The Social Edition and the Reader

Our introduction to digital humanities began with a discussion of early forms of digitization, namely the shortcomings of microfilm and early electronic scholarly editions. Most of us had misgivings about the way digitization privileges content over materiality and may ignore the diversity of material instances of a printed text. I was particularly interested in Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland’s suggestion that digitization freezes a material object in time because the marks of use are rendered invisible (Transferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print, 2009: p. 146). This early portrayal of digitization as static is in contrast to the dynamic, democratic social edition described by Siemens et al. in their article “Toward Modeling the Social Edition”. Almost all of us have responded in some way to the idea that the social edition is dynamic, “text is fluid, agency is collective” (Siemens et al. 453). This fluidity influences the way research is undertaken and leads us to question the suitability of the social edition to “serious” academic endeavors. I think that Laura’s reflection on democratized “citizen scholarship” is a really open-minded reflection on one of these issues.

I am really drawn to Sydney’s observation that the social edition calls for a new kind of readership and her suggestion that the digital text, rather than alienating the reader with its lack of “physicality”, may in fact “ground a text as a more real and dynamic alternative print version”. Certainly, the social edition engages us in new ways that require a rethinking of the role of reader (as well as author). I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s decree that “the medium is the message” (and rather unfortunately of a Professor who repeated this, often completely out of context, in almost every one of his undergraduate lectures). McLuhan considers print media to require linear, sequential thinking, while electronic media (film, radio, tv) encourages more simultaneous, organic thinking that engages other viewers of that media and other forms of media.  The characterization of the social edition as “network” (Siemens et. al. 453) takes the organic and simultaneous to another level. As Sydney points out, the reader is “implicated” in unprecedented ways. I’m no expert on McLuhan, or media studies, but I think we can take something from the idea that different media call for different forms of interaction and fulfill different roles in terms of our consumption. Just as we cautioned in class that the term “digital library” is misleading, we should remember that a social edition is not a book, at least not as we know it, and demands that we read it differently.

I was initially skeptical of digitization for fear of its replacement of the type of reading and research that I so enjoy. Now, I’m not so convinced that we have to choose. Phew.

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One Response to The Social Edition and the Reader

  1. Chloe says:

    My initial qualms with digitized texts such as the Social Edition of the Devonshire MS stemmed from my assumption that the social edition assumed some kind of superiority over the print edition. For that reason, I think this emphasis you are making on digitized texts as completely different from print text (rather than simply a reproduction), that demands to be read differently, is extremely important.
    I agree with your conclusion here, that we don’t necessarily “have to choose” between the various ways in which we research because of digitization. Stuff like this “bookless library” still freak me out though!

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