Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Expanding the Pathfinders Methodology: Capturing Live Stream Traversals & Social Media Conversations

How can we make an interactive, multimedia work of born digital media created on outmoded hardware and software accessible to today's readers in a way that preserves the experience of that work?

That was the question driving Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop's research with their Pathfinders project. They answered this question by developing a methodology that included detailed documentation of the work along with video recording author-reader performances of a single path into the work using time-appropriate hardware and software. They called their methodology, Pathfinders, and the videotaped performance, a Traversal. They used this method for documenting four early works of electronic literature: Judy Malloy's Uncle Roger, Version 3.3, John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1992), Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995) and Bill Bly's We Descend (1997). They compiled all of their data into an open-source, multimedia book, entitled Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature, and published it on June 1, 2015. To date, the book has had over 25,000 views from readers from 58 countries representing 275 universities, centers, libraries, and schools. They followed this project with Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Digital Writing (The MIT Press, 2017), a book of critical essays about the four works.

Rebooting Electronic Literature expands upon the Traversal methodology by streaming it live and engaging the audience in real-time social media channels, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube Chat. We did so in order to experiment with reaching a larger audience and provide an opportunity for that audience to participate in real-time in the Traversal experience.

Capturing a live Traversal introduces a few new challenges. First, because there is a audience viewing the Traversal both onsite at the lab and online via YouTube, role of the reader, the one who is navigating the work, is performing for two distinctly different audiences. Second, since the live broadcasts removes the option of splicing together multiple takes in post-production, the reader’s role requires more preparation and rehearsal. Additionally, the video and audio mixing process requires more camera angles and microphone positions, as the live performance does not allow for the set to be taken down and re-arranged between reading, author interview, and audience Q & A portions of the Traversal.

Capturing live social interaction enables us to capture audience participation during the Traversal process. Undergraduate researchers working in the lab cultivated audiences and captured conversations taking place on Twitter using the #elitpathfinders hashtag, on Facebook using the eLit Pathfinders page, and YouTube's live chat mode. These social media networks allowed us to add live conversation to the Traversal that involved scholars, interested viewers, and the authors themselves. After the event, the content of these three social media feeds, plus photographs taken during the live event, are gathered and saved using the Storify service.

Performing Traversals of e-lit live, online, and using social media channels adds a participatory aspect to the existing Pathfinders Traversal model. We are able to keep these seminal works alive by sharing their existence with a wider audience, capturing more of the depth and richness of the scholarly conversation surrounding these works, and recording the ensuing conversation for posterity.

Like with the Pathfinders project, we have collected background on the works, author information; photographs of all of the material components of the work; critical essays; and resources. Along with these, however, we have videos of all live Traversals and screen captures of the Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and YouTube chat that took place during the live performance. Taken together they document the work as well as the readers' and audience's experience with the works.

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