28 June 2010

An interesting discussion

Twitter stage fright

You wouldn’t think that you could get stage fright in anticipation of a twitter discussion but last week proved that I can. I had the immense pleasure of being asked by Lindsey Martin to talk about interactivity for ebooks as a part of #ePrdctn hour.

It was a lot of fun to be able to discuss a subject I’ve researched for years and years with people whose practical knowledge of ebook production and design vastly outweighs my own.

The resulting discussion, as a result, struck a balance between theory and practice, which was all the more interesting an achievement given the limitations and constraints of twitter as a medium and a testimony to how interesting the online eproduction community is. That said, my summary below leaves out some of the discussion to make the write-up easier to follow, but you can find the entire unadulterated thing over here.

In any case, the discussion follows, loosely edited. My crimes against grammar remain, mostly, intact. Eeeeeextreeeme Interactivity.


Okay, #ePrdctn hour here I come. I’m here to talk about interactivity for, in and surrounding linear ebooks. There is a lot of prior art, for those who are open-minded and curious, e.g. Voyager Expanded Books + a lot of the web. But I’m just going to dive in with some practical concepts you should be able to apply today in your work.


First: Content Interactivity. This ranges from embedded video to interactive infographs to sortable tables. Anything in the main text. Content Interactivity is problematic in epub/kindle but almost doable. It’s also the preferred pig-lipstick :-) used to flog enhanced ebook apps. It is also the kind least suitable/most problematic for those publishing both in print and in E; you end up forking the work.

Hyperlinks are a part of the text and need to be a part of the authoring process from very near the beginning. Print tools aren’t designed for authoring hypertexts and are liable to make life difficult. Any text that has interactive main content is a hypertext, even if it has a print version as well. In fact all text is hypertext, just most happen to be linked in a linear order, but that’s a diff subject :-D. Anybody with an interest in CI needs to at least consider web tools or a serious hypertext writing tool such as @eastgate’s Tinderbox. With a real hypertext tool multiple link types and multidirectional links (think “return to …” links) are much easier.

For video there’s a thousand years of design precedence for how to embed it in ebooks. Every time there’s been an image laid out with text from the scroll onwards there’s a source for video embed design inspiration. Until you can do something like an animated dropcap with a transp. alpha channel, video in ebooks will be fairly toy-like.

The gold standard for interactive graphics these days would be dynamic online overviews of election results. But coming back to the subject of ‘static’ interactivity. Don’t underestimate how much of the programming can be pushed to the edges.


Second. Framing Interactivity [FI]. Any kind of widget, hyperlink or UI that brings context into the frame of the work. Classic FI examples are comments on websites, “share this”-type buttons, related links or Kindle popular highlights. Although, a link can be any kind of interactivity depending on its use, As @eastgate says, the link is just a new punctuation mark. Framing interactivity — discussions — can take on many more forms than just the typical blog-style comments. Discussions can be Tufte-style curation where, as soon as the moderator gets a new comment that makes a point better than an old comment the mod drops the old comment, resulting in a highly readable “best of the best” thread. (See “Ask Edward Tufte: Moderating internet forums: What’s smart, not what’s new”). Other kinds are ‘Talking Stick’ discussions (only those with the token can speak). Queued (only speak when it’s your turn).

Framing Interactivity isn’t about inviting people into the text but to provide the text with a fluid boundary that forms a context. Think of a painting’s frame. It affects your interpretation of the painting but even if it was made by the painter it’s usually not studied as a part of the work itself, no matter how influential or vital it is.

So Content Interactivity and Framing Interactivity. Main text and context. Now for the third main type.


Third. Deconstructive Interactivity [DI]. Any UI that breaks the text apart and represents it in an explorable form. You’ve seen and used Deconstructive Int. more than you think. Search is a classic example, as is Amazon’s Search Inside the Book. A publisher that has its entire backlist in a structured XML format could and should offer structured search of all of its books. Search in dialogue. Search in dialogue by this character. Search in text set in X location. Search character descriptions … … And the search results can have Framing Interactivity of their own where they could be shared, discussed, etc. Comparative search results: Search for the same term in the dialogue by two different characters.

The good thing about DI is that you can implement this today, full speed ahead and damn the ereaders! Do it on your website. You could offer various deconstructions on your websites for potential buyers to explore and try out. Possibly even planting easter eggs that, if found by explorers, gave them a discount. The biggest thing holding Deconstructive Interactivity back ATM is the difficulty with linking directly into ebooks. But even though that prevents a lot of Awesome from being implemented it doesn’t prevent all Awesome, if you know what I mean :-). You could have character profile pages, subject pages, that are dynamically generated from the book backlist XML files.


The book has always been a social app — the only question with ebooks is whether and how you want to formalise it. Final point: Books are discussion totems, they encapsulate a debate, vantage point and group of people into a social object.


Q: crych: Would you agree that footnotes, references etc. in print are ‘hypertext’ even if static? A: Absolutely. Hypertext doesn’t have to be programmed or dynamic. Nor does interactivity in fact.

Q: eBookNoir: wht do U think of the interactive component of haptic feedback that i C sum readers R coming out w/, will it help? A: Haptic feedback has potential + anyt that uses our sense of touch, which is something underappreciated in new media.

Q: MatthewDiener: Would you consider chunking & recombining/mashing up different books as Deconstructive Int.? A: Absolutely. And the mash-up can be intra-series. A structured search, mashup or whatever over an entire series.

Everything on this site is written by . In case you hadn't guessed already.