Writing for the internet is worth studying and doing precisely because it is so different from writing for print. What is print culture? How can understanding it help us improve our online writing?
Welcome to EL 236, "Writing for the Internet."
The course website is located at http://blogs.setonhill.edu/DennisJerz/EL236. I will update the online syllabus periodically, so the printout I give you is only for your convenience on the first day of classs. The offical version of the syllabus is the online version (though I will notify you in advance of any significant changes).
Topics for today:
- Review syllabus.
Writing for the internet is first and foremost writing (not coding or design).
Computer-mediated writing depends on computers (and computers can be frustrating and demanding).
What is print culture?
Histrorical context exercise.
The front page of the blog only shows the main class topic and the main readings scheduled for that day. To get a full list of the lesson plan for any day, click on the date on the calendar.
How does the nature of writing change, when the medium changes?
Faces, profiles, and other angles.
How are our tools affecting the way we think about the world?
It's always been good idea to think before you speak, think before you write, think before you publish. But the nature of online communications magnifies the immediacy and the intensity of the consequences. Sometimes this can be good. Other times…
When does nostalgia for the good old days become fear of the new? What would a TV news show stand to gain from airing a segment that stokes parents' fears about the internet? What would a new media journalism specialist have to gain from asking you to be critical of TV news coverage? (Please don't simply post a brief answer to each prompt; use these prompts to guide your thinking, as you weave the assigned readings together.)
Note: On Corey's blog, there's been some interesting discussion of free speech. Has anyone else participated in a good online discussion that they'd like to publicize here?
I remember when the 'net was young… but every medium was new once.
Flaming. Trolling. Spamming..
Web pages exist in a context of links, which you can think of as conversations or encoded knowledge.
Practice HTML skills. You may work in groups or alone to sharpen your HTML skills by solving a problem I give you.
Create a single web page for a person who is obsessed by crop circles. Use a stylesheet and images. Upload and test your page. You are welcome to work together and ask for help -- this is not a quiz, it is practice. Post your URL in a comment on this page.
Practice Writing skills. You may work in groups or alone to sharpen your revision skills, by working with a sample text I give you.
Today is about writing, not coding -- but as you've probably started to recognize, the writing and coding are very closely related. In the handouts section of J-Web, I have uploaded eight separate documents that are the first draft of the text for a website. The first handout on that list is a site map, which explains what document goes where. I have also roughed out a plan for the site. Note that I haven't spent any time at all on design. The point of the sample site is to sketch out where the contents belong, and to focus on what each separate page is dong.
Here are three different ways my computer can access the same content. What purpose does each serve for me? Which of the following are of any use for you?
C:\Documents and Settings\jerz\My Documents\Study Abroad
What purpose does the "travel" at the end of the last two URLs serve?
In class, I will ask you to demonstrate your writing skills, by revising a sample text and optimizing it for the needs of an online audience. I might bring in a brochure or other paper document, and ask everyone to revise the text for an online readership.
In class, I will ask you to demonstrate your HTML skills, by coding and uploading a simple website according to the guidelines I provide. (In the past, I have asked students to make a website for a person who is obsessed by the color green. I have also shown students a broken website and asked them to fix it.)
1) First make sure that the URL for your cover blog is posted on the Portfolio 1 page.
2) Create a simple website that contains links to peer blog entries that you feel represent conflicting or at least diverse views on a single issue we have addressed in EL236. Apply what you have learned about online writing, paying special attention to a good title, useful blurbs, and valuable outbound links (to pages that are not part of the blogs.setonhill.edu site).
3) Publish your page to your FTP site.
4) Post comment on this page that points to the "http" address that will show your site to visitors. (For a refresher, see the uploading instructions and this list showing two incorrect ways and one correct way to form a hyperlink to a page on your people.setonhill.edu website.)
A wiki (based on the Hawaiian word for "quick") is a kind of hypertext document that is optimized for quick edits by multiple authors.
Wikipedia is the best-known example of a Wiki, but see also Muppet Wiki or Lostpedia. Maybe there's already a wiki out there on a subject you know a lot about. If so, you are welcome to work with that wiki instead of Wikipedia for today's exercise.
For today's exercise,
1) start by scanning through the Wikipedia tutorial
2) find two or three articles on Wikipedia (or some other wiki, if you wish) on topics that you know a lot about, and improve those articles. You might correct a mistake, add a citation, or put a note that says "citation needed" if you think a claim is unsupported. You might instead choose to start a brand new article.
3) in a few days, go back and see whether anyone else has modified your work.
4) write a blog entry in which you describe what you did and what you found (with links)
Interactive fiction is a kind of text-based computer games. The genre has been around since the mid 1970s, dating from an era in which computers typically displayed their output on long streams of folded paper rather than on a video screen.
In the late 60s, when the internet was created, computer interfaces were designed to do only one thing -- accept typed command from the operator, and display a textual response.
Command Line Interface
The command line interface (CLI) was a huge advance over stacks of punch cards. Although it seems antiquated and strange to most people today, anyone who used computers would have been trained to understand the CLI, and would in fact have considered it a natural and effective way of communicating with the computer. There weren't home PCs at this time, so the only people who would have come into regular contact with computers would be researchers, academics, and other professionals who had work to do that they couldn't do any other way.
We have already spent some time looking at how the special characteristics of the World Wide Web have changed the way people write. Let's experiment with the command line interface, and then consider how the special characteristics of this medium led to specific kinds of electronic writing. Our goal is to look closely at a medium that will be very unfamiliar to most of you, so that we can focus on the relationship between writing (and reading) and the medium in which the text exists.
On a Windows machine, go to Start -> run... (This won't actually work at all in the SHU computer labs, as the command-line interface is very powerful, so public users aren't permitted to access it. On your own PC, you might find it under Start -> Accessories -> Command line, or something similar.)
In the window that opens, type "cmd". A mostly black window will open up.
Mine has 2 lines of introduction (describing the operating system and giving the software copyright) and then it gives the cryptic line
p:\>That is the "command prompt," which tells you that the computer is just sitting there, waiting for your input. Let's try talking to the computer. Type "hello."
The result isn't exactly encouraging or impressive, is it?
People like menus and icons because they fill the screen and give you ideas about what you can do. The command-line interface, on the other hand, is optimized for experts who don't need all that clutter.
Now type "help," and you'll see a plain text menu that completely fills the screen. The menu simply gives you a list of words that you can type, with a brief description of each.
I'm going to assume that you are working in a SHU computer lab. Type the capital letter I, followed by a colon
I:the command prompt should now read
The computer recognized this command as meaning "Look at the networked space on the I drive." If we type
q:\>we get an error message, because there is no "q" drive.
Do you recognize what the computer displays? That's a textual representation of the contents of your I drive. You can change the way the computer displays the information.
dir /wwill print out the information in columns, rather than one long list.
dir | morewill show one page of information at a time (though if you don't have many files on this drive, you won't see much difference in the output.
You may sometimes hear me refer to a "directory" on your computer, while you and your peers probably always think of it as a "folder". That's because there was a way to nest groups of files inside one another long before there was a graphical display that created a "folder" icon for you to click on. If you drag and drop the icon of a file from one folder to another, the file doesn't actually change location on your hard drive. All that changes is the string of names the computer uses in order to locate that file. To me, and to others like me who first learned to use a computer before there were pretty graphics, the picture of a folder is just a convenient way to represent a listing of indexes to file names. But "folder" is just a metaphor, as is "desktop," "file," "window," and "menu." These metaphors are so powerful that they dominate the way we think about computers. I'm going to try to get you to see those words as metaphors, by showing you how to do some very familiar jobs with unfamiliar tools.
Type the command
mkdir cli, and the computer should simply respond with the "I:>" prompt. That means "Nothing unexpected happened," which means your attempt to create a directory was successful.
cd cli, which is the way we tell the computer "Change the current directory to cli."
The bottom line of your window should read "i:\cli>"
Now we will use the command line interface to launch a program -- in this case, an old-fashioned text editor.
edit myfileYou should see the black screen change to a mostly blue screen, with a set of menu options along the top. You can click on these menus items with the mouse, but the window is actually optimized for people who use keyboards. If you tap the "Alt" key, you'll see the top menu change. You can use the arrow keys to move the highlight box left and right, and you use ENTER to select an option. (This was state-of-the art window navigation in the mid 80s.)
Push "ESC" in order to de-active the upper menu. Now you can type in the main blue area. Just type anything, and then select File / Save, and then File / Exit. The blue screen should disappear, and you should see the black window where you started. Note that the black CLI screen has not changed at all -- no icon has appeared representing the new file you created.
To look at the contents of the folder you are in, type "dir" (for "directory"). You should see something like this:
The first line that ends in the single period represents the current folder. The second line with the two periods represents the folder closer to the root. The third line shows the new file you just created "myfile".
10/27/2006 10:14 AM
10/27/2006 10:14 AM
10/27/2006 10:14 AM 40 myfile
1 File(s) 40 bytes
2 Dir(s) 38,854,656 bytes free
We can edit that file again by typing "edit myfile", just as you can click on an icon to load it in the default program.
To delete a file, instead of dragging it to a recycling bin, you type "delete [filename]". But let's first try to delete a non-existent filename. This is something you can never do with an icon-based program, but it's the kind of thing that happens all the type in CLI.
del fake file
The computer prints out an error message.
del my file
This is still wrong, since the file is actually called "myfile" (with no space). The computer is not smart enough to be able to guess that you really meant "myfile."
The computer does not print out anything in response, because nothing unexpected happened. Type "dir" again to confirm that the file is gone.
Before we finish with the CLI, type "edit newfile.txt", type a few lines, and then choose File / Exit. (It will prompt you to save the changes; choose yes.)
Now go back to your Windows desktop, click on My Computer -> I drive -> cli folder, and you should see an icon for "newfile.txt". Click on it, and you will see it open in the familiar text editor.
Now that you have gotten a feel for how the CLI works, let's consider a few creative things that people have done with CLI.
ELIZA (a 1966 program for simulating a conversation with a therapist)
Hunt the Wumpus is a text-only hide-and-seek game from 1972.
In the mid 70s, Colossal Cave Adventure created a sensation. The online version I've linked to suffers from "telephone game" syndrome -- that is, so many people have worked on it that it's hard to get a good sense of what the game was really like, but the annotations on the left side of the frame should help you through some of the tough spots.
A group of people at MIT who played "Adventure" when it first came out made their own version, Zork, which is more full of humor and complex puzzles, and which was eventually polished and released as a commercial product in the early 80s. Yes, people enjoyed these games so much that they were willing to pay for them.
Jump ahead 20 years, long after the CD ROM drive has dethroned the text-adventure game from its place on the top-10 software lists, and long after free authoring toolkits have made it possible for the average idie programmer to create products that it used to take a company full of software engineers to produce, and we see Emily Short's Galatea. Since Galatea simulates a conversation, it resembles ELIZA, but unlike ELIZA, Galatea has a personality and an agenda of her own. The frame on the left contains tips and instructions.
Discuss assigned texts; discuss assignment that's due Friday; also preview IF Authorship.
In class, use Inform 7 to create a simple setting based on a prompt I provide, comprising three or four rooms, with appropriate things and scenery. Include a "test me" line.
The last line of your game would be
test me with "north / examine octopus / examine zucchini / feed zucchini to octopus / ask pirate about curse"
(...or whatever commands you expect the player to type.)
In class, use Inform 7 to create an NPC that responds to player actions that I provide. Include two or three significant objects, and a handful of likely conversation topics. Include a "test me" line.