I've just had a great conversation with Toby Moores, Visiting Professor at the IOCT and CEO of Sleepydog, makers of the Buzz quiz game. We were talking about transliterate spaces – what they are like, and how they change. This reminded me that way back in 2002/3 at trAce I tried to map the relationship of traditional writing to new media writing. With Simon Mills' help I came up with this:
But things have changed since then, and my conversation with Toby today has helped me understand how.
For example, the diagram above is far too closed in, it's too Web 1.0. It needs to be opened out, and that means taking into account Professor Ronald Burt's notion of structural holes. He believes that people with connections across the spaces between networks are more prone to have good ideas than people in densely interconnected but closed networks. In his view, these holes are necessary in order to facilitate innovation. He says "Creativity is an import-export game. It's not a creation game." So in the diagram below we see that Robert is based in the same network as James, but Robert has connections with other networks whereas James does not. Studies have shown (sorry, can't remember reference) that people like Robert who have good networking skills have much better employment prospects than James.
When I first heard Ron Burt talk about this at Nesta in 2006 (his research on the idea itself is pre-2000), I was very excited by it, but something felt not quite right. My conversation with Toby today made me realise the problem — Robert is tied to one of the networks. There needs to be another person in there, someone who floats free. Let's call her Jill, since there are never any women in these diagrams. Jill exists in the structural hole itself. In fact, Jill is the person who introduced Robert to the people at A, C and D in the first place. She is a freewheeler, a consultant or some such, maybe she lives out of a suitcase, or out of Facebook, or maybe she stays in one place and people come to her. But what makes Jill different from Robert is that she is a permanent resident in the structural hole. Transliteracy is the place she calls home. Now, as Toby says, the new media material that gathers in these spaces where Jill resides is made up of 'content which has escaped its container' which is in turn fragmenting into smaller and smaller elements. Using various items of restaurant crockery (we were having coffee at the time) Toby created a map on the table between us which was a bit like Ronald Burt's, but with lots of transliterate material in the holes. Here's my version of it, using Burt's diagram as a base but with Jill right there in the middle of it all.
Now, it can't be denied that the transliterate space has certain qualities which attract some people and repel others. It's transient (of course). It's uncertain. Confusing. Messy. Frustrating. And you always feel like an amateur because there are so many things you don't quite understand – yet at the same time there is a sense of being able to grok the whole space as a single entity. When I am evangelising about this, which I do far too frequently I'm afraid, I sometimes get the sense that people think I'm trying to drag them into one of the Circles of Hell and will never allow them to escape! But it's not that at all. I'm just encouraging them to take what they need as they transit through. Incidentally, as Burt has noted, structural holes have a natural drift towards closure, and this closure is often facilitated as part of a transition. But there is no danger of reaching a moment where all networks are joined together because it is in the nature of the beast that new holes are continually opening up. Indeed, this shifting sand quality is also quite integral to the transliterate environment. (When I was a child I was fascinated by the quicksands in cowboy movies but I learned just the other week that in fact it is impossible to completely sink into the sand as the bad guys often did – generally you only go as deep as your waist. You're still stuck, and you may indeed die, but you won't entirely disappear.) So where does that leave my 2003 diagram, in which everything was neat and tidy and enclosed? Clearly it's inappropriate, and probably was at the time too. But I think we need to find a better name for the structural holes, because the word 'hole' implies negative space, and these places are far from being negative. I still like the idea of transliteracy being estuarine, which each new tide bringing different transformations, so maybe the spaces between networks should be viewed as oceans between continents – teeming, thriving, nutritious zones of innovation and transformation. I can just imagine Jill rowing around in there in her little boat…