Is Homestuck the future of the digitally-native publication?

by Clayton Hayes, Head Editor, INALJ North Dakota

Is Homestuck the future of the digitally-native publication?

clayton.hayesSeveral months ago I got into a discussion on reddit about the online comic/story/cult known as Homestuck. For those of you unfamiliar, Homestuck is a label-defying piece of online storytelling created by Andrew Hussie. Started in 2009 as a single page, Hussie has since expanded Homestuck to include almost 7,000 pages and over 730,000 words as of October 16, 2013 when Hussie put the site on an indefinite hiatus. I was a fan of Hussie’s earlier work, Problem Sleuth, but quickly lost patience with Homestuck’s long, text-based posts and extremely convoluted plotline. The discussion did lead me to this PBS video, though, discussing Homestuck as the “Ulysses of the Internet”.

It got me thinking about what a digitally-native information resource could look like and, the more I thought about it, the more it seems that Homesuck provides an excellent example.

As you travel down the narrative’s rabbit hole, you notice a pervading inconsistency in the way each page is formatted. Though Homestuck’s early pages consist primarily of static or animated images with a bit of accompanying text, it goes on to include pages that are much more text-heavy, Flash-based games and animations, along with a few other stray pages here or there.

Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing we should expect of publications developed specifically for online platforms? It really can be thought of as a book in the broadest sense of the term, with page after page of information, but each page can be filled with just about anything. Any sort of content that you can imagine being on the web could fill the pages of a publication created using Homestuck as a template.

As it stands now, almost all of the publications we see online are essentially digital reproductions of their physical counterparts (especially when you look at scholarly resources). We are so married to the familiar structure of the book that it’s hard for us to break out of that mindset. It’s hard to try and look more creatively at the publishing process and at the opportunities presented by the online environment. But you look at something like Homestuck and there it is. With no physical limitations on content, the publication can be whatever you’d like it to be.

Do you want to include a poster-sized image or PDF in the publication? Why not! A YouTube video, a Flash-based cartoon, a page of text, or a graphic-novel style comic? There’s no reason not to. Page breaks can happen at logical intervals instead of being dictated by the physical limitations of a print page. Many online news websites use a similar system, with each article existing on its own page with unique formatting according to the content of the article.

When looking at scholarly resources in particular, the ability to comment and discuss content in the same space as the content itself provides an interesting opportunity for open peer review and other services that rely on social interaction. There are some limitations, of course. Publications of this type would require the user to be connected to the internet in order to view the content. Due to the vagaries of web development, it’s unlikely that users could even download a version of the publication that could be accessed locally. A lot more thought would have to be put into how users can navigate the publication as well; spend any amount of time on Homestuck and you’ll realize that it’s nearly impossible to find one particular page.

Still, there is a lot of innovation that can take place with how web-based information resources are developed and presented to users. As stakeholders in the publication process, we should be advocates for innovation and can help to provide perspective on new methods by which information can reach users.