Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What Is All This New Media Anyhow.

It’s probably time to talk about what is media and what is writing—I assume everyone can agree on the “new” part. These things are interesting, but are they media? I don’t think it’s adequate to define “website” as a medium any more than it is to define “paper” that way. Not to be precociously cantankerous, but I always thought a medium was an agreed upon form (and forum, I guess) for expression and discourse. I think the “agreed upon” aspect is the most critical; I view a medium as a contract between speaker an audience. It’s a wonderful thing, as it allows us to take a lot of parameters for granted. This frees up our brain’s processing power for greater degrees of complexity, abstraction or imagination. Now of course there’s merit and genius in the bending and blending of once-discrete media, but when it’s done well, it’s done in such a way as to provide security with its dissonance. Both sets of rules apply, I guess.

I’m not sying there isn’t value in these pieces, I just don’t know if they’re all media. It just seems to me that a new medium isn’t a medium until it’s, well, a little bit old.

That said, I’m confident that our grandchildren will express themselves exclusively in the form of I You We-style word spaces.

Last week I blogged about spreeder, which substituted time for space in our experience of the written word. I You We provides another dimension, providing a nearly infinite field of simple, transitive actions. “We” and “I” don’t have the magic of “you,” since they don’t work for the suggestive case, disrupting the directionlessness that “you” and even the concept of infinity suggest.

Let’s assume that with I You We, we have a new medium on our hands. What would another work in this medium look like? Would it have different words? Syntax? Structure? Colors? You need two points to draw a line, and the second point hasn’t arrived yet. A medium is a line for me. Otherwise, it’s just a lonesome “I” in an evenly spaced sea of action verbs and pronouns.

Some of these pieces reminded me of the following George Orwell quote:

“….modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

I You We sort of has this problem for me. Given its aspirations towards infinity, it’s hard to find meaning and authorial choice in this work. Did the authors carefully select each verb? Do you think they had a long argument about whether to include “tessellate?” Or did they just hack away at the thick end of the English language curve, casting the big marketable commodities like “populate” and “stratify” as stars in his wordsky? I see a lot of the “gumming together” here. And even though we’re not dealing with long strings of words, the author’s carelessness and commoditization of these words kind of bugs me.

Hopefully, I’ll spend less time on myBall. I’m more comfortable with this piece as media, because it’s satirizing the pointless and cloying Flash indulgence that seems to accompany any website of primarily commercial intent. myBall is very subtle in this regard, but a bit more hamhanded with its verbal content t as it shoots ack-ack rounds at the helicopter parent culture. The sinister pulsing sound with higher beeps reminds me of Metroid, somehow. Maybe that’s also because of the glowing red ball.


The popular site I want to talk about is Achewood. I’m fairly confident that this site can be found at the meaty base of the tail, but it’s not exactly the Yahoo! Fantasy Football homepage. I think something like 3 million unique IP addresses a month pass through Achewood monthly. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former menial employee of that site’s proprietor, Chris Onstad. This is the reason I have so many hipster-looking American Apparel T-shirts.

Achewood is a webcomic, published an average of four times a week at the URL you would expect to find it at. Its principle characters are two stuffed bears, a 5-year-old stuffed otter and a bevy of real cats. From time to time a robot will appear. Onstad maintains blogs for 13 (!) of the principal characters, thickening the stock created by the comic. Additionally, there is an Achewood cookbook, two mini-novellas, an ongoing old-school ‘zine and an advice column written in the voice. I personally like the blogs best, because Onstad is just out of his mind as a ventriloquist for his creations, from the Wodehouse-esque Mr. Bear to the chronically depressed Roast Beef to the serial killer Nice Pete.

Today’s strip is a teaser for an upcoming print-only ‘zine ostensibly published by one of the characters and sold through the website. So it’s not a good entry point. Rather, I will recommend a couple of strips here:

The Saddest Thing, Redux A good stand-alone strip.

Meeting Nice Pete This storyline introduces the character of Nice Pete, killer. I reccomend you proceed forward from this strip for some time. Read the alt text too.

Achewood is often compared to Peanuts for its blend of mirth and sadness, but I never found Peanuts that funny, whereas I think Achewood is the single best comedic work ever.

What’s also immensely cool about Achewood is that it’s Onstad’s full time job. He makes a living selling T-shirts and shot glasses to people who want to be associated with his characters. This was not a way a fellow could feed his family 10 years ago.

The lesser known site is Ian Spiro’s hardtoremember.org. Ian edited the same magazine where Onstad once hung his hat and where I now toil. Unlike me, Ian is a computer genius who has spurned employment with Microsoft and Google in order to become the freest lance programmer I’ve ever encountered.

Not a lot of people know about this page, and maybe I am damaging my weird relationship with him by sharing it. The homepage is a spare affair, with eight icons sitting on what appears to be an underperforming comb. Each of these represents one of his pet projects.

A brief summary of the content, which changes from time to time.:

A Google-Maps-style interface applied to the overworld of Final Fantasy II (The Japanese one)

A Google-Maps-style interface that tells you the precise locations of fast food franchises. I like this because it cuts so hard against the spontaneity of fast food and is arguably more pointless than the Final Fantasy map.

Interest Graphs. This used to be an interactive utility wherein you could create the sort of thing Ian displays here, plotting your interests against time, summing up your life for strangers in a cool and calculated way. For whatever reason, Ian disabled that. Which is a shame, because I think he can make a lot of money here. All of Web 2.0 thrives on the vanity of users wanting new ways to define themselves using the tools of others (“Which Redwall character are you? Take the quiz!”).

WeddingTowne.com. For this project, Ian wrote a script that harvested pages of the form bobbyandcarol.com or jonathanandtim.com or thorandbathshebah.com. Overwhelmingly, these were pages promoting the weddings and/or the firm but still fiery bonds between the two people who have to chose to immortalize their love by concatenating their names in a URL. These pages are then loaded into a frame within WeddingTowne, which is itself a HotOrNot style tool that allows the viewer to give a simple, binary thumbs up or thumbs down. Users can also view the top- and bottom-ranked pages. I think the earth-shattering implications of what Ian has done here are very obvious.

Some personal photography stuff. I won’t get into this too much, but there is one haunting entry entitled “larvae on trampoline.”

A dancing man.

Dlog. This is the medium for my 300-word work. Also, it is the real deal. I’ll talk more about it in class, but basically, it records writing as a process and not just a finished document. Essentially, you’re looking over the typist’s shoulder. It has a clever algorithm for compressing time but still leaving a very real sense of hesitation when it occurs. For a time/space/word junkie like myself, this opens a lot of possibilities. Working in these conditions also raises a lot of anxieties.

Also, it's pronounced dee-log. It doesn't want to be a blog no how.


Adam Johnson said...


I’m glad you posted Ian’s website—he walked me through it once, and it really was fabulous. Ian also had a program to trace an edit history of writing in progress that was pretty cool.

Lauren said...

You worked for Chris Onstad? What the FUCK, man, that is too cool. Achewood is my favorite webcomic that is still running (Buttercup Festival died a couple years ago). Clearly you have to bring me to him so I can touch him and abscond with some of his power. This is non-negotiable.