I HAVE A WEBSITE THAT BURIES WORDS WITHIN WORDS
so, although it looks very simple (it begins with just three short sentences and a small logo), you can spend a lot of time clicking to expand the text out, further and further, each version you expose being by itself grammatical and meaningful but containing within it the possibility of more (more text, more information, more narrative). At the moment there are about 800 links you can click; it can expand from eight words to about 6,800.
As soon as I typed that I regretted it — the device itself seems to naturally aspire to endlessness, so it seems like a betrayal to tell you how much there is buried, how much you would have to click before you had read all there is to read. But I am going to keep growing it (I have been growing it for a long time already: the first, much shorter version of the text I put up sometime in 2011). I want to grow it into a Book of Sand, something dreadful and exhausting, so maybe by the time you read this that information will no longer be true, maybe you still don’t know what could be in there.
Over this summer, suddenly people came to the site. Although it’s about me, a subject no one cares about, in one day about 13,000 people visited. It was interesting, seeing people’s reactions. Some shared snippets of code to automatically open all of the links at once; one person shared screenshots on a forum of all of the text after they had clicked through to the end. These things seemed strange and charming to me because the only reason anyone had for being interested in me (/the site/the strange stories I hid there) was the device, so the process of clicking was serving as both enticement and inconvenience to be overcome. One person made a script that auto-clicked links but progressively, one every three seconds, so that the site gradually opened up to them. They said it was like watching a story being written. I liked that.
Because the site got shared among UI design people, some of them critiqued it in that light. Other people reacted to the story secreted into ‘Hello’, which begins as a joke and becomes about a friendship that has drifted apart, telling me it had moved them, made them phone somebody. Not everyone liked it: someone called it “pointless and confusing” and told me to take it out. All this I enjoyed — I got lost for days, following the life of the oddity I’d carefully made.
Then last month, when I was on a train between Glasgow and Edinburgh, my phone low on signal and battery, I started getting tweets about another reaction to my site. A creative agency called Dare had launched a new website and there were those who thought it looked a lot like mine.
Some people’s attitudes on Twitter were pretty robust. Dare’s site got called a “blatant rip off”. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it though. “Not sure how I feel about that,” I tweeted. I said I wouldn’t have called it a “blatant rip off” but that the resemblance seemed fairly direct.
But I also mentioned Telescopic Text, which uses the same device and predates my site — and even suggests a good name (I’ve always thought of it just as ‘expanding text’). I didn’t know of Telescopic Text when I first made mine (someone on Twitter led me to it last year): maybe Dare were also engaged in our shared multiple discovery? (I kind of coughed in their direction and that’s what they seemed to claim. ‘Clearly, great minds think alike’, they said.)
And I talked a little about B.S. Johnson. (I’ve been thinking about Johnson a lot recently. If you’d like to as well I made a short film about him. Or if you have rather more time to give, read Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography: Like a Fiery Elephant.)
Johnson was a writer and an experimenter with devices. Perhaps most famously his novel The Unfortunates comes in a box, in unbound shuffleable sections. In another of his books, House Mother Normal, the same evening is told again and again through different characters. Each telling is the same number of pages as the others, and each position on each page matches chronologically to each corresponding position and page in the other tellings. Before The Unfortunates there was a book in a box by Marc Saporta, the unbound, shuffleable Composition No. 1; Philip Toynbee’s Tea with Mrs Goodman anticipates House Mother Normal.
To identify direct, recognisable precursors to Johnson’s work is not a repudiation. He has reasons for his devices, he uses them thoughtfully and with all his energy, he makes of them something his own. To quote Jonathan Lethem’s essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’: “If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”
THE ADMIRER PROMPTS FURTHER REACTIONS.
Anyway, I felt quite peripheral, watching from the sidelines as my website rather my person was involved in an act of — what? Robbery? Seduction? And (peripheral, irrelevant) I’ve watched as things continued to develop without me:
- Someone made both a parody of Dare’s (This Is Dare) site — This Isn’t Dare — and a fake version of me on Twitter to promote it.
- Dare responded to the criticism with a blog post called ‘A short history of telescopic text’. (It’s, to be honest, a fairly disingenuous thing, in which they seem to recant the ‘great minds’ line by saying ‘of course’ they were aware of my site, but claiming — not particularly convincingly — a healthily wide range of influence. (Though originally mine was the only example discussed which they elected not to link.))
- Then the whole thing got into The Drum (who called it “the politest of wars”).
- And then into Private Eye who identified the parodist as a ‘disgruntled ex-employee’ (which the mysterious fake me has denied).
THE WRONG THING TAKEN, AN OPPORTUNITY REMAINS.
Dare have worked for Barclaycard and Coke, their boss used to be managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi and they are kind of a big deal in every way that I absolutely am not. They are a successful, international digital agency — I am offering people the chance to find out a little about the life of an unknown 32 year-old Scottish writer and PhD candidate, and maybe pay what they want for a horror story about an 18th century hospital for boys. I think it’s that imbalance that has attracted whatever small measure of outrage or controversy greeted the Dare site. But the fact is that influence is not a bad thing, and if it were it would be everywhere anyway: it is unavoidable. I begrudge them very little (/nothing at all). The worst you could say is that as they took, they took clumsily.
They made a site that looked a lot like mine, so that the influence was immediately obvious (maybe too obvious for some), when how my website looks is by far the least interesting thing about it. Meanwhile the device as they use it— the expanding text — just opens sentence- or paragraph-sized sections in turn, reducing (removing, really) the altering effect it has on the process of reading. Nowhere is there a choice to be made of what to open next, nowhere is there any interesting play with the logic of what a linking word expands. Almost nothing that is interesting about it as I tried to use it remains, and none of what is potentially interesting about it that I didn’t really explore (or haven’t yet, anyway). For example, that it could allow for little aleatory variations to appear in the text depending on the order or manner of the clicking, or for explicit choices made by the reader to be allowed to shape the narrative. A derivative version (I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) had plenty of opportunity to explore further — it’s disappointing that the Dare site doesn’t (even if it’s a little selfishly reassuring not to be outdone).