Networked stories

September 7, 2009 | 6 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling on the Internet.

I’m not completely impressed with how it’s been done so far. Not that the examples I’ve seen haven’t been beautiful, but their presence on the web has been irrelevant: they’ve essentially been multimedia presentations using web technologies, rather than a different medium that uses the Internet as an intrinsic part of its fabric. A great example of this is We Tell Stories, the digital fiction project that Six to Start built for Penguin a couple of years ago.

The Internet, as I’m so fond of pointing out, is a system of interconnected people: uniquely, the audience is an intrinsic part of the medium. I don’t think that’s been exploited to its full potential, possibly because it couldn’t be until recently.

I love the idea of a plot that reacts to how the audience is interacting with it and each other – not an alternate reality game, which has set goals and tasks, nor a virtual world like Second Life, but something that uses elements from the real world as the building blocks for a story in order to raise questions and get the audience talking with each other. The journeys of storyteller and audience would be interlinked in a kind of feedback loop, which emerging augmented reality software could potentially make more immediate and visceral. The story would use the Internet as a delivery mechanism, but it would be experienced entirely outside, in the real world.

The trick wouldn’t be to get people to forget it was fictional, but to reveal talking points about the real world – a kind of epic theater approach to storytelling as opposed to naturalism. The epic theater was a style popularized by Brecht (the German playwright who most famously wrote The Threepenny Opera), which dictated that the audience should never forget it was watching a play. As well as using particular styles of acting and stage production, the lights were often left on, and the audience was encouraged to discuss the events unfolding in front of them.

In digital, networked storytelling, this effect would almost be necessary due to the limitations of the medium, but could be exploited as a powerful feature. Never before has the audience been able to discuss a story on such a scale. It’s an opportunity.

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6 Comments

  1. Reminds me of a lot of the “storytelling” style of RPGs.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNS_Theory for more on that :->

    Andrew Ducker September 7, 2009 (11:24 pm)
  2. Also reminds me of interactive fiction (IF).

    One of the IF stars is also one of my favourite bloggers, Emily Short:

    http://emshort.wordpress.com/

    Although IF usually involves one person interacting with a changing virtual world, there have been some interesting attempts to merge MUD and IF technologies, eg. Guncho:

    http://www.guncho.com/

    I would absolutely love it if a client asked me to create a social network based in a MUD or a Guncho type system. Web based discussion threads can be slow moving and Skype-based text chats ephemeral. Something like a MUD can support a permanent conversation where each person has their own “stuff” like a social network.

    Kevin Jardine September 8, 2009 (9:39 am)
  3. Would Google Wave make this type of interactive story telling possible in real time and collaborative form?

    Steve Schofield September 21, 2009 (10:39 am)
  4. Steve: the protocol (and XMPP in general) certainly could.

    Ben Werdmuller September 21, 2009 (10:48 am)
  5. I don’t know if this is relevant but I found that round robin fiction would work in this situation, as the audience becomes the writer. I’m not sure if that fits in with the relating-to-the-real-world idea, though.

    Alison September 27, 2009 (2:43 pm)
  6. I’ve been experimenting with networked stories for a while: http://davemiller.org

    Lots of good examples of digital fiction here: http://grandtextauto.org/

    There’s loads of great work in this field, it’s well established

    Dave Miller June 25, 2010 (12:30 pm)

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