bot-y of work: a statement of significance

Moth Generator (@mothgenerator) is an interactive, multi-faceted, collaborative digital artwork by Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt. The following statements illustrate its complexity and set the stage for an eventual preservation plan for this work:

Moth Generator is:

  • A Javascript drawing program that creates images of imaginary moths by translating text into numbers
  • A Twitter feed where moths are regularly published and @replies are used as moth-generating text
  • A collection of computer-generated moth images and names, including looping animations created from generated moths and reused for other purposes
  • An element of a complex virtual world project
  • A collaboration between a game designer and an artist whose work deals in large part with code and bots
  • A relatively well-known example of a Twitter bot
2 moths by @mothgenerator
“middle lacuna moth ortricidia ietivorella” via @mothgenerator

Continue reading “bot-y of work: a statement of significance”

Kutiman’s Gambit or: Somehow Connecting an International Community with Fairly Inaccessible Music

Kutiman, whose real name is Ophir Kutiel, is an Israeli musician, producer, and video artist whose career has focused on enthusiastically exploring new music and mashing ideas together in novel and often very danceable ways. Off Grid: Psychedelic Jazz from the Interweb (2016) is Kutiman’s most recent video album, part love letter to two of his earliest inspirations—avant-garde jazz and psychedelia—and part celebration of the global music community that thrives online. Off Grid is an evolution of Kutiman’s previous online-only video albums, including Thru You (2009), My Favorite Band (2011), and Thru You Too (2014). Kutiman’s big hit, of course, is Thru You, another YouTube collage that won him a spot on Time magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009 and the notice of artists across the globe.

Off Grid takes 96 unrelated YouTube videos and edits segments together to create an album of ten tracks, seamlessly connected. The end result will be right up the alley of Bitch’s Brew-era Miles Davis fans or Frank Zappa zealots, but the album’s unique genesis gives the casual listener something to hang their hat on. Indeed, Kutiman allows the viewer to click on pop-up annotations that link to the YouTube pages of the featured artists, a move that gives a human face (or faces) to music that doesn’t exactly scream accessibility. Kutiman has also upped his game in regards to visual production for Off Grid. There are a variety of psychedelic effects and washes that give the video a thoroughly retro feel (despite the absence of the iconic liquid light!) that is juxtaposed with the legions of YouTube clips.

Interestingly, not every ingredient in Kutiman’s musical gumbo is from a jazz recording [insert your own “it’s all jazz to me, baby” joke]. Featured performers run the gamut from amateur to pro (and the occasional critter) and cover a variety of styles, from Carnatic music to surf rock. Some recordings are tutorials or demos for instruments from all across the world, like the Nigerian okpokolo or a vintage Italian synthesizer. Some videos are field recordings or found sounds—not quite your traditional performance video.

It's not the notes you're playing. It's the notes you're *not* playing!
It’s not the notes you’re playing. It’s the notes you’re *not* playing!

There is definitely some postmodern quirkiness afoot, but Kutiman does not seem interested in one-upping any of his colleagues’ musical representations of the 21st century schizoid man. In fact, the themes of community and shared vision run deep throughout this work. The individual musicians are manipulated to appear and sound like they are playing in concert, not creating a discordant mess out of incommensurable musical tastes. In this sense, Kutiman’s work resembles the optimism and humor of other active mashup artists (or pop collagists, as they are also known) like Girl Talk and Jib Kidder. Kidder is perhaps the best comparison as he also plumbs the depths of YouTube for bricolage fodder.

Furthermore, the international acclaim enjoyed by Kutiman’s work—as well as its demonstrated accessibility—gives credence to the utopian vision of a global music community all grooving together. This seems to be what critics hone in on when discussing Kutiman’s music and it is a recurring topic in think pieces regarding the fate of 21st century music. Also, similar collaborative online audio/video projects have been released on the web to much acclaim, perhaps the most notable being Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in which a choir is assembled by mixing together thousands of videos submitted by individual vocalists singing their part (here is a video of Eric TED-talking it).

Let’s talk a bit more in depth about the presentation and preservation of Off Grid.

Off Grid exists in essentially three forms on the internet: as a video on Kutiman’s YouTube channel, as the featured work on Kutiman’s website, and as a video embedded in far too many places across the web to account for.

While watching Kutiman’s finished product on his YouTube channel, the viewer has the opportunity to click on annotations that lead to the YouTube pages for the individual source videos. These annotations appear directly in Kutiman’s video (not in the description like in his previous works) and open a new window when clicked. This creates an interesting user experience that facilitates exploration and discovery. However, this feature takes a different form when users view Off Grid from Kutiman’s web site: instead of live annotations, there is a Credits button that opens a stylish collage of 96 screenshots—arranged by individual movements of Off Grid—that lead to the source videos. The Credits feature opens new windows, but it does not pause Off Grid while you explore other videos. Also, Kutiman’s website does not feature the comments section, related videos or likes/dislikes that the YouTube page offers.

A segment from the collage of annotations at
A segment from the collage of annotations at

Also, Off Grid is the only work featured on Kutiman’s homepage, as the other works are held on his YouTube channel and various outlets across the web. His homepage seems to be a place where he shows off his newest creation for a bit, not its eternal repository. As the artist said in an interview with Billboard, “It’s all going to be on the internet. It’s from the Internet, and that’s where it belongs. You can link, you can dig in it and see the other musicians, read comments or something.” If that quote isn’t a good indicator of the artist’s intent, I don’t know what is. This leads me to believe that, despite some unique functionality only found on Kutiman’s website, the YouTube page for Off Grid—along with YouTube pages for the individual annotations—is the most important thing to preserve. Of course, I do not imagine that I will really have to pick between the two; I am stating my priorities more to demonstrate the significance of the work.

The spread of Off Grid throughout the “interweb” is a trickier thing to address. I think that providing context is of the utmost importance, as a future researcher will want to know how Kutiman’s work was received. It will be necessary to collect a representative batch of reviews, blogs, and even social media posts regarding Off Grid. Since these items will be gathered for the sake of context, screenshots will likely fit the bill—there is no real need to preserve their functionality.

So while it may be argued that Thru You is Kutiman’s biggest hit (let’s face it, Off Grid’s nearly 40 minute run time, lack of straightforward vocals, and preoccupation with anti-commercial jazz styles do it no favors when it comes to going viral), I would argue that Off Grid is a more sophisticated example of the online-only music album. In particular, its on-the-fly annotations show how Kutiman has refined his work to better support user interactions and recognize YouTube as his primary platform. Furthermore, Off Grid is a work that will help future new media scholars, musicologists, pop culture historians and more understand the different types of online music collaborations that arose in the early 21st century. We need to proactively document these types of projects and their reception because they will help us understand how artists navigated these tumultuous times—music labels crumbling, streaming services profiting (but ripping artists off?), pirates aplenty, mashup artists giving the finger to copyright maximalists, indie (and established) artists crowdsourcing to support themselves, and so on.


XKCD: A Smart Web-comic


XKCD is a unique web comic created by Randal Munroe, a physicist who worked at NASA before moving to work on XKCD full time.  XKCD launched in 2005 and has had regular comics every week since then.  Due to its unique focus on science, mathematics, and other intelligent fields in addition to relationships and philosophy XKCD has an avid following amongst a number of communities.  This and the web comics significant characteristics make this comic valuable and worth preserving.

Who cares? User Community

Before getting into what makes XKCD valuable and worth preserving it is important to explain to whom the comic is important to.  Due to the comic’s nature and accessibility it is difficult to definitively define its user community.  Rather there are a number of ill-defined groups that make up XKCD’s user community. For starters there are the people who follow and read internet comics.  This is the broadest group that would be a part of XKCD’s community and be one of the vaguest.  Another broad group would be intellectuals, especially those in the sciences, who better understand the more intricate comics.  More specific groups would be the people who followed Munroe’s other works, like What If? and his books, as well as community websites, such as the XKCD Reddit page.  These people form a significant and dedicated community that value the web comic and would desire to see it preserved for the future.

Why is it special? Significant Characteristics

Now that XKCD’s community has been covered it is time to explain what makes the comic so valuable to its community and worth preserving.  There are allot of significant characteristics that makes XKCD valuable and worth preserving both for its community and for researchers.  These characteristics are important because they provide historical content and context valuable to researchers and its current community. (Microsoft pdf)  They can be divided into two categories, cultural characteristics and technical characteristics.

Cultural Characteristics

            The two significant cultural characteristics of XKCD that make it important to preserve are its content and the cultural impact it has had.  One of the most important things about the web comic is its content.  Unlike most other web comics XKCD, as stated above, features science, math, and other intelligent fields/studies in its content.  It even refers to itself as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”.  This focus normally takes the form of either a form of smart humor related to the field, such as the comic “Universal Install Script”, or in a form that is thought provoking, such as the comic “Doomsday Clock”. This kind of content is unique to XKCD and is one of the comic’s core features that makes it so popular and is why it has acquired such a dedicated following and community. This is also why the comic should be preserved.  Because there is no other comic that has the same content as XKCD not only does it acts as a record of web comic culture but as a cultural artifact of its user community.  If XKCD was not preserved, then this information would be permanently lost.

The second significant cultural characteristic of XKCD is the cultural impact the web comic has had.  For starters the web comic has directly influenced Munroe to create other content including a number of books and “What If?” a site where Munroe answers questions like ‘what would a mole of moles be?’ in full detail, however extreme, or hilarious, that might be.  It has also resulted in the creation of an active Reddit community and thread on the web comic itself. Finally XKCD has spawned a number of cultural ‘homages’ among followers and fans.  An example of this is how a number of programs, such as Siri, call back the XKCD comic “Sandwich” by having that command and response function as they do in the comic.  Another is the game called Geohashing which was invented in the comic of the same name.  None of these things would have been made, or happened, without the original XKCD comic and that relationship should be preserved as it marks.

Technical Characteristics

In addition to its significant cultural characteristics XKCD also possesses numerous significant technical characteristics.  Because XKCD is a web comic it has access to unique tools and techniques only available on the computer that Munroe uses in making the comic.  To begin with the most common significant technical characteristic XKCD has is mouse over text, text that appears when you mouse over the comic, which gives more information about that particular comic.  This characteristic is present in almost every XKCD comic.  Another significant technical characteristic is scrolling and infinite scrolling, such as in the comic “Pixels”, where the comic can be scrolled, sometimes even infinitely.  Additionally there are also comics that have the significant characteristic of being expandable such as ‘Gravity Wells” and ‘Lakes and Oceans’.  The underlying theme of these significant characteristics is that they allow users to interact with the comic rather that only experiencing it passively.  While it is possible to do this with traditional comics it is both difficult and cumbersome.  Web comics, on the other-hand, can accomplish this with relative ease due to how their medium, i.e. computers, function. This allows web comics to explore different methods of engaging their community and increasing interactivity.  In this regard XKCD is an excellent example because practically all of its content is interactive in some form or another.  As a result XKCD encapsulates what makes a web comic unique from traditional comics.


In conclusion the XKCD is worth preserving for a variety of reasons.  It has a substantial community made up of a number of different groups which values and avidly supports it.  XKCD’s unique sense of humor and subject matter combined with the cultural impact it has had gives the comic valuable cultural characteristics.  In addition to its significant cultural characteristics XKCD also possesses significant technical characteristics such as mouse-over text and interactive comics. Together these significant characteristics makes XKCD valuable culturally and technically and make it worth preserving for posterity and future research.

Project Top-notch Twitch

Twitch is a series of minimal, one button games using Processing.js. Twitch is a work of Casey Reas, a software artist who “writes software to explore conditional systems of art.” Twitch is also a part of Chrome Experiments project that leverages the Google Chrome browser functions.

Why we should preserve Twitch? The significance of Twitch is multifold, and I hope, by the time you finish reading this post, your face twitches in a pleasant surprise of how much this minimalistic game entails.

Twitch & Ally of Visionaries

Twitch is enabled by the ally of visionaries. The following three are one such examples, showcasing how a digital artwork comes to be.

1. Casey Reas, the creator of Twitch. Trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Media Arts and Sciences, Reas utilizes the generative software to produce dynamic graphics. Reas published Twitch in 2009 as a demonstration of most elementally Processing.js features such as drawing a circle and allowing users’ interaction by a click of the mouse. Reas’s other state-of-the-art exhibitions and commission work take place internationally, and some prominent installations include the one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London UK. Most of Reas’s works, however, are stored in either print or otherwise static formats. Venturing to find the apt preservative methodsof Reas’s work in its native digital media is doubtless of interest to his fellow contemporary artists and the cultural institutions alike. Starting with the preservation of Twitch can be a feasible step towards prospective and larger preservative project of digital artworks.

image of casey-reas
Casey Reas. Image Credit:

2. Ben Fry, the co-creator of Processing. Processing.js, what enables Twitch, is a JavaScript port of a programming language called Processing. Aside from how Processing.js works for now, let me explain the historical significance of documenting the development of Processing. Processing was conceived by Ben Fry and aforementioned Casey Reas in 2001 while they were both graduate students at the MIT Media Lab. The idea behind the invention was to promote software literacy within the field of visual art and visual literacy among the field of technology. Processing is open source, and its continuous growth has been supported by the community participation and collaboration. Processing is inspired by the early programming language such as BASIC, a language recognized as a reminiscence of the time when the user-friendly computer encouraged programming (unlike our contemporary complex and easily doomed-to-be gibberish programming languages). The syntax of Processing has been adapted widely such as seen in an elementary yet powerful DIY wiring kit Arduino and in the Khan Academy’s free online computer science tutorials.

image of ben fry
Ben Fry. Image Credit:

3. Muriel Cooper, the founder of Visual Language Workshop. The Visual Language Workshop of the MIT is a precedent name of what’s later became known as MIT Media Lab. Processing gives credits to many of its foundational ideas to the Workshop. Cooper founded the Visual Language Workshop in 1973 and directed it until her death in 1994.

In addition to her work as a graphic designer–which revolutionary rebranded the MIT press–the Visual Language Workshop produced gifted software designers including information architect Lisa Strausfeld and the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda (who taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas). Cooper herself can be regarded as a pioneer of graphic designer and educator who envisioned “the content, quality and technology of communication [to] inform each other in education, professional and research programs” as she notes in her 1980 letter. Preservation of Twitch can serve as a tip of the iceberg to document the history of digital technology and art in the last two decades.

Muriel Cooper. Image Credit:

Twitch & Evolution of Programming Languages

Now let me shift to how Processing.js has come to enable a game such as Twitch. Proceccing.js is written in JavaScript. When executed, Processing.js uses HTML5’s <canvas> element and convers Processing code (which is written in Java) to JavaScript. Why this is important?

1. From Java to JavaScript. As Processing.js takes care of the conversion, the long time users of Processing and the audience of Processing-based visual arts do not need to worry about the Java-related glitches. Java, indeed, was once a ruling language of the web during the mid-1990s. Java’s compatibilities and loading time, however, soon cast the shadow on its popularity and now only few web developers deploy Java-based applications by choice. Processing.js, therefore, is here to rescue. It allows the great numbers of Processing users to retain their method of production by simply including a “processing-1.0.0.min.js” script file in addition to the .pde file just as they used to with the Processing IDE. Twitch seen in this light, therefore, is an epitome of the strove-to-be-seamless transformation of digital environments, embracing and adapting the change.

Image Credit:

2. The Age of Web Browser. Moreover, Twitch can demonstrate the contemporary norm of generating the files on the client side, a common practice to facilitate dynamic interactions by utilizing the browser functions. For example, HTML5’s <canvas> element—what Javascript.js uses to create graphics—is supported by five major browsers such as Chrome 4.0, Internet Explorer 9.0, FireFox 2.0, Safari 3.1, and Opera 9.0. Twitch, as a result, can address the interesting question concerning the preservation and the browser’s version history. Starting with a preservation of Twitch, the project can further address the evolution of browsers, the shift from being heavily text-based to multimodal graphic and audio rendering.

Timeline of Web Browsers. Image Credit:

A one-way ticket to Hogwarts: the old Pottermore


Pottermore logo from the site's launch in 2011
Pottermore logo from the site’s launch in 2011.

Launch of Pottermore

In June of 2011 JK Rowling announced a new, online way to experience Harry Potter – Pottermore.

The idea behind it was to create an interactive eBook whereby new young readers (along with older nostalgic readers) of Harry Potter could follow the books while interacting with the gamified aspects.  JK Rowling initiated a Magical Quill challenge that allowed one million lucky people to gain early access to Pottermore as beta users.  The general site launched in April of 2012.  The way it worked was that any user could register for an account, and after taking a quiz would be sorted into one of the Hogwarts houses and would receive their own individual wand.  Then their adventure into the books could begin.  Between April of 2012 when the site officially launched and 2015, all seven books were released.  Each book was broken down into chapters and each chapter broken down into “moments” or illustrated scenes.  Below is a Let’s Play video showing you one of the first moments of Book 1 Chapter 1.  

Each moment had several zoom layers in which you could click around to collect various items, as well as a summary of that scene from the books and annotated blurbs from JK Rowling providing extra backstory to the characters or settings.  In addition to moving through the moments, users could brew potions and participate in duels.  Pottermore was also the first (and to this day, the only) place one could purchase the official eBook editions of the Harry Potter series.

New Pottermore

In September 2015, the old Pottermore was replaced with a revamped new version ( which removed all interactive gamified features.  You can now sign into your own account and still get sorted and get your wand, but aside from that you can only look through the Buzzfeed-esque website for JK Rowling’s writings and articles published by the “Pottermore Correspondent.” This Mugglenet article puts it this way: “Basically, they seem to have gotten rid of many of the features that made Pottermore more than just another fansite.”  The pros of the new website is that it focuses more on JK Rowling’s writings (which is what a lot of Pottermore users liked the most about the old Pottermore), it can keep us updated on new upcoming Harry Potter happenings (like the new play coming out this summer), and there’s a rumor going around that soon a Patronus quiz will be available (still waiting on that).  However, the new website provides a very different experience indeed from the old Pottermore.

Why the old Pottermore is worth saving

I believe the old Pottermore site is worth archiving from several angles.  First, it serves as an important milestone for the history of the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter, marking the first time that the Harry Potter books were available in eBook form.  Second, the site serves as a unique instance of an author converting her original printed work into an online experience, so it provides an interesting study of the crossover between literature and online gaming.  

The website would be interesting to study from the point of view of a historian of cloud computing or software development.  As outlined in this Microsoft article, the initial beta version of Pottermore was built using Windows Server; however, it quickly became evident that a much larger scale platform would be needed for the anticipated Facebook-level numbers of users.  The team chose Windows Azure as their solution because it offered a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), meaning that Pottermore could be moved from the Windows Server to Windows Azure without having to manage and maintain virtual machines.  The ideal archiving situation for this, of course, would be to get a hold of the original Windows Server files as well as the newer Windows Azure files and all of the documentation that goes with it.  However, since all versions of the old site are completely removed and under tight lock and key by JK Rowling and the Pottermore team, this won’t be possible.  

From an ethnographic/cultural historian’s perspective, it is just as important to capture the documentation of the experience of engaging with Pottermore, and this will be a lot easier for me to accomplish.  Luckily, there was a lot left behind.  And I believe it is crucial to collect what I can, because just in case at some point in the future JK Rowling and/or Sony decide to release the old versions of Pottermore, it would be useful and important to preserve the supplementary materials that would provide more context as to how it was originally used.  Lowood, in his discussion about preserving virtual worlds, asserts that it is important to capture the “subjective level of experience within communities” when it comes to virtual worlds.  Although Pottermore technically isn’t a virtual world, I think this still applies.  

In terms of supplementary materials, the main source of information regarding content kept on the website and how it was played was the Pottermore Wiki.  This wiki served as a game guide, created and maintained by dedicated Pottermore users.  It’s organized into chapters, locations, items, and characters.  The content includes JK Rowling’s annotated blurbs, the various objects that could be found in each moment, and images and screenshots from the game.  There is also a page dedicated to Pottermore on the Harry Potter wiki outlining the history of Pottermore from its announcement to present and its features (old and new).

There were also subreddits created like r/pottermore and r/pottermorewritings which would be helpful sources for stories and comments from the users about their experience with Pottermore.  The Pottermore Writings subreddit is especially useful since it has archives posts of JK Rowling’s writings from the old Pottermore in a navigable fashion.  In addition, there are Let’s Play videos such as the one earlier in this post showing the interactive aspects of Pottermore, including zooming through the moments, duels, brewing potions, and earning House Cup points.

As one Pottermore fan put it on the Harry Potter subreddit, “the whole point of Pottermore […] was getting to have an experience that was as close as I was ever going to get to going to Hogwarts.” The old Pottermore was a very unique experience in allowing Harry Potter fans to walk in Harry’s footsteps, exploring the books in an interactive digital way straight from the author herself.  And because the old site itself is lost to us for now, I believe it is essential to capture the traces of Pottermore left behind.

Hogwart's express; one of the moments from the old Pottermore.
Ready to begin this new adventure of archiving Pottermore!