It’s already been well-established by other posts on this blog that there’s something particular going on with regards to ICTs – especially social media technologies – and storytelling. My post last week dealt with how the atemporal effects of social media may be changing our own narratives and how those narratives are understood and expressed. This week I want to focus on some of the ways that social media technologies are making our narratives more communal in nature.
First, it’s worth noting that communal narratives – which we can understand as narratives that are constructed and related by multiple cooperating participants, sometimes in a hierarchical fashion and sometimes not – are by no means new. Narratives have always been communal to some degree, simply by virtue of the fact that no story, fictional or factual, exists in cultural isolation. Every story is embedded within a matrix of cultural values, assumptions, norms, etc. Fiction often draws upon influences of other fiction, sometimes merely in the form of homage and sometimes in adaptation. By the same token, when you tell a story to your friends about how you spent a weekend, that story exists within the context of shared culture, relationships, history on both a personal and a social level, and many other things besides.
Narratives can also be more literally communal. Many cultures feature storytelling traditions wherein the story is told through forms of call-and-response, with the audience just as much a participant than the official storyteller. Plays are arguably communal narratives; a play may issue from a single written source but every director and actor involved brings their own interpretation to the performance of the story, making each performance subtly – or extremely, in some cases – different. Gary Allen Fine has written extensively on how tabletop role-playing games can be understood as communally constructed narratives of an excessively formal type. And in that same story about your weekend, your friends may interject with commentary or requests for more detail about certain elements.
So communal narratives are not new, in and of themselves. What is new, I want to argue, are the ways in which communal narratives are now being constructed and the spheres in which we find them.
When we do talk about what ICTs have done to our narratives, I think we often neglect what we classically consider as “stories” – fictional narratives. But this kind of narrative is equally important to consider, especially given the ways in which our augmented fictional narratives are connected to fictional storytelling of the past.
One kind of augmented narrative with which I think most of us are familiar is, again, narrative constructed through digital role-playing. A lot has been written about Second Life and World of Warcraft. Both of these examples are somewhat tired by this point but still worth mentioning given that they present very different kinds of role playing – Second Life is essentially goalless, with the emphasis on creativity, environment construction, and socializing. It could be argued that World of Warcraft is also goalless in the long run, as there is no singular “winstate” at which the game is completed; nevertheless, players are driven by the powerful immediate goals of leveling up and accumulating the best possible arms and armor.
Narrative also works differently in these games: in Second Life, the player has a tremendous amount of agency in the construction of their character’s story, or freedom to actively construct no story to speak of (though simply by being in the game and interacting with others, a narrative still unfolds). In World of Warcraft, the game’s larger narrative can easily be ignored in favor of stat grinding and item accumulation, but it’s still there, and it subtly directs the background flow and logic of the game. Players still work within a narrative, even if they don’t make it the center of their attention.
And there are other games where the construction of narrative is actually the primary focus of the game. “Pan-fandom” roleplaying games on the sites Livejournal and Dreamwidth allow players to create journals for characters from various media and to “thread” those characters interacting with each other and working collectively to construct a larger storyline. Some of these interactions are plotted out before they are played, while some are constructed on the spot. But always the games are intensely narrative-focused and deeply communal.
It’s also interesting to note that the actual structure of these websites affects the structure and logic of the interactions – the idea of the interactions being centered around turn-based threads within larger posts is entirely by virtue of how sites like Dreamwidth and Livejournal work. Because one might have multiple threads with multiple different characters taking place in a character’s post, it’s implicitly understood that all these threads are occurring concurrently, something that would be difficult to impossible to depict in a traditional singular-streamed fictional narrative.
This is actually a very important point: Storytelling is shaped, limited, and facilitated by the medium through which it is told, and digital media allow for – and force – particular kinds of stories to be constructed and told in particular ways. This is also not necessarily new; we can see it in older broadcast media, print media, and even board games. What’s important to attend to is how newer forms of technology affect how this happens. In Christopher Franklin’s review of Spec Ops: The Line, he notes that the actual structure of FPS gameplay encourages the narratives driving those games to adopt a black and white Manichean morality, where any action that allows the player to progress through the game is understood as unequivocally good, and anything that stands in the player’s way is unequivocally bad.
In terms of a transition from older kinds of fictional narratives to newer forms, it’s also worth tipping a hat to fanfiction. Fanfiction is often derided by many as silly, ridiculous, sex-obsessed, and of significantly lesser literary value than the sources from which it draws. Some of these things are true some of the time, but what the derision obscures are vital creative communities engaged in an ongoing process of complex interpretation, deconstruction, construction, and dialogue with elements of popular culture. These are stories that are created in an intensely communal process, often referring back to specific interpretations of the source material (called “fanon”, in reference to “canon”.
Fanfiction communities also aren’t the only communities that engage in this kind of storytelling. Websites like Wattpad enable writers to construct stories serially, developing them in dialogue with reader feedback. As Olivia Rosane notes in the article linked above, this goes directly against how most published stories are now written and delivered to the public, with all the messy creative and editing and marketing bits hidden behind a screen of polished packaging.
These kinds of narratives would probably exist without digital technology in some form; again, we tend to construct narratives communally anyway. But digital technology facilitates their construction, and affects what form they take.
It goes pretty much without saying that things like the Facebook timeline have a tremendous amount to do with how we construct – and display – our self-narrative. At the end of that post, Jenny Davis notes that “Through links and tags multiple narratives weave together to co-constuct each others’ stories and digitize an analog past.” I want to build on that point, because I think it’s important that we understand personal narratives mediated by digital technology to have a fundamentally performative nature.
This doesn’t mean that those narratives are always either entirely public – or entirely private. It simply means that when we construct our self-narratives through digital media, we are engaged in an ongoing process of revealing and concealing, of showing some things to some people and hiding other things from others in a kind of digital Goffmanian dramaturgy. What kind of narrative we want to construct and display and how that’s done is the product of interaction with others in different spaces; you may direct your self-narrative, but you don’t construct it in isolation from others. Reality curation, as Jenny Davis has explained, works in both directions. Further, as people comment on your posts and status updates, share links, and tag you in photos, they participate in the construction of your stories.
Additionally, as Whitney Erin Boesel described in her post yesterday, we construct deeper forms of meaning and self-knowledge through technology as part of our narratives – and these forms of knowledge may be shared with certain people and not with others, subtly affecting our own understanding and interpretation of that meaning.
Essentially, all narratives constructed through and mediated by technology are either implicitly or explicitly communal in nature. Again, this is true of narratives in general, but it’s still important to pay attention to the how of that communal construction.
The end of narratological dualism?
I want to close by suggesting that something interesting may be increasingly possible – and necessary – concerning our augmented stories: the end not only of digital dualist thinking but of a kind of narratological dualism that draws sharp distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and which privileges the latter as more legitimate and more meaningful. The Baudrillardian concept that it’s now difficult to impossible to pin down an exact, objective, and original reality is, of course, not a new one, and I think that this “fuzziness” when it comes to the truth of meanings and events suggests some powerful things regarding how we understand fiction to be different from nonfiction. But what I think new kinds of storytelling also highlight is how deeply meaningful all forms of stories are to us. Fiction moves us just as powerfully – if not more powerfully – than many forms of nonfiction. Fictionalizing in the interest of eliciting emotion is an old technique: David Simon, creator of The Wire, has admitted that relating factual accounts of Baltimore within a fictional frame very possibly makes people care more about issues of poverty, racism, and violence than would a strictly documentary approach.
Further, our imaginations are real spaces, just as the physical world is. We couldn’t interpret anything that happens to us in the physical world without imagination on some level; it would be unnavigable. The “reality” of imagination is just as meaningful as the “reality” of the world that comes at us through our eyes and ears and skin, though that meaning might be of a different kind. In order to understand our stories and how they’re changing, we need to understand that fiction and nonfiction are enmeshed, just as are the digital and the physical. And while we need to be sensitive to differences between the two, we can’t privilege one over the other. To do so does a disservice to the richness and complexity of our stories.