Can people who max out at 140 characters read long stuff?


I’m taking part in an online book-reading-club-support-group-community-project* called Infinite Summer, a group-read of the 1,000+ page novel Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace.

I’ll admit, I got a bit of a head-start on the project because a couple of months ago, I purchased the Kindle version of the book after reading Aaron Pressman’s account of how the flow of the book is changed (for the better) by having hyperlinked endnotes. As the whole footnote thing is but one of the challenges of the post-modernist work, I decided to once more give the book a try. Doing it via a Kindle also means I can carry the book with me at all times (it’s on both my Kindle and my the Kindle-App on my iPhone — although the footnotes don’t work the same on the app version). Because the Infinite Summer project is broken down into 75-page per week increments, I feel a little more inclined to read the book in short chunks than I would otherwise. (It helps if you can read multiple books at one time — which is something I’ve done for a long time. I figure if I can keep up with characters and plots of multiple TV series, I can do the same with books.)

Anyway, since one of the non-starters for Infinite Jest is its sheer heft, it’s interesting to me that such a community who lives in a real-time, digital, 140-character world has been drawn to this bookish-meme. On the other hand, there is so much about the book that is entertaining and intriguing to those of us who are fascinated (obsessed) with the role that technology, marketing and media plays in our lives, that it makes sense the book is popular with this group. And by slowing down and reading the book a few paragraphs — or a few sentences at a time — one realizes that it’s not the volume of the book, but the precision of the book, that is most impressive.

For me, reading the book also corresponds with a renewed interest in tennis after several years of setting aside what used to be a big passion of mine. While one doesn’t need to know anything about the game to follow the narrative — Wallace footnotes and explains everything you could possibly not understand — it adds a layer of interest if you have ever been even a bit obsessed with the game.

Which leads me to on last thing.

Yesterday, Esquire magazine posted on its website a 1996 piece written by Wallace that is a nearly 12,000-word examination of the “physics and non-physics” of tennis. The article is, in Wallace fashion, filled with endnotes. But check out the javascript(?) pop-up that appears if you hover your cursor over the endnote number. That’s an example of how a publisher can “enhance” content by moving it from one medium to another, rather than just “repurpose” or “port” it.

*I would call this a “book club,” but the geekish crowd doing this makes the notion of “book club” seem so Oprah minutes ago. This is the kind of group that has a Google Calendar of suggested reading goals that has both page numbers and whatever one calls the numbers at the bottom of a Kindle screen. And did I mention the Infinite Jest Wiki, a totally separate project, but I’m just saying?

**If I’d written this a few weeks ago, I would have said such a long-piece about tennis would be impossible to find in a magazine today — but that’s before I saw (but haven’t read yet) Cynthia Gorney’s recent 8,500-word profile of Rafael Nadal, “Ripped (Or Torn Up?)” in the New York Times Magazine.

When you live in a culture of fear, even student hugs and helpful teachers are viewed as threats


I’m bothered when I read that some schools are banning students from hugging and (via danah boyd – and be sure to read the comments) other schools are banning any contact between students and teachers during “off-hours,” including any contact via non-school-hosted online forums (i.e., Facebook).

The assumption that hugging is aggressive behavior and the presumption of deviant motives of any teacher who would make themselves available to answer questions from students on Facebook are just two more examples of how fear-based regulations and rules that are instant responses to “crises” — real or imagined — often crush opportunities and positive results that could be achieved if cooler, more reasoned heads prevailed.

Are those schools trying to protect students who don’t want to be hugged? Are those schools trying to protect teachers who don’t want to be bothered by students outside the classroom? If so, they’ve chosen a rather ham-fisted solution.

Let me get this straight: I’m in no way suggesting that real issues — real deviant adults and real aggressive teenagers — did not create situations thatled to the specific hugging and friending bans reported in these two accounts. What I’m saying is this: I believe that bans on all hugging and all teacher-student “off-hours” collaboration will result in far more harm than good.

To parents of teens, read this

I get asked lots of questions (from parents) about how teens use the Internet. Typically, the questions are phrased in such a way as to imply the Internet should be added to the list: sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. I can understand the concern. Among people I know, I’ve heard of some incredibly cruel and hurtful web-based acts among teens. Then, again, I’ve heard of similar acts that didn’t involve the web, so I’m not so sure it’s the web that’s the problem.

I’ve also been a part of many discussions with students and other discussions with parents about the appropriateness of things like “friending ones parents/kids” on Facebook. (Personal observation: Neither teens or parents understand how to use the privacy settings on Facebook.)

Despite having a teen and recent-teen in my in-house focus group, my answers to such questions are typically based on whatever danah boyd says. danah has spent the past several years researching how teens use the Internet, especially social networks. (Heck, I even have her PhD dissertation loaded on my Kindle.)

Yesterday, she invited the 11,000+ people who follow her on Twitter (@zephoria) to ask her questions about current web practices by teens.

She then compiled those questions and her answers into this extremely informative post.

In the immediate future, I’ll be using danah’s post as a crib-sheet to answer questions related to teens. However, if you want to cut out the middle-man, I suggest you bookmark that page for yourself.


Those web services you couldn’t live without in 1999 – Where are they now?

Harry McCracken has a thought-provoking post that lists what were, ten years ago, “the top 15 web properties (ie, networks of related sites) as measured by Media Metrix”.

Specifically, the thoughts Harry’s post should be provoking are these:

1. Why are almost all of those web properties no longer around?
2. When those of us who debate the future of media argue over whether or not print is dying, is that really what the debate is about? Shouldn’t the debate be over what is today vs. what is tomorrow?
3. What will come after the things we are obsessed about today?
4. What will happen to all that personal data and content we are cramming on to today’s top web services. When one of them goes away, do we, for instance, lose a few years of of our < 140 character steam of consciousness thoughts?
5. Were we ever so dumb as to make those sites the most visited sites on the web?

Considering today’s economy, perhaps it would be more insightful to look at the impact of the crash. Frankly, 1999 was sort of like the web’s disco period — something we look back and say, “What were we thinking?”

Many of these sites went public and then went out of business when their values fell to nothing. Perhaps it would be more interesting to look at comparison stats related to companies that have become popular after, say, 2002. Those companies haven’t all had access to the mountains of cash that helped cook the 1999 Media Metrix numbers. Perhaps there are dynamics at work for post crash web successes that were not around in 1999, when novelty and crazy money ruled the day.

Or maybe this is just Disco 2.0.

Required skimming: Internet-Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview

There are lots of inside jokes and jabs in this hilarious McSweeney’s piece that’s a description of an “upper-level” course called, “Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era.”

Among the prerequisite courses:

ENG: 232WR—Advanced Tweeting: The Elements of Droll
LIT: 223—Early-21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less
ENG: 102—Staring Blankly at Handheld Devices While Others Are Talking
ENG: 301—Advanced Blog and Book Skimming
ENG: 231WR—Facebook Wall Alliteration and Assonance
LIT: 202—The Literary Merits of Lolcats
LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption

Among the topics covered in the course:

Students will explore the dangers of curling up by fires with books and newspapers. That paper could catch fire should an ember unexpectedly pop out. And all that curling is not good for people’s backs. Especially since most readers of books, magazines, and newspapers are elderly and are thus already more likely to suffer from back ailments.

Where do I sign up?

(Read Skim the entire piece here.)

Later: I thought of “skimming” later in the morning, when I skimmed headlines that were lined up in my “River of News” (in my case, this means skimming headlines from news sources I’ve subscribed to using Google Reader). When you skim headlines this way, you sometimes run across an interesting news flow. For example, I just noticed four Reuters stories about the economy lined up in a way that, if I were just reading headlines, this is what Reuters would have told me this morning:

The recession is responsible for workplace violence, abortions and vasectomies. That’s bad because the IMF in one story says the world economy is in severe recession but not so bad because in another story, the IMF says the recession (at least in the U.S.) is showing signs of moderating.