Hidden Narrative: The Text behind the Text

In her most-recent blog post, Margaret explores the impact of coding and hypertext on our understanding of text and language. Her experience is very similar to my own, in that I had extremely limited knowledge of HTML, or any kind of mark-up language, before working on the JOH project. In fact, my only exposure to HTML prior to our project was the very small amount I had to learn in order to do some slightly fancier things on myspace (I’m revealing my age here…). After proofreading and validating many pages of our  JOH social edition, I became acutely aware of the mechanics of online text. Whereas previously I took text at face value, my awareness to the ‘text behind the text’ has been heightened. This new awareness has brought me to ask some questions about the relationship between text and ethics.

I think it is fair to say that many internet users have a limited knowledge of coding, and the ways in which it operates. This leads to a situation where there is a kind invisibility, or at least lack of understanding or attention paid to, the text behind the text. With the onset of wikisource, wikipedia, and all of the various socially oriented databases, users are becoming more adept in the mechanics of code. Thus, while it is not situation that online text is invisible to all, due to a certain lack of knowledge, and perhaps ignorance in some cases, it is not visible/accessible to everyone. Of course, coding is a skill that can be learned, but we cannot assume that is broadly understood by internet users. With such lack of understanding in mind, how does this impact on the politics of online text?

Jerome McGann’s response to Ed Folsom’s article on database poses these kinds of questions. McGann points to the important role of “aggregators” for the sea of data that is now available online; however, he draws particular attention to the constructed nature of databases. The fact that “databases are constructed for us” puts a certain distance, and perhaps, in some cases, a lack of transparency, between the users and those responsible for the construction. Of course, such interplay between user/reader and constructor/editor is not a new phenomenon. Apart from scholarly editions where there is a editorial protocol, readers do not generally know exactly how a book is edited, or the particular influences that an editor may have. I think McGann is simply reminding us that the online sources don’t just magically appear without having been constructed in a certain way, and users should be aware of that construct because it may impact the relevance of the information.

McGann also notes a dependancy of users on the ways in which online information is constructed for us. While I take his point, I think that websites like wikisource that are so heavily invested in social interaction with information, and with the role of the social editor, break down the distance between user and editor/constructor. Though wikisource suggest editorial techniques, there are no enforced editorial practices. Users are free to edit in whatever way they see fit. In this way, the text is never static, and can constantly evolve. If one is concerned about the transparency of editorial practices on these types of websites, the trick is to learn how to participate.

In his response, Jonathan Freedman also calls upon internet users  to “question the choices that databases make for us”. It seems with the onset of the social database that concerns such as this one are becoming less relevant, although, a fragmented narrative controlled by many users is still a narrative. It is interesting to consider what such a fragmented narrative means for the user, and how he/she can negotiate in a space without set guidelines and still acquire the information he/she desires. While I appreciate the issues that both Freedman and McGann expound upon, I think that there is room for Folsom’s celebration of structural formats that allow a broadening of information. Attention should still be paid to the constructs of such information. My feeling is that many users remain in a space of learning when it comes to the mechanics of online text and structure, and what is important is not that all users are adept in this regard, but that all users understand that such mechanics exist and impact on the way he/she views online information.

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2 Responses to Hidden Narrative: The Text behind the Text

  1. duttpuneet says:

    Your post was especially intriguing, because it surfaced in me several questions I had not thought of before, in regards to the mechanics that exist, that impact the way we view information online. Especially interesting was your quote “due to a certain lack of knowledge, and perhaps ignorance in some cases, it is not visible/accessible to everyone. Of course, coding is a skill that can be learned, but we cannot assume that is broadly understood by internet users. With such lack of understanding in mind, how does this impact on the politics of online text?” This question regarding politics is most intriguing because we forget, that for all the liberating potential digital text gives us, there is always a garden where the weeds of greater anxieties grow. There is a huge visibility/accessibility issue for digital text that is very political. I have attempted to answer this, and retain a dialogue with your post, and Sven Birkerts in‘Reading in a Digital Age.’ My comment became too long and ended up becoming its own post.

  2. steven.jankowski says:

    You make a valid point about the hidden politics of coding and one that is held by a number of people. Perhaps in a similar fashion as literacy was deemed to be a way of creating more responsible and politically engaged citizens, teaching children how to program and code may be the next necessary step. A search for “teaching coding” gives you an idea of the various initiatives that believe that this is important.

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