Tuesday, July 15, 2014

[OM] The Franzenian/Franzenesque lean:

Also titled: How to write {deep} novels with the internet.

Update: Not that I claimed originality, but hypertext fiction does do many of the things mentioned here (with internet narrative, at least with respect to having links everywhere and adding to the story in this non-linear manner).

I recently wrote an article about the Twitter phenomena. I mentioned its use by virtual lynch mobs[1]. There are weekly examples about its use for such (or the use of the Internet) reasons. But that’s not the only thing it’s used for (the same goes for a pitchfork). I mentioned some good things one can do with their Twitter account. The same goes for the internet at large. Let me explain:

Until recently, I thought that for deep insight nothing beat books, definitely not anything on the internet. Yes, most (classic) books are on the internet, but let's focus on the tools/text that are specific to the internet (blogs, internet comments, twitter and so on). I was certain that these tools of the Internet were mainly a good conduit for interpersonal connections and  provided initial bases for deeper reads (leading to a book, be it nonfiction or fiction), nothing more. In my view, some blogs and articles may have been close to an exception, but they still weren’t as good as a book (and in many ways they mimic those 'paper methods'). And when it came to fiction, or rather, to seeing a narrative unfold, I believed that there was little on the internet that could beat books. But I believe that I was wrong in this respect.

Take Twitter. I bemoaned (perhaps taking a Franzenian lean) the 140 character format and claimed that it could only ever be a link to better things. This view, I now believe, lacks imagination. Most people do when it comes to this. I’ve seen people try to tweet stories through a series of tweets, but this isn't the best use of the medium. Even if one were to manage to cram each tweet with a scene (or leave a cliff hanger, a reason to ’turn the tweet’ as one turns a page), it wouldn’t work (that I've seen).
What a proper narrative of tweeting needs (either naturally or unnaturally formed) is a series of different people, interacting with each other—much like characters in a play. We see this when people fight over some issue (the aforementioned lynch mob is a subtype of this). In these fights we see tension, but there is usually an amount of disengagement before it dies out. But there shouldn’t just be spats, but rather full on human dramas going on. Why not? Either actors and actresses can ad lib something, or real people should do it, or one talented person could do it. It could be for discussions; it could be for many things.

What sparked this idea? Mainly it was seeing the recent push by ISIS, and how they were, are, able to gain traction through their myriad of social media accounts. Some include a wikileaks style account, as well as a cats of ISIS (I kid you not) account. The humor in the latter had me thinking of why I hadn’t seen proper Twitter interaction with some other jihadis and enemies. Indeed, this needs to be changed otherwise we’ll see the chance for proper narrative drama (or something new?) pass.

To this end, when I hear that Twitter facilitated the Arab Spring in Egypt—from what I’ve heard, though I've never seen the proof—I pray that there will be something like a breakdown of all the Twitter interactions that led to people on the street (I’m sure our benevolent NSA is already studying these tweets for patterns/predictive abilities). Therefore to take full advantage of the medium there would have to be a way to group together replies and retorts from multiple accounts focusing on the same drama (and not just a list of tweets, and no not the #, though that would simplify things).

But this isn’t confined to Twitter. Take Internet comments. Indeed, one could say that they end up providing life to any article [2]. There are places, like reddit.com, where these comments take humorous tangential turns and end up in cat-gif fights where successive comments try to out-aww each other. Or one comment starts with a line from a movie and several other comments finish the entire scene.

And as entertaining as this is, even this interaction is not taking full advantage of the medium. Again, a whole narrative with the article and the participating comments could unfold either naturally or with actors/actresses or a very skilled man with sock-puppets. Why not? It would add to what everyone has come to read and be entertained. I shall try to either provide an example of these internet narratives, or complete one myself. Ostensibly, a series of comments could turn out to be as interesting, as deep, and as long as a novel...

(Note, "Franzenian/Franzenesque lean" refers to Franzen and his comments about Twitter... I have nothing against the man or his works)

Update: So if this most recent news cycle (perhaps not one, but that of the most recent months, mainly including Ukraine, Gaza, and ISIS) has taught us anything, it's the importance of the Internet in not only the news cycle, but also the narratives of the nation. That it's important only allows the natural reaction of people understanding that they need to influence that. This has been happening for a long time, but now more than ever Internet comments and social media seem to be the battle ground.

Again, nothing new, but I was reminded of Dr. Zhivago being published by the CIA (who's to say this was anything bad?) and how that narrative mattered enough to be influenced by those in power (there was also the Iowa Workshop that it helped with—though to be fair, this might be more a matter of marketing by a department head than anything else), while something like that doesn't seem possible anymore for the world of fiction (having someone of power consider it a strong way to influence narrative)... not in the States at least, they will start (if they haven't already) paying to influence comments—the new narrative.

Since I have already explained why Internet comments and aspects of social media are narratives, I won't get into that, but will point out that since people are spending more and more time on them, they are indeed important narrative tools that writers shouldn't ignore anymore. And they definitely shouldn't only use them for the purpose of bringing more readers into the world that is their books. I'm guilty of this, and will change and try to use all narrative tools to be (beyond even this blog) to tell a story.

Update (Aug2014): Recently I came upon an exhibit that was nothing short of amazing. The Big Bang Data exhibit in Barcelona is a well put together exhibit with plenty of information accessible to the layman. What Big Data in general does open up, is the possibility to make art and to tell narratives in a different way (think of it as perhaps the background to the narrative, though I might not be imaginative enough about this).

The art is one thing. But what about the narratives (big data narrative)? Could it be used in some way that could supplant the novel as a way to tell a story? (or perhaps the non-fiction book)

I'm not sure about this. It appears that it could be used in conjunction with what I mentioned above. More to come on this matter, though I would love to hear from anyone who has more about this.

Update (Jan2015):  And to further update, though again this is slightly off topic, there is the matter of shills on the internet (I've mentioned a few of them trying to influence climate change topics). Now it's been known by many that Western governments, and less 'free' governments, have been working on influencing public debate (as it is) on the internet. So they've moved from being covert to overt with these latest moves. Is that a good thing? I'm pretty sure that without oversight it isn't. I'm sure many people, some of my friends unfortunately included, think that it's fine to use any means necessary to ensure that the latest 'barbarians' go away. Right. More overreach and for limited gains (and if there are no gains, we won't hear of it, merely allow more leeway). Nevertheless, the thing is that there is a real power with the internet and its comments, and its narratives. The proof is out there. Let's see how it affects art and literature now.

Update (16Feb2015)Well, Franzen is at it again. Now he's claiming because no good narratives exist on the internet (except for people posting text as novels or shorts online, which I would agree isn't an internet-based narrative, but is rather a transplant) or on social media that it isn't possible. That he thought that of TV and saw how it could come around to a complex morality (not too complex, of course) doesn't seem to affect his thinking.

I will say again that he is truly mistaken when it comes to this matter. If he doesn't even see the potential for the War on Worlds escapades on Twitter or elsewhere. If he doesn't even see a chance for some narrative, then I'm afraid that he's sadly mistaken. There is always the addictive part of the internet, of somehow speaking with many people, but there is also the potential for more complex narratives. That being said, another version of social media has yet to be developed to allow a better way to display these as a narrative. If I come up with something, I'll let you, dear reader, know.

Update 17 March2015: Let me add a note that people have predicted the death of the novel for many years now. Here's a good article on the many people who have gotten it wrong (so far). Some of the links are behind paywalls. Nevertheless, though many mediums have come about, and some were also the mediums of print (comic books etc) that made people think that the novel was dead (though I'm not sure that it hasn't been in decline), I'm of the opinion that the internet is surely something different. Perhaps nothing we've seen (in social media etc) will become true alternatives for a deep narrative, but I'm guessing that something will. Let's see how it goes.

Update 11May 2015: As per usual, more information on our own spy agencies trying to influence us through social media. Oh what fun, the Stasi would look at these guys for role models.

Update  07JAN2016: (possible titles: Manufacturing Consent, the social media version) Though this is deserving of a separate post, I'll just add the links for now. Comments and social media matter. And what we have here is the government, without oversight, directly affecting the discussions online. Some people maybe fine with that (though I'm guessing that is the older generation who are simply unwilling to accept the disruption this will cause) , but they are being simplistic and not looking at the long game where the disruption of genuine discussions among citizens is an important part of the internet (for those stating that non-state actors need to be countered, note how no one is thinking of stopping them and not adding to the mess). For the few who don't believe, here it goes:
British Government propaganda,
US Gov Propaganda
Israeli Propaganda
And if that wasn't bad enough, the coming drone propaganda wars, which will essentially change the entire internet as it is.


[1] I do hope that by doing this that I have not offended anyone who has been, or knows someone who has been, the victim of an actual lynch mob. I am only trying to point out a small manifestation of this horrendous act online. And a lynch mob comes close, at least in showing how unfair and mob-based these virtual acts are—though not in the end result.

[2] For simply the train-wreck of humanity that the comments tend to be with trolls and counter trolls, and though I may read these comments, this gets old quick. So I wouldn't advocate merely adding trolls into the mix, though they could certainly be a part of it.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can contact me at nlowhim@gmail.com if you have any questions or wish to discuss something. Look forward to hearing from you.

Some other articles that might pique your interest (ostensibly on all matters global or books):
#This one is on the global conflict of the West and Islam as seen through the lens of the Rushdie affair.
#This one is a list of the five best science fiction novels out there.
#This one is an article about drone warfare and its effects on the world.
# This one is about reading news in today's world. The solution is that global is better.
#This on is an article with links to matters of the Iraq war and players not commonly known.

My book: Ministry of Bombs is an exciting and unconventional take on the War on Terror.

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  1. Nice idea with storytelling. It does include many different points of view. I'm afraid that the novel is falling far short of what can even be included in books like Freedom, or others.

    1. Is storytelling the thing that matters here? More important is public discourse (which the book is no longer a part of) and how that will change and how these companies (imagine being able to censor a book in real time, that's the power these days, government or no gov) control that is what matters the most for all of us. Open your eyes sheeple!

    2. Well, given the name of the blog, I think storytelling is what matters here. But if we are to take here to mean the world, then no, it doesn't mean much more than an opinion for someone. End of day, something like narrative or storytelling (born of religious roots—myths and gods and all that—and now trying to act like their father but having rebelled a little too much) doesn't matter. Oh, we can talk about high minded matters, but we all know that in this world it's power that speaks, that hands out treats for the dogs of art to gobble. And when we take that into account, we must also acknowledge that art is (storytelling too, or especially) very very much the way to help those in power. When it tries to be something else, then it fails to garner attention and it will fail, or at least the creator will die in the streets somewhere.

      So think hard, artists, and know which side your bread is buttered...

    3. Agree with the whole Freedom outlook, though smarter people disagree with us. Time will tell. I think there's room for change in these matters (as far as novels and other narrative vehicles are concerned).

    4. Anon: We should always be wary of censorship.
      Orthello: dogs? Perhaps. But things do change. As more than the rich people can fund the arts, it tends to change as well. It might be that it's just mimicking sedition, but that remains to be seen

  2. This raises some good points with regard to the way narratives are changing for that's what "Literature" (I'm speaking now of the one with a capital L) essentially always claimed and always will claim it had the key to. But that was always an elitist view, and me thinks that it's a habit that will eventually die off (well, the whole reading bit will have to change, but reading itself will continue).

    You are right that the internet seems to be the better way (with its mixture of anonymity—which gets by the issue of speaking out to power/status quo and being punished for it, a problem in even the States—and known persons) to access that zeitgeist (and more immediate too). And with the proper curation of the Internet we gain a huge previously denied access to immediate thoughts of the people (or humanity or the discourse of the language... one reason that grammar nazis online seem silly to me).

    But I do think you should discuss the matter of comments even more. Much like a book is written, sent to the world, and then changes entirely in meaning, this new phenomenon is nothing short of amazing as one sees how easy it is to change or discredit a well researched article with a few stones. It pays to have trolls if you're in the game of getting a message out.
    But comments also seem to bring out the worst in people as well as the best.
    The other thing you mentioned, that narratives could possibly be better captured online is something that also needs to be implemented. So that, perhaps is the role of the true writers (sorry, just had to say it) of this world, the programmers, that is (or, if you want, the creators of the new printing presses). They need to get to it and create something like a proper stream for narratives. Does Twitter work? I think not, or not as well as envisioned. Neither does Facebook. We'll see soon. All the best.

    1. I would say that, outside of obvious trolling, comments tend to bring out all ideas to the front, without the need for retaliation. In the end, we need both (anonymous posting and otherwise, as you can see from this blog itself). I do think narratives can be better captured online. I'm not exactly sure how to best capture that. There must be a way, though I cannot think of one at the moment. And yes, I agree: Neither twitter nor Facebook supply this at the moment.

    2. Maybe the novel has gone the way of the dodo. Maybe it's too weak to maintain its status in the world. Think about it: First we have have myths. These have religious and moral (intertwined, of course) status, and that is the drive for story telling: a blue print for life, or something to achieve at certain moments in life. Look at Aborigines and their dream world, etc. But remember what they all entail: not that a single individual should live a certain way, but that all people in the group should. In other words everyone can relive these moments together (think of that feeling one gets when singing or dancing with other humans. Story was very much intertwined with all this from the beginning)

      When the book came about it was still a vehicle for this group story. Witness a new kind of religion (more powerful, perhaps). But it was still for a group. In fact reading silently to oneself was never part of this equation until much later in the written word's game...

      Then we have something a little more individualistic (and at the right time for a specific age): the novel. At times it may be for a group (genre when it explodes achieves this) when people get to together and read. But it was really a conversation between an author and the reader. A silent one.

      The entire cottage industries that arose around the novel: the critics, the reading clubs. This was the weak attempt to make it social again. And now we have the internet and it's making writing social. So why go to the weak alternative that is the novel? You can write online and have a song and dance with millions of other people (or, tens, realistically). This is where the new myths will arise.

    3. The hell. Comments are gold. Take John Oliver's recent decision to mine them for content. Of fucking course they're gold. They're not insight into what people will say (most recent study on the matter says that putting a name on certain discussions makes for less open discussion) at their most baser times. So mine comments all around the world, and you'll come a lot closer than some novel ever will to the truth behind the zeitgeist and the things that those in power don't want you to say.


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!