Call For Comments: Serialization Technology

From Katya:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a game scholar, comics scholar, and Victorianist walk into a bar, they must instantly bond over their shared study of serialization.

Except… we never recorded it.

It’s rather astounding that we haven’t already; serialization cuts across all of our fields from comics to games and more. But before we get to serialization – the circulation of narratives in installments- we need to talk about media technology generally.

Media technology refers to any tool used to create, share, or otherwise use media. In common usage, however, we use it much more narrowly. In common use, “media technology” is often shorthand for “digital media technology.” It brings to mind VR/AR/XR or video games or YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch. This isn’t a problem, exactly, but it oversimplifies history of media technology to include only the very recent past. Erasing this history gives us a poorer understanding of modern media and its consequences. Pretty much every technology you use on a daily basis is a remix of preexisting, sometimes even ancient, media practice.

My favorite example is the codex – a stack of pages bound at one end. A book.*

Books have become so common that they escape our attention. Yet the codex changed how we experienced reading with massive consequences for how we experience and use information.

This all has to do with affordances, what kinds of uses a given technology allows (or affords) to the user. Prior to the codex we had the scroll. The rolling and unrolling of a continuous document afforded continuous reading. The reader could only read in chronological order and to skip ahead or return to old information would have to roll through other information to get there. Skipping around was not a natural affordance of the medium.

Enter the codex. Its bound structure allowed users to flip around within a text, skipping material in between entirely. This method of reading is called discontinuous reading. Initially this doesn’t sound like a big deal, the same information is still there in either case. But think about the uses of books that rely on discontinuous reading: reference texts of any kind, studying, extracting passages to copy or share, skipping to then end of a novel, the list goes on. Scrolls did not naturally afford these uses. Even if these behaviors were technically possible, users were making a tool do things it was never intended to. Like you technically can use a screwdriver as a hammer but it isn’t going to be pleasant or effective.

Lest you think that continuous reading is only an ancient behavior, far from it. There’s a reason we call navigating a web browser scrolling. Much of our digital reading defaults to continuous reading. We can skip around much faster than our ancient-scroll users but the principle is the same: I have to scroll through a lot of other things to get to what I want. What was ancient is new again, cutting edge even. Contemporary digital reading is a remix of both, depending on the platform. Search functions and other features allow us versions of discontinuous reading and its easy access to information. If you ever hear someone saying they prefer ebooks over physical books they may actually be expressing a preference for continuous verses discontinuous reading methods as suits their preferences and needs.

This is a long digression to get to serialization but I think it’s a foundational one. We need to understand that serialization is part of media technology arising to fit reader and market needs. Each technology, no matter how mundane, changes how we experience media by changing what behaviors are afforded (and also to whom, enter the field of design justice.) It also exists in relation to this mini-history of reading here. Breaking a story into parts is a form of discontinuous story telling after all.

So what are you questions about serialization and media technology? Let us know listeners! (Also if you have thoughts about whether or not Google is extreme discontinuous reading. I’m now obsessed with thinking about how algorithms and search engines relate to the history of discontinuous reading and I think they reveal the short comings of both…)

From Hannah:

I’ve wanted to do a show on serialization for a long time. In my academic life, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Victorian novels, including the form of those novels. Charles Dickens, for example, published novels like Little Dorrit in monthly installments across two years. (Yes, I’ve seen some of the original serialized installments in real life, and yes, I was more excited that I’ve ever been.) Novelists like Wilkie Collins (credited with writing the first whodunit novel, The Moonstone) took advantage of serialization to end installments with spine-tingling cliffhangers. Serialization certainly affected the writing process of authors, and we’ve talked on the show before how audience response affected plot lines in these novels on occasion. Given the popularity of serialization during the time, Victorianists now commonly ask questions about how serialization helped shape the novel form and reader response.

The novel, of course, isn’t the only form of serialized media. Radio serials, television series, comics … and so on make use of serialization. Television shows such as Lost in particular were certainly thinking of the network television season when the showrunners were crafting each week’s mystery. And when I use Lost as an example of serialization, I’m partially thinking about how each episode builds on the plot of previous episodes. How you probably shouldn’t skip season two if you want to get the full effect of the character arcs in season four.

So serialization sometimes becomes equivalent with the build up of carefully constructed narratives (Little Dorrit, The Moonstone, Lost). But it’s interesting how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is attempting to translate the form of the comic to the silver screen, and yet the series has become so unwieldy I’ve commonly given advice on what movies new viewers can skip without being lost. And Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers isn’t different than sitcoms like Friends or The Office in structure (they were released in a serial manner, there are some on going plots, but you can also just read/watch a bit and laugh).

I have a lot more to say, but I suppose that’s why we’re doing a show. But I’m interested in how does serialization work uniquely in each media form (or is it all the same)? How can creators take advantage of the form and how does serialization affect the reading experience (let us not forget bingeing in all of this, although may that’s another episode … we could serialize a series on serialization)? How important is it when theorizing serialization that the pieces fit tightly together?

*There are some technical distinctions between modern books and the original codices, primarily in their materials and binding methods but the technological point that follows here is consistent across both.

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