Poetry, collaboration and web science.

After several weeks of serious bullying from my children I’m thinking of applying to do a web science phd at Southampton. Web science has a number of definitions but it would appear to involve the tricky business of looking at how web technologies interact with other areas of human activity and trying to see if things can be improved.
I’m interested in this stuff because I think the internet is the single most important development for many centuries and I’m excited by the fact that we have not yet begun to work out its potential.
Whilst being bullied, I had a look at some of the research in this area and one sentence in particular caught my eye. This made the point that the web has the potential to transform the figure of the artist as an isolated figure into something more collaborative. I then spent some time thinking how this might apply to poetry. At the same time I was trying to keep up with the various drafts of Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ which was leading me to think about completion and authenticity.
In terms of web science, 10 or so years ago my business partner and I developed a self-assessment gizmo for people in the UK to see if they might qualify for disability benefits. This device, together with the relevant content pages has been running since 2001 with about 150 people each day completing the self-assessment process. Even though nothing has been done to the site since we sold it last year, it is still favoured by Google and people continue to find it useful. Which is a long way of saying that I know that gizmos are popular. I then saw that poetry has got a lot of rules for various forms and genres and that it might be useful to think about some kind of validation gizmo (similar to code validation gizmos the we use when building web pages and style sheets).
People could then submit (for example) a sonnet and then have the validator tell them whether there sonnet meets the standard definition. In addition a poetry reference centre would be useful in providing descriptions of various forms and genres together with examples. Of course this would involve the validator being able to recognise rhyme and rhythm (the key components of verse) but developing such a tool alongside those with technical expertise would seem a fascinating way to spend my time.
I then thought a bit more about collaboration and whether the net could actually enhance that process and whether there was a need to do it in the first place. Thinking about my own stuff, there are some poems that are very very personal to me and that I’d want to retain a degree of control over. There are other poems / drafts of poems that would certainly benefit from additions and amendments from others. This would seem to apply to poems that are longer and more expansive in theme and I’d also welcome amendments to poems that I’m not entirely happy with. I then thought about amending published poems that I like and admire to see what that was like. I’ve since had enormous fun rewriting lines and phrases from Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’. Doing this with these two has forced me to think much harder about what they were trying to say and whether there are different ways to say it, I’ve spent the last week thinking about one paragraph from Hill and Ashbery’s ‘mild effects’.
Anyway, feeling somewhat heartened I then started to think about how this would work on the web. Currently this has two main phases-
1. People would be encouraged to submit ideas for poems. This could include subject matter, form and genre and would then be displayed and could be further amended by others.
2. People could then submit drafts in accordance with the specification and each of the drafts would be available for amendment.
So, I might specify an epic written in Spenserian stanzas about the Troubles. Someone else may want to write something similar but in heroic couplets (or free verse) and submit that as a specification and both of these may attract submissions and amendments. There would be a requirement to write within the specification, any variation on this would still be displayed but within the amended spec.
The I got a bit carried away and thought that it would be useful if each spec could ‘programme’ the validator as it was being written so that subsequent amendments and contributions could then be objectively measured for conformance.
It then occurred to me that this would undermine the idea of the poet as an individual but that it would mean that poems (being always liable to amendment) would never be complete or definitive. Continuing to feel pleased with myself, I then formulated the following research questions-
1. What motivates people to collaborate in this way?
2. How should indexing be done?
3. Which types of poems attract the most collaborators?
4. Is there a point where the poem stops improving (if it improves at all)?
5. Do the people who use the validator for their own stuff also go on to collaborate with others?
6. Does the use of a validator stifle creativity / innovation?
7. How would search work?
At this point I realised that I might be disappearing in yet another flight of chronic self-indulgence so this is essentiall a plea for feedback of any description before I start drawing the diagrams and flow charts…

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