Good afternoon Shape of the next 15 minutes:ContextProjectResultsFutureAbout the LRB
Our proposal for a digital essay was accepted (along with 52 other arts proposals) in mid February 2012The Space arts portal went live on 1st May and will run until the end of October.The Space is based on a customised Wordpress Installation and (in my opinion) designed primarily to support video.We agreed to develop a stand-alone micro-site to host our digital essay.We had 14 weeks to deliver the project – our approach was one of ‘radical pragmatism’.This drove rapid decision making, and demanded focus, commitment and forward planning.
The project was approached as an experiment, an exercise in co-creation and collaboration.It was seen as an opportunity to embrace an element of risk.In terms of the essay itself, there was to be no compromise in quality, depth or length. It would be as demanding of the reader as a typical LRB essay, with no introduction or explanation.
NOT an e-book (1990’s html)NOT a native (OS specific app), html5NOT illustrated textNOT including ‘window dressing’; popup cockroaches or Kafka tatNOT an essay specific interface – a resource not a dead-end (ie re-useable, elegant, relatively neutral)Will Self was approached to take on the role of authoring the digital essay.Will Self proposed working with members of Brunel University challenging them to create digital responses to Kafka’s short story ‘A Country Doctor’.Will Self “I hope that the project will stimulate inter-departmental cooperation and cross-fertilisation. Obviously, since all the material will be eventually digitised, there needs to be cooperation with people who are digitally capable. I am hoping that further cooperation will spontaneously generate during the course of the project. “
The starting point must be “why read a lengthy literary essay?” Possible answers might be; to learn, to be entertained, to be distracted, to find information, to reflect/extend understanding, for enjoyment/amusement.Continue on the assumption that learning (in a broad sense) is fundamental to the experience.How do our preconceptions on approaching content change depending on the format? How does one’s approach to a textually dense paper edition of the London Review of Books differ to one’s approach to using a workstation, laptop, tablet or smart-phone ? What impact might this have on our approach to the content; are we expecting to scan for ‘sound bites’ , ‘surf’ the net, ‘check-in’ to social media, ‘work’, or engage with full attention and focus on an essay that will, at its best, give us the opportunity to abstract meaning, understand reality, and change?In this project we have worked on the assumption that the paper format, and all that is implied by that familiar context , adapted to the unbounded page of the web, will increase the likelihood that a deep approach to reading the essay will be adopted, however unconsciously.We can support a variety of learning/engagement preferences (text, visual, audio, kinaesthetic).
Main essay 8,200 wordsOther texts 7,200 words (2 short essays, plus English/German Kafka texts)Video: over 4 hours (16 videos)Audio: over 2.5 hours (12 audio files)Image Galleries: 6Interactive game: 1Archive researcher: Ollie BrockFilm, audio & imagesWellcome LibraryImperial War MuseumBodliean LibraryCreative:The collaborative nature of it’s creationSecond life machinimaDanceDocumentary:Filming of WS research – visit to Prague, Translation event at City University The melding of the essay text with other mediaNot literal in connections from text to media – challenge expectationsContextual content does not always benefit from assignment to specific words; the meaning of both can be changed. This is particularly true of creative media, such as music. It is also interesting to consider what effect watching a evocative piece of archival material has on the reader before reading a paragraph, rather than if it is specifically linked to words within it. Again it may be the preconception of meaning that influences the reader. “Why is this piece linked to these words, here at this point, what does it mean?” The positioning of content unexpectedly can trigger surprise in the reader, or challenge their expectations
NOT AN ESSAY SPECIFIC BUILD - a general capability.To use a virtual bounded and recognisable ‘page’ within which the essay text is contained.Control icons and navigation sit outside the ‘page’.Not to use traditional Hyper-links (underlines or coloured text) as they disturb the relative importance and therefore the meaning of the text.Not having fixed headers or footers maximises the reading length.The reader stays on page with NO external links within the text or associated content.No artificial pagination, ie one page containing the full text.Reading line is optimised using a narrow page and adjusting the font size.The page colour is not bright white, to reduce the contrast between text and page.The reader controls the level of additional mark-up on the page.No written instructions on the page.Additional content is always linked to the text (text reference always visible, not loss of line of sight).
The Space brief was to support delivery on computers, tablets and mobile phones.This was out first experience of implementing responsive design.Using wordpress allowed the content to be managed and edited by non-developers.The essay is a normal WordPress page.
The site opens gaps by duplicating the text and showing the top part of the original text above the content and the bottom part of the duplicated text below the content.
Visualise the related content by theme and type, with image and roll-over text (titles).Can be manipulated/moved around by the reader to make different nodes more visible.Media as different starting points into the essay... why, how, what this means..Specific selected starting points in the text... why, how, what this means..Will Self’s idea of creating a visualisation of each reader’s personal journey.. Using a visualisation as the basis for navigation was an idea developed/ inspired from work we did at Culture Hack East with Harry Harold using Google Fusion Tables and the data from the LRB’s free articles.The Visual Index is based on code that will work in most modern browsers (but not IE8 or older).It is also too process heavy for mobile. In these cases it is suppressed. Alternatives..
Traditional footnotes, linked to the text via an index number against a word, appear at the foot of the page on which the number appears. The footnote might relate directly to the whole sentence, or some smaller number of words. Visually the (usually small and superscript) index number is not particularly disturbing to the reading experience. In the case of a ‘virtual’ page, there is only one ‘foot’ of the page, and so this paradigm becomes less practical; zooming to the foot of a very long page to a pile of notes, and then back, for example is potentially disruptive to the reading experience. Considering existing instances where words are overlaid with additional meaning, a piece of written music with words, a libretto, was taken as the starting point. Additional information is encoded onto a page (in black and white), and conveys a huge amount of meaning, alongside the words. Could we adapt the approach to a long essay, as one long line, with ‘notes’ in staves, and different notes (F A C E) with different meanings (eg format, audio, video, text, footnotes) and different notation (symbols) for different themes? Possibly not. However, looking further, the idea of vertical musical staves existed; "The klavar notation distinguishes itself from the conventional notation in several ways. The stave on which the notes are written is vertical so the music is read from top to bottom." The developments of ‘side-notes’, encoding links into the text using a visual signpost (‘note’), so that additional content can be brought into the text without moving from the reading line, was adopted and applied to all related content (including the traditional footnote). This initial, fairly simple, implementation of side-notes with colour and style indicating theme, can be developed further.
User feedback via commenting was part of the original proposal, however The Space policy does not allow it.
Target is 10,000 unique visitors by the end of October 2012Worth noting: Return visits is high, engagement of return visits also highVery low bounce rateTime on site is (for comparison) 400% that of the LRB websiteTraffic has been highly social media driven with Twitter and Facebook the 2nd and 3rd highest referrers
The digital essay format is adopted and used in many divers ways, for exapmple:
Digital Research Conference 2012, Oxford: Re-imagining the literary essay for the digital age
Digital Research Conference, Oxford
11 September 2012
Re-imagining the literary essay for the digital age
A practice-based research project
Associate Publisher, London Review of Books
A digital essay -
of Books for The
the Arts Council
and the BBC.
• Could there be a way to embellish the unadorned
line of the text without losing the impetus and
coherence of the reading experience?
• Could we create a rhythmic flow in and out of the
sequence of sentences, to take in other
texts, video and audio material, pictures and
photographs, so that reading becomes
multidimensional but not merely fragmentary?
• Will enriching the line of a text deepen it or
confuse it, energise it or dissipate its élan?
The project: one essay
A digital essay by Will Self, professional writer
and Professor of Contemporary Thought at
How can we support the most fulfilling
• Surface learning:
– The acquisition of facts, methods and techniques
• Deep learning:
– Abstraction of meaning
– An interpretive process aimed at understanding reality
– Learning and changing as a person
“Deep and surface approaches to learning are not personality traits”; the
approach taken is dependent on both what the student is asked to do, and
what the student perceives to be the purpose.
(The Oxford Tutorial: Thanks you taught me how to think, edited by D
Palfryman, 2008; Suzanne Shale, The Oxford Tutorial in the Context of
Theory on Student Learning:).
• Supporting engagement with the text
• Technical details
• Visual index
• HTML5 development. Responsive design.
• The content articles are normal WordPress posts of
custom type 'article' with added metadata fields.
• External media is dynamically added to the article
content by a custom WordPress function.
• A custom WordPress function adds a hidden list of
articles with categories, titles and images to the essay
for the visual index.
• The visual index uses the D3 (Data-Driven Documents)
general-purpose visualisation library. http://d3js.org/
• A client-side browser script uses the hidden list to create
the visualisation when the essay is displayed and
modifies the links so that the articles are loaded inline.
• Modern features: rounded corners allow the visual
index nodes to be circular; SVG (Scalable Vector
Graphics) used for the lines between the nodes.
• Making the audio/video and slide players work in
responsive pop-ups was a little tricky to get right.
• Being able to open up a gap mid-sentence/mid-
paragraph for extra content without triggering a
reflow is something that browsers just aren't
designed to support.
• It would be nice to rework the animations to use
modern CSS3 transformations -- this would greatly
improve the performance on lower-powered devices
(like the iPad).
Social Positioning Graph for ‘@theUL’
by Tony Hirst @psychemedia
Hack at The National Archives: Ancient
correspondence (1175-1538) by @timhodson
CultureHack East at Anglia-Ruskin University, Cambridge:
Using Google Fusion Tables
Twitter comments from the first 30 days
• 55 original comments that expressed an opinion have been recorded
• 4% negative, 96% positive
• Simply brilliant - and a model for the future scholarly edition, as well as essay RT
@LRB Will Self's 'Kafka's Wound’
• This interactive essay on Kafta, by Will Self @wself is clearly
groundbreaking. Games and machinima have their part.
• Swish #digital #essay from @wself with a nice #UI. The text stands on its own for
any academics: Kafka’s Wound via @LRB
• Envisage #research output with #data etc as a digital document - see coll. Brunel &
@lrb in Will Self's Kafka’s Wound
Google Analytics for the first 30 days
• Visits 13,000
• Unique visitors 8,500
• Return visits 35%
• Pageviews 40,000
• Bounce rate 2%
• Time on site 9.15 minutes
• Referral visits 74%
Digital humanities: create essays integrating
digital media with text.
Archives: gain new life and exposure through
digital integration with new work.
E-learning: develop learning resources with
Creative arts: support collaborative digital
projects working with other departments.
• Linked data & entity extraction. Exploring using other
• Investigate how to publish data within a digital essay.
• Developing the side-notes concept to support
• Technical improvements.
• Work with writers to create more experimental digital
• Research into the pedagogical implications of the
format – any takers?
Nov. 26, 2021
Re-imagining the literary essay for the digital age: 'Kafka's Wound' by Will Self, for the London Review of Books and The Space.