Friday, June 20, 2014

Muse Your Own Adventure

[If you don't feel like reading all of this, just check out the blog's new interactive table of contents.]

Having been at this blogging thing for more than seven years and almost 500 posts, I often find myself vexed by the question of what a blog is. Specifically, since I'm reasonably proud of what I've got here, what can be done with what I've got? I started blogging as a way of getting myself to write more regularly (like a journal, you might say!), and that has worked. So now I've got all of these words, some of which I even think are worth preserving. What next?

An obvious answer would be to create a book from the blog, and I've definitely thought of doing that (see below). In fact, there are many potential books that could grow out of various posts, but a book implies a kind of linear format that doesn't really capture the spirit of what I'm doing, especially because hyperlinking and multimedia creations are so central to the "writing" I've done here. In fact, as much as I love the written word, it simply doesn't make sense to think of this blog as a collection of essays.

Strangely, I think there's an intellectual bias out there (I know, because I feel it myself) against writing that doesn't stand on its own as "just words," but the most important point I'd want to make is that technology, more than just allowing a platform to publish words, allows one to speak fluently through words-plus-multimedia. (Of course, art in general is often about saying something non-verbally.) This kind of natural integration of words and other media wasn't really possible before the Internet came along. Rather than thinking of blogs as replacements for paper, we should appreciate that blogs and other technology-based platforms provide possibilities for new kinds of communication that can't be housed in a book. I'm not saying such platforms are better than books - just that they can be radically different.

The bias towards the linearity of books is at least as strong as the bias against "words that needs pictures and the like." An authorial voice naturally seems stronger when it leads you inexorably from point to point. But, let's face it, linearity is also a default convention imposed by the classic book platform, for which experiments like Choose Your Own Adventure books are exceptions that prove the rule. As I wrote long ago in Hyperspace (just a click away!), the Internet makes possible a kind of multi-dimensional reading experience which can resemble the creative process itself. I think this is more revolutionary than is generally acknowledged.

As it happens, I did try to turn my blog into a sort of book a few years ago in an effort to showcase it for professional purposes. Well, I tried to turn it into an e-book, but that didn't really solve the multimedia problem. E-books do have lots of multimedia potential, but they're still based more on the idea of replicating a "real" book in paperless form. Because I wanted something that could be read offline (a feature that's becoming increasingly unimportant), I wanted all essential multimedia to be embedded in the "book," so I ended up with a 150MB behemoth (it turns out that a picture really is worth thousands of words in bytes!) of a PDF file, featuring 55 selected posts. You can read this MMreader here, and I am proud of it. It looks kind of like a book, even if the formatting of multimedia content is much less elegant than on the blog itself.

But you know what's elegant? The blog platform itself! And it can be read in tablets, on phones, on laptops, etc. though it wouldn't print out as nicely as the 129 pages of the MMreader. (By the way, I wouldn't expect anyone to print out those pages.) The point is, this isn't a print medium, so why pretend it is? However, the one feature I liked about the MMreader was the idea of highlighting a series of signature posts, so I've taken its table of contents and created something new and fun: a flexible, keyword-searchable table of contents, with brief abstracts for each of the posts. All you have to do is enter a keyword into the search box and the table of contents immediately filters out all the stuff you don't need to see. In fact, I think I can describe this better with...a (moving) picture:

So, you know you want to try it yourself, right? Look at these awesome search terms:  aesthetics, amateur, animation, atonality, bach, beethoven, best, canon, chopin, coding, connections, fragments, fun, hatto, loops, mashup, meaning, mozart, pedagogy, peterman, poetry, program notes, random, recordings, satie, strauss, stravinsky, theory, translation, twitter, viola .... each of which will turn up a customized set of posts. Go here or here (more screen estate) to give it a try. Or just click "A Guide to MMmusing" at the top of the blog.

This "table of contents" doesn't search the entire blog, just the selected signature posts, but it's a nice way to sample a broad range of content. And don't forget, if you really want an adventure, why not just spin MMmusing's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine over there in the margin. Find a book that does that!

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