‘A Million Penguins’ Five Years On

Well, without dipping into too many cliches about the passage of time, it is nearly five years since the DMU/Penguin wiki-novel experiment, 'A Million Penguins', took place.  The project ran from 1 Feb 2007 for five weeks, and all of us who were involved with it remember it as a time of chaos and great entertainment.  Yesterday I was down at Goldsmith's College, in London, where I was the external examiner for a PhD candidate, Amy Spencer; her PhD was on the Networked Book.  She built her thesis around three case studies of networked books that are also works of fiction, 'Paddlesworth Press' , 'The Golden Notebook Project', and 'A Million Penguins'. It's a solid and interesting piece of research.  

Reading Amy's thesis promoted me to look at the current status of 'A Million Penguins' online.  We heard early last year that Penguin was going to give up hosting the project, and we didn't have the time, or the resources, to figure out how to archive the massive wiki, with its many many pages, ourselves.  I regret this, though it is hard to see how we could have saved it in time.  So the original site no longer exists.

However, a good portion of 'A Million Penguins' was archived by the amazing people at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, and you can find these pages by searching for it via the Wayback Machine.  

During Amy's viva we talked a bit about the phenomenon of the networked book itself.  Amy pointed out that during the noughties there were a significant number of projects that called themselves 'networked books', both fiction and non-fiction, my own on-going project, 'Flight Paths: a Networked Novel' among them of course.  Amy wondered if the networked book concept has had its day.  I think that we are now seeing trade publishing approaching publishing fiction in a manner that owes much to the networked book concept, although of course, all in the service of marketing.  Social media marketing campaigns are now being built around books; these campaigns include bespoke web content, games, extra content, author interviews, etc.  These campaigns aim to foster reader engagement around a newly published book, whereas the networked books of the noughties all sought to foster creative engagement with text and other forms of media.  The networked book emphasis was on collaboration and contributing, whereas, of necessity, a trade publishing networked social media campaign is about sales.  

Can you do Twitter by post?


For one month, journalist Giles Turnbull explored this question in his Twitter By Post experiment, which replaced digital tweets with physical post cards.

“Twitter is the contemporary postcard – social updates that are limited by size, but not imagination”

Turnbull used the conventions of Twitter to share updates with fifteen friends via a stack of postcards and stamps. He shared comments, links, videos and pictures, exchanged @replies, re-tweeted some updates and favourited others. The Fail Whale even made an appearance!

When reflecting on the project, he noted: “We write long letters now because we hardly write letters at all, so we feel obliged to make them something special…This makes them long and tedious to write, which means we’re disinclined to write letters; so we don’t write any at all, and post on Facebook instead.”

He compared this to letters from the early 20th century, which were “often kept short and to the point… a bit like social media updates.” This was also true of the earlier correspondence of the 18th century. We often have romanticised, Austen-esque vision of letter writing during this period, but again, letters of the time were often very short. The materials of writing and the postage costs involved in sending more than a single sheet of paper made it prohibitively expensive for anyone other than the very wealthy to send a long letter. Again, there was effectively a limit on the length of a written communication imposed by the technology of the day.

As well as highlighting the historical prescendent for short social messages, Turnbull also reflected on the physicality of the project:

“Now I have a pile of conversations on my desk. I can touch them, or shuffle them.”

Not only is it a tangible conversation, but it comes complete with glue and staples attaching other physical objects to those conversations. This experiment effectively makes concrete what we are doing in a more abstracted way on Twitter. As a method of examining our internet interactions this certainly has appeal and highlights the imagination required to “attach” something and send it across the globe in a digital form.

As Giles reflects in his conclusion to the experiment: “Tweeting by post made me appreciate the online and the offline.”

Photo credit: @gilest

Tropical Storm Irene and Social Media

Image from CBC News.

Recently Tropical Storm Irene has ripped it’s way through several areas causing massive destruction. It “began as a hurricane and was later reduced to a tropical storm and then downgraded again to a post-tropical cyclone, delivered enough rain to cause flooding in Lower Manhattan on Sunday.” Irene then moved on to Canada, leaving thousands without power in Quebec and the Atlantic Canada. During the raging storm, people kept abreast of news using Twitter and other social media tools. Some interesting examples include:


Twitter Reaction to Tropical Storm Irene: Relief by  on Mashable

The Live Time Square Webcam via EarthCam

Search Twitter for #Irene

A Crowdsourced Damage Map via Sarah Kessler on Versions.



Here’s a YouTube video by catdoodle documenting the storm in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. 

Magpie Storytelling


I have recently been experimenting with an exciting new tool called Storify. This allows you to collect bits and pieces of content from around the web and weave it into a narrative. You can use tweets, images, slideshows, blog posts or web pages as artefacts within your narrative to illustrate, provide dialogue and create different textures of experience within one platform.

So far I have only used this journalistically in my capacity as an event amplifier to pull together conference materials and audience responses, as in this example:

See the full story at Storify.com

Here, I am using Storify as a curation tool to bring together disparate materials which all relate to the same story. I can add a commentary around these materials to contextualise them and make direct comparisons between sources without fragmenting navigation. This type of curation tool is effectively making snippets of the web into objects or props that can be collected by a magpie storyteller, always on the look out for shiny things, and represented.

As I consider the reading experience this presents, I find myself wondering what these web artefacts lose by removing them from their context? How much of transliteracy is about contextual indicators around a unit of communicative material? Some web artefacts can stand on their own and are regularly embedded into other contexts, but others may lose clues to their interpretation, making it harder for someone who is not a competent reader to deduce meaning or make a trust judgement about the message being conveyed.


From a curatorial perspective, Storify is very much like running your own museum: you get to decide what to present, what significance to give it and how to weave it into a story in the context with the other objects in your collection. As a storytelling platform, it has the potential to incorporate the key ingredients of action (videos, interactive slideshows, flash animation), description and dialogue (embedded tweets) in a graphical way more akin to poetry.

I can certainly see potential for this type of tool as a way of helping people to develop familiarity with different types of online literacy within a narrative context, without the need to move around between different platforms and sites with competing skills requirements. It may also be useful for teaching about the different elements of a narrative, the balance between those elements and different ways in which the pace of the reading experience can be changed using different types of media in an interactive way.

I have written more about how Storify works in practice and the role it could play in communicating conference content here

Metaphors for the Humble Hash Tag

Hashtag The humble hash tag is a web object which is developing its own literacy connected to the various metaphorical interpretations it takes on in the wild.

As an event amplifier, I tend to think of the hash tag as a discussion space for a group of conference delegates who are dispersed across time and space. However, I have recently been challenged to think about the hash tag in more concrete terms, which has prompted me to explore the different metaphorical functions that this symbol has undertaken within its role as an online conversation element…

A Piece of Furniture – Conversations often happen around physical objects or pieces of furniture, such as tables or water coolers. Different pieces of furniture have inherited different social conventions. A round-table discussion at a conference will have very different set of conversational conventions to the discussion around the office water cooler. In this way the object itself becomes a metaphor for the type of conversation that it facilitates. People often gather around a hash tag as if it were a piece of furniture, but we are not yet at the stage where the hash tag has become synonymous with a certain type of conversation – it is currently a multi-purpose piece of furniture, which creates issues of its own.

A Place – This is probably the most common metaphor for a hash tag. The hash tag is a virtual chat room or a space for a specific discussion or event. People gather there at a certain time to talk, report and expound. You can revisit any time, but the room will feel empty if others are not sitting around chatting at the same time.

A Magnet – A hash tag can act as a magnet, attracting topical comments and conversations and binding them around an agreed anchor point. The participants may not be connected or even talking to each other, but their tagged comments get pulled into a wider, collected discussion.

A Filing System – People often use hash tags as ways of filing their comments and conversations into categories which can then be searched and revisited.

A Curation Tool – A hash tag can add context to a comment and allow it to be collected together with others for analysis and presentation within a curated resource.

A Sign – Hash tags can be used by individuals as conversational devices to qualify a statement or indicate humour, either as a shorthand way of adding context or to replace lost intonation and body language so that their meaning is not misinterpreted. In face to face conversation we do not usually need to hold up a sign saying: “this is a joke” or “I’m being sarcastic now”, but we do have various non-verbal indicators and more than 140 characters.

There are probably others I have missed, but what this shows us is that this simple symbol is taking on subtle, often nuanced meanings in different circumstances to help us visualise an online conversation. Understanding and reading across these different metaphors is not only important as we encounter and use this symbol, but also for our understanding of how we visualise the new models of conversation made possible by the internet.

Transliteracy: TV to Online and Back Again

I think most of us will agree that in order to succeed in an increasingly multimodal environment, we require more than alphabetic literacy skills. Researchers, practitioners, educators, learners – would all agree that being transliterate and that concurrent ability to read across media and modes helps us navigate the 21st century more effectively.

Thinking about transliteracy and the reading and interacting across platforms is always on my mind…even when watching a bit of television. What I've noticed recently is a not so subtle attempt to draw viewers from the TV to the online environment, with a drive to bring this same viewers back to the TV. There are two current examples I have in mind.

First: Toyota. In a television ad. Toyota asks its viewers to share their car ownership stories on Facebook. Here then, viewers are moving from TV to the internet. But, it doesn't stop there. Once a month Toyota will choose a viewer's story which will then appear on a TV ad. as well as on Facebook. So viewers (i.e. customers) are moving back to the television. This must be an example of transliteracy and a certain kind of level of transliteracy where viewers interact as well as read in the online arena.


Second: Sutter Health. An American not-for-profit health care system asks its patients and employees to "share" their stories because "everyone has a story." Again, the tv ad. directs people to share their stories online at the Sutter Health or Facebook sites. Similarly, a portion of the stories will be chosen to air on tv, directing the viewers from the online social environment back to tv. 

Based on the ads aired by both Toyota and Sutter Health, customers are transliterate. They are able to move from one platform to another. However, is this ability synonymous with a deeper critical transliteracy? What is the ability to explore, interpret and question these information resources and how do we help teach, support and encourage these abilities?

As stated in the 2009 Horizon Report, " increasing globalization continues to affect the way we work, collaborate, and communicate. . . . Increasingly, those who use technology in ways that expand their global connections are more likely to advance, while those who do not will find themselves on the sidelines."

Note: Toyota image from Toyota Facebook page. Sutter Health image from Sutter Health site.

Alone Together

There’s something so poignant about the phrase, “alone together”. It stuck in my head after I saw this CNN video about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. I presume that most readers of this blog have seen it too. I wonder whether the same phrase at the end of John Vennavally-Rao’s report has also intrigued, delighted and troubled you?

I’m putting down here some random thoughts that haven’t fully coalesced yet into a coherent philosophy, but I’m chasing something/ some things that are hard to see.

The haunting beauty of the choral sound and the inclusive arc of differently coloured faces and backgrounds on the red-curtained stage of cyberspace pleased me deeply. I smiled. I watched it again. I forwarded it to a few friends. I watched it again. I studied a few of the faces — each singing peacefully and unselfconsciously as one can only do in one’s own private space. I felt glad and privileged to have access to those private moments mixed together in an enormous public display that reached and continues to reach across continents and across time. It was/is something precious. I googled Eric Whitacre. I was pleased to read that he’s working on more pieces for the Virtual Choir, perhaps some original work…

And yet, why does it haunt me so? The sense of longing, of reaching out for connection that is communicated to me, the viewer-hearer, is largely a function of the strangeness of the presentation, not of each individual’s communication. Most of the singers look extraordinarily serene, like people absent from the world because they’re in “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).  People who are physically together when singing together, no matter with how much joy or harmony, don’t wear exactly the same expression as an individual in private rapture. Or didn’t, anyway. As we reach out for connection in this new way, are we inviting others to steal a part of our soul that previously only revealed itself to the walls or landscapes of our private spaces?

Even as I delight in the confluence of digital media that make possible this self-revelatory joining of humans who know nothing of each other besides that all (all of those who are featured, anyway) can sing, I cannot help but be conscious of all those intervening media, “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data”. They make the fragile meaning that could not exist if the electricity failed.

But isn’t this just a logical 21st century extension of the artistic process? Artists have always used materials and techniques to transform base material into something else. It’s what artists do. Why does this seem different to me?

Partly, it’s the ephemerality of it — the is-and-notness that flickers on and off at the whim of the switch. Also, it’s the way the human sources are both enhanced by and subsumed in the media. Their “togetherness” is something that the media help us (and them) to imagine. We imagine willingly, but the compulsive clarity of video entices us to go further — to believe, despite ourselves. This mixture of the not-real and the real is disturbing. The putative “togetherness” (not-real) painfully emphasizes the aloneness (real) of the participants. We see each person’s aloneness clearly, multiplied a hundred times in an instant. Usually, we would suspect it only by extension from our own aloneness, when we can risk being conscious of that, and only one-by-one, from the occasional glimpses provided by circumstance.

On the other hand, we also see some elements that inspire us to seek togetherness… that give us hope. Despite our different countries, languages, cultures, genders and body types, we can all sing; we all aspire to make beautiful sounds; we can participate and cooperate to harmonious effect (albeit with the help of a strong guiding and editing hand); we all seek out private time or space to connect with ourselves, we can all be receptive; we can all be gentle. We also all enjoy and depend on similar electronic equipment for our communication and pleasure, so we are patient with each other as we struggle with its vagaries.

As the days passed, my thoughts turned to the creator/conductor/guide/editor — the uber-artist who put it all together. The reach of the work in terms of participants and, even more, of audience, and the fact that the harmony is created in his own private space by one over/above/outside the private spaces of those making the sounds, made me think of him in godlike terms. He is a small god, but with incredibly long digital arms. And now we can all be like him. We “little kings” are no longer held in check by the limitations of our physical resources. We are let loose with the power to make our megalomaniac dreams come true — in a sense — but we pay with the constant awareness of our aloneness.

This aloneness has always been the human condition, but before these digital joinings in eternally-preserved and universally-accessible public spaces, we only dipped in and out of this awareness occasionally. Well, there is no way back, unless we have a Butlerian Jihad in our future. Until then, humanity is working out the Zen of our growth into full and constant consciousness of how we really are — just google the phrase “alone together” to see how much this concept exercises us in the current age.