Online writers have something that previous writers did not have instant access to, powerful reading data from analytics. While in the case of “a show of hands,” I found the analytics to be both instructive and depressing (since you can see how far registered users had clicked through), in the case of “Living Will” I find the stats to be provocative and inspiring.
Let me explain the way these work. “Living Will” is an interactive story in the form of an electronic Last Will and Testament of ER Millhouse, a coltan magnate who is using the Will as a last opportunity to reach out to punish and reward his closest relations and associates. At each stage of the storygame, the reader can make choices, first by selecting which one of the heirs she will inhabit (his son Nigel, his daughter Salomee, his errand boy Kip, or his gardener Gerald/Gerard). As the reading of the Will progresses, the interactor can choose whether to remain contented with the portion she’s been given or instead to filch from the inheritance of one or more of the other heirs. The story ends with an opportunity to choose whether to save the patriarch or let him die, assuming that the heir has sufficient funds, lest medical and legal expenses which mount with every click of the document.
Before I published the story, I inserted some analytics triggers into the code, so I can see how many readers choose which events. For this, I’m using Google Analytics. Now, three years after publishing that story, I can examine how the 4,587 unique visitors behaved during 5,456 visits and 9,454 page views.
The results are provocative if nothing else. Some highlights of the undigested results:
Now, this is very raw data, and I should note that some of these behaviors are incentivized in ways evident in the code which I can explain another time. Also, I should note that my highest activity on the site came during the IFComp when readers were presumably exploring the work for reasons other than merely pleasure, but to test out the nature of the system. That said, in future analysis of the data, I can parse it out according to how the readers got to the site, how long they spent on the site, or what part of the world they live in.
I also, have new data from the version in French (trans. by Ugo Ellefsen, Alex Gauthier, Myriam Gervais-O’Neill Émilie Robertson), which feeds into this same data pool.
Which is just to say that now my authoring experience can go beyond merely looking at (obsessing over) how far readers made it through the story to see the choices they made as they moved through the story. While Hollywood might use this info to optimize their storytelling for maximum viewer experience and the construction of a sure-fire blockbuster mega-hit, I find the analytics provide me with a fascinating reading experience, feeling a bit like Millhouse himself, smiling wickedly to see the way the heirs play and are played by his final act of will.]]>
I was reading Steven B. Johnson’s Wired Magazine post “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story” about the failed hype of hypertext today and just had to respond, partly because the magazine did not allow comments, a feature I’ve come to expect from online reading), partly because, well, I was there.
As I Tweeted shortly after reading it, when Johnson writes about the revolution that didn’t happen, the hypertext wonderland prophesied by George Landow, Robert Coover, and yes, Michael Joyce himself, he certainly does capture a portrait of a moment of unrestrained prognostication, but I believe he misses the mark.
I remember being a starry-eyed undergraduate at Brown in 1993 and attending Robert Coover’s Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices conference (seduced by flashing lights and literary superstars). I can remember that heady feeling of euphoria about this new writing medium, the magic of watching Coover or maybe even Mark Bernstein show a print author the basic structure of links. I was also taught the ways in which these links would offer a platform for postmodern marvels, for a de-centered textual universe, for meaningful connections. I was there.
I can remember in the years to come, as graphical browsers became the dominant form of engaging with this network, as the World Wide Web became the place for cheap airfare, gaudy home pages (best parodied in Rob Wittig’s Fall of the Site of Marsha), and, of course, porn. Where was our poststructural theory then? (Paging Wendy Chun.) Where was the promise of meaningful links of a new decentralized discourse paradigm? I was there.
And then I remember watching the dream of hypertext disappear as Storyspace became something included on syllabi of literary historians rather than for experimental writing. (Keep in mind, Mark, I’m on your side.) And then as Game Studies started eating hypertext lunch, thanks to Landow’s disciple Espen Aarseth, and the Electronic Literature Organization’s current President Nick Montfort pronouncing that cybertext killed the hypertext star. I was there.
And what followed was even more disenchanting. Flash added fun to poetry but did little for narrative. Web-based hypertexts offered feeble affronts to the codex books they were seeking to replace. Readers still needed to be introduced to afternoon, and worse yet, taught why they should care. Hypertext was relegated to the shelves beside Middle English poetry and forgotten catechisms. I was there.
But recently something has been happening, and this is where I part ways with Johnson. And I don’t know if it’s the fall of Flash or the rise of the iPad, if it’s the end result of Facebook or Twitter or Web 2.0, if it’s a sign of the first generation of children raised on the graphical Internet becoming adults, or the so-called “Googlization of Everything.” But something has happened.
In the past few years, maybe just 2, I’ve seen a surge in creative activity around hypertext and hypertextual narratives that I had long given up hope on. New works, new software platforms, new literacies seem to be bursting from every corner. The IF community, long working in a kind of subterranean artspace, has fueled many of these developments, but they are not alone.
To offer a few examples: Look at Erik Loyer’s recent collaboration on the interactive graphic novel Upgrade Soul collaboration with Ezra Claytan Daniels and Alexis Gideon. Look at the return of hypertext pioneer Judy Malloy with her new work “From Ireland with Letters.” Look at Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell’s collaboration “The Dead Tower.” Look at Emily Short’s wonderful “period pieces” for Versu. And look at the innovative work coming out of labs around the world, from MIT to UC Santa Cruz, including Aaron Reed’s breathtaking “18 Cadence,” which connects the Flash-like aesthetic of magnetic poetry with Reed’s signature epically rendered, century-wide storytelling.
Then consider all the works from “outside” the electronic literature community. Random House announces a new interactive fiction (publicized in the same publication that houses Johnson’s e-text. Scholastic Books is adding more interactivity to their eBooks (those of us with young children are well-aware of the interactivity and hypermediation of children’s lit). Look at the recent edition of Frankenstein, which could of course still learn a thing or two from a previous e-daptation of that novel. Newspapers abound with articles about the latest, first-ever, iPad driven reading experience.
The platforms are multiplying, too. In CYOA-style platforms alone, there is Undum, Twine and Inkle, joining the many IF platforms, such as the elegant Inform 7. There’s even a new version of Storyspace coming out. But perhaps more importantly, the shift away from Flash (a proposed topic for an MLA 14 panel) has meant that authors are moving to creating open-source works, for which the code is accessible and experimentation is rampant (see the Taroko Gorge adaptations for one small example). Oh, and people are even telling stories on, God forbid, Twitter.
So, Dr. Johnson, I feel your sense of future-fail. I have suffered the staged of grief for the dream of literary hypertext. I empathize with your sense of a dream deferred. But it was not, it turns out, a dream denied. Just go to the app store. Listen to the readers of all ages who can now take their computers to bed, asking the experts at the literary genius bar if their eBooks could, perchance, do a little a more and are looking for links that will entrance their afternoons. So glad we are finally here.
One of the original members of WRT, Christy Dena, has come out with a unique iPad experience entitled, Authentic in All Caps. (Just under a week to help with the funding.)
At WRT, we’ve had lots of conversations about using the Internet as a kind of palette. But Christy and her collaborators have taken the idea further. She’s not only imagined a kind of walking tour around the Web, she’s imagined an entire alternate universe that one can navigate as they’re navigating the Internet. Authentic in All Caps could never be an AAA game. It would simply explode out of the game box and shower you with game art.
Since her days on WRT, Christy has become a world-renowned scholar on transmedia narratives. Her theories have been cited by the likes of Henry Jenkins and have become required reading in many courses. Well-respected in academia and business, she’s worked as a consult and creator on many gaming experiences, and has quite the track record of success. The trophies and badges cram her virtual shelves.
Authentic in All Caps is a master work, a story about woman and sidekick facing ridiculous obstacles to being herself. The story is complex and yet playful. In this project, as she explains, Christy is harnessing the rich narration that audio drama creates, her deep understanding of an ARG aesthetic combined with a wildly imaginative carnivalesque inversion of the cultural hierarchies. Here is a satirical world where artists are assassins and quantum physicists run the underworld. A world I’d love to romp in.
When I asked Christy about this recently, she said,
Christy:Remember when we started WRT?! Good times. :) Back then I was very keen on the use of chatbots in storytelling (and still am). But I was really excited by IF and all the possibilities there. I also got into alternate reality games, created a few of those and worked on big branded entertainment projects. I’ve also been lucky to have worked as a writing and design consultant on digital extensions to theatre, film, and gaming projects. So over the years I’ve been through the process of having huge external constraints being put on ideas, as well as the constraints of limited budgets and constraints I put on myself to facilitate the creative process.
Christy:So now I’m putting more time and effort on playing with digital technologies for my own wacky stories and ideas. I recently launched a playful story for the phone at a pervasive gaming festival in Melbourne (and this will be released worldwide soon). But the big personal project I’m working on is a web audio adventure. The idea for this unusual storytelling approach came about from my work on alternate reality games, and my love of audio, comedy, and digital technology. I’m combining radio drama with web navigation and online storytelling to create a web audio adventure. It hasn’t been done before and so I’ve spent the past year refining experience design issues and of course honing the script.
Christy:I’m really excited about trying out new things to stretch myself. I love trying to figure out what techniques to draw on to make something work - IF techniques, game techniques, radio drama techniques, and so on. We often find that these sort of projects are either assisted in some way through university programs (ha!), or arts funding. But mostly we have to experiment with our own funds and time to show people it can be done. If this project just needed me, I would keep doing the work. But this project needs a team of people to work on it, including an ensemble cast. A great crew of people have done a lot of work already either for free, for mates rates, or deferred payments. I’m now at the point where we need the final funds to complete.
Christy:So I’m experimenting with crowdfunding. I’m one of those people who doesn’t like doing marketing. Like most of us, I’d much rather be working on the project. But we have a world now that is more welcoming of people marketing their own projects. I don’t want to use a publisher or brand or distributor to get this project out. I want it to be truly independent. But all that means is you shift who you’re dependent on. Rather than spending all my efforts on funding bodies, publishers, brands, or philanthropists, I’m going direct to my audience. It is a fascinating process, and I’ve learned a lot about how these things work along the way.
Christy:The best part without doubt is the excited praise from colleagues around the world. They really want to see this happen, and so they’re sharing the news and pledging when they can. I love it when people get excited about the artistic techniques we’ve using. I love that backers from 14 countries are behind it, and we’ve even managed to get press in places in like Polygon and Wired - which is a delightful surprise! Truly different projects are hard to support when they’re not complete. Innovation (whatever that means) is weird when it is young. So I’m really interested to see if there is a way we can fund these kinds of experiments in storytelling.
We certainly wish Christy well in her venture, and look forward to playing along! Help bring this project to reality. Listen to the pitch and pitch in!]]>
Join us for an evening of electronic literature and digital poetry!
E-lit Under the Stars (USC)
E-Lit Under the Stars
February 28: 7-9pm USC
Doors open at 6:30
Samantha Gorman * Danny Cannizzaro
Mark C. Marino
Venue: Outdoors under the stars at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, 746 West Adams Blvd., LA, CA 90089
University of Southern California.
Organized by Jessica Pressman and Mark C. Marino
Sponsored by The Institute of Multimedia Literacy, The Electronic Literature Organization, the Department of Creative Writng, and the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab
[Update 1/27: Link to the unabridged Tempspence tweets]
From Jan 1- Jan 26th, @spencerpratt’s Twitter account written by an unknown British poet who had found Spencer’s phone. Turns out he was the main character in a new netprov that Rob and I collaborated on. Through the fictional tale of this obscure poet broadcasting from a Reality star’s account, we explored themes of fame, language play, and what it means to be real.
The story began when Spencer lost his mobile phone while in London. On January 1, Heidi tweeted:
Another wild NYE! So wild Spencer can’t find the new phone I got him for Christmas.
It’s probably in the hotel, but since we’ve been here, we’ve seen:
Big Ben, London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, went ice skating, and played in red phone booths and taxis.
So basically he could’ve lost it anywhere in the UK.
@spencerpratt’s next tweets were:
Yes, cheers, everyone, this is actually Spencer Pratt.
And I am married to Heidi Montag. Wow.
Spencer sounded different. He knew an awful lot about poetry all of the sudden, including asking followers for bookshop recommendations in London and correcting Twitter followers on their knowledge of haikus. When he went into CBB, however, he kept tweeting. How was this possible? At first he claimed he had found his phone and had been allowed as a plot twist on the new season of CBB, but when CBB producers denied that claim, it became apparent someone had his phone and wanted to sell it.
Over the next few days, the phone thief or lucky bloke released a series of “intimate” photos of Heidi showing off her gorgeous mani-pedi, flirting with Gandalf, and showing off her enormous stack of laundry.
When the phone finder couldn’t sell the mobile in England, he exposed himself as an obscure British poet who was dying to promote his literary career but could never do that out of fear of being arrested. Tempspence, as he was dubbed, began playing poetry games with Spencer’s followers and fending off accusations that he was a thief.
Tempspence took his Spencer name seriously, telling the story of his own romantic life with Una and Duessa, characters in Rennaisance-poet Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Following the Big Brother format, followers voted which woman he would try to pursue by ReTweeting.
TUMBLR set up by the Tempspence poets:
Lists all the games & has the story the poets wrote about tempspence
Has collected tweets from the games and the ending…
Poetry Games & the TempSpence Poets
You can see all the games here
Here are the games
#prattplus7: replace each noun in a famous Spencer Pratt quote with the noun 7 later in the dictionary.
#twouplets: (Twitter couplets) rhyme your tweet with someone else’s.
#centode: Tweet about your boyfriend or girlfriend for a collective poem.
#shibboleth: type a tweet or post a doodle that people could use to prove it’s you.
#ekphrastic: describe yourself in a revealing picture
#imspencer: type a line you want to hear coming out of @spencerpratt’s mouth
#myccb: describe the people you live with as though they were the CBB housemates
#jungbro: describe your personality as made up of CBB participants
At some point, someone dubbed the character Tempspence and it stuck. The group of tweeps that showed up each morning (London time) to play poetry games became the PTempspence poets and they will be living on as @tempspence, a new twitter account.
Sarah-Anne Joulie (Canada) (@SarahAnneJoulie) and Chloe Smith (NZ) (@ChloeSmith0603) are two of the tempspence poets who first met playing one of tempspence games called #twouplets where tweeters rhymed with each other’s tweets.
What is a netprov:
Read more about this project here:
How The Hills’ Spencer Pratt Landed at the Center of a Complex Piece of Twitter Performance Art. Beta Beat by Jessica K Roy
Forget ‘Catfish’ & Manti Te’o: Spencer Pratt Explains Why He Created His Own Imposter. Radar Online by David Perel
Article about OccupyMLA:
The Ballad of Workstudy Seth:
A netprov about a fictional workstudy student who ran @markcmarino
Fantasy Automated Investors League
This is the netprov we played in the class Spencer attended.
Grace, Wit, & Charm:
Workplace netprov about employees for a company that helps you polish your online identity.
For more information about electronic literature, see
The Electronic Literature Organization: