content” and reading at the level of source code (literacy as code literacy, or code as itself an evolving media form).

    4. The negotiation between historical and contemporary reading practices. As indicated by such terms as “page,” “scroll,” “list,” or “index” as applied to the World Wide Web, online reading necessarily recalls historical reading technologies and usages even as it evolves those material practices. No research into contemporary online reading, therefore, is possible without considering the interplay between inherited conventions and recent inventions, expectations and improvisations. The currently vigorous “history of the book” and “print culture” fields—along with the newer field of “media archaeology”—are necessary adjuncts to the exploration of online reading.