The Digital Essay

If you haven’t seen it already, you should have a look at this Digital Essay by Will Self.  Not because you are a fan of Will Self or necessarily interested in Kafka’s Wound, but because you are interested in the way the essay can be brought to life through embedded references. I spent a good portion of a very interesting hackday at the National Archives in March, Talking to Helen Jeffrey from the London Review of Books. We talked about Linked Data and how these concepts when applied to something like an essay might make it a different experience.

In the outcome of the hackday, I used a graph to illustrate the connections between letter writers in the ancient correspondence of Henry III (and others) between 1175-1538. Connections between people and graphs are natural bedfellows.

In the digital essay a graph is used to illustrate connections between references to external sources. The references give a sense of flavour to the essay – illustrating and extrapolating rather than merely backing up the author’s intent. I wouldn’t ordinarily have the sticking power to read an essay, but the tempting insights from other media are enough to make me want to go back to the beginning and read through the essay properly.

The graph shaped table of contents invites interaction and – in a wheedling crone’s wheeze – says, “Let me tempt you in, with candy and bright colours to whet your appetite and draw you further in to this gingerbread essay”.

My one criticism is that I cannot seem to work out why things in the table of contents are connected. Well, I can with a bit of thought, but the connections could be more meaningful. Who are the people this essay mentions? Where are the places within which the essay takes backdrop? how do those people and places link to the creative and archival works curated to illuminate the essay? As Will says in his opening paragraph:

“…I find I cannot prevent myself from linking one idea with another purely on the basis of their contiguity, in time, in place, in my own mind…”

Giving the author the power to link such concepts to sections of essay which in some way trigger emotive neural connections could be argued to be a true advantage of a digital essay. A way for the author to lay out their mind as set of associations interwoven with and adding to the meaning of the words.


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