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Abstract and Figures

A new kind of narrative is emerging from the network: the distributed narrative. Distributed narratives don't bring media together to make a total artwork. Distributed narratives explode the work altogether, sending fragments and shards across media, through the network and sometimes into the physical spaces that we live in. This paper begins an investigation into this new narrative trend, looking at how narrative is spun across the network and into our lives.
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Presented at AoIR 5.0, Brighton, September 21, 2004 by Dr Jill Walker
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Distributed Narrative:
Telling Stories Across Networks
Dr Jill Walker
Dept of Humanistic Informatics
University of Bergen
jill.walker@uib.no
http://huminf.uib.no/~jill
Abstract
A new kind of narrative is emerging from the network: the distributed
narrative. Distributed narratives don’t bring media together to make a
total artwork. Distributed narratives explode the work altogether, sending
fragments and shards across media, through the network and sometimes
into the physical spaces that we live in. This paper begins an investigation
into this new narrative trend, looking at how narrative is spun across the
network and into our lives.
Introduction
We’re used to narratives that have clear boundaries. Books have covers,
feature films have title sequences and credits, and fairy tales have “Once upon
a times” and “Happily ever afters.” We have developed many ways of marking
Aristotle’s beginning, middle and end, both material (the darkening of the
theatre, the title page of the book) and stylistic (the exposition, the
denouement). Even as hypertext theorists began talking of books without ends
(Douglas 2000), early hypertext fictions were published on diskettes, with
covers and a limited number of nodes. Even on the web, most electronic
literature today is self-contained, with few if any external links.
Distributed narratives are stories that aren’t self-contained. They’re
stories that can’t be experienced in a single session or in a single space.
They’re stories that cross over into our daily lives, becoming as ubiquitous as
the network that fosters them.
This paper attempts to provide a map of distributive narratives. This is
not an easy task, because it is hard to describe and locate things that are not
things but connections. Trying to see how narratives can be split open and
spread like this is important, because narratives are one of our main ways of
understanding ourselves and of understanding our world. When the world
changes, our ways of understanding it must change too, and as distributed
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narrative becomes increasingly common, we need to try to understand this
new and sometimes invisible way of seeing and communicating who we are.
Providing a complete definition of distributed narratives is unlikely to
be possible, or productive, because the very nature of this way of telling stories
is to escape the boundaries we have been used to. Instead, I’m going to start
this initial survey or map of the field by thinking about the ways in which
we’ve usually demanded that narratives and drama should have unity, the
opposite of distribution. Finding possible contraries to these unities may help
describe some of the qualities of distributed narratives.
Dramatic Unities
When Aristotle described Greek drama in his Poetics, he saw unity as
imperative. His three unities are also known as the dramatic unities, and can
be summarised thus:
1. The Unity of Time: The action depicted in the play should take place during
a single day.
2. The Unity of Space: The action depicted in the play should take place in a
single location.
3. The Unity of Action: All action within the play was to be directed towards a
single overarching idea.
Although English dramatists like Shakespeare couldn’t give a toss about such
guidelines, and Aristotle himself formulated them as descriptions rather than
as normative rules, the French classicist dramatists took this description as
law. The dramatic unities remained law until the late nineteenth century,
when Ibsen, among others, struggled to fit these laws to a modern world.
Twentieth century dramatists, like Brecht and Beckett and Müller, still shock
us with their flamboyant disregard for the dramatic unities. Hollywood
cinema still follows versions of realism that have much in common with the
guidelines outlined by Aristotle over two thousand years ago.
The web, and our networked culture, nurtures the breaking down of a
different side of unity: the unities of distribution and of delivery. Although
modern drama – or Shakespeare – may break each of the dramatic unities,
the work usually remains identifiable as a unity. Most drama is still performed
on a stage, with a beginning, middle and end, and the audience is rarely in any
doubt as to the exact positions of the boundaries between the play and that
which is outside of the play. Books are likewise clearly delimited by their
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covers; feature films by the ritual positioning of screen opposite seats for the
spectators. Even television has clear boundaries between channels and
between shows, marked off by title and credit sequences and by ad breaks.
In this paper I begin exploring the ways in which the distribution of
narrative works is fragmented, with a particular emphasis on how networked
technology such as the web, email and text messaging nurtures this kind of
distributed narrative. Of course literary works have always been distributed
either by a publisher or by being hand copied and sent to an individual or kept
in a library. I’m talking about the kind of distribution you see when something
we have thought of as whole is spread across the world.
Thinking about things that aren’t things
It is difficult to think about distributed narrative. Our languages have
developed to name discrete objects. It is far easier to talk about a river or a
human than to discuss the system of molecules or cells that make up each of
these “things”.
As Steve Himmer writes of weblogs, “This absence of a discrete,
“completed” product makes the weblog as a form resistant to the
commoditization either of itself, or of any one particular interpretation.”
(Himmer 2004) Or, in codework writer and artist Mez Breeze’s words:
it seems evident that various web/net/code artists are more likely to be
accepted into an academic reification circuit/traditional art market if they
produce works that reflect a traditional craft-worker positioning. This "craft"
orientation [producing skilled/practically inclined output, rather than placing
adequate emphasis on the conceptual or ephemeral aspects of a networked, or
code/software-based, medium] is embraced and replicated by artists who
create finished, marketable, tangible objects; read: work that slots nicely into a
capitalistic framework where products/objects are commodified and hence
equated with substantiated worth. (Breeze 2003)
So it’s not simply that we lack the words or even, perhaps, the grammar to
think clearly about things that are not things, it’s also that culturally we’re
used to products and commodities, objects that can be sold and maybe mass-
produced.
There have been exceptions, of course. Some theatre has involved its
audiences, or stepped into the street, hiding its performativity. Graffiti artists
work across spaces with no need for institutionalisation of their art. Live role-
players in games like Vampire: The Masquerade have mixed their gameworld
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with the everyday world. Literary construction workers invaded Seattle in the
eighties .
Another problem when we try to think about distributed narrative is
that works of literature and art and journalism have never been entirely self-
contained. There are always allusions and references and inspirations and
shared ideas: intertextuality doesn’t require links. In the essay where she
coined the term, Julia Kristeva wrote that “any text is constructed as a mosaic
of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another”
(Kristeva 1980: 66; 1967). Intertextuality is obviously related to the idea of a
distributed narrative, as is Eco’s concept of the open work (Eco 1967), but
both Kristeva’s and Eco’s terms refer to the connections and openings of ideas
rather than the physical disintegration of the artifact in which a narrative is
presented. I’m interested in a distribution that is more literal than these
theoretical concepts of the sixties, although it is possible that they might shed
light on the physical distribution of narratives as well.
We are used to discussing things that we can name, and point at, even
as we recognise connections between these things. It’s difficult to stop looking
for “works”. Even writing this paper, where I’m consciously trying to see the
connections and the movements rather than the objects, I seem unable to
completely leave the idea that there is, indeed, a work I can refer to. In some
cases, the work is simply that which is bounded by the idea of one or several
responsible authors, yet “[t]he word ‘work’ and the unity that it designates are
probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality” (Foucault
1988).
You might also point out that I’m slipping from using play to work to
narrative. Narrative has clear, formal definitions, most of which agree that a
narrative consists of events ordered in time, with some kind of causal
connection between the events (Genette 1980: ; Bal 1997: ; Prince 1987).
I am not going to try to solve all these problems or untangle all these
connections in this paper. Instead, I’ll start by describing three kinds of
distributed narrative, hoping to show you these new kinds of stories and
hopefully working towards constructive new ways of thinking about them.
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A Starting Point: The Unities of Distribution
As a starting point, let’s imagine a three-point description of the ways in
which a narrative can be fragmentarily distributed, following Aristotle’s
dramatic unities. The first two are easy.
1. The Unity of Time: The action depicted in the play should take place during
a single day.
2. The Unity of Space: The action depicted in the play should take place in a
single location.
These easily translate to:
1. Distribution in Time: The reader, player or viewer experiences the narrative
in bits and pieces over a period of time.
2. Distribution in Space: There is no single place in which the whole narrative
can be experienced.
The first is not a new kind of distribution of narratives: we are familiar with
this from print stories published serially and from television serials and soap
operas. The second is a far more radical break with our ideas of unified
narrative.
The third is a little trickier. It has never been entirely obvious how to
tell whether all action in a play is directed towards a single overarching idea,
though we’re often able to say when that’s not the case. Anyway, if we’re
talking about the way in which a narrative is distributed – defining the term
according to structure rather than content – then it makes little sense to talk
about an thematic unity of plot or action. Let’s try following Foucault’s point
that the notion of a distinct author, or group of authors, is what makes us able
to think about works at all (Foucault 1988), and see what happens if we think
about narratives in which authorship itself is distributed. That leaves us with:
3. Distribution of Authorship: No single author or group of authors has
complete contol of the narrative.
Again, here I’m not talking about interpretation of the narrative, which
authors are never in control of, or about the ways in which readers can of
course always tear up a book and reshuffle it or change it or parody it or write
a new book inspired by it, which has also always been possible. I’m talking
about a much more literal form of control, or lack of control. I’m talking about
narratives which may be deliberately created collectively, as in games of
exquisite corpse, or in the stories that develop in MUDs and role-playing
games, or between weblogs. Distributed authorship can also be seen when
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content is gathered from the web according to variables of an algorithm and a
narrative, of sorts, is produced from scraps that were never deliberately
intended to form part of a larger story.
There may well be different or better ways of thinking about these
kinds of narrative. Since the main purpose of this paper is to provide an initial
survey and a basis for further exploration, I think these loose categories will
suffice, and hopefully bring out problems that can be further examined in
future work. Let’s look at some examples of narratives that fall into each of
these groups.
Distribution in time
There is a long tradition of narratives that are intended to be read,
listened to or watched over a long period of time rather than in one session.
Only short narratives, like feature films and short stories, are intended to be
experienced in a single session. Most novels and story-based games need
several sessions to complete, like Mrs Dalloway or Neverwinter Nights. In
works like these, the time of reception is episodic, though the work as a whole
is clearly delimited. Some works are also published serially, like the soap
operas and sit coms we watch on television or the original publication of
Dickens’ novels, with episodes released at regular intervals and an overall
story that may or may not have a planned ending.
Episodic narratives are particularly well-suited to our style of reading
on the internet. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has notoriously pointed out that
users don’t read on the web, they scan and skim (Nielsen 1997). Although it
has become a commonplace to claim that “I hate reading on a screen,” we’re
certainly spending more and more time with texts on screens. Emails, online
newspapers, weblogs, shopping and other familiar screen texts don’t usually
follow Nielsen’s 1997 rules for bullet lists and bold keywords, but they do
provide reasonably brief nuggets of text that each make some sense on their
own. We may not be happy reading 500 page blockbusters on our computer
screens (though a really good ebook reader might change that) but we spend
hours reading and moving between fragments.
Weblogs are an obvious example of the success of serial narrative on
the web. Most posts in weblogs are short enough to be read in a few minutes.
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Instead of watching a twenty-two minute long episode each week, a weblog is
read in two- or five-minute sessions once a day or once every few days or at
irregular intervals. Added up, regular readers of a weblog spend a
considerable number of hours perusing their favourite blogs over the years.
There are of course many non-narrative weblogs, weblogs that report
on specific products, or discuss politics or an academic field or knitting or they
offer advice on time management or dating. Even many of these slip into
narrativity, with some posts being micro-narratives, or simply by the leakage
of personal voice and experience into the “objective” reporting on facts and
events. For example, Julian Dibbell’s blog Play Money (Dibbell 2004) tracks
his experiment of making a living from selling items earned in Everquest, but
now and then he hints at marital problems or writes warmly about fatherhood
(see, for instance, his entry for April 10). Narratologist Mieke Bal argues that
focalisation is the most important means by which a fabula, or
chronologically and logically sequence of events, is presented as a story.
Focalisation is one of the foundations of most blogging: it is “the connection
between the events that make up the fabula and the one or more subjects
whose “perspective” or “point of view” on–or whose subjective engagement
with–the events is represented in the narrative” (Bal 1999: 176).
Justin Hall’s blog Justin’s Links is a far more deliberate narration of
the blogger’s life. Hall is a pioneer of online journaling, and began writing his
life online in 1994. (Hall 2004) As Rob Wittig relates in a review of Justin’s
Links, the temporality of the site was always a major narrative hook:
I’ll never forget the Monday morning in the mid-90s when I rushed in to work
(my only Internet connection at the time, imagine!) and hurriedly pointed my
browser to www.links.net to see if Justin Hall had broken up with his girlfriend
over the weekend. I didn’t know Justin personally. Still don’t. But I had been
enjoying his groundbreaking Web diary for several months, had turned some
coworkers on to it, and all of us had gotten swept up in Justin’s inner (and quite
public) turmoil as The Big Conversation loomed. (Wittig 2003)
Wittig continues by noting how when he returns to reading Justin’s Links,
years later, the freshest posts have elisions that whet his curiosity, pushing
him to read more in order to fill in the holes in the narrative as best as he can:
“Who is the new "her" of "her mom?" How long has he been in Japan? I must
read on!” This is real-time narrative in the first person, as Elouise Oyzon has
called blogging, and it fascinates us. One of its main fascinations is that the
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narrative moves in the same time-frame as our own lives play out. This is a
rich field for further exploration.
Another example of networked narrative that is distributed in time is
Online Caroline (Bevan and Wright 2000). This web drama is the story of
Caroline, a (fictional) twenty-something-year-old who wants online friends. If
you give her your email address, she’ll let you read her web diary, watch daily
two-minute segments on her webcam, look at photos of her boyfriend and
she’ll send you emails every day, personalised with the details you tell her
about yourself. Online Caroline only takes up five or ten minutes of your day,
and the twenty-four episodes take place over as many days, or if you don’t
read your email for a day or two, and don’t click on the link to the latest
version of her website, the narrative is postponed a little for you. Online
Caroline, which I have written about elsewhere (Walker 2004: , 2003), is a
clearly bounded work conceptually and narratively, but its presentation is
distributed: to read it you have to look at a website and also read emails. In
addition, you can dial the number to Caroline’s answering machine and listen
to her voicemail.
Tim Etchell’s Surrender Control is the title of another distributed
narrative that merges narrative time with the real time of the reader. The
reader of this piece received SMSes over the course of 72 hours with
instructions to do many strange things, thereby spreading the narrative into
her physical surroundings. Invitations to sign up were both advertised on the
web and distributed on unsigned fliers in London, combining physical and
networked space much as Implementation does. Here are some of the text
messages I received, numbered and dated according to the order in and times
at which I received them:
28. Write the word SORRY on your hand and leave it there until it fades.
(21/11/01, 00:01)
29. Look at the stars. (21/11/01, 00:59)
30. Think about an ex-lover, naked and tied to a bed. (21/11/01, 10:00)
31. Call someone. Tell a lie. (21/11/01, 13:15)
32. Call them back. Admit that you lied but do not tell the truth about why.
(21/11/01, 13:30)
Surrender Control is not a narrative in the formal sense, but it may enact a
narrative with the recipient of the text messages.
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Finally, email narratives are an increasingly common kind of narrative
that is distributed in time. Emails are sent out to readers who have signed up,
usually emails that purport to be from the various characters in the story. Rob
Wittig’s Blue Company (2001), and Scott Rettberg’s sequel, Kind of Blue
(2003), are examples of this genre. Unfortunately they can now only be read
as archived, so if you read them, you’ll need to imagine what it would be like
to receive these emails day by day, at the same pace as the plot unfolds.
Distributed in space
Some narratives quite literally consist of fragments that are distributed across
the globe. Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg’s Implementation: A Novel
(2004), asks readers to not only read stickers printed with fragments of the
narrative but also to post the stickers in their surroundings. Fittingly for a
story about “psychological warfare, American imperialism, sex, terror,
identity, and the idea of place”, Implementation not only seeks to be read, it
asks its readers to colonise the world with it, to paste its fragments
everywhere, inserting it into their everyday lives and spaces. Although the
authors publish selected photos of pasted stickers on their website, ultimately
they surrender control of how their work spreads and is pasted in new
contexts giving new meanings.
A reader may encounter the work either by coming across one of the
stickers or by finding the website. Readers who merely read a single sticker
may never realise that they are reading a part of a larger story. Some
fragments are almost self-contained. If you have read a few stickers, you will
know that the character Frank runs a box factory that in the course of the
story starts to produce cardboard coffins for sending dead soldiers home from
Iraq. You can still happily read many of the stickers about Frank without
knowing any of that:
Frank was twenty-seven years old when he got his hand cut clear off with a
circular saw that had no guard. Surprising how little pain. The disbelief and
wailing. The bag of ice. The gurney. Recovery that took only weeks. A
microsurgeon was on duty–the reattachment was a cinch. It seemed like some
surreal sitcom episode to him now; he was embarrassed to relate the
experience, even when someone noticed the hairline bracelet of a scar.
(Installment 1)
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A reader might perhaps encounter this fragment stuck on the wall of a bus
shelter, or outside of a factory, and think that that was all. She might scratch
her head and forget about it. Most people simply walk past stickers not even
noticing they’re there.
Most of the fragments, however, give a sense that there is more,
somewhere, that this is part of something larger:
They looked for the contact lens for twenty minutes and finally started laughing
about it. “We’re going to miss the movie at this rate,” Frank said. “Can’t you
wear your glasses?” “I didn’t bring them.” “We could go … get them.” They’d
always gone to his place. He had no idea where she lived. (Installment 6)
This sticker gives a clear sense that something has happened before this, and
that something will happen, and indeed, a sticker on the same page of the
instalment, right next to this sticker in fact, continues from the moment when
Frank and Samantha arrive at her house: “Worse than he’d imagined, but not
a slum. Not even a trailer.”
This is exactly the same technique as Rob Wittig points out is used in
Justin’s Links. As posts in a blog point to other threads of the story that an
individual reader may or may not have already read, so each sticker in
Implementation contains implicit links to other stickers, links which are not
usually necessary to follow in order to appreciate the sticker in question, but
which signal to the reader that there is more here.
This technique is different to the recap of many television serials,
because the viewer of a television serial is not usually able to follow such
implicit links. A cliffhanger at the end of an episode is common, in order to
make the viewer come back next week for more, but the implicit links of
distributed narrative are instead invitations that encourage the audience to go
and find more. Now. They are promises that there is more to find, or perhaps
more that is not being said.
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proximity to each other, it seems unlikely that a reader seeing stickers in the
wild would really see a whole narrative.
That need not be a problem. Shelley Jackson’s Skin is another example
of a distributed narrative, but this narrative is distributed in a way that
ensures that the whole narrative can not be read. Skin is a short story that is
literally tattooed into the skin of its readers, one word at a time. Each
volunteer is assigned a single word, and has the word tattooed somewhere on
his or her body in a standard serif font chosen by the author. After tattooing,
each participant will be known as a word, and as words die, the story will
disintegrate. While tattoo art has a long history, distributing a story word by
word on peoples’ bodies is a new development, and Skin has been received
with a lot of attention. The author has received more requests from would-be-
participants than she has been able to process.
Sticker art, like tattoo art, has existed in the art world for decades, and
while tattoos are committed to skin individually, stickers can be produced in
huge or small quantities, they are easily replicable and they can be distributed
similarly to Implementation. The artist creates stickers and applies them to
urban surfaces him- or herself, sometimes enlisting friends and strangers as
distributers. One of the most well-known sticker art campaigns is Shepard
Fairey’s André the Giant has a Posse, later known as Obey Giant. One of the
Giant stickers can be seen just above the Implementation sticker in Figure 1.
The original stickers were printed by hand using paper cut stencils and
distributed by the artist – or by the writer, as graffiti artists refer to
themselves. Today these images can be found in almost every city on the
globe, either in their original form (Figure 2, left) or in one of the stylised
versions Fairey developed as Obey Giant after the real André the Giant’s
lawyers threatened to sue him.
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a work in itself, it is through repetition the image gains its power. Perhaps the
reason for this particular sticker’s great success lies in the harmony between
its wording and its distribution: whether or not André the Giant has a posse,
the proliferation of the stickers themselves certainly suggests power in
numbers and an unseen horde of followers.
Although the Obey Giant campaign has developed a series of related
images, the basic effect of the project relies on a repetition of identical images.
Another distributed art project is Space Invaders by the artist “Invader”.
Invader has glued hundreds of tiny mosaic patterns around cities of the world,
starting with his hometown Paris. Each pattern is inspired by the simple
pixels of the space invader game, yet each is slightly different from the
previous. Invader also sells stickers, proposing a “reality game” where buyers
can earn points by attaching as many space invaders as possible to their home
towns. Yet the main thrust of the project is the individual, artist-created
mosaics, sometimes performed illicitly and sometimes commissioned by cities
open to alternative forms of art.
Finally, any discussion of words on stickers must mention Jenny
Holzer’s Truisms and other work. Holzer began her career as a text artist in
the late seventies by writing out phrases–truisms–on stickers and posting
them around Manhattan. Later her truisms and subsequent writings have
been displayed on tickers on Times Square, they’ve been carved in granite and
published in books and posted on the web. Holzer’s works sometimes present
micronarratives, but open, viral distribution by the general public has not
been a focus in her work. Instead, she herself has planned each new spot her
words are displayed.
Neither Obey Giant nor Space Invaders uses narrative in the formal
sense as defined by narratologists. The images and words displayed weave
layers of connections, but the emphasis is on the act of sticking, in the posse of
people who put up stickers and the game of winning more points the more
Space Invader stickers you can put up. This game-like act of claiming urban
spaces for a group you identify with is certainly one of the attractions for those
who spread Implementation stickers as well.
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Distributed in time and space
Many distributed narratives are distributed in both time and space. In
addition to projects that are literally spread across several physical spaces, like
Implementation or Skin, many narratives are also distributed across several
media, for example combining telephone, websites and email. Even using
several distinct websites can be a form of spatially distributed narrative.
Immersive games, or “unfiction” are prime examples of how a story
may be distributed both in time and across many websites and many media.
Immersive games present a series of puzzles that the audience must
collectively or individually solve, and while they are not narratives as such,
their method of distribution and the ways in which they attract their audience
have much in common with distributed narratives. Even the audience is
distributed – not at all a mass audience but a huge, dispersed group of
individuals that come together to collaborate on solving the mystery. the
immersive game The Beast used the tagline “distributed biological processing”
to characterise the ways in which thousands of players participated in solving
the puzzles of the game (for discussions of the game, see McGonigal 2003: ;
Salen and Zimmerman 2004).
Another way in which narrative can be distributed access media is by
combining a website narration, like a weblog or online diary, with textual
performance in other media, as when Isabella V., the possibly fictional
protagonist of She’s A Flight Risk, steps outside of her weblog to ping her
readers in iChat or to participate in interviews. Kaycee Nicole, the famously
fictional teenaged web diarist who “died” of leukemia in 2002, parallelled this
exactly. “Kaycee” participated in chats and email conversations in addition to
writing frequent diary entries at her website. Of course the same is true of
completely “real” webloggers, like myself: if my various self-representations
on the web can be read as a narrative (and that may not be the best descriptive
term), then this narrative is distributed across my own website, emails, chats,
MUDs and conference papers. Both fictional and non-fictional weblogs tend to
have narratives spun across sites, through comments in other blogs, mentions
elsewhere, participation in discussion sites and chats, and sometimes
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interviews and the like. These are personal, distributed stories, stories for a
new time.
Tracking these distributed narratives is what fascinates us about
reading weblogs from day to day, week to week, year to year. We follow Justin
Hall’s story as he publishes it, but we not only read his self-narration on his
own website, we also come across his name elsewhere. When he links to an
article he has written or the website of a place or event that he has visited, we
can read these as a background or extension of the main story. More striking,
though, are the links to the narratives of other people in his life. We can read
about Justin on his friends’ blogs as well as on his own. When a blogger
breaks up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, readers often get to follow the story
from both peoples’ perspective. Justin himself may comment on other
peoples’ sites, narrating bits of the story that may not be explicit on his own
site. Others may narrate parts of the story that he has not told himself. The
story splits, spreads, continues.
This distribution of narration is typical of weblogs. In closeknit
communites, like LiveJournal, the narration of weblogs sometimes seems like
a group autobiography. In clusters of academic weblogs, which my blog
belongs to, narrators sometimes visit each other, or visit the same
conferences, and so new constellations of narratives grow forth.
This is the aspect of blogging that is completely missed when writers
attempt to cash in on the genre’s popularity by selling books written as
“blogs”. On the surface the idea of a book written as a blog seems reasonable.
After all, epistolary novels have a rich history that is integral to the
development of the novel itself. If letters from many of the characters in an
epistolary fiction are collected, as they are in Liasons Dangereuses, for
instance, the narrative is certainly dispersed across several different narrators.
Blog novels miss out on links, of course, but just as importantly, they miss out
on the blogrolls of links to related blogs, they miss out on the RSS feeds of
other bloggers who were at the same event and wrote about the hero of the
first blog, they miss out on the temporality of only being able to read a blog in
the tempo that it is written, they miss out on the active searching for a
distributed narrative.
Presented at AoIR 5.0, Brighton, September 21, 2004 by Dr Jill Walker
17
Unfortunately, this distribution of narratives across blogs is not only
elusive and difficult to catch and describe: with blogs that are not fictional, it
is also ethically problematic. I’ve mentioned Justin Hall’s blog because he has
narrated his life online for so long, and so explicitly in public, that I see his
blog as a publication as much as an autobiography published on paper. Yet to
really trace the shapes of the distributed narrative around his site would mean
studying the stories narrated by his friends. Although these sites are public,
and their authors are well-aware that their words are read by many, my
pinpointing connections and analysing relationships by the words in which
they are told seems to cross a boundary that should not be crossed.
Distribution of Authorship
One of the ways in which the story of a weblogger is distributed is by the story
being told by several different narrators, on their independent sites. An even
more radical distribution of authorship is that which is automated, where an
algorithm or search is the only thing that draws the narrative together.
Perhaps these aggregated narratives are not true narratives. Certainly the
story is more in the eye of the reader than in the design of the algorithm. Yet
looking at them suggests that this very new form may lead somewhere in the
future. These emergent narratives, or self-organising narratives, perhaps,
require algorithms and interfaces designed by humans for us to see them.
One system that draws narratives together like this is Flickr, a photo-
sharing system where individuals upload images, mark them as viewable by
the general public or by friends or family only, and tag them with whichever
words they see fit. One fascinating effect is that you can view images from all
users that are public and tagged with, for instance, the word “train”.
Presented at AoIR 5.0, Brighton, September 21, 2004 by Dr Jill Walker
18
Presented at AoIR 5.0, Brighton, September 21, 2004 by Dr Jill Walker
19
choice into a poem of some sort, using Google for part of the poem generation.
A lower tech method of creating a Google poem is to simply enter one or more
phrases and combine the top search results, reading them as literature rather
than as random gibberish. In Rob Wittig’s blog fiction robwit.net, the
character ’wordsman posts a Google poem as a cryptic form of correspondence
with his fictional co-bloggers:
... I don't know." "She is in Tokyo for the ... The phone is working, but please
just let the answering machine ... I'll just be a second," he heard her voice
from the ...
... posture had transformed the moment he heard her voice, his strange ...
house, was still in her apartment in Tokyo. ... lacquered table sat her cell
phone, its handset ...
... it is my second day in tokyo, and it is just the most amazing place. ... She
surprised herself as the phone suddenly flew ... But when I wasn't looking at
her, and heard her voice, I knew it was her. ... (Wittig 2004: : May 1, 2004)
Scripts that gather data in this way are becoming more and more common, as
people experiment with different ways to use RSS feeds and syndcation, and
ways of instantly gathering related data. At the moment, the “narratives” we
see in this kind of collected fragments are mostly in the eye of the beholder,
but perhaps in time the patterns created by common topics, motifs, word use
or style will create kinds of collective narrative we can’t imagine today.
To be continued…
This paper marks the beginning of the research I plan to do on distributed
narratives. Already I see some problems. To write about these works that I
claim are not unified, not things, not even, really, works, I’ve succumbed to
traditional attempts at definition and categorisation. Perhaps this is
necessary; perhaps it is something to pass through on the way to better ways
of thinking around and using that which cannot easily be handled or
commodified. Or perhaps simply performing the connections is the best way
of exploring the field. As Greg Ulmer writes in Internet Invention,
“performance may be to electracy what definition was to literacy.” (Ulmer
2003: 38) I started with Aristotle, inventor of definitions. Ulmer would
probably have recommended I begin with Diogenes instead, who when
Aristotle defined man as a “featherless biped” held up a plucked chicken and
declared, “Behold, your man!” (Ulmer 2003: 38)
Presented at AoIR 5.0, Brighton, September 21, 2004 by Dr Jill Walker
20
What this paper has helped me do is clarify the field that I’m interested
in. I hope that it has also helped others to see some of the connections
between new kinds of narration, and that it assists to build a ground for new
kinds of questions.
In further work, I want to explore the mechanisms of stories that are
told in fragments without links. What are the differences between
Implementation, which can be downloaded in eight episodes of thirty stickers
each, and is also physically spread around the world by its readers, and a
loose-leaf book in a box, like Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (1963) or B. S.
Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1999)? How do these unlinked fragmented
narratives relate to hypertext fictions? What about the episodic nature of
email narratives and fictional weblogs? Even more fascinating, and even
harder to grasp: how can we talk about, think about, see the ways in which
narratives cross weblogs? Is there still any point in thinking of them as
narratives?
Or imagine a single blog. All alone. There are no other blogs. There may
be readers, but there are no commenters, nobody discussing the same issues
for the blogger to link to. No links leading to the blog. Is it still a blog? Or can
blogs only exist as one of many, as part of a crowd? I want to read blogs
closely and write their connections, tracing the ways in which narratives
evolve. I want to think about how this connects with ideas of emergence, of
memes and of viral or contagious media.
Distributed narratives demand more from their readers than reading or
suspension of disbelief. They ask to be taken up, passed on, distributed. They
seek to be viral, the memes of narrative, looking for readers who will be
carriers as well as interpreters.
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... llig innhold; på tvers av Russlands digitale medialandskap; fra brukere som ikke kunne knyttes sammen på noen måte. 3 For å forstå det tilsynelatende usammenhengende satirespillet rundt spionsaken argumenterer jeg i denne artikkelen for at kommentarene bør leses som interaktive digitale narrativ (IDN) og nettverksfortellinger (Koenitz et al., 2015;J. Walker, 2004) -fragmenterte, foranderlige historier med fordelt forfatterskap. Disse historiene fortelles i et digitalt landskap der propaganda har blitt en deltageraktivitet og organiserte påvirkningskampanjer smelter sammen med organisk innhold (Asmolov, 2019;Rid, 2020). Gjennom en digitaletnografisk studie av brukerdebatt om spion-skandalen på bl ...
... Walker (2004) bruker begrepet distributed narrative.Page et al. (2013) bruker begrepet networked narrative, som nok har fått større fotfeste i litteraturen på digital fortellerdynamikk siden Walkers nybrottsarbeid. Jeg bruker selv nettverksfortelling i denne artikkelen. ...
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