This dissertation is focused on the practices of experimental publishing that are intertwined with digital and networked technology, and borrow strategies derived from the context of arts and design. In order to build a model of interpretation of such practices, I defined a theoretical framework, I made an overview of influential perspectives within the field, and I carried out an investigation of the ‘communities of practice’ in which experimental publishing takes place. Then, I analyzed a phenomenology of projects that highlight the characteristics of an experimental approach in each specific stage of the publishing process. Finally, I developed an online archive for the purpose of categorizing and connecting the different case studies. The main question addressed is: How does experimental publishing contribute to influence and extend the very notion of publishing, understood as an activity that transcends a specific professional sector by involving a
substantial portion of Web users?
To answer this question, I compare a series of diverse definitions of publishing, I discuss the complexities of such field and I advance a perspective to orient within it and to identify its boundaries. This perspective is characterized by a ‘holistic’ understanding of publishing — not a specific moment, but a succession of phases — and by a focus on processes instead of products. Then, I consider dynamics of both digitization and digitalization, and the effects that these have on publishing tools. In order to do so, I describe a series of episodes that have illustrative value for the understanding this impact. At this stage, I define the attribute ‘experimental’ by referring to artistic and literary avant-gardes, and to the universe of the artists’ books, including also a series of manifestos produced by designers and artists who work in the field of publishing.
In order to pinpoint experimental modes of production, dissemination and reception, I build
and analyze a thematic set of case studies. I look at these by using as a model the series of phases extracted from the initial analysis of the publishing process: production of content, production of artifacts, distribution, reception, and survival. Each of these case studies is meant to bring out the transformations that an experimental practice can produce on each specific phase of the process. Finally, I concentrate on the practical outcome of the dissertation, which can be assimilated to different phases in the model, in particular that of survival. Here, I describe the development of an online repository of experimental publishing and the choices related to the inclusion and the categorization of the projects covered in the thematic case studies. Then, I introduce a periodization and a series of inclusion criteria that guide the activities of archiving. I conclude by discussing the aspects of publishing that are extended or altered by the practices described in the case studies. In this way, I close a circular path of definitions that are related through a feedback mechanism. In this path, defining publishing helps to frame experimental practices, which in turns affect the notion of publishing defined in first place. In this research, digital and networked technology plays a multiple role: it is a core agent in the mutations in the editorial practice; it produces conditions that are able to foster or hinder a set of values and consequent behaviors that are not always easily intelligible. In this sense, it is appropriate to speak of the reciprocal influence of society and digitality .
A phenomenology of experimental publishing, the core of the research, is developed by selecting, discussing, and comparing a series artifacts, practices, services, and platforms conceived by artists and designers. These projects function as meditations on mediation: the process to build and activate them, their role, behavior, and symbolic value operate as tools to reflect upon the ways in which several layers of mediation — frames in Michael Bhaskar terms (2013) — affect the production, distribution, and reception of content; in a word: publishing. In building this phenomenology, I avoid showcase projects, “the achilles heel of all electronic and multimedia publishing efforts” (Cramer 2014) by which I mean artifacts or services subservient to the technologies employed. An exception to this rule occurs when a showcase projects is useful to highlight, by opposition, features that belong to other ones. A collateral result of such phenomenology is to point out the ways in which the publishing ecosystem is designed. Therefore, the projects I consider do not directly provide solutions because they often address “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973): societal issues that hold a level of ambiguity and do not allow for straightforward answers.
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