Monday, March 29, 2010

The heterogeneous text

The rise of the personalised screen view constitutes an interesting challenge to our definition of text. For most of the history of digital texts we have had the capacity to alter the size, the shape and often the order in which we read on screen. But the rise of socially interactive web spaces has led to the emergence of the heterogeneous text. By this I mean textual spaces like Facebook and Twitter in which what is seen on screen is dependent on who you are - your unique point of view. Of course there is some stability and uniformity at a general level of layout, but the particular configuration of status updates or tweets is dependent on who's in your social network. Although it would be possible to create two identical pages through a contrivance, your page is esentially your own. So even one space is textually heterogeneous, and of course has a level of instability dependent on the regularity of updates. The unique point of view is an interesting departure from one-to-many print texts and their web equivalents. In the latter the 'look' may vary, but the text retains a certain authority. My blog page looks slightly different in reduced view, through Safari, Firefox or Explorer, but the text has a certain integrity. In common with gaming and virtual worlds, SNS pages are by contrast, marked by point of view - and of course that can lead us to ask 'What is the text, then?' Too big a question for here, but we could perhaps look to a modified genre theory to give an account of this heterotextuality. As I say, in an SNS, the basic design or template clearly has certain fairly stable structural features. They help us to distinguish a Facebook page from, say, a Flickr page. The macrostructure needs to be fairly stable for exactly these reasons. When Facebook alters this, as it does from time to time, there are reactions - short run debates with an 'I liked it how it was, why did they have to change it' to 'this is better, much better tone' to them. But what about the smaller stuff, the bits of social meaning, the updates themselves? Here, Bakhtin's notion of micro-genres is helpful, because it helps us to identify the patterning inherent in individual updates...well potentially, anyway. I expect there's probably some born again linguist out there doing a PhD on the generic features of tweets as we ...speak! Good luck to them. For now I'm just pondering on how the heterotextual nature of digital texts is another facet of 'newness'.

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