Prisoners of the Page: Or, Pity the Fate of the Poor OP

A couple of ongoing problems and fascinations – – discerning the post-fordist working-classes, reckoning with Occupy, the possibilities of digital syndicalism, the captivating power of the zombie – –  have led me over the past few months to an intensive wrestling match with Antonio Negri.  And, working back and forth from Multitude to The Labor of Dionysus to operaismo, has proven very useful.  Still, there comes a time when you grow tired of reading and scribbling in your chair at home or on the airplane or on BART or at the office.    There comes a time when you know that to really master a set of texts, ideas, ways of thinking, you have to start discussing, arguing, and listening with others.  And so, I’m now trying to organize an online seminar/reading group on Negri and Hardt’s latest installment of the Empire trilogy – – Commonwealth. (A reading group that will probably include Patrick Cuninghame, from UAM-Xochimilco, one of the most interesting autonomistas around.  If you care to join the seminar/reading group – – drop me an email.)

Setting up an online seminar that spans a continent has, however, proven a bit frustrating.  The internet connects, allows for new forms of mediated interaction, and preserves.  However, finding the right platform for an online seminar – – especially a platform that encourages both focus and fluidity – – is no easy thing.  Despite hacking together various draft mashups of WordPress, BuddyPress, and BBPress – – I still haven’t crafted the right kind of thing.

Why?  The difficulty is in part related to the mimetic fallacy.  We use terms like “discussion board” or “web forum” to describe various text-based, interactive sites.  But these are just metaphors.  “Discussion boards” and “forums” aren’t really discussions or forums; they are allusive representations of the social, performative, oral experiences that we enjoy in non-internet life – – say in a classroom, around the water cooler, or with that annoying row of Detroit fans in the row behind us at the Oakland Coliseum.  The medium is the message, but while “discussion boards” belong to the medium of the internet, they fundamentally inhabit the medium of the written page.

For years, ironically, we’ve seen the difference between “electronic writing” and print as a source of problems.  To summarize: new media forms of writing reinstate orality over literacy; they replace the linearity of print documents with connectivity or parataxis;  the fixity of the printed page gives way to the fluidity of the web page; the “passivity” of print reading is replaced by the “interactivity” of electronic textuality; criteria of quality are replaced by measures of value.  In short, the web or new media opens up disruptive gaps between print and electronic textuality and within modes of reading.  In large part, these gaps have fueled both the battle cries of digital revolutionaries and the elegies of book-bound reactionaries.  Unfortunately for both camps, the written or printed page isn’t dead.  It’s just been re-mediated – –  reincarnated in new forms that modify but repeat basic features of the old.  Indeed, it’s not difference that’s the problem – – it’s similarity. History is a nightmare or daydream from which we can’t quite awake.

I’m pretty devoted to the book and printed document.  (Just ask my co-conspirator – – who renews her annual plea to cull the overstuffed bookshelves that seriously compromise our earthquake-preparedness plans.)  But, to get a sense of how the muddled mimesis between “discussion forum” and printed page does a disservice to both media, let’s take a look at a pretty typical web forum post.

A user of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum – – probably the most popular online travel forum – – asks for feedback: as a South Asian-American traveling to Colombia, will he be discriminated against based on his skin color?  The entire thread includes about 40 posts.  Most of the first post-responders are reassuring about Colombia’s “rainbow” society and about Colombians’ friendliness.  Then, the twelfth post begins: “kindcup [the previous poster], Let me disagree with you (my humble brazilian opinion) when you say [there] ‘are people dark skinned like in Mexico.'”  Once this fork has been created, the thread begins digressing, regressing, and generally straying all over the place – – race in Guyana, skin colors in India, the existence of Myanmar.  Close to the end of the thread, one responder writes: “Wow.  What I CAN say is that you need to get out and travel more.  Or jeez, at least read a little.”

At one point, about a tenth of the way through the thread, a contributor writes reassuringly: “As another OP said, be confident. You’ll be fine.”  The invocation of the OP [original poster] is a subtle recognition that the thread is poised for forking.  Indeed, many long forum threads, after a period of forking, soon begin to make furious, insistent references to the OP, trying to bring the thread back to its beginning question or comment.  Thus our first “discussion forum” algorithm: OP = f (∆p).  That is, references to the original poster are a function of the number of posts; the longer the thread, the more references to the OP will begin to appear.

Forking and OP references occur, of course, because as threads grow longer, thread contributors begin to respond to more or less immediately preceding contributors.  They tend to get caught up in the onward flow of the posting.  In the case of our Colombia thread, the OP appears at the end of a post in which the contributor begins to digress into more commentary on how “[t]here will always be people who equate how you look with who you are.”  Recognizing, perhaps, the digressive, generalizing pull of his/her own comment, the poster tries to check his/her meandering by citing the OP.

Obviously, a thread in an open forum is always open to forking and hijacking.  However, this is not usually intentional.  In fact,  the OP effect and forking are pressures inherent in the web page’s remediation of the print page.  Like the print page, the web page is organized vertically, and this organization imposes a temporal logic onto the space of the “page.”  The use of the metaphor, “scrolling,” underscores this subordination of space to time.  As with the print page, this temporal succession organizes reading time into an irreversible, linear narrative.  Our eyes start at the top and work their way to the bottom.  We can scroll backwards or forwards, but these terms only signify within a fixed chronological succession.

Of course, all web “pages” are organized temporally (and spatially) – – our attention is always also duration.  Another way of thinking about the distinction I’m getting at is this: the “space” of the web forum is subordinated to syntax rather than semantics.  A semantically organized page would emphasize relations of meaning rather than a priori structure.  One could argue that the source of so much creativity on the web has to do specifically with this supercession of syntax by semantics; mashups, remixes, maps, graphs, and trees all express the “collage” logic of the read/write web, a logic defined more by association, metaphor, and parataxis.  The creative power of the web as medium seems to lie in its affordances for defamiliarizing linear, syntagmatic forms.

Embracing this disruptive logic underscores just how much the mimeses between print and web page betray the experience of a real forum or discussion.  To borrow an analogy from Kenneth Burke, imagine that you attend a cocktail party.  (Do people still have cocktail parties?)  You and your fellow partiers start talking about Justin Bieber as an icon of cognitive capitalism.   (Yes, we are well into the cheaper rotgut at this point.)  But at this cocktail party, each participant is allowed to make only one comment in a pre-assigned order of speakers, like taking a number at the fish counter – – a cocktail party organized around the principles of the old “telephone” game.  Sure, lots of funny things start happening – – but we certainly wouldn’t remember the cocktail party as a sparkling gem of conversation, nor would we remember this cocktail party as marked by lively “discussion.”  Those qualities would be reserved for the kind of cocktail party where people jump in and out of the conversation, where themes are developed collaboratively, where we draw on the full range of our communication talents – – listening, timing, intonation, etc. – – to explore and enjoy a topic or absurdity.  In the authentic “discussion,” we blithely forget all about the OP exactly because we remember the conversation.  In other words, a semantically organized web page resembles a great cocktail party; a syntactically organized web page makes for a potentially novel, but much less scintillating booze-up.

Of course, in the end, I guess I’m really arguing for a better, more accurate mimesis between life and web, one where web “forums” and “discussion” boards more closely resemble the experience of lived communication and confabulation.  In terms of hacking the best platform for a seminar or reading group, a first step would thus have to break with the subordination of “page” space to time and so disrupt the similitudes between web and printed page.  Instead of “scrolling” through comments and so becoming syntactic subjects, each comment would become a semantic node and we would become polymorphously converse.  As in a great cocktail conversation, space would neutralize time – – or, alternatively, time would be spatialized.

[Update: Thanks to the help and wizadry of comrade Christian Wach – – we’re experimenting with some of this disruption of linearity and the print page at the Multitude website, the magnificently mashed-up Comment/Buddy/Wordplatform for the transcontinental Negri reading group.]


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