Monday, October 13

signature

Ok, so let's imagine that you're in some semi-public place - a coffee shop, a cafe, a library of some sort. The kind of place where people come ostensibly to study or write, but mostly just to be around other people and talk. And somewhere, let's say it's on a bookshelf or a table, there is a notebook or binder that is sort of an artifact of its location. It doesn't belong to any one person, but it's not just adrift either. People pick it up and read it, and a lot of them leave something behind. They write down a bad joke or a quote or a poem, or they leave a little sketch in a margin. Maybe it contains kind of an ongoing conversation. People have left stickers on its covers, taped pictures to pages, written phone numbers and addresses.

Assuming that something like this would be a worthwhile object may be optimistic. People are often enough not very articulate in the records they leave behind - see most bathroom walls and nearly all graffiti - but I am going to admit the faint hope that a lot of people do have something to say and would rather say it without trashing the medium of communication.

I think it's a similar, if more purposeful, idea that drives people to develop something on the web like a guestbook (which almost never works) or a wiki (which works under the right conditions, with the right mass of users and a lot of understanding between them). Of course you could make a huge list of the ways wiki is different from that paper notebook, but some of them are probably a lot more important. The one that strikes me most is handwriting.

Between any two writers, most observers are going to notice two kinds of immediate difference. It doesn't really matter that the contributor of America, love it or leave it you hippie fag! below a scrawled NO WAR!!! didn't leave a signature; his lettering is different and the ink is blue Papermate instead of black Sharpie. Content and form both scream "I am not the same person!". Any wiki-like system is going to convey content, but form is limited to the things that a user can do to the look of their text (which require conscious thought) and the style of their writing (which is hard to see on a first reading).

Electronic text, compared to what we do with ink and graphite, is usually what my drawing instructor referred to as 'dumb line'. When cheap ballpoints and mechanical pencils replaced nibbed pens, handwriting lost much of its expressiveness and character to lines of uniform width and weight. The transition to keyboards and a limited set of characters fits somewhere on the same continuum1.

There are basic electronic equivalents to handwriting: Punctuation, line and paragraph length, quoting style, characteristic typos, smilies and acronyms and the like. If you spend enough time reading someone's text you learn to recognize it even without much in the way of context. For a thing like Usenet or e-mail, those cues are generally enough, especially since they're built out of discrete messages with (usually) signatures and addresses attached. For a thing like Wikipedia with its 'neutral point of view' (a paradox, but I guess a noble goal), too distinctive a handwriting is probably best avoided. On standard weblogs, the problem scarcely exists because weblog authors are running their own show and usually pay a lot of attention to the way things look.

Which leaves the systems that really are something like that notebook on a table. How would we go about implementing a kind of handwriting on a wiki?2

 

1 I want to emphasize that our mechanical means of expression have become more uniform and less obviously displayed in our creative output. (You could argue that point in the analog world; the variety of writing utensils for sale anywhere you look is kind of staggering, even if most of them suck.) I don't mean to say that electronic displays aren't capable of an incredible range of expression, or that all of the fonts and graphical elements on a computer screen are literally rendered with dumb line, although now that I think about it, a lot of them are.

The differences between writing with vim in a terminal window on a Macintosh and with Internet Explorer's text editing controls on Intel hardware may affect what we produce (how can they not?), but they aren't likely to leave much visual residue in the resulting text. This is only one part of a larger phenomenon than the whole handwriting kick I got off on here to begin with, and it's hardly the kind of thing you can make any easy value statements about.

2 Just to make this harder, I mean something mostly independent of deliberate user choices and somehow reflective of physical reality. See today's wiki page.