Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing

My virtual meeting with Sam has prompted a meandering journey through a few websites dedicated to the stylish presentation of text. I thought I would note the links in one place: first, merely to note the trend; and second because it will aid discussions with colleagues over how to present our own literary content on the fantastic PEN Atlas.

First: Medium is a relatively new site created by Twitter founder Evan Williams. Writers can create beautiful looking stories and essays very quickly. The site has the clean and spacious aesthetic that has become fashionable recently. Design led by the need for readbility and usability on tablets, mobile phones, while also providing a reading experience on desktop and laptop monitors that is easy on the eye. I was delighted that my request for an early-bird account was granted by Medium’s Director of Content, Kate Lee, and I have just uploaded a story to the site to try out the composition features.

You can read ‘Northern Line Lovers‘ on Medium (and if you like the story, please hit the ‘recommend’ button below the text). I think I will post my other ‘Ficciones‘ there at some point. Continue reading “Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing”

Tap Essays: Native Internet Art

I enjoyed this short essay promoting Lauren Leto’s book. It’s honest and (I assume) true to the book it seeks to promote.

It’s also presented in an interesting manner, native to the digital world. I wonder if would be as engaging if it were on a couple of pages (either printed or HTML). Probably not.

This type of presentation is not new. Last year Robin Sloane created a ‘tap essay’ called Fish that was published as an iPhone app. Like Leto’s essay, there is no back button, which (according to this Wired review by David Dobbs) provokes the reader to read more closely.

I would say this is another type of native Internet art… although the tap essay format is analogous to picture books that have few words to a page, or stylised essays like Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Continue reading “Tap Essays: Native Internet Art”

Google Reader is Dead, Long Live RSS

Irritatingly, Google Reader is to be discontinued. It’s an RSS reader web app, which over the past few years has become a kind of industry standard. I use it to read blogs, but others fell in love with it as a social network. Many people have said that Google have made a huge mistake in sacrificing an organic social network in favour of the failing, centrally planned monstrosity that is Google+.

Despite the fact I use Google Reader a lot, I think it’s demise is probably a good thing. Within hours of the announcement there were plenty of posts published, telling me about alternatives like Feedly or Newsblur. And I was won over by Marco Armet (creator of the brilliant Istapaper) who said:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade. … It may suck in the interim before great alternatives mature and become widely supported, but in the long run, trust me: this is excellent news.

There is one more thing: Google Reader managed to force a large chunk of the RSS feeds through a single, cloud-based server run by a single company. This was bad. Many of the reading apps out there were not really RSS readers. They were just Google Reader readers!

If you have read any of the writings of Dave Winer (credited with inventing RSS), you will know that one of its virtues is that it is a decentralised tool for publishing. Anyone can publish a feed for their website (or for anything application or machine, it just needs to generate XML information about what it is doing). Anyone can subscribe to that RSS page. It makes no sense for an intermediary like Google to be in the middle of that relationship.

Torrent technology is similarly decentralised. Information is saved in multiple places at once, seeded my more than one person. Users connect directly with each other, unmediated by what a particular web company chooses to let you see or download.  These technologies are in the decentralised, democratising spirit of the Internet, of users communicating directly with each other, without interfernce from a Government or Corporate behemoth that monitors that communication, and imposes its own restrictions on what can or cannot be communicated.

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Enemies of the Internet

Enemies of the Internet

This week, Reporters Sans Frontiers published their 2013 Enemies of the Internet report.  It begins:

My computer was arrested before I was.“ This perceptive comment was made by a Syrian activist who had been arrested and tortured by the Assad regime. Caught by means of online surveillance, Karim Taymour told a Bloomberg journalist that, during interrogation, he was shown a stack of hundreds of pages of printouts of his Skype chats and files downloaded remotely from his computer hard drive. His torturers clearly knew as much as if they had been with him in his room, or more precisely, in his computer.

RSF names Bahrain, China, Iran, Syria and Vietnam as ‘State Enemies of the Internet’, the most prolific violators of online privacy.  But these countries do not design all their own surveillance technologies in-house.  Appallingly, it is US and Western European companies, including British firms, who create the tools these murderous regimes use to spy on their own people.  RSF names Amesys (France), Blue Coat (USA), Gamma International (UK, Germany), Hacking Team (Italy) and Trovicor (Germany) as corporate ‘Enemies of the Internet’.

These companies are emboldened in their dirty (but apparently, perfectly legal) work by the manoeverings by western Governments to seize greater control over the Internet.  The British Data Communications Bill, commonly known as the Snoopers Charter, proposed to give security agencies to monitor all e-mail and data communications.  For all those horrified at the abuse of online activists around the world, opposing the reintroduction of such legislation in our wn countries is a practical first step.

Read the full report ‘Enemies of the Internet 2013’ by Reporters Sans Froniers.

Courtstagram

Here is a photo of imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli at his verdict hearing yesterday morning in Baku, Azerbaijan.The photo was taken by his wife, Melahet Qisuri Zeynallı (via Rebecca Vincent).Avaz Zeynall court hearing

Photo of imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli at his verdict hearing this morning in Baku (Photo: Melahet Qisuri Zeynalli)

From the PEN International case list, (December 2012):

Zeynalli’s trial has been littered with controversies, including his defence attorney exiting the courtroom mid-trial over a row regarding the order of witnesses; a courtroom altercation with the prosecution’s chief witness, MP Gular Ahmadova; claims from Zeynalli that the evidence collected against him has been illegally obtained; and serious questions about his health while in prison.

I think this image is fasincating for two reasons.  First, a relative (not a journalist) was able to take the image of Zeynalli and broadcast it around the world.  This is a commonplace occurrence, of course, but we should never take it for granted.  In years gone by, Governments would have relied on the slow pace of cimmunication, and the distance between cities and countries, as cover for illiberal manoeverings.

Second, its noteworthy that the image has been ‘Instagrammed’ before upload!  The faded sheen to the image conveys an iconic status.  In the future, I wonder if people will use some kind of filter to make court-room photographs look like court-room sketches.

Astronauts Do The Coolest Things

Is there any organisation out there leveraging the Internet as effectively as NASA? Despite the loss of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, the agency seems to be winning hearts and minds through its confident and open use of social media.

Of course, NASA’s PR department is assisted by expensive, state funded machinery and the spectacular images it creates. But this does not tell the whole story. I think a large part of the organisation’s communications success is down to the creativity and personality of the astronauts themselves… and NASA’s comfort at letting their personnel broadcast to their earth-shackled audience directly. Continue reading “Astronauts Do The Coolest Things”

A Wikipedia Hoax

Infographic by Francesco Franci

It is often said that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved the Internet. The non-linear journeys we take, forking paths through the information, the near-infiinty of it all, are themes mirrored in his writing. I imagine his interest would have been piqued by the exposure of a hoax on Wikipedia.

From 1640 to 1641 the might of colonial Portugal clashed with India’s massive Maratha Empire in an undeclared war that would later be known as the Bicholim Conflict. Named after the northern Indian region where most of the fighting took place, the conflict ended with a peace treaty that would later help cement Goa as an independent Indian state. Except none of this ever actually happened. The Bicholim Conflict is a figment of a creative Wikipedian’s imagination. It’s a huge, laborious, 4,500 word hoax. And it fooled Wikipedia editors for more than 5 years.

Continue reading “A Wikipedia Hoax”

Two Great Pieces of Collaborative Internet Art

Ever since my intimate involvement with Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden, Internet-only art has been one of my recurring interests. Most recently, I noted the delightful xkcd cartoon that only really works properly online, using features available in computers. Art that is not simply a recording of a performance that took place in some place and time. Art that is not simply a scan or representation of something that exists on a wall or street corner somewhere. Art that you cannot experience anywhere but on a connected device. Art that could not have been created before the twenty-first century.

Here are two more examples, both extremely simple, both aesthetically pleasing on the surface, and both with an added beauty because of the collaboration that is inherent in their creation.

Continue reading “Two Great Pieces of Collaborative Internet Art”