Site Specific Stories

I want to add place to my own list of the modes we read and write across when thinking about transliteracy.

I recently got an iPhone, and it has changed almost entirely the way I use and interact with the web, where and when I read and write on the internet, the sites I visit and the tools I access. The change has been prompted by the portability of the device, and the ability to locate myself physically in the web via GPS.

The GPS facilities on iPhone and other smartphones allow us to pin ourselves to the map, to add our physical location to our tweets, our photos, our facebook status updates and comments. Services like foursquare and Gowalla enable us to play on the map, stealing territory, winning badges, earning real and virtual gifts (foursquare and Gowalla both partner with businesses to offer rewards to participants who 'check in' at their venues). This tagging of location adds another level to folksonomy, not only what, but where.

I stumbled upon and downloaded the Layar application to my phone. Layar is an 'augmented reality browser' which shows places around you as points on a map, a list, or in 'reality' view. The reality view overlays geographical points on the camera view, and as you walk or turn around, the points change and move with you. Different layers offer different views; cash machines near you, local house prices, geo-tagged tweets and FlickR images, Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos. You can select particular points and find directions from your current location to that point. Individual points can be used to trigger video, audio, or webpages, even to make a call or send a text.

I first tried Layar out sat on my sofa at home, just after I'd downloaded it. It was interesting, but as a static experience, once I'd checked out a few points, and played with the directions feature, I felt I'd seen enough.

A couple of nights later, I was walking to meet a friend, and tried out Layar again as I walked. It was a completely different experience. I loaded the 'Tweeps Around' layer, a layer which shows geo-tagged posts from Twitter. The users' profile images floated in space, scaling as they faded off into the distance, tweets from weeks, months ago hanging in the air pinned to real spaces, 197, 35, 280 metres away. As I walked up the street, tweets disappeared and new ones appeared as I passed them or they fell out of view. The network I normally imagined as shapeless, fuzzy and intangible, suddenly felt real and solid, less a cloud than a thick pea-souper fog. It was heady, immersive, creating a genuine feeling of being in the web, a virtual world intertwined our own physical world.

I started to think about the potential of Layar as a platform for storytelling, and the possibility of siting fragments of story, characters and histories across a city, a village or a street. I'm not so interested in finding the nearest cash machine or houses for sale, but the real and imagined stories of what happened in the places I walk through. The ghost stories, the story of the deal that went down and then went bad, the jokes told, the drunken kisses, and how the dog saved the day. Layar provides the opportunity to create narratives which immerse the participant in the environment of the story, not a place to go to, but a place you are already in, seen through new eyes. Fragments of the past(s) collide and overlay the present, the user is invited to hunt clues and to piece together the story, even to collaborate by adding their own markers, through geo-tagged tweets, images, videos etc.

I'm currently developing a Layar project with the Harris Museum in Preston alongside their upcoming Industrial Revolutionaries exhibition, creating a city wide exhibit of Preston's industrial past. The layer will contain images, archive film, stories and 3d representations of buildings and factories which are long lost. The project moves the exhibition out of the gallery, onto the streets and enables the audience to immerse themselves in a rich, multi-layered social history across multiple timelines and sites. The Layar environment invites the user to undertake a psychogeographical derivé around the city, the points potentially arbitrary wayfinders for a (re)discovery of the space. Like Ackroyd's 'London: the biography', it describes the city not simply through chronology, but through senses, voices, stories and memory.

I will document elements of this project and other experiments with Layar on the Transliteracy Ning 'Research Workshop' discussion forum. Please contact me if you are interested in discussing the project or potential collaborative projects.

Transliteracy as Blueberry Smoothie, from Brian Hulsey

Brian Hulsey at The Chattahoochee Valley Library system in Phenix City, Alabama, has posted this great video on what he calls Everyday Transliteracy which combines two good things – transliteracy and food! I'd love him to add to it further by including the literacy of reading the recipe, of using the cookery skills and tools to make the smoothie, and of course the all-important process of consumption. Brian, if you're reading this, do you have time to add a new section to your movie showing all of that? I hope so!

This is an important topic. The different literacies of food – how it's grown, processed and consumed in different cultures and contexts – are hugely important. The understanding of a particular food can unite or divide us. And that's without even starting on the literacies of table manners. I really enjoyed Brian's approach..

Telling stories of belief and disbelief

March 21 was World Storytelling Day – a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On that day, I listened to stories on my CD player.  The stories about my country.  Booker prize winner, Ben Okri, said some time ago that the fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.


In some communities, storytellers have for centuries been the record keepers, chronicling births, deaths and the history of relationships within and outside the community. Researchers say oral communication remains vital in Africa today because most people still live in traditional and linguistically homogenous settings which foster oral culture.


Religion plays a prominent part in many African stories. Abdulatif Abdalla’s Utenzi wa Maisha ya Adamu na Hawaa brings out the relationship between orality and worship. The poem tells the story of Adam and Eve, from the beginning of their creation, through the drama of temptation and disobedience, the birth of their children, the murder of Abel, the couple’s agony and repentance and the forgiveness by God. 


Most stories about religion don’t end nicely, I have come to know. Most speak of intolerance, of tensions and of massacres. Music legend Fela Kuti told these stories, with humour and wit. His son Femi, in an interview with a journal said: “My great grand father died looking for Jesus. My grandfather died. Jesus didn’t come. Well, my father said he was wise and that he is not going to wait until Jesus will come. And he too is dead. If I look at both of them I take my father being the wisest.”


Those familiar with theories of orality would know that human beings in primary oral cultures, those unaffected by writing, learn by apprenticeship – by listening, by repeating what they hear. On this year’s World Storytelling Day, I heard stories of conflict, of human unease. I  hope that someday, I will hear a different story, that I will tell and listen to stories of perfection and ease, that I will play back these stories (in whatever medium) to myself, my children and my children’s children.

A Quick Code…

For a bit of fun, try taking this very quick transliteracy test…


I will stress that this was designed only as a bit of fun – it is not, by any means, a definitive test!
However, in producing it, I was mulling on two points related to transliteracy… 

1.Our brains are designed to solve problems and spot patterns, which allows __ to miss ___ every third ___ without confusing ____. Whilst it is not possible to understand and demonstrate complete fluency in every type of literacy there is, the ability to find patterns and infer meaning must surely be a component part of being a transliterate individual? 

2.The desire to understand and the ability to search out meaning must also be a factor in transliteracy. How many of you did an internet search to de-code the morse code or semaphore sections of the video? Does an ignorance of morse code or semaphore mean you are not transliterate? Or does the desire to fill in that gap and the ability to find that information prove that you *are* transliterate? 

Something to ponder, anyway! 😉