On 8 1/2 by 11

On 8 1/2 by 11
The following post is the first of an ongoing series about development for Social Paper, a project imagined by the Digital Fellows and recent recipient of the 2014 NEH Digital Humanities Start Up Grant. This will be cross posted on the Social Paper’s blog after launch.  
When Jen and I were sketching out plans for Social Paper’s writing environment, we were adamant on maintaining the 8 1/2- by 11-inch format standard to desktop word processors such as Microsoft Word or Open Office.  There are an increasing number of digital environments that enable online writing or annotation, but few privilege the look and feel of the printed page to which our Desk Jet generation has become accustomed. Such willingness to explore new spaces for writing and reading can only be applauded, especially in the midst of criticism that demands more from the digital format than a mere translation of printed media, such as we see with the PDF.  Part of the challenge of innovating the forms of publishing is the identification and removal of historical blinders.  We should be thinking of what a text could look like, instead of what it has.
However, throughout our participation in the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy seminars, Jen and I had done a fair bit of experimenting with different writing and reading platforms.  When it came time to bang our heads together in order to bang a grant out together, we didn’t hesitate for a second when reaching for our tool.  Even though the idea for Social Paper came partly as a critique of proprietary communication tools, the 8 1/2- by 11-inch feel of Google Docs was one of the many features that made it a hands down winner over the other possibilities.
Such stodgy commitment to the conventions of print may seem like an embarrassment for those interested in digital innovation.  Office paper, after all, is hardly the product of a scientific consensus on Best Reading Format. A short post on the Atlantic (citing a user post on a typesetting forum, interestingly), explains that the “unfortunate size of office paper” was conventionalized for the use of handwriting and typewriting.  As the post points out, “times and fonts have changed,” leaving us with a paper size that allows too much print per line for comfortable reading. (Whoever and whatever decides the “comfortable reading” standard is still, to this researcher, shrouded in complete mystery). One might also read of the “average maximum stretch of a vatman’s arms” in the 17th century or the early 20th century Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes as other historical factors contributing to today’s office paper conventions.  At any rate, one need not wade too deeply through the history of print culture to realize that the way we format our papers, articles, grant submissions, or what have you, is by no means purely a product of considerations for best reading experience.
But back to our insistence on the archaic. Part of our preference for the format, of course, was because ultimately, regardless of what form our notes and drafts took, the form we ultimately needed to produce was indeed an 8 1/2- by 11-inch document with standard formatting constraints typical of any sort of application to be distributed to various offices and evaluators.  Since we had to submit a particular number of pages written in a particular font size, it made sense to create drafts in the same form in order to maintain sense of how our work stood in relation to our final goal. Not to blow your mind or anything. Considerations for the best format for writing are not just about the ease of producing, reading and collaborating, but also about the imposed constraints of the final product. Undoing this convention would not be about merely changing our writing tools, but reforming the entire ecology of production, distribution, consumption and storage of text. However arbitrary we might find the 8 1/2- by 11-inch convention of the printed page, it seems impossible to imagine how, or even reasons why, we might want to immediately disrupt this convention.  Standardization, distasteful when imposed, also has its use. Plus, what would we do with our Lisa Frank folders?
And thus convention itself, however arbitrary, also becomes its own defense.  Because we are so familiar with the 8 1/2- by 11-inch space of the page, we are able to orient ourselves immediately to the terrain of the text. The amount of page numbers immediately gives the reader a sense of how long it might take to read, and — especially if the text is printed — a sense of place or spatial orientation to the ideas themselves.  It seems, then, that while reading, we also produce a vague conceptual map whose orientational value, I think, has yet to be fully articulated. As we explore writing and reading in new environments, orientation becomes difficult because the web does not impose the sense of place in the same way that printed forms do.  One could put the entire text of Moby Dick on single webpage if they wished, but clearly this would make its reading impractical.  By developing a better sense of how we orient ourselves to a text, we might better appreciate the necessity of imposing intentional constraints (old or new) on layout to enhance our reading and writing experience.
Though I by no means want to argue for an adherence to conventional forms simply for convention’s sake, it’s important to examine the role convention plays in our reading and writing experience so as to not disregard our practical, even if arbitrary, habits.  How might we create a sense of place with text on the web?  What are other means of textual orientation? How might we might allow readers to develop their own orientation in addition to platform-imposed orientations? When is standardization useful, when is it stifling?  In my next post, I hope to further explore some of these questions by evaluating open source and proprietary writing spaces currently available on the web.
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