Follow the Pathfinders: a Case Study Approach to Production, Use, and Readership on Scalar

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Abstract (in English): 

Following the increasing hypertext practice in digital culture over the past decades, reinventing the medial mode of academic publication becomes desirable to open up new research practices and knowledge production. New digital platforms are taking practice-based steps towards more multimodal publications. This paper examines the born-digital book Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop which was published in the humanities publication platform Scalar. In Pathfinders, four classic works of electronic literature are documented using a combination of Traversals (filmed walkthroughs by authors and readers), filmed interviews and carefully described and photographed physical materials. As such, Pathfinders is positioned as a DH practice to "rescue" early works of electronic literature from both technological obsolescence and oblivion.

Using the ‘Follow the Thing’ method, I trace the various stages in the publication to induce the themes that are important for born-digital publications. The first stage is the technical platform Scalar and its technological affordances. The second stage is the scholars’ adoption and appropriation of the platform for their own purposes. The third stage is the media text, the born-digital book publication, and its media-specific arguments. The fourth and final stage is the reader’s experience of the multimodal book.

Through a combination of interviews (with author Dene Grigar and two readers), textual analysis, and literature review, I distill the themes that are key in this publication. The first theme is platform adoption. Here, I focus on the technological affordances of Scalar in relation to the use of Scalar by the authors and readers of Pathfinders. This includes a discussion on software sustainability in terms of labor as well as a media analysis on the 'bookishness' of the work. A second theme that arose is the implementation in institutional and academic publication structures. Previously mainly researched in the context of digital pedagogy, I take this to a new level by considering how Pathfinders has fared as a seminal publication in the field of electronic literature and the role of accessibility in its functioning as an academic resource. Third, I focus on the technological context, which includes a reflection on the embedded media as an iteration of the metainterface paradigm and the role of documented physical materials in the understanding of early electronic literature. Finally, I discuss the theme of documentation and publication as a research value. Pathfinders is a prime example of the argument the documentation needs to be at the center of research on ephemeral media, using the platform's tool and functionalities to highlight this in the book.

My video presentation and article provide a nuanced understanding of Pathfinders, using video clips from the various interviews. I take my analysis into a broader perspective by considering how this understanding can be extrapolated for other born-digital publications.

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ELO 2021: Games, storytelling and methodologies, May 26

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Milosz Waskiewicz