18 May 2011

Twitterature - Of Digital Narratives and Multimedia Story-Telling

The ICT revolution has changed the way we read, book lovers say that electronic reading devices are threatening the book, while others predict more intricate and infinite storylines.

I love the book, the smell of a new book, of a story fresh from the printing press waiting to envelop you in its colourful world, the young spine reluctant to reveal its wonderful secret. Or the smooth pages of a well-read, beloved book. Will our daughters and sons know the beauty and sensuality of a three-dimensional reading experience? Will they know what it's like to wait weeks and then all morning for the postman to deliver the final Harry Potter volume on its release date and the knowing smile on his face as he gives you an Amazon package and hands out joy to dozens of other excited readers on his round that day? Or the endless queues of young and old people camping outside bookstores in impatient anticipation of the next book of a series, making the author proud? Will our children know that kind of excitement, the Vorfreude that only comes with a paper book?

Or will they pity our generation for not having known the joy of a more interactive reading experience that allows us to create and be part of a unique story line, the intricate and infinite storylines you can choose to explore? The creative freedom of media-rich narratives?

But once we overcome the initial fear of change and allow ourselves to explore the potential of the unknown, perhaps we find that the digital age can actually enhance the author’s AND the reader’s creativity, can improve our reading experience and can let us discover new narratives that go beyond the book, the film, the play, music or oral ways of storytelling.

An example of such a potential future reading experience is Inanimate Alice, a multimedia interactive fiction, produced by an international, virtually collaborating team using manipulated images, text, games, music and sound effects. Inanimate Alice, which was written, produced and directed exclusively as an electronic book, has been viewed by millions world-wide and has proven immensely popular in language learning schools, after its initial chapters were made available in five languages thanks to the European Commission’s Intercultural Dialogue Initiative. Here an excerpt from a blog report:

Alice Born Digital: How Transmedia Storytelling Becomes a Billion Dollar Business
Editorial by Ian Harper

“It stands above others to demonstrate the potential of a true 'electronic book' - as opposed to the digital 'picture' of a printed book that you'd download to your e-reader, Inanimate Alice is a wonderful place to glimpse the future of electronic texts….” John Warren, Marketing Director, Publications, RAND Corporation
We are entering a new era where digital authoring tools allow us to develop reading-from- the-screen experiences that will captivate audiences who come with expectation of ubiquitous rich-media content. I am a digital first, transmedia storyteller. I work in a team with novelist Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph, to produce Inanimate Alice, the fictional adventures of a young woman growing up in the early years of the 21st century. Over ten increasingly complex and interactive episodes we accompany Alice from the age of eight, in China where her father has gone missing, to her mid-twenties, when she is a game designer on a mission to save the world. - From this article in Publishing Perspectives. Check out Alice's language learning versions here.
Similarly, look at the webisodes and interactive platforms of the Heroes TV franchise (here and here). One includes a poll for the most popular physical attributes and super-human powers that get written into a new TV character.

Such Tweet Sorrow:
Another significant opportunity is the increased intensity of interacting with characters and influencing the outcome of a story by using social media platforms such as Twitter that bring characters to life and lets us engage more intensely with the story as it unfolds.
Last year for example, I was positively surprised to read in The Times that the Royal Shakespeare Company was re-telling the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter. The RSC hired two actors who created separate Twitter accounts for the two characters and let the actors organically improvise the dialogue. The project was extremely popular and made Shakespeare particularly accessible for young audiences. I recently checked in to see if there were any other productions this year and found that quite a few people were asking for more! Follow and catch up with the thread here:

Click to enlarge

Another high profile social media story-telling project on the internet is the recast folktale of the Three Little Pigs, resurrected at the prominent South by Southwest Interactive Festival (Wiki and official website).

The panel took characters from the Three Little Pigs and gave them social media profiles on Twitter and Facebook for character development, back story, and interactivity. Mobile app developer Scrollmotion created an iPad app that also included entry points for audience interaction with the story. The experience was set up so that participants could determine the outcome of the story through interaction with the characters.

Audience members can see the inner workings of the story more clearly and become more attached to the characters because they identify and associate with character behaviors more readily. Not only did this add to the back story and character development, but, by showing the dynamic between characters, social media added to the story world and expanded on the personality of the characters (From Digital Book World, 'How and why to use social media as a narrative platform).

It is only a matter of time once somebody invents an App suite that allows everyday multi-talented storytellers or story-telling cooperatives/teams to become self-published transmedia story-tellers and launch their story online. I wonder what will happen once fanfiction.net goes interactive. Will there be the first fanfiction.net lawsuit if users incorporate copyrighted film stills of actors into their story (ie in Harry Potter fanfiction)?

The social experiment – Blurring the lines between reality and fictional narratives
Researching whether there were any interactive stories for Facebook, I found out this quasi-interactive experience:

The Colony is a TV series by the Discovery Channel about a very serious pandemic that devastates our civilisation. As a teaser, Discovery Channel has set up a “personal simulation” using your Facebook data [through an app] to show you how such an outbreak would affect “those closest to you”. The simulation is divided into two pages. One simulates your Facebook news feed during the outbreak of the pandemic, and one shows a later stage, when a lot of people are dead already and society has pretty much collapsed.

The potential applications of simulation-like story-telling that involves and transposes your real life friends and family as characters has great potential I find, for charity fundraising or just raising awareness about development issues which are sometimes difficult to relate to for TV audiences or school kids in industrialised countries. If I were a teacher, I would love to be able to have such a tool. It could even be an interdisciplinary cutting-edge project involving the subjects literature, IT, arts & crafts, and depending, history (to simulate historical events and bring them to life), natural sciences (to simulate pandemics such as in The Colony), Politics/Geography&Economics (to simulate current affairs or development issues) or Psychology (to simulate social dynamics or even mental illness; to analyse how modern technology shapes our real-life relationships and how we communicate thoughts/our inner world/feelings).

Digital Poetry
The internet is simultaneously a vehicle and a medium of social change in the modern world and is therefore a super-interesting platform for poets also. In fact, digital poetry is another great example of demonstrating how technology has created genres within genres of literature and can even reflect changes in linguistic patterns.

According to Wikipedia (A/N: note the validating logic of, 'If it's on Wikipedia, it therefore exists!), digital poetry is: 'a form of electronic literature, displaying a wide range of approaches to poetry, with a prominent and crucial use of computers. […]

A significant portion of current publications of poetry are available either only online or via some combination of online and offline publication. There are many types of 'digital poetry' such as hypertext, kinetic poetry, computer generated animation, digital visual poetry, interactive poetry, code poetry, holographic poetry (holopoetry), experimental video poetry, and poetries that take advantage of the programmable nature of the computer to create works that are interactive, or use generative or combinatorial approach to create text (or one of its states), or involve sound poetry, or take advantage of things like listservs, blogs, and other forms of network communication to create communities of collaborative writing and publication (as in poetical wikis).

I like poetry but I rarely read any, mostly because I find it hard to get a 'taste' of poetry styles I like as they are less summarisable than say, a novel. As a result, I might read the collection from cover to cover in the shop and have no incentive anymore to purchase the book. Also bearing in mind that I am a student, I find it hard to spend a comparatively large amount of money on writing that is relatively quickly consumed. Yes, it doubtlessly is very time-intensive to compose a poem and yes, quality counts over quantity but if I only have £15 for a book budget, I'd rather spend it on a book that gives me 100 hours of reading time than one that perhaps gives me two hours at most.

Economics aside, Twitter poetry is an interesting way to draw the poem out of its obscurity in mainstream literature and re-invigorate poetry as a genre that has modern appeal. The New York Times has already caught up with trendy Twitter poetry and appears to regularly publish a selection online. My favourite among them is the following:

Teeny tiny poem
Teeny tiny poem/just enuf 2hold/1 xllent big word/Impluvium/open-eyed courtyrd/collectng rain/as all poems do/ skylife, open/birds do:/ tweet

Elizabeth Alexander, whose latest book of poems is “Crave Radiance,” and who wrote and delivered a poem for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

As an example of how digital poetry can be instantly reactive to real-life events, I will also include:

earth donates
break in a wave train
fallout active plume cloud spills
red reactors give
cross characters translated
in kanji could say much more

Claudia Rankine, whose latest book of poems is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.”

A nice excerpt from Enmanuel Martinez' Stream of Consciousness in 111 Tweets (an experimental writing class at an unspecified institution):

But tell me something;
is this how you break
a heart: is this how you break
a heart: <\3
or is this how: <|3

No, I believe it’s this:

Textpress yourself!
The Guardian has also conducted a few text poetry competitions (sponsored by Orange) where readers were encouraged to submit their poetry in 160 characters or less!

2 see & 4 see,
2 tell & 4 tell,
2 taste & 4 taste,
2 get & 4 get,
2 give & 4 give..

[No Title]
1across-snd msg by fone.
2dwn-can this b some.
3across-will this 1 win.
3dwn-or will it end up in the bin.
2d-poetry. 3a.YES. 3d-try.

Oh bike so beauTful & pink
U transport me all over the cT
If only I could
Make people C
Your spindly metallic beauT

Find out which poem not quoted here won the competition (I did not agree with the jury) through the link above.

Kings Cross hosted a 'mobile poetry contest' using Twitter and digital signage. Travelers can participate by tweeting Haiku-style poems to @kingsplace using their mobile phones. Tweets go to the largest digital screen at King’s Cross station where they are viewed by 110 000 people every day. Submissions are judged by none other than Yoko Ono and UK-poet Jackie Kay MBE and the winner gets free entry to an event series for an entire year.

Okay, I doubt that the majority of the wider public will submit a poem that resembles actual Haiku structure even remotely but I find the idea great nonetheless! It's like an extension of Poems on the Underground (brief poems displayed in Tube trains where there generally is no mobile phone reception). Is there a greater way to welcome a returning lover in a train station than through a poem? Or to get the attention of that cute guy/girl waiting on the platform than through a personalised poem? I bet those are pick-up lines people don't tire of! If you ever need a romantic way to propose to someone who works in the rail industry, look no further!

Twitterature – are you twitterate yet?

Twitterature: amalgamation of 'twitter' and 'literature'; humorous reworkings of literary classics for the twenty-first-century intellect, in digestible portions of 20 tweets or fewer. - Penguin

Interestingly, the book was published by none other than Penguin, as part of its Classics series. Although the book reflects the awareness of publishing houses and literary agents of new ways of story-telling, this example also invites the question whether the novel is obsolete. Some academics have observed that 'since so many tweets are episodic and serial in nature, coming as they do in short installments, will we see a return to serialized narrative more generally?' and others 'have pointed toward the popularity of SMS novels in Japan and elsewhere as a model for how narrative structures [being] altered by new distribution media.'

Other forms of experimental poetry I shall only mention in passing are:
Graphical poems: See and listen to 'her waiting face' on YouTube.
Hypertext Poetry: 'Hypertext poetry is a form of digital poetry that uses links using hypertext mark-up. It is a very visual form, […]. The links mean that a hypertext poem has no set order, the poem moving or being generated in response to the links that the reader/user chooses. It can either involve set words, phrases, lines, etc. that are presented in variable order but sit on the page much as traditional poetry does, or it can contain parts of the poem that move and / or mutate.' - Wikipedia
Deaf & Mute poetry: I have never thought of that before but it is immensely beautiful and fascinating to watch poetry being told by body language! Check out 'Dandelions' by prominent ASL poetry performer Clayton Valli in this YouTube clip)
TwiHaikus (or as I call them, Twi'kus): Twitter Page here, taster below:

Strong waves of feeling
undulate the night’s stillness
moon dance with a heart.

TwiHaiku about twiHaiku:
The butterfly in the concrete city of Eden.
So fragile and so beautiful.
Silent cry that you follow instinctively,
is the kiss of salvation.

The TwiHaiku official website aims to collect and publish quality original short poetry and a selection of the best twiHaiku poems is available at the TwiHaiku Twitter account page for immediate subscription. I wonder if there is a Kanji Twitter Haiku buzz in Japan...

Computational Linguistics
Given the obvious T-volution of literature, the growing convergence of literary genres and the development of transdisciplines like computational linguistics seem hardly surprising.

When I was writing this post, I remembered I had a friend who was a MIT student that also majored in linguistics, wanted to write her senior paper on Sanskrit and its applications in computational linguistics. Somebody had actually already published a book on that and according to the American Sanskrit Institute, NASA has some kind of research interest into the topic.

Remembering her made me wonder if there were any established academic groups that were exploring the digital age and upon digging around a bit, I discovered the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO),

'an umbrella organisation whose goals are to promote and support digital research and teaching across arts and humanities disciplines. […] ADHO embraces and coordinates activity across three constituent organisations: the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC, founded in 1978), the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH, founded in 1973) and the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l'étude des médias interactifs (SDH-SEMI, founded in 1986 as the Consortium for Computers in the Humanities / Consortium pour ordinateurs en sciences humaines).

Members in ADHO societies are those at the forefront of areas such as textual analysis, electronic publication, document encoding, textual studies and theory, new media studies and multimedia, digital libraries, applied augmented reality, interactive gaming, and beyond. We are researchers and lecturers in humanities computing and in academic departments such as English, History, French, Modern Languages, Philosophy, Theatre, Music, Computer Science, and Visual Arts. We are resource specialists working in libraries, archival centres, and with humanities computing groups. We are academic administrators, and members of the private and public sectors. We are independent scholars, students, graduate students, and research assistants. We are from countries in every hemisphere.

Wow. Just cool!

I wonder if anyone has done any anthropology research on interactions between strangers when recognising the hardcopy cover of a book they have read versus the isolating effect of e-reading devices?

E-books: Friend or Foe?


Returning to my earlier question on whether the novel and/or the book has become obsolete, I certainly hope not and although I do not think it will be replaced any time soon, there is just no telling what the future will bring.

As for e-book readers, I see them with a mixture of awe and skepticism. To some extent, I fear the loss of appreciation for the printed book. On the other hand, if you are a highly mobile student/graduate/professional you:

1) save A LOT on shipping costs (paper being the single-heaviest material in anyone's baggage)
2) you don't have to worry anymore about which book to bring and which to leave behind THIS TIME you travel (ie when you start a new degree elsewhere, participate in exchange programmes or do a research trip abroad)
3) save on space. This might also release some cash from money usually spent on rent or storage
4) save a lot of trees and ...
5) No more waiting for weeks for books that are not easy to order (as occasionally happens with academic books in regional studies which is a fieldwork-intensive discipline meaning the researcher needs the space of a book rather than an article to publish their field notes). Instead, I can start reading within 60 seconds!

But as any student who has to deal with a high volume of online articles knows, there is only so much on-screen absorption and retention until you feel the need to print out articles so you'll be able to highlight, add notes to the margins for faster reference and have manual control of the text (ie recognising patterns in the amended paragraph – just like 'mental thumbnails' – when thumbing through). Ever since I read it was possible to publish blogs to Kindle or read them on it, I have to admit that I have become increasingly curious. Printed books will however stay my first love! Paper smells so much better than the ozone emitted by electronic devices.

'I am just tweeting to tell you I blogged':
Blogs have lately been my 'read of choice'. Blog-savvy (and cash-strapped), reading blogs to me has the appeal of being able to follow the lives of people in intriguing professions (there is quite an aid worker blogging community out there), or the creative effusions of amateur writers or other artists, the latest crazy news on particular development issues or the regular updates of prominent TV show fans who as bloggers, report from visits on the set, get to meet the actors as part of the show's accredited PR corps, publish exclusive chats with the actors and even engage in seasonal prop auctions for charity.

I haven't started tweeting – yet! – but I am now going on Facebook to tell you guys I blogged!

Further Reading:

02 May 2011

Current technological problems with posting comments fixed

Hi guys,

A quick note: I just noticed that there appears to be some technological problem with posting comments (nothing happens after you type your comment and click 'Post'). I found out that Blogger is currently working out some reported issues related to comments.

In the meantime, I have fixed the problem by changing comment settings from 'embed below post' to 'pop up window'. A small new window will open but all the features stay the same.