The Speckled Band

I ran across an intriguing version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band on kottke. The author has threaded the text of the story through comments in other people’s Flickr web logs. There is something very intriguing about this, but I can’t put my finger on it. I think it has something to do with public versus private spaces.

One of the consequences of recent advances in communications has been increasing personalization, and therefore fewer shared experiences. Where once there were only three television channels in the United States, there are now hundreds. It was once common for people to see the same program, and to discuss it the next day with coworkers and casual acquaintances; such events are now rare. We spend more and more of our time with people who share our interests, experiences, and opinions. The Internet and even private automobiles have contributed to the trend.

In effect, this is a decline in public space. In city planning, public spaces are shared by multiple purposes. For example, a street is used by shoppers buying groceries, students walking to school, children playing, shopkeepers, and city personnel. Parks similarly fulfill multiple roles, as do libraries and community centres which often provide space for clubs, sports teams, and other associations. Just as the public spaces in our cities have become less used in favour of private spaces (automobiles, larger homes, resident-only facilities, etc.), our cultural space is also increasingly private and privatized.

What this Speckled Band story shows is an artist who has turned someone else’s web site into a public space. It is true that many blogs have comment sections, but they are frequented by people drawn together by common interests; in practice they are private. The Speckled Band thread repurposes the pages it threads through, drawing readers after it through different communities.

I know this sounds like excessive analysis for such a simple idea, but as I said I really can’t quite put my finger on what’s going on here. Something is happening, something which goes beyond the normal surprise and discovery of following links. It certainly demonstrates that turning the mostly read-only web to a read/write experience will result in new and innovative kinds of public space which haven’t existed before.

It also suggests a wicked idea for a virtual – or partly real – treasure hunt.