Re–imagining Web analysis as circulation
First Monday

Re-imagining Web analysis as circulation by Christopher A. Paul


Abstract
Many forms of Internet analysis grew out of literary and textual criticism that focused on interpreting meaning(s) in particular texts. In extending a meaning–based approach to Web texts, analyses have artificially constructed borders around texts to produce stable research objects. This paper refocuses criticism, shifting from meaning to critical analysis of circulation and the ways that movement is either facilitated or impeded in particular Web texts. This analytical move respects the dynamic borders of Web texts whose hypertextual links defy precise definitions. By focusing on circulation, Web analysts can study the politics of pathways in Web sites, retaining the dynamism promised by the technology of the Web, yet enabling productive criticism.

Contents

From meaning to circulation
Meaning–based approaches to hypertext and the Web
Hypertext based on connectivity
Corporate media online
Independent commentary? — Penny Arcade
Blogging about games
Circulation and borders: Analysis of the Web

 


 

Initially devised to address a fairly limited pool of research objects, textual critics have stretched their subjects of inquiry to include a variety of different kinds of "texts." Concurrent with these expansions some adjustments have been made to the ways in which new texts are studied, with the acknowledgment that research tools designed to analyze speeches cannot simply be applied to conduct a textual critique of other subjects, such as television or movies. In large part, adjustments to critical methodology required recognition of the ways artifacts resisted traditional modes of analysis and consideration of how to construct a method adapted to these objects of study.

Textual critics addressing computer–mediated communication were able to avoid concerns about what constituted a text for a significant period of time. Initial forays into analysis of electronic texts were successful because the texts being studied (bulletin boards, MOOs, MUDs) had clear parallels to texts that had been studied in the offline world. With computer–mediated communication increasingly turning to Web analysis, it is necessary to reevaluate analytical tools because most Web pages are connected to others, making their borders hard to identify and confusing traditional conceptions of audience, authorship, and especially what constitutes a "text."

Re–conceptualizing what is being studied on the Web and how texts are established and altered by hyperlinks is crucial in the construction of a critical approach to the analysis of Web texts. Doing this requires a shift in focus, moving from attempting to derive the meaning of texts by studying how clearly defined texts work to achieve an effect to viewing how texts engage in and facilitate circulation, a primary design feature of many Web texts. This change enables a dynamic critique of Web sites focusing on the politics of pathways on the Web and the routes either enabled or blocked by particular Web sites.

This critical approach to the Web requires focusing on circulation as a cultural process, a social form. In doing so I shall apply ideas that Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma used to analyze globalization and capitalism. Three case studies will be used to illustrate this critical method, which emphasizes the structures of and the unique qualities of Web–based hypertexts. At the same time, other techniques, from semiotics to analysis of visual design, can also play a role in criticism, particularly after circulatory pathways are identified.

 

++++++++++

From meaning to circulation

In response to criticism based on interpretation of meaning, Lee and LiPuma observe that

"whereas an earlier generation of scholarship saw meaning and interpretation as the key problems for social and cultural analysis, the category of culture now seems to be playing catch–up ... it is dynamics of circulation that are driving globalization — and thereby challenging traditional notions of language, culture, and nation." [1]

They write that

"circulation is a cultural process with its own forms of abstraction, evaluation, and constraint, which are created by the interactions between specific types of circulating forms and the interpretive communities built around them. It is in these structured circulations that we identify cultures of circulation." [2]

Lee and LiPuma advocate this shift in order to study a different type of research object, such as the global economic markets they study, or, by extension, the interconnected hypertexts found on the Web. Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli add "there is a growing recognition of the importance of circulation as the enabling matrix within which social forms, both textual and topical, emerge and are recognizable when they emerge" [3]. These four authors make the case that there is an alternate axis for research, one based on how messages circulate.

Making this adjustment in analytical methods suited to the Web requires additional, smaller conceptual shifts. One is how performance is considered. In meaning–based analysis, performance has been tied to conceptions of identity and meaning. In Lee and LiPuma’s words, "performativity has been considered a quintessentially cultural phenomenon that is tied to the creation of meaning, whereas circulation and exchange have been seen as processes that transmit meanings, rather than as constitutive acts in themselves" [4]. Lee and LiPuma shift terms to make performativity an aspect of circulation, rather than a central concept of meaning making. Lee and LiPuma expand performance to include "ritual, the interplay of genres, and even the process of reading" in order to provide "crucial insight to how self–reflexivity and circulation interact" [5].

Analysis of performance becomes based on a "special, creative type of indexical icon: a self–reflexive use of reference that, in creating a representation of an ongoing act, also enacts it" [6]. This is particularly important in consideration of the Web, because hyperlinks perform in ways similar to Lee and LiPuma’s sense of performativity. Searching for meaning through hyperlinks is an issue scholars have wrestled with; but a focus on circulation shifts attention to hyperlinks within Web sites. Instead of needing to sever links to produce a more stable text, the critic’s concern becomes the ways that links are used to move multivocal texts into conversation, how movement is promoted and performed, and how the politics of enabled or precluded pathways are designed to shape the Web surfer’s experience.

The second conceptual shift is the recognition that a culture of circulation forces viewing texts within their larger context. Instead of isolating texts, focusing on connections among texts makes groupings and relationships objects of analysis. As Gaonkar and Povinelli observe, "although a culture of circulation can be identified by the objects circulating through it, it is not reducible to them. More is at stake, or, in circulation" [7]. In the case of the Web, pages can be used to identify a culture of circulation, but printing individual pages or separating them from their electronic context by analyzing them without an eye toward their context would lead to criticism of something different than the World Wide Web as it is experienced electronically. It is the connections, the ability to move among texts, which changes the way that any page is experienced.

 

++++++++++

Meaning–based approaches to hypertext and the Web

Studies of computer mediated communication date to the advent of multiple computers networks in the 1960s and 1970s, but the subject became a livelier area of study with the advent of bulletin boards and expansion of the Internet. Two distinct bodies of computer mediated communication research are relevant to an exploration of borders, circulation, and the World Wide Web: hypertext theory and extant World Wide Web research.

Hypertext is a linking technology developed in the 1980s that became the basis of the Web, but initial forays examined a different form of hypertext, one based on read–write novels with fixed links, rather than hypertext as deployed in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment. Two of the most prominent theorists in early hypertext research are George Landow and Espen Aarseth. With a background in literary studies, Landow argued hypertext was a realm in which readers had control to (re)define the texts they encountered. He concluded "[T]he basic hypertext experience of the text, information, and control, which moves the boundary of power away from the author in the direction of the reader, models ... a postmodern, antihierarchical medium of information, text, philosophy and society" [8].

Aarseth took an opposing position, responding that hypertexts could be more open, but whether or not they were was a result of a conscious decision made by the programmer of a hypertext. His point was that "a hypertext path with only one (unidirectional) link between text chunks is much more authoritarian and limiting than (say) a detective novel, in which the reader is free to read the ending at any time" [9].

Later, David Bolter and Richard Grusin argued that "replacement is the essence of hypertext, and in a sense the whole World Wide Web is an exercise in replacement" [10]. In a sense, this emphasizes the way messages circulate online, but it does so by severing connections among texts. Bolter and Grusin view the Web as constantly changing, but still as something with clearly identifiable parts. Viewing the Web as "an exercise in replacement" erects borders, with each replacement taking the place of another, isolating texts, rather than connecting them.

 

++++++++++

Hypertext based on connectivity

Donna Haraway offers an alternate vision of hypertext, one built on the belief that hypertext connects disparate ideas, that hypertext’s key aspect is that it encourages circulation of thought. Haraway argues that hypertextual nodes "attest, witness, to the implosion of nature and culture in the embodied entities of the world and their explosion into contestations for possible, maybe even livable, worlds in globalized technoscience" [11]. Further, Haraway claims we should look at hypertext as functioning like the child’s game cat’s cradle, which encourages cooperation with others to make new shapes and meanings through the use of a tool, string, shared by all.

By looking at hypertext as a shared, signifying tool, agency is complicated, no longer possessed by autonomous and individualized agents. This opens the possibility of recognizing technology and the circulation it encourages as a form. Hypertext breaks down barriers, but remains implicated in what it creates. As a technology, hypertext itself can contest dominant meanings. For Haraway, it is the technology that does this, not the user or the programmer.

Circulation among various hypertexts is promoted through the use of hyperlinks, which fundamentally alters author, audience and text. The technologies themselves change the terms of analysis in many cases; technology is the base from which resistance can be rallied and circulation is developed. The object of analysis is made, shaped, and crafted through the hyperlinks and their connections; they are what "define" Web–based texts, analyses of individual sites can be based on how hypertextual technologies are employed. The crucial part of Web–based analysis is considering the hypertextual connections, the circulations promoted through hyperlinks, and the politics of the pathways enabled (and disabled) through various sites.

It is not necessarily the "original" texts or those texts to which the original links are made that are of note, but the connections among those texts, the circulatory conversations. With this alternate paradigm for Web analysis outlined, it is possible to proceed to three different case studies to illustrate how focusing on circulation among hypertexts produces a productive, critical approach for engaging Web texts and complements other modes of Web criticism.

 

++++++++++

Corporate media online

A major change in the Web was the introduction of massive numbers of commercial sites, which led to the development of infrastructure and an increase in the number of pages online. Major media companies discovered that an online arm of the company was a necessary partner to offline operations. An interesting case of an offline media company moving to the Web is ESPN (http://espn.go.com), which extends ESPN’s reach from their more traditional television and radio interests. In addition to ESPN.com, there are eight television channels (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Classic, ESPNU, ESPNHD, and ESPNHD2) to augment ESPN radio, which is syndicated in markets throughout the country and available on the Web, and ESPN: The Magazine.

ESPN.com debuted in the early stages of the Web with text and basic pictures, but the site has grown and integrated newer technologies into its site design. ESPN.com is interesting because it is not derivative of the content found on other media produced by ESPN, as is true for many print media Web sites, such as NYTimes.com [12]. The early introduction of a text and picture based–Web site required that ESPN.com develop unique content in order to be viable as a site, because technology did not yet permit integration of streaming radio or video, rendering most of their media product irrelevant.

Newer technological developments have facilitated the inclusion of other forms of ESPN media content onto the site, such as radio broadcasts and selected video highlights, which complement material unique to the Web. The site not only expands the unique interests of ESPN, but also of the Disney/ABC corporate family. In this case, the inclusion of "go" in the URL reflects membership in the "Go Network," which is the host for all of the Disney/ABC sites, locating ESPN.com as a site tied to multiple corporate interests with two distinct aspects to its branded identity.

The introductory page of the site is loaded with information, yet heavily sectioned and colored in a manner that provides repeat visitors with clear visual cues to organize a tremendous amount of information. A large banner ad is prominent at the top of the page, which usually includes some sort of animation and is often deployed in a manner that obscures the rest of the page for a short period while the Java–enabled ad plays out. Beneath the ad, links for a number of sites, almost all for the Disney/ABC corporate family (the only current exceptions are for NBA.com and NHL.com, all of which have broadcast deals with ABC/ESPN), are presented in white on a red background. Complementing the links is information about the program currently running on ESPN and a rotating announcement of upcoming program highlights.

The bulk of the page beneath these links is divided in quarters. On the left hand side, links are provided to different subsections of the site, most of which are designed in a manner similar to the home page. This portion of the page also includes a search function, and sometimes contains a small ad for a magazine subscription or other product. This left hand quarter enables visitors to move quickly to the section of ESPN.com that interests them most, so if they are looking for something specific, the left panel proffers an opportunity to acquire that information quickly. In addition, this is one of the few panes visible on almost all of the pages throughout the site.

The largest section features a "Top Story" of the moment, which may change several times over the course of the day, but usually has a large picture with a short description of the story with multiple links to articles about the issue. Typically, the top story will be like the lead story for a newspaper, but with the twist that the story can change as the situation warrants.

Beneath the top story are links to a number of different kinds of feature articles. These often are divided by well known contributors to the site, such as Peter Gammons, Bill Simmons, or Marc Stein, or by issue, like a major sports draft or playoff series. These articles usually are presented in two different ways, with some displayed in boxes immediately below the top story and others presented at slightly more length beneath the boxes, with a small picture, a hyperlinked title, and a short abstract of the article.

A final section offers up links to "Contests and Special Sections," which are typically different, sponsored promotions being run via the Web site. The third vertical section is composed of multiple parts set off by different colored backgrounds. The first contains the day’s date and a link to the current ESPN Radio broadcast. This is a small section that does not stand out in the midst of all of the information on the page. A secondary story of lesser importance is listed below the date and radio link [13]. However, on occasions when there are two major sporting events running concurrently, the two will shift between the top and secondary story spot throughout the day/evening.

Immediately below the second major story is a small advertisement, which has recently promoted Samsung products, often their high definition television, along with a pitch for high definition cable access, which clearly benefits ESPN as well. ESPNEWS headlines are offered below the ad space and cover many of the breaking events of the day. Two similar sections are below the headlines, both of which have four tabs that offer different information. The first has tabs for: "Radio," "Wireless," "TV," and "Nation," [14] while the second includes links for information unique to the Web site: "Page 2," which offers a humorous take on sports; "Page 3," which explores the connection between sports and celebrities; "Insider," a premium service with in–depth analysis; and, "Fantasy," with links to ESPN’s promotions of their fantasy sports products and information. Each of these panels typically offers three different headlines, and for those that are online, a link to the story.

This section’s final component is a SportsNation vote on a poll topic, with the result reported on SportsCenter [15], usually promoted throughout the radio broadcast day. The final, right–most section may be the most interesting, because it blends individualized content, when possible, with promotions for MSN and Windows XP. The personal content is designed to match each user’s Go Network profile and includes a personal greeting, a spot for ESPN Motion to show highlights from SportsCenter, links to any fantasy teams a visitor may have on ESPN.com and information about those professional sports teams self reported as favorites. This section is extended by ties to MSN throughout the margins of the page, with links offered at the extreme top and bottom of most ESPN.com pages that facilitate movement to parts of the Microsoft network.

The final major descriptive component to understanding ESPN.com is their use of advertising. Almost every page on the site contains at least one ad, with the exception of some premium, subscription–only pages. Ads range from fairly standard pop–up and pop–under ads, to banner ads, to Java–enabled banner ads, to the most sophisticated ads which "move" with the page, playing both audio and video until their completion or until users can find and click on their "close" button. This last group of ads is overlaid on stories, obscuring information until they run their course, are closed, or are clicked upon, resulting in a new browser window opened to the advertiser’s site.

Hyperlinks on ESPN.com function in a number of different ways. The clearest way they work is to ensure movement from a central page to a variety of other locations. Some of those, such as the subsections divided by sport or themed sections like Page 2 are hubs of their own, and are designed to maintain a connection to the site at large, while providing more specific, targeted information in which users may be interested.

Hyperlinks also connect people directly to information as it is reported by ESPN.com or other members of the ESPN corporate family of sports reporting. This facilitates a more open experience in some ways. One can skip directly to the teams or issues in which one is interested, but there are restrictions because there are a finite number of pages to which one can connect, and the selection of those pages is completely out of the hands of readers and limited to what is laid out by ESPN. This form of circulation is more open than reporting about sports on television, but has boundaries. In effect, ESPN uses the Web to let users select content in which they are interested, but the content available is limited to topical sports information and information that serves the interests of ESPN/ABC/Disney.

Hyperlinks on the site limit users to information in the interest of Disney and its contracted advertisers. Accordingly, there are connections that will never be made owing to the economic concerns of the corporations involved. A connection to CBSSportsline.com, a major competitor, will never be offered even if it were related to a story and would add depth and context if included. The site’s name may be mentioned in such a case, but the hyperlink likely would not see the light of day. Further, these two sites separate themselves in practice with borders that do not exist offline, as in situations in which contractual agreements require that televised SportsCenter replays must display a CBS Sports watermark on all of their NCAA tournament highlights, but the same connections are rarely found on ESPN.com [16]. ESPN.com is designed to impede circulation beyond the site to those without a contractual or corporate connection to ESPN.com, while facilitating open movement between Disney, ABC, advertisers and the various points of interest on the Web site.

In addition to the key corporate connections enabled by hyperlinks, links on ESPN.com also reify the branding of ESPN as a key destination for all things sport. The inclusion of references to all of their media products, along with references to the ESPN television stations and radio programming, creates movement in ways that reach beyond the hyperlinks on the site. The links further the branding of ESPN as a destination for all things sport. Further, by disallowing external circulations, technology is used to hold users and control their movements.

The anchors on SportsCenter reference a poll on ESPN.com, as the host on ESPN radio asks for people to vote in the poll or check out a story that an upcoming guest may have written. In doing this ESPN adds a circulatory dynamic that is not limited to the Web and, although it requires work to move from one medium to the next, the hyperlinks on ESPN.com are able to bring the different discussions into conversation almost seamlessly, especially with streaming radio feeds and video highlights presented by ESPNEWS and SportsCenter. In this sense, ESPN.com not only is moving within the Web, but also within the larger context of the brand image of ESPN. Hyperlinks in this case cease to be limited by the bounds of the Web, pushing into a variety of media forms.

Analyzing ESPN.com for what it "means" would be an arduous, if not impossible task and might not result in a conclusion more complex than "it’s a site about sports." Further, what makes the site different from its television and radio based brethren is the ability to circulate among texts of a visitor’s choosing and that boundaries between stories can be effaced in some ways, while erecting firm obstruction to content that does not benefit the goals of ESPN and its parent companies.

The home page offers a temporary point from which to start analysis, but really understanding the page and how it works requires on looking at what it does, how it connects, and how it functions performatively in order to create representations of references while enacting them. Circulation patterns on ESPN.com enable far more active advertising than any of its more traditional media outlets, because the Web site provides an advertising message, as well as the space and connection in which to complete sales, instead of being limited to a straightforward advertising pitch.

With its strategic use of hyperlinks, ESPN.com erases borders typical of traditional media while building others that keep the site cloistered in a manner offline media cannot replicate. For users to leave ESPN.com or its corporate partners, they have to make the conscious decision to type a new Web address in their browser. Although this could be likened to changing a channel on television, moving to a competitor’s site requires knowledge of its address, something unlikely ever to be found on ESPN.com, while moves among television or radio channels are available without needing to know a specific code or, in the case of the Web, a URL. In this case, the circulations offered on the site illustrate how ESPN.com advances a particular corporate agenda while reifying the brand image of ESPN.

 

++++++++++

Independent commentary? — Penny Arcade

In the early days of the Web it was hypothesized that wide access to publishing tools would lead to scores of independent sources of information. Although the Web certainly has been colonized by corporations, there are many sites that started as personal sites, yet have grown by leaps and bounds to now reach substantial audiences. One such site, Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com/), offers a unique take on life in general and computer gaming in particular. Published as a Web journal and comic three times a week, Tycho and Gabe, pseudonyms for the site’s two creative forces, usually focus on issues relevant to electronic gaming, but often veer into more general areas of concern in their lives, from fruit–juicing machines to cat litter boxes.

The focus of the site is split between a leading essay, written by Tycho, that introduces a comic strip illustrated by Gabe with additional, stream of consciousness commentary. Typically, the essay and comic are complementary, but there are days when the subject matter of the two diverge. In addition to the opening remarks, comments are sometimes added as the day passes under the heading "The Braying and Neighing of Barnyard Animals Follows." This discussion is generally about something external to the original piece, but regularly covers key issues in the game industry or issues of concern to Gabe and Tycho.

One additional central feature of the site is a group forum with thousands of posts. This site operates in an eerily similar, yet very different, space than ESPN.com. Although they are both on the Web and using similar technologies, the context in which a small site run largely by two guys exists is fundamentally different than the environment for a major media institution like ESPN/ABC/Disney, yet there are clear parallels in how the two sites manage circulatory pathways.

Penny Arcade’s site has a basic design. The home page features a Space Invaders character as a wallpapered background and is almost entirely consumed by the essay of the day. At the top of the page, the Penny Arcade logo is listed first, followed by links to different parts of the site, including the latest comic, a searchable archive of comics, the forums, and a handful of links to pages that are rarely updated.

There are also a two notable ads on the front page, one at the top of the page and one on the right side of the page. Underneath the ad on the right are links to "Advertise on PA," "Join Club PA," and to the hosting service for the site. At the bottom of the page are a number of small ads, offering links to the Web hosting service; a Web site sponsor called Think Geek; a collection of Gabe’s art; Gamefly, a game rental service similar to Netflix; the Official PlayStation magazine, where several of their comics appear; and, a link to a blog written by the woman who designed the site.

What sets Penny Arcade apart is how the site uses its included links. Most sites, especially those with advertising, use code in their hyperlinks to open up linked pages in a new Web browser window. ESPN.com regularly does this at points when following an ad would require movement from ESPN.com to an advertiser’s site, but opening a second window maintains a window hosting an ESPN.com page on a user’s computer.

Instead of adding a window, links in Penny Arcade go directly from Penny Arcade to the linked site, replacing and initially erasing Penny Arcade’s place on Web browsers. Through this kind of shifting Penny Arcade creates a different kind of movement that is more dynamic. Using hyperlinks in this manner changes the borders between Penny Arcade and the sites to which it links. ESPN.com is holding people, even when they click on ads, while Penny Arcade allows movement to continue unfettered, permitting/requiring users to come back through their browser’s history, the back button, or re–entering the site’s URL in order to continue Penny Arcade’s narrative. This type of circulation is representative of the relative openness of a particular site and how important it is for that site to stay in control of user’s potential moves.

Further, this use of hypertext is most clearly exhibited in the essays written by Tycho. His tracts are similar to the hypertexts studied by previous scholars, in the sense that they frequently use links in order to make a point. When he mentions a product or a game, he includes a link to it, often from the producer’s homepage. When he cites a discussion or article that exists on another site, he links to it. By doing this, Penny Arcade is moving away from being a clearly defined site with definitive borders to something different. Deriving the "meaning" of the site would be difficult as its boundaries are uncertain and change with each new posting by Tycho or updates to the pages to which Penny Arcade links.

Authorship is also less clear, Tycho and Gabe are clear, dominant voices on Penny Arcade, but with the ability to move easily away from their site, identifying the borders and the authors of the text that is Penny Arcade is prohibitively difficult. In this case, the advent of the Web leads to a different dynamic than older hypertexts, because Tycho can link to far more texts that are authored by a wide range of people, resisting traditional attempts to analyze the meaning of what he is doing.

Hyperlinks function differently on Penny Arcade than on ESPN.com. Although links are still used to generate commercial activity, there are far fewer ads on Penny Arcade than on ESPN.com, and the ads there work differently. Further, the links generate a fuller, more thorough sense of circulation. Instead of a link that opens up a new window, keeping one foot in the old and only moving one into new territory, the links on Penny Arcade encourage complete movement into the linked site. This alters the dynamics of any presumed borders around the site and plays a key role in how the site promotes movement. The pathways in the site are complete, depending on users either to come back on their own or letting users make their own decision to choose not to come back to the site.

By linking sites in the same window the impact of circulation is developed in a different manner. Concepts are introduced within a certain framework, one of humor and speaking to the reader as a peer, rather than as a corporate news outlet. Through this, relationships are changed, which is best demonstrated in the hyperlinks where linked information and movement dramatically shape Penny Arcade. To fully appreciate Tycho’s essays one must move off of the original site to the links that contextualize what he is saying. In this sense, analysis of circulation is necessary to make sense of the site. Penny Arcade depends on breaking down the borders between what could be seen as discrete texts. Penny Arcade advances a particular view of the Web, providing a specific context in which their readers can then encounter other texts. It is the circulation, the ability to reference and comment on texts directly, that adds to the appeal of Penny Arcade and completes many of the jokes on the site.

The final aspect of Penny Arcade that must be considered is how the site is integrated into the gaming industry as a whole. Based on their popularity, they have been contracted to provide comic strips or books for a number of different game manufacturers and publications. When this occurs, either Gabe or Tycho announces the deal on the site and links are generally provided when new material is available.

In a recent case, Penny Arcade provided a 16–page Web comic to promote the video game Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (http://www.splintercell.com/uk/) for game publisher Ubisoft, and with each page release, they made an announcement on Penny Arcade. By doing this, Ubisoft is able to magnify the impact of their advertising dollars, not only getting a comic with which to promote the game, but also several mentions of the game on a heavily trafficked site. In conjunction with the release of the game, ads promoting Pandora Tomorrow were placed on Penny Arcade and several mentions of it were made in essays by Tycho and in comments by both men. This is a different side of circulation on Penny Arcade. Its dynamics are similar to those of other links, but it demonstrates that it is not just giant corporate sites that use modes of circulation enabled by technologies of the Web in order to channel attention to complete sales.

Circulation for Penny Arcade is not just about commenting on game developments or building a particular view of the gaming industry, but also about selling a particular audience to advertisers on the basis of the open, jocular commentary offered in the rest of the site and selling the seemingly free circulation fostered through their links.

 

++++++++++

Blogging about games

Web logs, or blogs, are a rapidly growing segment of the Web. Although usually the musings of an individual, they offer a sort of online diary. In the case of game girl advance (http://www.gamegirladvance.com/), a communal blog is authored by a number of different people in order to comment on developments in the gaming industry in a manner different than, yet connected to Penny Arcade.

Game girl advance contains a number of different sections, including a once published zine, but the focus is on the presentation of a specific issue by one of the many contributors to the site. An author posts something, whether it is an extended commentary on the gaming industry, their general feeling about life, a brief review of a game they have played or a book they have read, or even the connections between video games and high fashion (see http://www.gamegirladvance.com/archives/2004/04/15/video_chic.html). The entries are then opened up for comment by visitors to the site who can engage in an asynchronous conversation about the entry, often adding depth or context to the idea.

In addition to the regular posts, some essays addressing ideas that have been developed in greater depth are listed as featured articles. Often these are written by professors at academic institutions, people with gaming industry connections, or, in one case, a written version of a lecture (see http://www.gamegirladvance.com/archives/2003/04/16/genderplay_successes_and_failures_in_character_designs_for_videogames.html) given by one of the founders of the site at Stanford University. These are not necessarily composed by the regular authors, but cover specific issues related to the overall theme of the site. Game girl advance is designed as a place where people can talk about issues in a dialogue initiated by the contributors to game girl advance, enabling education about issues and a place to talk about current events in gaming.

The site has a straightforward design, with a logo for the site in the top left corner [17] and navigational links across the top of the page. The bulk of the front page is divided into three sections. A small section on the left has a variety of information, including recent posts and comments, a link to make a donation to keep the site afloat, archives by category and month, the contributors to the site, and links to a number of related Web sites. The middle of the front page contains the Weblog, which lists the most recent post at the top and contains about a month worth of entries.

To view comments or the remainder of longer entries, users can click on a link provided at the end of the entry. In addition, a TrackBack option is provided, which enables the author of the piece to link it to similar entries that exist on game girl advance, allowing connections between postings to be built over time. The right pane contains featured articles, with the most recent at the top, then a handful of ads powered by Google’s AdSense, and the rest of the feature content. In this case there are ads, but they are text only, and instead of an advertiser paying game girl advance directly for placement, the ads function on a click through basis, with Google as a mediating force, attracting both the advertisers and the sites upon which to advertise.

Links on game girl advance are similar to those in Penny Arcade. The Weblog entries are similar to Tycho’s essays, privileging movement off of the site to contextualize the commentary, rather than a straightforward, controlled reading experience. The primary differences are in the commentaries offered immediately after the piece and the list of similar sites offered on the front page. These additions reshape how circulation works within the links on this site.

The commentary within the site offers a chance for other people to reshape what was originally written, opening up the text for continual reinterpretation as more information is given. This leads to pathways based on the development and investigation of ideas. Suddenly, readers are given the chance to have an active role in creation of the circulation within the site, and when they take advantage of it, circulation and borders are fundamentally altered. This is most strikingly seen in "bot"–generated posts that link to pornographic sites in an attempt to use game girl advance’s audience to attract more traffic to pornographic sites. Although these posts are promptly removed, because they do not promote circulation related to the subject matter on game girl advance, the ability to do this demonstrates how the dynamics of circulation on this site can be radically affected by posts that are out of the control of the primary producers of game girl advance.

In a different way, the explicit links off of the site offered on the first page encourage or at least give readers a chance to become educated about issues being discussed and bring sophisticated arguments to the site. This makes game girl advance more complex, relying on both its users and the sites to which it explicitly links in order to craft a hypertextual document that depends on moving off of the site in order to trace discussions on the site.

Although not completely without ads, game girl advance’s minimal inclusion of advertising is part of what makes it a different sort of site. In this case there is no real point at which the site attempts to hold on to viewers; instead, the pathways encourage, even demand, movement off the site. This changes the dynamics of reading and engaging in criticism of the text. There is no terminal point for game girl advance, just a series of references. By doing this the site alters relationships between information and facilitates a triangulated view of issues. Dialogue is encouraged, and venues to obtain information outside the host site are readily available.

In this case, unlike the other two sites, visitors are encouraged to leave a mark, which could facilitate additional pathways not directly intended by those "in control" of game girl advance but that impact circulation among texts on and off of the site. In this sense, game girl advance is the only one of the Web sites to make a really strong move to decrease the borders around its texts, instead privileging exchange of information, ideas and, movement throughout cyberspace.

 

++++++++++

Circulation and borders: Analysis of the Web

The Web is a space into which scholarly analysis is adjusting. Circulation on the Web is constitutive; through the circulation of text more complex but ephemeral texts are formed. Hyperlinks enable movement between texts in a manner that effaces what would present, in hard copy, a firm border, but online, the moves are performative, enacting referenced objects and bringing them to the fore. Moving to circulation as a key to analysis facilitates a different way of studying the Web, one that better represents the dynamic movements that can occur online.

In order to analyze a group of texts or research objects, circulation requires critics to understand how pathways of the Web are politicized. There is an ideological bent to this technology, but as the three case studies above demonstrate, the technologies of the Web can be enabled in different ways in order to advance different agendas.

In the case of ESPN.com, hyperlinks are used to foreclose discussion, privileging a system based on relaying information to a consumer. This encourages a more passive viewer, potentially increasing the success rate of their advertising. The information conveyed by ESPN.com is not limited to straightforward sports reporting, but includes brand imaging for ESPN and Disney/ABC and for products advertised on the site.

Penny Arcade uses hyperlinks in a different way, to move people into a textured discussion that puts their writing in conversation with extant texts on the Web. This creates a running commentary about certain sites and ideas, while still framing the discussion with Gabe and Tycho’s wit and wry humor. Movement on this site seems open, but is controlled by Penny Arcade, and with the ability to comment on links, the authors of the site can frame how most initial movements occur.

Game girl advance offers a third use of movement with similar technologies, privileging a relatively open, educated dialogue about a variety of issues, which still exists within the context of original comments by contributing authors. This is almost like an offline discussion group, but the connections made between texts alter conceptions of movement and citation, promoting circulation among a variety of texts, including those originally intended by the authors and others, facilitated by running commentary that are outside of game girl advance’s initial, direct control.

Circulation requires analysis of the politics of the pathways in a culture of circulation. In the case of the Web, this is about how certain sites make ideological moves through the ways that information flow is facilitated or stymied. Early hypertext literature debated whether or not hypertexts were open and defined by readers or more closed and defined by authors. These three case studies demonstrate that both were correct, but by borrowing from Haraway and recognizing that texts online are negotiated through their connections, it becomes clear why focusing on the pathways can produce more nuanced, critical analysis of Web sites. Much like Lee and LiPuma use circulation as a means to analyze large–scale economic forces, a meta–analysis of Web sites can benefit from a similar move. Analyzing the paths that are enabled and barred has the potential to develop a strong, ideological critique of how Web sites work, one that focuses on aspects of movement control that advance particular agendas, while using other methodological approaches to complete a thorough textual critique of a given Web site. End of article

 

About the author

Christopher A. Paul is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
E–mail: paulc [at] uah [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Lee and LiPuma, 2002, p. 191.

2. Lee and LiPuma, 2002, p. 192.

3. Gaonkar and Povinelli, 2003, p. 388.

4. Lee and LiPuma, 2002, p. 192.

5. Lee and LiPuma, 2002, p. 195.

6. Ibid.

7. Gaonkar and Povinelli, 2003, p. 391.

8. Landow, 1997, p. 89.

9. Aarseth, 1997, p. 47.

10. Bolter and Grusin, 1999, p. 44.

11. Haraway, 1997, p. 270.

12. Most other major television sites integrate similar original content, like www.idolsonfox.com or www.cbs.survivor.com, but it is different on ESPN.com, because the online content is both a substitute, providing overlapping information, and a complement, increasing the tie to ESPN as a sports information resource.

13. On occasion the middle two sections are blended together at the top to promote an event of major sporting significance. In cases like Barry Bonds moving past Willie Mays on the home run list, baseball’s opening day, or the crowning of a new champion in one of the major sports, the top and secondary story spots will be removed for one large image with minimal commentary, but with links to articles about the event.

14. This is a reference to ESPN’s SportsNation, which is used to symbolize the community of sports fans united by ESPN and to lump events like chats with key figures in the world of sports and various poll topics in which visitors can cast their votes.

15. SportsCenter is ESPN’s feature news show. Generally running for an hour, the show recaps the day’s sports news and highlights; at least three different versions of the show are produced each weekday to best report breaking sports news.

16. Another embodiment of the "real" difference in borders between online and offline versions of ESPN are the different radio ads found in the streaming, online version of ESPN Radio. As a result of contractual differences between recording contracts, different ads are in the online version and, in some streaming broadcasts, there are periods of dead air because not all of the online ad time has been sold.

17. The image was designed by Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade. Additional connections between the two sites have been made in postings on both sites referencing a post or discussion on the other. Penny Arcade is also in the list of links on the left side of game girl advance.

 

References

Espen Aarseth, 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, 1999. Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, 2003. "Technologies of public forms: Circulation, transfiguration, recognition," Public Culture, volume 15, number 3, pp. 385–397. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-3-385

Donna J. Haraway, 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets OncoMouseTM: Feminism and technoscience. New York: Routledge.

George P. Landow, 1997. Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma, 2002. "Cultures of circulation: The imaginations of modernity," Public Culture, volume 14, number 1, pp. 191–213. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/08992363-14-1-191


Editorial history

Paper received 4 September 2005; accepted 28 October 2005.
HTML markup: Kyleen Kenney and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.


Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, by Christopher A. Paul

Re–imagining Web analysis as circulation by Christopher A. Paul
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 11 - 7 November 2005
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1291/1211





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2016.