What a story looks like

One of the reasons why I studied literature is, well, because I like reading. My story is everybody’s story: spending childhood days alone and reading instead of playing around. I got my first computer pretty late, I must have been 15 or even 16 years old, and I didn’t have Internet at home until I was 18. So when I think of reading I still largely mean print reading, and perhaps especially, alone reading. That is why the idea of large groups all over the world reading a single story, and in a live fashion over the Internet fascinates me so much so as to write my phd thesis on it.

How a story is built, how it is experienced in our heads has been a concern in literary theory for a long time and, Reader Response theorist, for example, sought to systematize this process. Wolfgang Iser suggested a principle of expectations that are either fulfilled or frustrated, which keeps us advancing through a narrative without forgetting what came before. Others like Norman Holland sought to explain narrative transportation through psychological mechanisms. I always liked reader response theories, precisely because readers were important in them. Authors and books were there, but they weren’t there by themselves anymore.

Because of the way things move around so fast on the Internet, an analogue process seems to be happening. Millions of people are writing and publishing online, but not all of them are getting the company of readers. Why? That’s what I’m trying to find out. For one, not all of them could possibly be good writers; for another, not all of them can be offering the kind of literary/narrative experience that readers are looking for now. What this experience looks like is the other question I’m trying to answer. The good thing is there are some really good examples of stories that people have been more than willing to follow as they develop. Even better is the fact that we are all leaving a huge electronic footprint giving freaks like me a fighting chance at understanding how people come together because of a story, and observe how that story gets built.

Many might be scared of how much their footprints can be followed, but the possibilities granted by them are really wonderful. When it comes to stories, people leaving a trace of reading it will help get an idea of how that story came to be, or continue to happen, for lack of a better expression, outside my head.

What does a story look like? Well, using the ubiquitous network metaphor of our times, I have looked into what Hernán Casciari’s Orsai looks like. It looks a little bit like this:

One ‘chapter’, the shape of the Web magazine where readers can leave their comments on the pieces published:

RevistaWebSmall

Another ‘chapter’. The print magazine, with a surprisingly different structure to the Web version of the “same” magazine:

OrsaiImpresa_Small

Three other ‘chapters’. The blogs readers flock to and in which they tirelessly comment:

Blogs

All of them together. From the last post.

And the story keeps going. That’s the other issue I love, many stories on the internet are not finished yet. They keep moving, forward and backward, and sideways and in every other possible direction. Readers have to keep coming back; they have to keep digging and finding it where it goes. In return authors also have to keep the story going; they have to keep the readers attention.

Now the final question: where are the readers in this story? They are there! Many! and they are very active. This part of the research is becoming the most difficult one, not just because its complexity and scale, but also because using others’ data, even if it’s publicly available is not something institutions like to do. After a long phone call with Western’s ITS during which I explained that I’m a good person and won’t be attacking anybody’s system and there’s no need to ban my computer from the university’s network, I still have to wait for another phone call. I also have to clear out that all of the data will be treated respectfully and with no profit in mind at all (unless you think getting a phd is profitable, but nobody thinks that). I might need some sort of permission from Hernán Casciari as well to avoid ITS people come to get me or Javi.

Once this gets sorted out, something very exciting is going to happen: we will data mine the information of over 200K comments (yes, 200K blog comments!!) on the Editorial Orsai site, and turn them into graphs a bit like these and play around with them to get even the faintest idea of why and how people are so hungry for a story like this.

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