Near the beginning of their article “Toward Modeling the Social Edition”, Siemens et al. note that “historically, the scholarly edition relied on […] the expertise of a single authority or editor at its helm – something almost immediately challenged by the provision of text in readily malleable, and ultimately re-combinable and redistributable form” (447). I am most compelled to question how this provision of the author as no longer being a scholarly expert (necessarily) or a single authority on the work in question, in terms of the past post-structuralist discussions of authorship. Most notably, Roland Barthes engaged this discussion with Michel Foucault. They both ask us to question what or whom exactly an author is, as well as the author’s role as a cultural figure and producer of knowledge in relation to the reader.
In a social edition, who is the authority on the text? Is it those who digitize the text? Annotate the text? Review the text? In the case of an open social edition, Barthes’ assertion that “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author” (“The Death of the Author”6) needs to be remixed, as many of the readers become authors in some form. Arguably, the social edition births a highly critical reader, as a reader is made automatically complicit in forming the text. In this way, the reader is engaged in an ontological presence with the digitized, virtual text that is actually more implicating than the material version of the same text. Rather than performing the spectator role, in which a reader passively views and internalizes a text, a social edition deems the reader as bystander, in which action can be taken for textual intervention and innovation. While both Barthes was arguing in the 1960s that a text is divorced from the person who creates it, and that a text is dynamic in that a reader shapes its meanings through their own experiences, a digital social edition pushes their argument out of abstraction and into a more tangible state: a reader is physically able to alter the public text in circulation. When we think of digital medium, we usually consider that it pushes things out of the tangible and into abstraction, but I think it may in fact ground a text as a more real and dynamic object than its alternative print version.
My last thought, though, is about the hidden author. The program author – those who produce the forum in which the text is made available, such as the database or website. While a publisher of a print text does choose the tools they will provide to navigate a book (i.e. table of contents, index), there are very few print tools that have been adapted to increase one’s research ability as the number of print books has accumulated. Books from the first century in print (check out Early English Books Online) have searchable technologies such as pagination and tables of contents, and they bear such strong resemblance to books of today, despite the exponential increase in the number of books available. The tools on a social edition, presented in a digital medium, are dynamic themselves and the indexing tools are so much more fluid in the digital realm. This begs the further question (and a very postmodern-minded problem): what is the relationship between form and text in a digitized space?