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.