Experimenting with Tapestry in My Writing and Digital Media Class

Quinn WarnickTeaching

About a year ago, I stumbled across Robin Sloan’s beautiful iPhone experiment called “Fish.” If you haven’t read (viewed? experienced?) Fish before, you should do so right now. Go ahead — I’ll wait. (I recommend reading it on your phone, but if you’re in a hurry, you can read it in your browser, too.)

Pretty great, isn’t it?

Sloan called this new thing a “tap essay” and described “Fish” as a “manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet.” As someone who spends a lot of time online, both for work and for play, Sloan’s essay hit me right in the gut. I subscribe to way too many RSS feeds, there’s rarely a moment when I have fewer than 15 tabs open in my browser, and I won’t even mention the endless streams of new information that flow through my Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook feeds. “Fish” reminded me that sometimes I might be better off revisiting a favorite story, poem, song, or website than trying to keep up with the influx of new material every day.

Perhaps appropriately, “Fish” became, for me, the very thing that Sloan articulated so perfectly in his essay. I returned to it over and over, then started handing my phone to friends and forcing them tap through it while I watched (sorry, everyone!). Eventually I started thinking about how I could incorporate this type of essay into the classes I teach. Last fall I started a new job at Virginia Tech, where I was asked to develop a course called “Writing and Digital Media.” This new course is part of our Professional Writing track in the English Department, and one of my goals for the class is to help my students expand their definitions of “writing,” so we spend a lot of time working with images, video, and audio. In similar courses I’ve taught in the past, my students have created short documentary films, podcasts, instructional comics, and PechaKucha-style presentations, so the idea of incorporating a tap essay into the class wasn’t too much of a stretch. There was just one little problem: my students aren’t programmers and neither am I. Given enough time, I was pretty sure I could figure out how to build a tap-essay app like Sloan did, but I knew there just wasn’t enough time in the semester to have my students develop standalone iPhone apps from scratch.

Lucky for us, a company in New York called Betaworks created a platform called Tapestry that allows users to create their own tap essays in a browser window, then share those essays online and through the Tapestry mobile app. The minute I heard about Tapestry, I knew I had to find a way to use it in my spring class. I made some adjustments to the schedule, and about a month ago my students started working on their very own “tap essays.” Watching my students develop their essays has been so much fun. On its face, the Tapestry platform is remarkably unsophisticated. But its simplicity belies its narrative and rhetorical power. Because the tap essay format is so constrained, my students have had to carefully consider every word, every image, and every transition in their essays. In short, Tapestry has helped my students think more precisely about what it is they want to say and the various ways in which they might say it.

As we started the project, I contacted Tapestry to let them know what we were doing, and they generously offered advice for writing and designing better tap essays, as well as some essential technical support. They even set up a Google Hangout with my class so we could ask questions about the app and give feedback on our experience using it this semester.

Yesterday my students clicked “Publish” on their essays, and they are now having a friendly competition to see who can share and promote their essays to the widest possible audience. Regardless of how far their essays spread on social media, the tap essay assignment will definitely make another appearance in my class this fall. The folks at Tapestry tell me they have some big plans for the future of the platform, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.