A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: social media

Take Two: Literature and DH

Recently, two intriguing articles from well-respected Digital Humanities scholars came through in my feed reader, and as they align quite nicely with my own interests in the intersection of technology and literature, I thought I’d share them here.

What is an @uthor? by Matthew Kirschenbaum

Writing for the LA Review of Books, Kirschenbaum (perhaps best known for his article “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”), explores how the evolving landscape of social media and author engagement with audiences online is changing the nature of literary criticism and the very idea of authorship itself:

Today you cannot write seriously about contemporary literature without taking into account myriad channels and venues for online exchange. That in and of itself may seem uncontroversial, but I submit we have not yet fully grasped all of the ramifications. We might start by examining the extent to which social media and writers’ online presences or platforms are reinscribing the authority of authorship. The mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities, and the impact of the kind of online interactions described above (those Woody Allenesque “wobbles”) have all changed the nature of authorial presence. Authorship, in short, has become a kind of media, algorithmically tractable and traceable and disseminated and distributed across the same networks and infrastructure carrying other kinds of previously differentiated cultural production.

There are Only Six Basic Book Plots 

In an article for Motherboard, contributing editor Ben Richmond interviewed Matthew Jockers (textual analysis proponent and author of Macroanalysis) about his algorithmic model that identifies archetypal plot shapes. According to his research, about 90% of the time, results showed six basic plots (with the remaining 10% indicating seven basic plots). While some of his data remains unknown, Jockers did release his tools on GitHub to encourage others to try the same experiment for themselves:

Most books that measure the number of plots seem aimed at writers and would-be writers, but Jockers’s work has implications for readers, librarians, and even literature snobs, or anyone who wants to put snobs in their places.

As he was charting plots, Jockers noticed that some genres that are derided for being “formulaic,” like romance, aren’t just relying on boy-meets-girl.

“Romance showed some proclivity for two of the six plot shapes, but it wasn’t an overwhelming case of all the plots falling into one,” Jockers said. “It was a much more evenly distributed from these six shapes.”

Choose Your Own Twitter Adventure

Within the larger world of electronic (digital) literature is the genre of hypertext fiction, a non-linear approach to reading that gives readers links or modes to jump from one part of the text to another. It is, by its nature, interactive, with the reader guiding the narrative depending on the choices she makes. Hypertext fiction also isn’t necessarily limited to e-books or online stories.  The term can also apply to traditionally published books (many prior to the advent of the web) with nonlinear narratives, such as Joyce’s Ulysses.

For many of my generation, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels are the best example of a traditionally published hypertext novel. Though not explicitly referred to or marketed as such, the CYOA books were hypertextual and interactive. The reader could choose any number of paths through the story that would alter the story’s outcome, and many readers (myself included) often tried to guess or predicate what would happen next, mostly to avoid the dreaded “you’ve died” message.

Now, thanks to one clever and imaginative Twitter user, the principals behind the CYOA books specifically and hypertext fiction in general have come to social media. Twitter user Terence Eden (@edent) created a “Choose Your Own Adventure” narrative for Twitter. The story takes place entirely within the Twitter platform / website, and web-savvy readers and fans can navigate through a series of choices in a mysterious story. Should you run or hide? Investigate that glowing light? Fight back or flee? Each choice brings you to a another, until (of course) you die.

Eden’s CYOA Twitter story works well for a couple of reasons. Thanks to Twitter’s setup, the @ symbol will automatically link to a user name, which allowed Eden to create a variety of user names for this specific project without having to rely on outside webpages or excessively long hyperlinks (that take up valuable “real estate” on the 140-character platform). Furthermore, Twitter allows for pinned tweets, which means Eden could keep all the relevant information at the top of a user profile, negating the need for CYOA readers to scroll. Plus, Eden kept the narrative portions of the tweets are short and to the point, compelling readers to keep clicking. The result is an addictive and entertaining story completely enclosed within this one social network. It will be interesting to see what happens next to push hypertext fiction forward even more.

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