Anne Burdick: The Interface as a Tool for Reading and Writing: The Design of Electronic Book Reviews Graphical User Interface

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Streaming audio for this panel is available here


A Distinct Kind of Reading and Writing

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Our panel is comprised of three different disciplinary perspectives on the application design of Electronic Book Review (ebr): that of myself as the interface designer; Ewan Branda, the database designer and programmer; and Joseph Tabbi, the editor. It is the tension of our tripartite collaboration more than the cooperation that has given shape to the deep structures of the journal.

My paper begins where the readers experience begins with ebrs graphical user interface which I will discuss as a spatialized writing (and reading) environment that shows how design and writing are inextricably bound in the sites visual weave. Ewan Branda will show how the logic of the interface relates to the systems of meaning made possible by the sites technical infrastructure, an extension of his own work in architecture and informatics. Joe Tabbi will discuss the media-specificity of what he calls the all-over writing of the site as part of the larger project of building the field of literary arts in a new media context. Our individual perspectives meet where the interface makes possible a very distinct kind of reading and writing.

Writing Space Design

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In my own work as a designer, I collaborate with editors, writers and texts performing what Id call writing space design, a reference to Jay Bolters notion of a writing space in his book of the same name. According to Bolter, the organization of writing, the style of writing, the expectations of the readerall these are affected by the physical space the text occupies. (85) Shifting away from the idea of designing books or websites, instead I design spaces for writing whose material composition is integral to the writing strategies and semantic outcomes of a text.

In addition to Bolter, I draw from a wide range of references within both literature and visual culture. I am exploring how communication can change when scholarly writing engages with visualization strategies borrowed from maps and diagrams, comic books, e-mail, computational design, graphic novels, and the like. In addition, Im interested in what is possible when both analog and digital spaces for writing are designed not in the service of writing but in a dialectic interplay with it, much like program and floor plan in architecture.

In this paper, I will provide an overview of ebr 4.1 which is an ongoing experiment with these ideas. But first I want to explore two very different collaborative projects that demonstrate this interrelationship between writing and design.

Design as an editorial activity:

The structure of the Fackel Wrterbuch: Redensarten

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The Fackel Wrterbuch: Redensarten is the first of three text-dictionaries whose corpus is Karl Krauss journal Die Fackel which was published in the early 1900s in Vienna. Fackellex 1, as we call it, is a dictionary of idioms.

In the dictionary there are only 144 entries and over 1,000 pages in the book. Working with the specificity of the original corpus material which used typography and layout in unique ways I developed a three-columned diagrammatic display that includes a spine running down the center of each page in order to accommodate photographic reproductions of entire pages of Die Fackel. On the left-hand side of the page are the documentation texts those that quantify and categorize. On the right-hand side are the interpretive texts the editorial glosses and commentary.

The size and position of the outside columns determines the form of the writing its length, format, and internal composition at the same time that it makes possible the interplay between texts through contiguity, juxtaposition, distance, sequence, and other forms of visual rhetoric.

Composite reading and writing:

Visual quotations in Writing Machines

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In the book Writing Machines, Kate Hayles analyzes three works: A Humument by Tom Phillips, Lexia to Perplexia by Talan Memmott, and House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Kates working manuscript was filled with descriptive passages and quotations drawn from these sources. Since Kate was interrogating the materiality of the original works, I suggested that we use a form of visual-verbal quotation pictures of the original texts intertwined directly into her text in order to capture as much of the materiality of the originals as possible. The resultant design/writing strategy was described by the as a new, composite reading mode that is both viewed and read by a skilled reader.

The writing space design changed the character of the reading and the writing. The visual-verbal quotations communicate on multiple levels, thereby reducing the need for cumbersome verbal description, an outcome that mirrors the influence of photography on art and literature a century earlier.

Media-specific designing and writing:

The writing spaces of Electronic Book Review

Electronic Book Review 2.0

In the early days of ebr, we were interested in creating forms of writing that had no print corollary, writing that was structured to perform in ways that only digital writing can. These experiments were much like those that we now find in Vectors ( standalone essays that were mini-sites unto themselves.

Here is a detail from the home page from ebr, version 2.0, when the site was comprised of single-themed issues published at regular intervals.

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The contents page for ebr 9 shows evidence of the breakdown of the discrete thematic units that were built into the sites interface and editorial strategy. ebr 9 is a gathering of themes (threads) found in previous issues, an indication that the publishing model had run its course.

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Pre/post-erous: La Jete Cin-Roman is an example of one of our design-writing experiments from 1999 by Tracy Biga Maclean, Chris Peters, Jon Wagner, and designer Sophie Dobrigkeit. It opens into its own distinct window and juxtaposes text and images to compose its critique of the book under consideration. The non-linear structure leads to a collaged reading experience that would be difficult to translate into print.

Electronic Book Review 4.0

In the early 2000s, it became clear that while we were engaging the medium on an essay-by-essay basis, the journal itself was still tied to a print paradigm of regularly scheduled publication and single-themed issues.

We moved toward a conception of the journal as a living archive in which old and new writing projects could be drawn together and remixed according to the interests of ebrs community and to relatedness determined by the system.

At the same time we were interested in autopoeisis and the unexpected outcomes generated by an interface that was a literal meeting point between readers interests and editorial activities. In lieu of a single, all-encompassing map or view of the sites contents, we developed an interface display that would reconfigure the contents according to the discursive activity unique to that moment in time. And, importantly, the displays were designed as spaces for writing.


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The home page is organized according to chronology. The editorial activity runs along a horizontal axis from most recent on the left to the oldest on the right.

The scrolling text at the top of the page is the most recent e-mail announcement from ebrs barker. This is the equivalent of latest news or now hear this Below the bark are three points of entry to ebr content which correspond to the three groups that comprise the ebr community.

(1) The readers list is a search function that generates a mix of contents according to a readers interests.

(2) The mixes are curated sets of essays that are created by a community that we call weavers. Weavers are invited participants who can gloss and remix the sites contents.

(3) The threads are ongoing themes initiated by the editor. Each thread has its own color and icon. Each essay that is added to the database is entered within what we call a primary thread, which is its original home. But to encourage lateral movement and connectivity between documents, essays may also have secondary affiliations with other threads.

Beneath the thread icons are pull-down lists of the most recently active articles within each thread, going back six months. Active means either newly published or recently commented upon, responded to, or added to a mix by a weaver.


From the home page you can easily go to the thread page by clicking on its icon.


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On the thread page you can see the entire history of a single thread (in this case for Electropoetics) presented in a conventional table of contents format that moves back in time as you scroll down the page.

To the left of each essay is a small rectangle with a 13-letter code. We call this device a textcode. This code is a kind of linguistic icon, a visual-verbal marker that stands in for an essay in a variety of context-specific visual mappings that appear throughout the site.


Clicking on the journal name in the upper left-hand corner sends you back to the home page.


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From the home page we can enter the search term Eskelinen in the search box to generate a readers list.


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The readers list is displayed within the weave page. The search results appear within a colored grid that lists the relevance ranking, textcode, author name, and title for each essay that is called up within the results. To the right of the list, a visual weave is generated horizontally by those threads with which the essays are affiliated. As you move to the right, you can see how each essay has a primary affiliation indicated by the textcode in a colored box and a secondary affiliation indicated by a narrower strip of color. The visual mapping brings together decisions made by the user, writing by the author, and the editorial activity of the system.

From here the reader has a range of navigational choices: she can select an individual essay to read or move to a thread page using the thread icons.

This display gives the reader a sense of where the writer Markku Eskelinen fits in the world of ebr through the visual information the color, the language of the textcodes, the sequence of threads, and the frequency of textcodes and other marks within each thread column.


Typing Amerika into the search bar will demonstrate how the appearance of the weave changes in response to the list of essays.


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It becomes instantly apparent that Mark Amerikas contributions are more wide-ranging thematically than were Eskelinens.


Searching for Friedrich Kittler shows a different result.


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Within each weave display, the reader can choose to weave the essay list with either threads or mixes. The default is to weave with threads, which has been demonstrated so far.


Clicking on mixes in the upper left-hand corner shows how this list of essays intersects with the interests of ebrs weavers.



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The refreshed display shows that one of the essays in the list is a part of Joe Tabbis mix called Recollection in Process.


This allows us to click on the icon for Recollection in Process to view the contents of Tabbis mix which will be displayed within the weave page.


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Here you can see that a mix appears within the weave display in a manner similar to that of a readers list. In the left-hand column you see the list of essays that Tabbi curated from the database of ebr. Each essay brings the textcode, author name, and affiliated threads into the weave accordingly.

Members of ebrs community of weavers can use the sites back-end tools to create their own mix. (Since this is a new feature there are relatively few at the moment.) The weaver names their mix, writes an introduction and a blurb, selects a set of essays, and saves it all to the database. The mix automatically appears at the appropriate places throughout the site according to the logic of the system.


So far we have looked at the systems of organization at the level of the journal. Now lets look at an essay. Clicking on an essay title or textcode within the weave will take us to what we call a text page.


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The thread icons in the upper right hand corner of this essay by William Smith Wilson show the essays primary and secondary affiliations. The primary affiliation shown here is End Construction. This thread affiliation determines the color fields within which the essay is displayed. You can also see that this text has a secondary affiliation, Internet Nation and that it is also a part of Tabbis mix: Recollection in Process. The reader can click on these icons to open the corresponding thread pages or weave.

On a text page the reader can move within and between texts in two ways: from inside the main text through hyperlinks and through the marginalia that can be displayed in the columns on either side.

In the left-hand margin, weavers can write commentary which readers can view by clicking on links from inside the main text. Ewan Branda will cover what we call the glossing function in his paper.

The texts extensions displayed in the right-hand margin enable movement laterally across the database from essay to essay. A variety of options is automatically generated by the system that is meant to allow movement in the act of reading.

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Clicking on the author/s extensions link reveals an authors bio and includes textcodes for other essays by the same author that can be found within ebr. Clicking on a textcode opens that essay.

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The text extensions link displays other texts within the database that have an affinity with the main text. Like the weave page, this display uses color, proximity, and position to represent the metaphorical closeness or distance between essays. Essays themselves are represented metonymically with author names and textcodes, creating a kind of topographical shorthand or spatialized written representation of the relationships.

When the reader wishes to make a choice, the textcodes can be rolled over to reveal the full title and essay blurb. Clicking on a textcode opens that essay.

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The riposte extensions link reveals textcodes and author names for essay-length responses to Wilsons essay. Within ebr, writers can respond to texts in two ways: through paragraph-length glosses in the margins or with longer texts called ripostes. The riposte link shows up only when an essay has a riposte or is part of a riposte chain. So you can see here that there are two ripostes, an exchange between Wilson and Nick Spencer.


Clicking on the textcode for Spencer opens his riposte to Wilson.

TEXT PAGE: [architectural] NICK SPENCER

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Within the riposte extension in Spencers essay you can see the position his riposte occupies within the riposte chain. The display allows the reader to follow the discussion in either direction by clicking on the textcodes.

Conclusion: Designing and Writing

As this demonstration shows, the interface marries the signifying system of the diagram (position, color, scale) with written language in the form of names, titles, blurbs, and textcodes. The graphical user interface uses imagery and visual iconography in very small doses because we wanted to maintain an emphasis on reading, and by extension, on writing.

The textcodes in the weave and the text extensions are simultaneously symbolic and indexical in the Peircian sense, for they can be read as texts, seen as representations or codes, and can be used as navigational handles. The glosses, as Ewan will demonstrate, are a kind of situation-specific dialogic writing: a practice enabled by the features of the interface and the system. Hence ebrs interface can be understood as a diagrammatic, distributed, all-over writing space.

As a custom writing and publishing application, ebr is distinct from word processing, wiki, and blogging software such as Typepad in which design is basically a change of skin, for at ebr the design is integral. But the most significant difference is also the least visibly apparent: the writer-user of a commercial software package is confined by compositional structures whose conventions are somewhat transparent and are by definition generic.

Not so with ebr: when editorial activities rub up against the database structures which in turn strain to connect with the visual mapping of the interface or vice versa the instrumentality of the site designs boundaries, rules, and spaces are revealed. The chafing tells us that it is time to carve out a new kind of space or shift the rules of engagement. Within this ongoing, unfolding, collaborative project, it is the push and pull between the writing done inside the system and the designing of the structures of the system that generates ebrs unique visual and linguistic form.