One asks, “How to write a chapter that ostensibly has no end?” One of the parameters of this text as commissioned by Turbulence.org in 2009 was that it could be released as a Wiki, one conceivably editable by anyone with permission to do so. This simple fact, contrasted with the mutable nature of this thesis over time creates discursive problems for both the author and commissioners. By proposing a document with the possibility for endless revision, the function of the originating author — myself — merely starts a conversation from which all else becomes discursive potential.
The effects of indeterminacy in online media have precedents in the work of a number of theorists and computer scientists. Barthes’ death of the author [Barthes, 1977] stated that once a written “work” is transmitted to the audience, the writer in effect ceases to exist. In the 1960′s, Douglas Engelbart envisioned a networked real-time textual development system called the On-Line System (NLS) that made hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking possible. This system allowed a number of users to simultaneously read and write online documents, thus problematizing the role of the cultural producer by multiplexing the roles of creator and consumer.
During the same period, literary theory was predicting the way online media can structure meaning. Joseph Frank’s 1943 concept of literary spatial form posits that texts like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, famous for its length and sense of “involuntary memory”, and Joyce’s Ulysses, 265,000 words about a Dubliner’s ordinary day, collapse narrative into a simultaneous non-linear moment in time.
Spatial form, and agency of choice coupled with nonlinear narrative will inspire hypertext literature like Michael Joyce’s WOE  the first major Hypercard literary work, Mark Amerika’s Grammatron  one of the largest online hypernarrative novels, and Scott Rettberg, et al’s The Unknown , an “oeuvre” of hypermedia texts. Hypernarrative works will then expand into more conversational forms through mail-lists, blogs, and social media. Manik’s (Vauda & Pilipovic) aphoristic proclamations on online listservs, which often took the form of troll messaging, leading to flame wars in e-mail lists such as Syndicate and Rhizome, and the emailed/blogged love story of Yael Kanarek’s World of Awe illustrate narratives comprised of lists and blogs. These two works illustrate differences between two models of transmission, the mail-list and blog. The mail-list “reflects” an email; a message is first posted by one entering the list and then retransmitted to all registered to that list. The blog is an episodic transmitter, with periodic entries. Both define cultural transmitters and their audiences in that each mode of communication has a specific way of building a community and conveying its information. The mail-list could be seen as more of an agora for the exchange of messages, while the blog might be seen as a public “soap box” that people learn about and aggregate with others largely by cross-linking and word of mouth. With the tremendous amount of information generated by blogs, online data, and social media, artists are now making works that map patterns of trends and indices that intuit the shape of “flows” in online data. Examples include Martin Wattenberg’s diagrammatic maps generated from live Wall Street data, and Golan Levin’s graphic visualization of metrics gleaned from teenage breakups posted on blogs in The Dumpster, which I will talk about in more detail in the section on Flow.
In placing emphasis here on mail-lists and blogs, I do not intend to exclude the Wiki, which is a hybrid, as it has a mutable structure with revision trails. The Wiki form was aptly probed by Kildall and Stern in Wikipedia Art, by creating a self-referential conceptual art entry that revealed the internal social structures and modes of production in Wiki communities, especially Wikipedia.
All of these writers, researchers and artists have done invaluable work in advancing the development of narrative structure (scalar), the trajectory of communication (vector), and the overall trends in interaction (flows).
While the following discussion does not intend to suggest a linear development of art’s journey from structure to flow, it does propose that the development of the discussed theories, technologies, and artworks reflects a culture striving to understand the way it relates to itself in the face of tremendous change.