On the Polyphonic Method

A couple of months ago Micheal Benton approached us at Writer Response Theory to participate in the Reconstruction issue on blogging. We’re Really Thrilled about the idea — who wouldn’t want to blog about blogging?! But when the time came to write, we three researchers kept weaving in and out of approaches. Should we have a single voice? That is always a good approach, but a collaborative document isn’t written with a single voice in the first draft. It begins as a mixture of voices that synergise and become one (either with poetic ease or a crow-bar). We haven’t reached that chorus point yet. Don’t know if we ever will. And, to be frank, we like the idea of pulling back the curtain and revealing what a collaborative-text-in-formation looks like. Indeed, it is emblematic of our collaborative blogging at WRT.

So, why do we blog…together?

That question actually precipitates the dual state we find ourselves in because there is a difference in motivation between the urge to blog personally and the urge to blog as a collective. (Or maybe not…?) We also want to take this opportunity to consider what WRT is and means. So we took out our WRT chest and looked through our polariods (screenshots), read over stained letters (posts and comments) and letters never sent (drafts). This post is therefore a collaborative post about collaborative blogging and about our collaborative blog.

We Revisit Treatises:

WRT began with a manifesto, and, like many manifestos, it was more evocative than proscriptive:

WRT is a blogging collective dedicated to the discussion and exploration of digital character art — any art involving electrons and making use of letters, alphanumerics, or other characters in an interesting way. Our primary focus is on active and interactive works, in which users input text and receive textual responses as output. Our URL (Writer Response Theory) is a play on Reader Response Theory and therefore shifts the investigative focus to a reader/writer whose textual input will change the works they encounter. We see ourselves as writers or creators responding to theory; as writers creating theory, a theory which is also a response to writers.

Some objects of study include ASCII art, blog fiction, chatbots, email fiction, e-poetry, hypertext fiction, and interactive fiction (IF). What are the methods of design, the modes of usage, and the relationships between scriptons and textons in these art forms?

Certainly, our initial manifesto could never have anticipated how far our objects of discussion would range, from search engines to textual tattoos. Yet by choosing the blog as the form of our investigation, We Readers Three did craft a kind of future for WRT - a wide-ranging discussion predisposed towards iterative exploration, in which we read to write and write to read. Rather than spending a cloistered year or two polishing the meaning of WRT for some triumphal publication, we discovered WRT in the process of doing it. Our meditations on topics of digital text technology were further enlivened and enriched by a constant practical engagement with our method — the text technology of blogware. Inspired by the daily distractions of spam-filtering ennui, statistics-tracking obsession, and plugin-juggling mania, we constantly wrote responses to newly discovered facets of the textual life.

If we failed to anticipate the productive distractions of blogging, we likewise failed to anticipate how the WRT blog would become a launchpad for many explorations beyond the blog format. Quite early in the life of the blog we began creating and assembling resources, which emerged from our own teaching and research. Some WRT Resources for Teaching we’ve created include:

It is perhaps not surprising that the process of research blogging has naturally extended from posting towards resource aggregation (that is, the creation of traditional web pages). More interestingly, it has led us to experiment with shared bookmarks. Using del.icio.us, we can both record sites of interest and publish them to a sideblog column on the homepage. This linkblogging removes some of the pressure of the academic blog, as we can note things without formal discussion. However, even in linkblogging, our tendency has been an unusual one even among academic bloggers towards creating not just a record but a rich resource. Most of our del.icio.us feed reads like an annotated bibliography, with titles, authors, dates, and a short formal description all packed into the bookmark format.

Another experiment in academic blogging has been the Academic Citations wordpress plugin, which began as an idea in a WRT post but was brought to fruition by reader and talented developer Julie Meloni. The concept for the plugin was that serious blogs should (like e-journals) provide their own professionally formatted citations. Through adding them, we felt we were helping transform the system of citations endemic to blog posts into formal claims of academic legitimacy. Ironically, we discovered in the process that most surfers landing on our project were not interested in helping others cite their blog posts - instead, they were looking for a way to format bibliographic citations to elsewhere.

For all the time we’ve spent thinking about blogging and academic reference, the human connections have made as much impact or more - from the kindness of volunteer developers like Julie Meloni to the feedback and support for our endeavors we’ve received from fellow new media bloggers. Indeed, WRT has been a site to build professional connections with other researchers. As we’ve been touched, we’ve also learned to reach out — for example, cold-calling new media artists and developers to ask them for interviews. Our interviewees have included:

If blogs are, as Dave Weiner proposed, the authentic voices of individuals, then these interviews represent yet another way in which WRT blogging has deviated towards the multivocal. Our Chris Crawford interview went even further in launching our inaugural podcast, beginning an experiment away from We Report Text and towards We Radio Transmit!

Our collaboration also lead to the development of Benchmark Fiction, a creative approach to comparative analysis of new media forms. Later presented at DAC 2005, Benchmark Fiction is

a methodology for creating benchfics — sets of adaptations of the same eliterature content across different media for the purpose of comparative study.

Benchmark Fiction soon proved to be emblematic of our creative/critical praxis. Benchfics call upon the artist to investigate and push beyond the limits of different forms, truly a WRT ethic. Even our choice of texts for adaptation, “the Lady or the Tiger,” proved indicative of our love of chance, indeterminacy, play, and tigers.

So much has happened in the last two years. Today we take a step back from the wild recursive tumble of blogging, revisiting our first declaration and asking anew “what is Writer Response Theory?”. There is much we are tempted to add to our initial formulAtion, though such gestures are always aspirational, hypothetical, and perhaps anti-thetical to the evolutionary growth of such a collaborative project. Some additional thoughts: WRT interrogates the relationship of the writer/reader through the interface. WRT considers not just Barthseian reader/writers but also ergodic interactors. While readers in Reader Response Theory affect the meaning of the work, our writers also affect the execution, the inscription, the input, or the output of the work.

If there is one thing this wide ranging tour of digital text has taught us, it is that text exchange software is always authorware - that is, a Writer Response Technology. From Flickr comments to Excel spreadsheets, all can be put to creative use. We interrogate the development of these writing technologies, their use, their reappropriation, and their dissemination.

Looking over the various activities of WRT we’d categorise our blog functions as:

  • Being a voice for underprivileged arts types;
  • Publicising new media art and artists (both well-known and not) and their ideas;
  • Exploring green, alternative, and sometimes more developed approaches to creating and understanding new media arts;
  • Sharing the development of PhD research;
  • Championing poetics above criticism? Or poetics as criticism?

These wishful revision-thoughts can only be addendums. Blogs like WRT are web-ridden texts, and as such they are cached, archived, and echoed throughout the internet. The first post of WRT is an historical document in that (like every post) it is an act of publication - given out to the public, and only kept in trust by its publisher. Even in as short and modest a history as WRT’s, this places our declaration beyond substantial revision - although not, of course, beyond comment. What follows are three individual reports on the history (and prehistory) of WRT, and why we blog. However, as in the blog, these individual voices have been collectively edited.

Mark Marino

My actual blogging began with a fictional piece, Journal of a Working Boy, before I had even heard of “blogs.” This was a fictional Weblog written by James Toole, adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. My character, similarly outraged and infatuated with the audacities of modern life, kept a diary in an Excel spreadsheet, so that his employers would never think he was slacking. [Christy: Very funny.] Later, my interest in blogging grew from a desire to connect to scholars at other universities. Even in a university-rich area such as Southern California, the number of scholars working in new media in the way that I was at any given university were few (and the commute to reach them is infamous). Blogging collaboratively provided a kind of on-line seminar, where we could share readings and resources while formulating ideas. The collegial environment of WRT and its scholarly focus has made it the proving ground for many of my current personal projects, not to mention my collaborations with Christy and Jeremy.

How did WRT take the form it did, and what made it unusual? When we were founding WRT we had to decide what we wanted the site NOT to be. There were already announcement blogs, plenty of personal blogs, and a number of novelty sites, whose efforts we weren’t interested in duplicating. A first point on which we all agreed on was that we wanted WRT posts to be substantial and scholarly. We wanted them to provoke and to pose questions, while taking a stab at answering them. A blog post that merely mentioned something of interest without discussion or critique, we agreed, might be normal on many blogs but on WRT would be considered incomplete. If writers were going to respond using electronic means, those responses should be significant and citable, spinning the web of discourse out along the model of academics in print.

The second decision was to make WRT not just a record of our conversation but also a resource for others. Christy had already done that with her own site, which at the time was “Star of Dena,” if I’m not mistaken. [Christy: Yes, it was] Her glossary was and is particularly impressive. [Christy: Thank you! I’ve taken it offline now though] She dove right into WRT and compiled a list of authorware. Jeremy followed suit with his list of IF resources. Our “Games and Pedagogy” post has since developed into a more extensive resource. This became our method: letting the posts with weight graduate to “page” status.

A third decision was not to play it for hits. Jeremy once described the blogging technique of writing to your audience via search engine optimization - checking your most hit keywords and then posting more articles on those topics. I’m pretty sure that such an approach would have turned WRT into a blog entirely dedicated to “Strongbad” and “Girls and Gaming” (not in the sense we had intended). Our rule has been to avidly avoid news-blogging — except of course when we can’t resist.

Our posting style has started to solidify, although any one post might vary. We usually post on one of our main categories. Typically, we tie the new post into a previous thread of ours — blogs are often part of a conversation with other blogs via trackbacks and comments, but we also try to connect our posts to each other longitudinally in long chains of inquiry. We tend to focus narrowly on one object of study, artist, or genre. At the top of the post we pose a question and then attempt to answer over the course of the post - sometimes we run draft questions by each other before publishing a final post. Always we attempt to offer some resources in the form of not just illustrations but also links or citations.

As to our collaboration, an image that comes to mind is that of gravitational pull. As we trace our little circles of inquiry our ideas begin to pull on each other. I have noticed more than once that a post of mine will connect with a del.icio.us tag from Jeremy and a subsequent post or comment by Christy (and every combination of WRT). The reason the blog of blogs could never have worked is that we’re always writing about each other’s interests — indeed we are insatiably interested in each other’s interests. Like any group, any friendship, after becoming familiar with each other’s thoughts and dreams, you find yourselves at a shop saying, This is the perfect gift for Jeremy or that is just what Christy was talking about! At the same time, we have enough different interests (and outside projects) for the (re)cycling never to become insular. Of course, our reader-writers enter this mix as well.

The site has also served our other research interests. Last year I conducted a survey of chatbot users and makers using the site. Jeremy has mounted several courses and we have plan to develop more.

Writers Respond Thus: I write this at the end of posts when I’m trying to get people to throw in some ideas. I’m not sure it ever works, but I will probably keep it going. [Christy: I like it!] [Jeremy: Seconded]

What helps WRT is that we work together extremely well and that the other two members are tirelessly generous with their time and knowledge. It’s been a pleasure and an honor. Where would we be without We Radical Three? [Christy: hehe]

Jeremy Douglass


How can I write? How can I not write? Collaborative blogging began for me in a joint fear and compulsion. Overwhelmed by a looming doctoral dissertation, I felt paralyzed, incapable of creating anything of the size and polish to meet my own expectations. I needed to break that monolithic document into parts, while staging each out not as a perfect culmination but as a series of drafts. At the same time I was trying to find a new writing practice I was feeling extremely isolated professionally, in a vacuum and cut off from the feedback of peers. I had gone into academia craving an engaged community, only to find that the practice of dissertating seemed to be exactly the opposite, monastic in an almost perversely self-punishing way. While I had no audience to write for, I was reading a lot at the time, and some of what I was reading were blogs. I yearned to jump in and participate…

…and yet. I had a certain sense that professional blogging under my real name would be irrevocable, and worried — was I ready? As soon as I committed myself to a forum, a title, a voice, a few opinions, I imagined that somehow my identity would become fixed in the community of my peers forever. [Christy: awwww] [Jeremy: I know, I know….] I was aware that this fear was foolish — we should be so lucky, to warrant such attention — but still, like being confronted with a vast blank canvas, the prospect of my first op-ed piece on the net intimidated me.

My hopes for blogging were that it would introduce me to my peers and simultaneously break the logjam that was my dissertation reading — getting me out of the habit of passively absorbing and into the habit of voicing my opinions and commentary on the artworks and issues I found interesting. I had always imagined blogging as a professional activity — something like running a small newsletter or a listserv, something like assembling a portfolio. At the same time, I was concerned about blogging becoming a monster in my life — an addictive substitute for my real work, something that would make me obsessed with a daily forum or public role that, while gratifying, probably wouldn’t in the end carry the weight I wanted in aiding my job search, and if anything would sabatoge me if it supplanted my dissertation writing.

Blogging as professional ethics

This concern was grounded not only in the examples I saw online of bloggers becoming consumed by their blogging, but also in a lot of talk circulating in higher education about how blogs might be professionally debilitating. This was argued to be true in many cases — in the cases of bloggers whose personal lives collided with their professional ones, whose anonymity was breached, or simply in the case of openly blogging professionals whose practice was considered indicative of their fecklessness by hiring and tenure committees. When the Chronical of Higher Education reported that candidates were missing out on jobs becuase of their blogs, the threat felt real.

Perversely, it was this real threat of professional disciplinary reprisal that overcame my personal fears and strengthened my resolve to take the plunge into blogging. Not yet a blogger, I still associated blogging with the open sharing of ideas- - with working drafts and shared research, open conversations and open source, public forums and the public domain — in short, with everything about the advancement of knowledge for the good of all that I valued in academia. Despite the fact that I had been publishing personal websites and web portfolios for the past decade, blogging in particular had become emblematic for me of digital publishing in general, and offered the tantalizing promise of a corrective to the creeping pace and cloistered stagnation of the print monograph method of disseminating humanities research. By deciding that blogging was not only a moral stance but constituted part of a professional ethics, I could declare “take me as I am!” and concentrate on more mundane concerns: now that I had determined to blog, what would that entail?

Could I even dedicate the time required to be a ‘real’ blogger? At the time, my experience as an online reader was that there was a magic range of posting-volume that encouraged and maintained readership: about 3-5 posts a week being the minimum for most readers to consider a blog an active entity, rather than an occasional curiosity to be browsed once, then forgotten. If there wasn’t a new post most weekdays, people didn’t read, and if people didn’t read, there didn’t seem to be much point. It is strange how dated this thinking seems to me now, and how this assessment of manual browsing habits has been largely obviated by the very different behavior of online readers who use feed subscriptions.

Good neighborhoods

Falling into a post-conference conversation with Mark, I shared a lot of my thoughts and feelings — mostly fears, but some hopes and dreams. Mark had already mulled some of these in conversations with Christy, and their solution was a simple one. When I heard it, I was galvanized - -a group blog seemed to address everything at once - -my need for an audience, my desire for interpersonal connections, and my waryness of both underproduction and overcommitment. Christy and Mark welcomed me into the fold [Mark: and were likewise enfolded], and, after a series of emails and meetings through group IM chats, we really thought through all the details: a domain name, a blogware platform, and a timetable for going live.

Early on, we were so concerned that the danger of co-authoring would be stepping on each other’s toes! I seem to recall there was also some concern about an exit strategy, so that anyone whose interests evolved away from our arrangement could spin off into their own solo-blog. Planning for co-authoring included issues like “should we be authorized to edit each others posts, and what should the etiquette be?” We set up a test server and installed several different blogware platforms. During a several-month dry run, we tested writing a few posts in system each to get the feel for the software — and also to get a feel for establishing voice and playing off each other. This liminal blogging was a fun time, when each of us could try anything for an audience of two. After settling on a system, we then “went public,” writing our manifesto last, publishing it as our first-post, and and then rolling out the old posts over the coming month, a slow going live.

The software we chose to go live on reflected our ideas about co-authored blogging at the time. Many of our anticipated issues with co-authoring took the form of feature wishlist: for sub-blogs, editing control, multifaceted categories, and other software guarantees and assurances that would defend our individuality from subsumption and build good fences that would keep us good neighbors. Several months later, having discovered these concerns were totally unfounded, we switched from b2evolution to Wordpress, which at the time was software with less than half the features and more than twice the ease of mixing our voices. Our new model was a public commons one — “good neighbors build good neighborhoods.” With mutual respect as the only guideline, today I routinely edit typos or make addendums to Mark and Christy’s posts (as they do mine) - -the posts are published in our unique individual voices, but we take collective responsibility for the presentation of function of the whole of WRT.

Queues and coauthoring

This mutuality extends to some posting practices that aren’t stereotypically blog-like. For example, I generally engage in scheduled blogging — not scheduled writing, but scheduled publishing. I often blog in short intense bursts, roughing out drafts for 10 or more different posts. Because I want those posts to be ’substantial’ I seldom consider them done. Some lie fallow for months (or years) while others are completed within a day. One of the wonderful things about WRT not trying to beat the newsblogs to declare breaking news is that I seldom feel compelled to publish immediately — instead, I often schedule the post for 8am on the next Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. When the blogging is good I get ahead several weeks of scheduled posts (the best comparison I’ve seen is in the discussion of newspaper cartoon and web comics artists on their workflow, describing a ‘queue’). As things come up that I consider more timely, I’ll bump them up in the queue, bumping things up or back. Scheduled blogging or queue-blogging works particularly well on a multi-author blog like WRT, whose authors can all see each other’s scheduled posts in the admin section. By seeing each other’s future writings, we can and often do spread our post publication dates around each other, maximizing front-page time instead of competing for it. Another advantage is that occasionally one of my co-authors will give me feedback on a scheduled piece before it is actually published — a kind of opt-in draft review. This is group blogging at its best.

Perhaps the purest form of group blogging is the co-authored piece. At WRT co-authored posts generally happen spontaneously, when one auther has an unpublished draft and another author gets excited and wants to expand it in a new direction. Occassionally, while browsing through the draft lists we will discover complimentary drafts, like fragments of the same observation looking for a common center. In these cases we revise together, editing collaboratively by turns in Wordpress, or more heavily in our Mediawiki wiki or using group word processing tools like Writely [This post was revised in Writely]. When the time comes to post, single authored stories appear under our individual real names, while co-authored pieces are published under the collective “admin” WRT account. Since its very first post — the manifesto — this WRT account has developed its own voice, a representation of our collective synthesis, equally endorsed by all. Although WRT began with revising together, what repetition taught us was that this authoring process — however mediated and planned - was also our true blog, a very authentic authorial us.

Christy Dena

I started blogging two decades ago. Well, not blogging in the technological sense, but in the interpersonal sense. You see, for me, blogging is at its core a conversation I’m having with the world. As a teenager I lived in the outer-suburbs. The world was always in the city or some other country, never the road under my bike tyres. To combat this alienation I signed up to book clubs and catalogues — any service that would continually post information directly to me. Those letters with windows highlighting my name in Times New Roman meant I was a member of this world. I reached out to the world and it reached back to me. This process persists, but now I offer thoughts and not my postal address. Indeed, I have an address now (many addresses in fact) that denotes my interests, not my location. WriterResponseTheory.org is my out and in box. It is a place where I send out thoughts about writing, responses to writing and theory and others return their own. Blogging then is a progression from consumerist interaction with society to cogitative interaction. I’ve shifted from being a barcode to a blogger and with this comes the need for conscious action. If I’m holding peoples’ attention for more than a few seconds what is it I want them to be spending their time on? If this is a conversation, what is it I want to be on record saying and what thoughts do I want to know of others? It is these guiding principles that have informed our considered post policy at WRT.

At the beginning, when Mark, Jeremy and I discussed the form of our shared blog, we agreed that we wanted to post our ideas about theories and works and would not provide announcements. There are plenty of better informed bloggers providing this sort of information, no need for us to duplicate. However, we are at the same time concerned about highlighting creative forms, ideas and events that are unrecognised, ignored or (in our opinion) insufficiently addressed. That is the magnet that drew Mark and I together initially: to write about bots and botfiction. Mark approached me after a lengthy discussion we had participated in at Grand Text Auto after Andrew Stern’s post ‘Unconscious Thinking’ on the 4th May, 2004. Mark and I were passionate about bots and wanted to pursue the idea of botfiction beyond assessments of their programming failures. For us it was about giving voice to a tool that we as writers were enjoying playing with. Indeed, it wasn’t so much the tool we wanted to discuss in the end, but the realisations using that tool afforded us. I was already blogging about the core of my research, cross-media entertainment, but this new collaborative blog about another area of interest was very appealing.

Before we had even started, however, Mark then met Jeremy. [Christy: I wasn’t there, so see their sections for the OTHER POV] We then reframed our blog outside of botfiction to a common interest. Jeremy was interested in botfiction but was initially passionate to discuss interaction fiction (IF). After much discussion about botfiction, interactive fiction, hypertext fiction, ascii art, epoetry and so on we had a sudden epiphany and realised a common factor. The essence that united us was/is text. Text-based artforms was/is the DNA of WRT. The next step was a name for our font-friendly collective. I cannot recall the pathways to our name but once again it was about finding the collective core of what we all are and want to write about.

In the end Writer Response Theory was the holy trinity that exemplified us. We also had a lot of giggles working out playful acronyms, a pastime we continue to this day. Mark then came up with a wonderful animated gif to be our logo. Jeremy researched intensively the different blogging systems we could use. We decided to have a blog each and then a main blog that aggregated all our posts. We agreed to each represent a certain interest on that blog rather than blogging personally on all our interests. Mark was hypertext fiction, Jeremy interactive fiction and I was botfiction. With our software, site hosting (provided by the University of California, Riverside), our name, themes, and policies we were ready to launch ourselves into cyberspace. On November 1st 2004 WRT was born. This is our first post.

It was pretty soon after we started posting that we realised the individual blogs collective was too restricting and we moved quickly into a collective space with individual posts. A behaviour that I’ve really enjoyed with my fellow WRT bloggers has been our active discussions with each other in post comments. We often continue conversations for a few weeks and even return to them months and years later. Indeed, we often refer to each others’ posts. We’ve become our own little universe in that sense. It is highly satisfying to have colleagues spend time discussing thoughts. We don’t do this out of obligation (though when we go through busy times we all feel incredibly guilty for not posting or commenting) but out of genuine interest. I think this may be a quality people enjoy about WRT: the fact that we are alive regardless of other peoples’ input. We have each had stages of extreme business where one of us has carried the others (in terms of posts). Jeremy, however, has been the only one that has been consistently posting, and posting long, well considered ponderances.

Since I live in Australia and Jeremy and Mark in California, our meetings are always remote. We do alot of emails but our constant (not as often as we’d like though) is our Skype conversations. These usually last for a few hours and result in lengthy lists of things to do which we spend the next few months trying to achieve. The best part of these chats though, for me, is the unending chatting about everything to do with blogging, text-art, PhDs, families and so on. We IM at the same time as audio and often leave funny messages to each other while we’re talking. Mark is the quickest and most talented smilie inserter I know [Mark:-^]. In short, we laugh alot together and that makes for a great team, which spills over to our posts, comments and extended ventures.


[Christy: Insert really clever summation of this post, the nature of blogging, and how things never end…]
[Jeremy: Couldn’t edit this comment, by its very nature, serve as our conclusion?]


When we were working on this post, at some point, Christy wrote to me, “It is nice reading over your shoulder.” That seems to me a good analogy of what we are doing, and yet it is not just about reading. We are writing with one eye on the words we are typing and the other on the posts of our WRT colleagues. We are truly Writing oveR each oThers shoulders.

Let us end where we began: here ]

Sample Citations from the Wordpress plugin.
Administrator, 2004, WRT: Writer Response Theory, WRT: Writer Response Theory. Retrieved October 9, 2006, from < http://writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/2004/11/01/wrt-writer-response-theory/>

Administrator, 2005, Benchmark Fiction at DAC 2005, WRT: Writer Response Theory. Retrieved October 9, 2006, from < http://writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/2005/12/02/dac-2005-and-a-wrt-benchmark/>

1 Response to “We Revise Together: Blogging on Writer Response Theory”

  1. 1 Mark Marino

    “Reconstruction: studies in contemporary culture” has just published issue 6.4 (2006) featuring this post in “Why I Blog: Part 1.”

    See, too, these other bogs:
    Douglas Rushkoff, The Happy Tutor at Wealth Bondage,
    There’s Something About Harry, Reappropriate, View From Iran, Prairie Mary, Global Culture, Mickey Z, Larval Subjects, Robert Chrysler of loveecstasycrime, Ferdy on Films, Nuts and Bolts, Random Thoughts, Rebecca Blood on Rebecca’s Pocket, Black Looks, Keepin’ It Real, Yo, Geoff Klock’s Blog, Hotel Room Nudes, Mathmagenic, Chapati Mystery, Press Think: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, Reassigned Time, Michael Bérubé, Masters of Media

    And more in part 2.

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