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Digital Digest: The Link From Online to Real Life

By now, musicians are used to hearing that if they want to make a living at their craft, they should look to concerts rather than record sales. With digitization, the advice goes, the monetary value of content shrinks, necessitating a reliance on performances, merchandise, licensing deals, and other sources of income to foot the bills. It’s a line of thinking that is giving writers insight into the online marketplace too, and one that Hostr—a new online platform that lets users organize live events—is looking to leverage. Launched earlier this year, the site includes poets and writers on its growing roster of public speakers, musicians, actors, artists, and media professionals who can be hired for private appearances.

Literary communities, of course, haven’t had much trouble proliferating online, but coming together in real life—referred to in the online community as IRL—is another challenge entirely. Sites like Meetup.com offer a way to coordinate casual gatherings of the like-minded, and literary resource Mediabistro maintains an online directory (essentially a very long spreadsheet) of writers willing to make appearances at book clubs or participate in Skype chats. Where Hostr (not to be confused with file-sharing service Hostr.co) differs is in its ability to streamline group funding of private events. Users looking to organize a home appearance choose the talent they’d like to host (the directory so far includes only a handful of writers, although the site is accepting applications) and then set the percentage of costs they expect attendees to cover. Prospective guests—who can range from selected friends to other Hostr users with similar interests—then chip in, Kickstarter-style, buying tickets through the event page until the funding target is reached. If the cash is raised the event goes ahead, the talent gets paid, and Hostr collects its fee; if not, the event can be canceled and ticket prices refunded.

While platforms that mediate between the web and real life may suggest new ways, as Hostr’s operation manager Sharon Eyny puts it, to “directly support the arts” by offering writers more sources of revenue, building better links between the online and off–line worlds also has implications for the way writing is produced in the first place. This is especially the case now that so much of the reading that begets writing—and, correspondingly, the research practices in which new writers are being trained—takes place exclusively online. David White, an Oxford-based researcher in technologically assisted learning, made this point nearly two years ago when he outlined the GWR model of student writing: Research begins with Google, moves to Wikipedia (which tends to dominate the top hits in search-engine results, as web-culture critics like Jaron Lanier have lamented), and culminates in the citation—though not the reading—of Wikipedia reference lists. A similarly superficial reliance on digitized abstracts characterizes what Rebecca Moore Howard, director of the Citation Project at Syracuse University, calls the “patchwriting” style of student writing.

In response to observations like these—and to the frequent complaint that physical resources and bricks-and-mortar libraries are seeing less and less use—University of Pennsylvania librarian John Mark Ockerbloom has come up with a proposal to enhance Wikipedia pages with portals to local libraries. Reminiscent of Jon Udell’s 2002 LibraryLookup Project (which let users see whether the books listed on websites such as Amazon were also available in nearby libraries), Ockerbloom’s initiative involved creating a set of Wikipedia templates that includes a “library resources” section. Through what he calls the Forward to Libraries service, links within Wikipedia are transformed into concept-level searches of local library catalogues—thanks to masses of compiled metadata from the Library of Congress and elsewhere. In April, less than a month after Ockerbloom kicked off his experiment, Wikipedia editors had already updated several hundred articles with the new templates, and more than one hundred fifty libraries had been supported. That momentum can be credited to the understanding that while most research, like writing, might start out digitally, it can still be expanded into sustained engagement with local communities. 

Adrian Versteegh is a PhD candidate at New York University, where he teaches literature and writes about insomnia. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Berlin.

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Digital Digest: The Link From Online to Real Life (July/August 2013)
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