Sunday, March 6, 2011

Week 8: Born Digital Fictions

UPDATE: It seems that A Million Penguins (the wiki novel), one of our required readings for this week, has been taken offline...

How are web platforms leveraged for the telling of compelling narratives? Jeremy Ettinghausen wonders what will happen to the novel: “is the novel immune from being swept up into the fashion for collaborative activity? Well, this is what we are going to try and discover with A Million Penguins, a collaborative, wiki-based creative writing exercise.”

Some key ideas to consider this week:

Real time
twitter stories
flickr stories
rss feeds and narrative
Inanimate Alice
episodic fiction
how to maintain readerly interest

This Week: Blog question and answer with digital creator Chris Joseph!

"You will see--very, very soon--authors become publishers. You will see publishers become booksellers. You will see booksellers become publishers, and you will see authors become booksellers." ~ Stephen Riggio

According to Kate Pullinger, there are seven aspects that we (readers, writers and creators of new media texts) MUST acknowledge:
  1. Writers need to talk about money
  2. Writers, publishers and teachers need to get their heads out of the sand: the digital future is already here
  3. E-books are boring.
  4. We better keep talking about e-books.
  5. Be afraid of e-books.
  6. Always remember that human culture is highly visual.
  7. Good writing.

Read Pullinger’s entire manifesto here:

We'll also be exploring the wiki-novel A Million Penguins.

Bruce Mason says this about the project:

"The final product itself, now frozen in time, is more akin to something produced by the wild, untrammelled creativity of the folk imagination. The contributors to ―A Million Penguins, like the ordinary folk of Bakhtin‘s carnivals, have produced something excessive. It is rude, chaotic, grotesque, sporadically brilliant, anti-authoritarian and, in places, devastatingly funny. As a cultural text it is unique, and it demonstrates the tremendous potential of this form to provide a stimulating social setting for writing, editing and publishing. The contributors may not have written one single novel but they did create something quite remarkable, an outstanding body of work that can be found both in the main sections as well as through the dramas and conversations lacing the ―backstage pages. And they had a damned good time while doing so. As the user Crtrue writes.

Hi hi hi hi hi! Seriously. This is going to fail horribly. It's still fun."
Read the Million Penguins' Report here.

Discussion Questions:
Q1. Although publishing might seem easier in some senses, what about copyright issues? Think of Apple’s DRM movement.
Q2. Read “A Million Penguins.” How different from a traditional book is this wikinovel? How would you describe it (is it really a “novel”)?
Q3. Digital publishing is in a constant state of evolution. In August 2010, Oxford University Press has decided to relaunch the online version of the OED. They have chosen iFactory as the online
publishing platform. What changes in functionality, access and personalisation do you think might occur from such a shift (offline & static to online & evolving)? Read and article on the change here:


  1. I have to admit that my immediate response to Question 3 - the relaunch of a online version of the OED - was that I didn't see the point of having an Online English Dictionary, and that I didn't quite understand where their consumer and marketing base would come from.In my world - Microsoft Word/Office does the spelling and grammar checks and has a thesaurus option.
    Then it occurred to me that Microsoft may very well be one of their best customers. I may not use the reference material from the website but academic institutions and software companies may be excellent customers to provide continual updated versions of an English dictionary to their customers.
    In reviewing the (OED)there is certainly a number of options to encourage subscribers. It doesn't look like the pocket dictionaries of my school years, or the dictionaries I have bought for my children.Rather than a dictionary where you statically look up a word for spelling or meaning the OED is also providing tools and programs to encourage the participatory culture.
    They provide the ability to quickly search for words, audio tools that pronounce words in English,blog an FAQ,tips for better writing and even free worksheets, puzzles and games for educators. It would appear they have outlined a number of strategic markets and are delivering the resources and the opportunity to participate to all of the markets in many shapes and forms. Interesting that even dictionaries need to market themselves using on-line participatory culture and learning.

  2. In our participatory culture where the ability to create information is as easy as consume information, I really wonder if we need to get to a point where we acknowledge that copyright issues as we once knew them are a notion from the past. The means by which people become publishers today-tweet,s Facebook status, blog posts etc, the ways in which we cite or give credit to people's words is changed dramatically. Retweeting and 'liking' something on Facebook a form of validation for ones thoughts. We encourage our thoughts to be shared, remixed, and distributed to the masses. How someone chooses to give credit to the original thought is left up to them based on the publishing platform they are using.

    I had an interesting tweet from a up and coming singer the other day: He said some people call it copyright infringement while others see it as a remix. Reality is that we live in a world today where 'original' thoughts seem few and far between. Our thoughts are literally a mash up of all the ways in which we take in and information and relay information. Seeing the same topic and the same information through so many different mediums and from so many different authors, gives us different perspectives. Take the Japan earthquake-we are using Twitter, TV, personal stories and anecdotes all to find information on the same topic. We rely on so many authors and they are not concerned about copyrighting what they are saying. Instead, the focus is on sharing the knowledge.

  3. I found an interesting blog on publishing in the new world (Web 2.0)by Scott Karp.
    "Look at the businesses that have scaled — Google, MySpace, YouTube — all platforms for content, but not producers of content."

    Read more:
    His point being that the successful businesses are bot publishing new content but providing a platform for existing content, remixes, mashups, digital books. As TKB said, it seems to be more about providing platform for spreading the knowledge rather than the creation of original content.

  4. After viewing/reading “Inanimate Alice” and some of the other selections from the Electronic Literature Collection, I have a few observations:

    1) Born digital fictions can be entertaining. “Inanimate Alice” does succeed in creating a sense of suspense, and I did feel carried along by the story. The episodes, however, varied in the degree to which this quality was developed. The Moscow episode worked quite well, whereas the first episode (China) was not very interesting. I never felt any sense of urgency or importance to the story being told.
    2) The digital elements (i.e. the interaction of text, image and sound) can replace the function of text alone. The images and music in the Moscow scenes worked very well in evoking mood and setting, and descriptive passages were not necessary.
    3) As a voracious reader, I found the pace of all the digital fictions I viewed far too slow. If I had simply read the text of the Moscow episode, it would have probably taken no more than three minutes, rather than the fifteen minutes of the media presentation. Of course, a pure text version of the same story would have likely contained more descriptive passages, but I still found myself drumming my fingers as I waited (impatiently) for the images to reveal themselves.

    Overall, I found these digital fictions interesting and entertaining, but I still didn’t get the same experience I get from reading printed text alone. The value of fiction to a critical reader is that it sparks the imagination. I would much rather read a creative and well-written description of a scene and let my imagination fill in all the details, instead of just looking at a picture. Although the author can create a very powerful effect through the use of digital media, I haven’t yet found an example of born digital fiction that evokes the same level of intellectual response within me as a well-written text. (I have the same problem with movies. I am rarely ever satisfied with a movie that has been based on a book I have already read.)

    The issue seems to be primarily one of complexity. Perhaps I just haven’t found an appropriate example yet, but much of the digital narrative fiction available seems to be overly simplistic and obvious. I like reading fiction that makes my brain explode in wonder and confusion as I try to work out the complexities and subtleties of character and theme while being entertained at the same time. Digital fiction entertains me, but it seems more like an appetizer rather than the main course.

    I think there is great potential with digital fiction, particularly in engaging an audience that may not otherwise read stories, but it’s hard to see how it will replace well-written, literary fiction favoured by word-geeks like myself.

  5. Carolyn that's an interesting comment that you first questioned the need for having an online English dictionary. I know when I write (papers, essays, theses!) I work on my computer and enjoy the immediate access to thorough information about words. Although it is *nice* to flip through the pages of a dictionary, if I'm working (and thus reading for a specific purpose), I prefer my information accessible quickly and I like the ability to easily delve deeper into etymology or other information.

    Thinking about your comment and all the positives you see with the move to online (educator's notes, worksheets and other modes to encourage participation) I did some googling...Mashabl suggests another reason for going online...fiscal responsibility:

    "the OED has never posted a profit since its inception back in 1879, the move to online-only seems like a long time coming."

    I prefer to see your views as the main impetus for moving online into the participatory culture rather than money as the driving force...

  6. Tarjinder you're exactly right that copyright is changing...Creative Commons is just one example of how creators (authors, designers, etc...) are trying to create a standard for new media.

    What an excellent point though about the platform we use. Of course, liking something on Facebook or ReTweeting doesn't necessarily give sufficient information (like that required in an academic reference), but at least there is a citation of the original (?) source.

  7. Glenn - just a note about the differences between I.A. episodes. You're quite right to see a vast difference between them (Chris will probably mention a bit about this in his lecture). The narratives are told from Alice's point of view. She's quite young in the first episode and as she matures, so does the narrative. Additionally, the level of interactivity and level of literacy required also heighten.

    And yes, you touch on a key word: "potential." New media fiction is (still) in an incunabular's really just beginning and I don't think we'll get those astoundingly well-written scenes of (certain) print narratives for quite some time...first authors are getting to grips with all the modes (image, sound, interaction, text) before developing the nitty gritty of the narrative.

    Also, we read for different purposes and I think works like Inanimate Alice are particularly good for teaching...

  8. Inanimate Alice was interesting to watch and read. Simple stories trying to incorporate various cultural milieu with technological infusion. The future of such endeavours are challenging but promising (especially with iPads). If they remain just obscure in the virtual world, they may be inaccessible. With a greater marketing strategy like selling movies and books online; these need to be made available on iPads and kindles.

  9. In regards to the whole copyright issue, I find it interesting that Chris uses content from Creative Commons for the Inanimate Alice stories ( Everything is just so easy to copy, edit, share (and repeat) that the tracing to the original images becomes even more difficult. Immediately after the earthquake in Japan, I was talking to others about the images and narratives, but also relaying the information to people who did not see the footage. And forget trying to explain who my sources were.

    What I find interesting is that some companies appear to be ready for the remixers out there to take their content and create something new. Last summer, the CBC and the NHL released a series of ads that were very simple: play a major historical event, rewind it to some soft music, and then ask “what if [the event being shown] didn’t happen?” Here’s an example of an original version released by the league to promote the playoffs:

    Now for a parody of the same event, created by a fan:

    Both are great in their own way and share two different messages using the same video, software and tools. What I wonder though is if the NHL and the CBC intentionally made very simple ads so that they were easier to remix. Hundreds of high quality parodies were made and shared throughout the playoffs and into the off season. The parodies themselves were a great way to promote the league and the playoffs at very little cost. Fans are known to be an active bunch, and my guess is the league recognized the viral opportunity.

  10. I do understand that works such as "Inanimate Alice" can be very useful for teaching and engaging children ( and others) but I have a hard time finding it that interesting. It seems to be a child's 'reader' that then uses technology to make it interesting. I appreciate the time and effort in the technology to add increased methods of 'literacy' but the story doesn't 'catch' me. I wonder if this is because when I choose to read, I enjoy getting to know the character and to me " Alice" doesn't have a lot of dimension as a character.