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07/12 Commonplace books meets remixing

Presentation given with Ture Schwebs at 6th International Conference on Multimodality, London 2012.

In the Renaissance and in the following centuries, a period where books were available but still expensive, readers were accustomed to copy passages from their own reading into notebooks called commonplace books or commonplaces. Such personal anthologies were an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each book was unique and reflected its creator’s particular interests.

The nature of of paper based commonplace books resembles many of the qualities found in online journals, wikis, photo sharing websites etc. Citations, copied and embedded (multi)media material are compiled into new works, known as remixes, where links to various sources let individual contributions become part of a large number of potential texts.

This presention examines how various genres like blogs, online scrap books and social media walls have become digital commonplaces and point out some possible directions for a future commonplacing with common web technologies, like HTML5, which also represents a merging of multimodal, online material and technologies used to create media rich ebooks.

Background image by philip.bitnar.

Commonplacing on paper is an analog example of how consuming and producing texts can be closely connected. It is, however, possible to make a distinction between the two activities on paper. In an online, computed environment these phases of text use and creation becomes difficult to separate.

A bookmarking service like Delicious is a relatively simple example of an activity that resembles some of the ideas inherited from commonplacing. In this environment tags become the places where the references to the various texts are “stored”.   Collective commonplacing emerge in this kind of systems, which facilitate tagging, sharing and syndication..

Today most blogs have diary-like qualities, but there is also quite a few linkblogs, with short citations and links to the online source.
Jörn Barger, who coined the term “weblog”, explained it as “log of the web /../ where a weblogger /../ 'logs' webpages she finds interesting”. There is a direct connection for commonplacing, via Vannevar Bush's idea of trailblazing to linkblogs.

Posting with a hashtag on Twitter have some qualities like commonplacing, as long as most users agree that a tag will be used for information about a specific topic. It is worth noticing that a system, which makes commonplace-like activities possible, also can be used for other purposes. Not very different from how a paper book can be used: both as a diary and a commonplace book.

Commonplacing with Clipboard, one of many services that allow copying and annotating on the web. With a small extention to the users webbrowser Clipboard makes it easy to cite different kinds of media material, even videos and Flash animations. The selected media elements are collected and presented as an evolving collage. The elements can be shared among the users and organised by tags.

The next example is a collage of images, originally posted by various users on Flickr, and then automatically assembled by Blogger. The selection is done by the push of a button on Flickr, and all the technical tasks, like adding HTML code and a reference to the source, are done by webservices. |This is one of many examples of how re-publishing becomes extremely easy, not requiring any special technical skills.

In a digital and networked environment, what is fundamentally different from commonplacing on paper is the ability to connect contributions from a large number of individual contributors. By using functions like repinning the users add value and contribute to the spread of images found by others. This can be characterised as a commons based approach to the creation of knowledge resources.

Complex visual compilations is of course nothing new. Aby Warburg made compilations of illustrations from a variety of sources in th e 1920s. The compilations were put in order to correspond to specific themes, a kind of visual commonplacing with paper copies.

What is new with digital networkred media are the increased possibilities of putting together various sources, with different modalities, and to collaborate when creating and sharing these new creations. The networked computer and the computer screen makes almost any combination of temporal and spatial media possible. Digital commonplacing then involve both a thematic and a spatial placement.

Historypin may serve as an example of how digital media objects can be placed in both space and time, in a dynamic combination that is unique to digital media. This also introduce the geographical placement of digital objects, where the result can be explored on mobile devices when being in a specific location.

The last example is paper.li.Commons-based production implies that what some users place in one context can be automatically compiled into other creations, presented in completely other contexts. Commonplacing then becomes both the activity of choosing a common reference and to share the result in a common space.

Summing up
On paper commonplace books were mostly private. On the web most texts are shared and publicly available. Today much of what remains of commonplacing has become a collective effort.

Text creation is often enabled by free webservices. These services makes search, selection, remixing and republishing very easy, but a lot is hidden from the average users. Without specific knowledge of how the different services work and interact, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to analyse which parts of the final result that is made intentionally by the user.

One of the core concepts of commonplacing on paper is creating an index. This becomes somewhat obsolete in digital media, where the index is replaced by links and search.

Commonplacing on paper required a chain of activities which led to an internalizing of the original author's words. Copying a passage by hand was often the first step in a process of remembering. Cutting and pasting, on the other hand, might turn out to be more superficial.

Still we find the concept of commonplacing highly relevant, also when working with material with several modalities. Re-arranging parts of multimodal texts, from different sources, out of their original context, creates new value.  When texts are remixed into a new texts, produced with more or less specific intentions, the creators will have to engage with the different sources, more extensively than if these sources where only archived. In this process there are no clear distinctions between how we use digital technologies to archive, filter and remix texts. They all become integrated as inseparable parts in a larger process which students and scholars have to master.

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