Question 5: Users and Interface

Digital writing and publishing not only has to take into account readers as end users, it also has to recognise their potential in an open and dynamic dialogue. How should we tap into the potential for readers to respond, improve upon, and change the process of publishing and editing as interfaces and platforms develop? In what ways do we need platforms to change to make reader engagement possible?

First contributor:

Niamh Thornton

Respondents:

Kirsty Hooper

Tori Holmes

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4 thoughts on “Question 5: Users and Interface

  1. This is very thoughtful and raises important issues around user agency. I especially like your engagement with fan studies and the concept of re-mediation, which, as you say, inherently disrupts the linear flow of knowledge (knowledge transfer?!). Looking at the original question, I was struck by the contrast between the header (‘Users and interface’) and the text, which switches ‘users’ for ‘readers’. Niamh, you asked elsewhere whether we should be rethinking our core terms, as concepts such as ‘data’ and ‘archive’ have become so elastic, and I think I would add ‘reader’ to that list.
    A reader of an electronic text doesn’t just read – if the platform is right, they can edit, annotate, modify, critique, explain, share, interpret, re-interpret and, as you say, re-mediate. Engaging with an electronic text can, if the platform permits, be a multidimensional, collaborative experience that thanks to the magic of metadata, records its own traces through space and time.

    This multivocal, collaborative space is perhaps our most productive means of challenging the persistently linear model of knowledge transfer and its unloved progeny, the ‘impact agenda’. Those of us who navigate the muddy waters of commercial interfaces and social media know that these spaces aren’t just about disseminating our research, or transferring it to the fortunate few, although many of us certainly do that too (old habits die hard!). They can be real spaces of engagement, places for exploring, sharing, debating or inviting ideas, and for exposing ourselves to the networks in which knowledge circulates outside the academy. As you say, their value in demystifying the research process and making failure visible is immense. My experience of using Facebook as part of a community history project has been a revelation in this sense. While the original project was a conventional academic study that I planned to disseminate to my lucky audience (!), community engagement has grown it into a shared space in which diverse forms of knowledge circulate, drawing on multiple archival, linguistic and cultural sources. This collaborative process of reading, writing, sharing and discussion has transformed the way I understand my role as an academic researcher. It meant letting go of ‘my’ research in ways I still don’t fully understand, but it has also turned it into something living, ranging far beyond my individual field of vision.

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  2. Thanks to Niamh for the initial contribution, and to Kirsty for setting the ball rolling on the comments.

    I would like to add to the discussion on terminology by noting that as well as users and readers, the term audiences (plural) also recurs in Niamh’s post. Could we throw viewers into the mix too (of images and videos), and even listeners (e.g. of podcasts)? Given the multimedia nature of much digital content, we ought to also remember that as well as texts per se, academics are also involved – or could be involved – in generating audiovisual material as another alternative format for disseminating our ideas. For example, this can include video interviews and research summaries in video format, but also the (co)production of documentary films of various kinds. There is also media work, of course – participation in the media output of others, which is a longer-standing interface for academics.

    In all of these endeavours, it is worth thinking about two things:
    1) skills – what skills do we need and how do we acquire them? There are of course an increasing number of training courses on offer, to PhD students and to academic staff, on how to use social media (not to mention handbooks, websites, and so on). Do they prepare us adequately for this engagement with multiple users and interfaces? What sensitivities do we need to acquire in undertaking such work, and how do we best do this?
    2) workload and research assessment/evaluation – how do we manage the time we spend on this type of work, in an age of multiple demands (and make a case for its importance), and how do we ensure that we make it visible alongside our other outputs and activities, in our own profiles and in how these are assessed by others? (This also relates, albeit only indirectly, to the questions Niamh raised in her initial post about appropriate platforms for making available published academic work.)

    I liked Kirsty’s account of her use of Facebook in her community history project and noted her use of the verb ‘circulate’. It brought to mind things I have read on the unpredictability and uncontrollability of digital circulation, whether of academic work or other types of content. This unpredictability can be potentially very positive, but can also be more complicated and problematic. David Beer has developed work on ‘Public geography and the politics of circulation’ which might be useful to us in thinking about all of this. To quote the abstract: ‘this piece suggests that in order for academic researchers to make the most of the communicative potential of new media, they might need to also work towards a detailed understanding of the politics of data circulations to which their ideas will be exposed. Alongside this, the article suggests that we will need to prepare ourselves as our research takes on a life of its own.’ This takes me back to the point on skills and sensitivities I made above. How do we develop this understanding of circulation, and how do we prepare for engaging with its unpredictability? Some of us are already engaged in this process, of course, but it might also be something that we, as modern linguists working with digital technologies, can contribute to our discipline, along with the code of ethics for a digital modern languages suggested by Claire in her response to my post on modern languages and digital ethnography. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this!

    References
    Beer, D., 2013. Public geography and the politics of circulation. Dialogues in Human Geography 3, 92–95.

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  3. P.S. Niamh, on the subject of disruption, see here:
    http://explore.tandfonline.com/cfp/ah/journal-of-media-practice-disruption

    “Although media practice as a field and community embraces a plurality of media, the materiality of its scholarly forms of production and communication remain predominantly text-based. How then, can a journal of media practice extend from a speculative focus on what media practice as research could be, to an exploration of the alternative forms of communication and circulation it could enable?

    This special issue— guest edited by the Centre for Disruptive Media and Disruptive Media Learning Lab — will experiment with how media practice, in rethinking research as practice, could also disrupt the way we mediate this research through various formal and informal scholarly forms (including the academic journal).

    Three central questions will be posed:

    – How is media practice disruptive of and re-performing the way we do scholarly communication and education?
    – How can JMP reconfigure (the politics of) its own practice?
    – What should a disruptive ‘journal’ of media practice look / sound / feel like?”

    Timely!

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