Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Call me a virtual Ishmael" -- the power of stories, part two

"Call me Ishmael"-- storytelling around the fire.

Let’s continue talking about this idea that the internet is “killing storytelling.”

As I mentioned in my last post, reflection upon this topic has been inspired by a TimesOnline (UK) opinion piece by columnist Ben McIntyre. This gentleman, is “Writer at Large” for The Times, contributing a weekly column, and has been editor of the Times’ Weekend Review, parliamentary sketchwriter and bureau chief in Washington and Paris. He also has authored what his bio blurb refers to as “some historical non-fiction books” that seem to be some sort of novelized adaptions of actual biographies or historical events. One review of his book “If I should Die: A Foreign Field” (a story about British soldiers in WWI) commented that his work is “made the comment that it is “more narrative non-fiction than history per se.“

Anyhow, Mr. McIntyre did this piece about the death of storytelling at the hands of the dreaded interwebs. He argues that:

"The narrative, whether oral or written, is a staple of every culture the world over. But stories demand time and concentration; the narrative does not simply transmit information, but invites the reader or listener to witness the unfolding of events.

Stories introduce us to situations, people and dilemmas beyond our experience, in a way that is contemplative and gradual: it is the oldest and best form of virtual reality.

The internet, while it communicates so much information so very effectively, does not really “do” narrative. The blog is a soap box, not a story. Facebook is a place for tell-tales perhaps, but not for telling tales....Very few stories of more than 1,000 words achieve viral status on the internet."

I’m not sure exactly what Mr. McIntrye means by “viral status,” but he may have a point that the online stories people like us generate do not acquire the following and have as many views as , oh, say, an image of an overweight kitty cat asking “Can I plz haz cheezburger?” But then hell, I am told there are actually more cat pictures on the internet than porn images.

At any rate, other than a few weak points like that, in general, his entire argument is of course, complete and utter idiocy: nothing more than pretentious, elitist, old-media lark’s vomit.
Many people commented on the piece, mostly agreeing that Mr. McIntryie obviously is only marginally aware of what is happening online.

And of course, I had to add my own two cents worth, offering the comment:

“I would respectfully disagree--if anything the internet has provided some astonishing new opportunities for storytellers to work with each other and share their tales with broader audiences than they ever could reach before. For example, within the Second Life platform, there are a growing number of venues (generally associated with virtual libraries or museums) that host events featuring both traditional and original storytelling. The storytellers themselves--which include many individuals who perform as storytellers in meatspace venues as well--use either typed chat or voice to present their tales to audiences that are generally very engaged and appreciative.

And as Jermey D. (another person who commented on the piece) points out there is this intriguing development in virtual worlds, where role-playing has fostered new shared narratives that have in turn generated an expanding body of stories in written form on related blogs and forums. Yes, in many ways this work is a second cousin to fanfic, and much of it is of wildly-varying quality, but the important thing is that people are in fact taking the time to do creative writing and are telling stories that are important to them. And in sharing them on the net, they are having a splendid time entertaining themselves and others.

I know that for me as a writer and storyteller, thanks to the outlets available to us on the internet, I have been motivated to do a lot more work in recent years, and have been able to reach a larger audience than I had in the past.”

I would also like to direct you all to the blog of Edward Champion, an extremely bright and funny literary blogger/journalist/playwright, who has thoughtfully and thoroughly demolished McIntryre’s entire article in much more complete and articulate way than I ever possibly could. His response to McIntryre can be found here at his blog -- I enjoyed reading it even with my shriveled attention span.

While I cannot do as well as Mr. Champion in this regard, I would like to add some more thoughts from my admittedly narrow perspective. Did you know that the first international conference of Virtual Storytelling was held in 2001? You can find a book that records the proceedings here.

And If you google “virtual storytellers” you get about three-and-a-half million results.

The evidence lies even closer to home as well. If you look at groups in Second Life, you will find about forty-four separate groups associated with “storytellers” or “storytelling.” You also find that the Second Life Storytellers Guild has over four hundred members. There are eight venues in “search” that host storytelling, as do almost all of the community libraries in SL. Storytelling is clearly a going concern in SL. And it is storytelling in the very literal and traditional sense: intimate groups of people, usually seated in a circle, often around a fire, listening to a narrative unfold.

Sometimes these are traditional stories, handed down within a particular culture or people. Just as often they are completely original, sometimes even delightfully experimental.

But either way, storytelling is very very much alive in the regions of the internet that I tread. Perhaps partly, the issue for Mr. McIntrye is that his article was actually mixing up terminology. He claimed to be talking about “storytelling” but he on closer examination he actually seemed to be whining about a growing lack of patience for traditional means of delivering longer narrative stories. As he is a traditional journalist and the creator of pseudo-history novels in dead-tree form, this concern on his part is understandable. The fact that so many people can now actively create and share their own narratives, rather than simply being malleable, passive consumers of mass-produced narrative crap (whether in the form of printed works or the oozing mass of glop on both big and small screens)...well, that has got to be scaring the holy living shit out of puffed-up professional purveyors of story stuff like McIntyre. Who’s going to buy their crap out of the remainder bins if committed readers are making their own stuff?

And yes, I will be first to admit that a great deal of what we are creating for ourselves to share online is crap as well. Some of it certainly qualifies as completely hideous, unreadable crap. But then when was the last time you saw really good writing on TV or in the movies? Yeah, you probably saw something that was good at some point recently, but I’ll wager you had to wade through--or ignore--a whole shitload of foul, odoriferous dreck, the kind of stuff that makes say:

“Jeezusfuckingchristonafuckingpogostuck, they actually PAID someone to write this shit?”

But the internet has given us all chance to put something into written form and to show it to others. I was really struck by Headburro’s recent comment in talking about the Steelhead story session we just did, that he had not written or told stories until now. Or in my case, a decade a go I spent a lot of time working on two different novels of my own, doing some extensive writing over the course of a couple years. Only one or two people ever saw it. And now after many moves, divorces, and other various adventures, the discs are gone, the hard copies, recycled....but now, I am writing again, and people actually get to see my shit and comment on it.

And furthermore, without even leaving the house I am currently sharing with family, I’m periodically sitting around the fire in the Steelhead library garden, or under the arbor outside the Falling Anvil pub in Tam, telling stories like I used to talking to my pards around the campfire at a reenactment, or in the neighborhood library with a bunch of eager, squirming little kids--except now I’m telling stories and sharing narrative and traditions with people from all over the fucking world.

The Falling Anvil in Tam, still a popular venue for storytelling, though not as often as it used to be as there are so many other venues now. It is not uncommon to have story sessions at different locations overlapping and competing.

And those other people from all over the world also get to be a part of the story-creating process. JJ Drinkwater and I have been talking a good deal lately about how roleplaying in SL and other virtual worlds gives us an opportunity to generate shared narratives and to create characters and develop them, interacting with other real people in delightful and unexpected and natural ways. And that out of that is coming the inspiration--and the necessary building blocks of narrative and characters and plots and rich detail--that makes for some pretty darn good stories. In playing out these stories with each other, we foster situations, ideas, people dialogue and plots that are more complex and engaging than what we might weave ourselves.

This is why I included the story about Addison being sick into part one of this discussion. It was based on a transcript of rp that just happened--no script of course. And in the course of sitting there with this woman--who I believe was roleplaying that she had scarlet fever, if I recall correctly--I was reacting as Dio. Yeah, it was one of those "what would Dio do" moments, although I really wasn't thinking about it. I was enough into the character and who she is in order to just realize that, hell, she'd try to tell Addi a story that might distract her some from her discomfort, and might get her to laugh--and laughin' is always good fer sick folks, right?

So I pulled out what is actually an old Flip Wilson story--the tale of Roman Herman and his magnificent berry--and presented it as a story from Dio's Papaw Marcus. I figured what the hell, like many 19th century country folk he was sort of a renaissance man, who in addition to having been a trapper and fur trader, he also did things like read Shakespeare, play the fiddle, and tell stories.

And I have always loved that story of Roman Herman and the berry, and maybe now some more people will have seen it...and it will live on, even if they never heard Flip Wilson tell it. And isn't that what storytelling is about? Passing things on, maybe improving them a bit or giving them your own twist, but more than anything, keeping the tale from dying?

Well, bugger me senseless. Maybe the internet is giving life to storytelling, not killing it.


  1. "But then hell, I am told there are actually more cat pictures on the internet than porn images"

    I think you may have misunderstood a certain used and assumed it meant a cat...

  2. Well said Dio! Storytelling is as old as the caves and we as a race will still doing it long after the sun expands and burns Earth to a crisp - put two humans together and in one form or another they will tell stories.

    And to clarify about me, I have written stories before - I did an evening class in creative writing about ten years ago and then ran a very successful online play-by-email Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I think what i meant was that I hadnd written in the form, or with the frequency, you see on my blog at the moment.

    You know what... I may just try and find all those CoC pbem posts and tart them up for the blog...

  3. I think that's a good idea for you to sshare your CoC stuff. That's kind of what I am doing withthe material I bring over here from the The Road to Deadwood forum. And as for you getting inspired--I apologize for misundrestanding about the wirting part of it--though clearly the current possiblities we have with SL have given you a new enthusiasm for the creative tasks. And I am correct in my understanding that your telling a story to a live group in voice the other day in Steelhead WAS in fact a new expericne for you?

  4. and yes, I do in fact know the difference between "cats" and "pussy"

    I will refer you to the Digital Journal pieces which theorizes that putting cute cat pictures on the internet has become the primary purpose of the human species:

    And I would also point out that if you google "cat pictures" there are 137 million results, but if you google "porn pictures" you will get only 23 million results.

    Try it.

    I rest my case.

  5. No misunderstanding on your partm mate - I just explained myself badly ;-)

    Ohh, and cat vs pussy... LOL! :-D

  6. just out of curiosity I googled that too--

    cats -- 104 million results

    pussy -- 85.5 million results

    I still rest my case

  7. Better late than sorry, as the cliche goes... Dead-on post, Dio. The Aetherwebs surely facilitate storytelling by bringing together like-minded individuals who would otherwise never meet. Sure, there are writers' groups in many towns, but (a) they're often a pain to get to, (b) they scare the daylights out of me, and (c) it's tough to get together people with similar writing/storytelling interests. I can sympathize with the dead-tree guy, as the 20th century tradition of storytelling was through book publishing (or publishing shorter fiction in magazines, which effectively died out years ago), which was expensive, so only a few got their stories in print, which gave a certain cachet to published authors. Although I miss having a shared set of literature - heck, most of my office hasn't read The DaVinci Code which, whatever its literary merits, is as close to a collective experience as fiction has had in recent years - I find the benefits of reaching out to people anywhere in the world and sharing, at little or no cost, a tale to vastly outweigh the downsides. (As an aside, Emilly Orr and I have both commented on the similar phenomenon occuring with respect to music creation and distribution: it's become more fragmented (bad) but cheaper and more personal (good), with new forms of distribution pushing aside the traditional business model.)

    Twitter, on the other hand, is not meant to be a storytelling medium, experiments aside. As HBA noted, it's the equivalent of a water cooler conversation. If Mr. McIntyre sees Twitter and similar tools as a sign of declining interest in narrative, he's looking in the wrong places. That doesn't mean the Internet doesn't change things; see the above paragraph. But change, here, is a pretty good thing. Look at the increased interest in National Novel Writing Month: while most of what gets written is, without a doubt, crap, the fact that thousands of people are interested enough to take a crack at writing a (short) novel says to me that interest in narrative is alive and well.

    Your comment about shared narrative is interesting, too. Collaborative efforts are nothing new, and even crossover narratives - Spiderman shows up to help out Captain America - are not new, but the Internet generally and SL in particular really facilitate those kinds of interactions. It's fascinating to see how so much of it arises spontaneously, whether it's in Deadwood stories or in the various Steelhead or Babbage RP scenarios.

    I still find it shocking that something like McIntyre's piece would be written. Really, I have to shake my head that we're even having this discussion.

  8. I'd really like to see Ryne visiting Deadwood - I think a shared tale there would be grand! I'd have to avoid his stempunk-iness showingm, but that's easy - to the Deadwoddians, he'd just be an English doctor travelling to Oregon :)

  9. hey Rhia thank you for that long and thoughful reaction (hope you had a good trip by the way!)

    I think you bring up an interesting point about writers meeting in meatspace--some of us, by our nature, don't always do real well in face-to-foce rl settings. One of the things that is just magnificent about the net is that you can meet and chat, or have conversations like this, or work collaboratively with people from all over the freakin' world, and's just easier for us shy folks to do it.

    Never mind that is is much more conveneint and pracical to connect with each other this way -- it expands the possibilities for those of us who have a tendency to hold things in and to hold oursevles back in a real social setting. Simply put, we have found the virtual equivalent of powdermilk biscuits.

    And as for the collective narrative phenomenon, it's not just the shared narrative of stries we creat ene cross fertile togher, it's the story of being pioneers inthe virutal landscape. Living in SL together, with all its slings and arrows of outrageous griefing, thieving, recreational drama and the feckless, mad experiments of the Lindens--as well as the joys of it, like witnessing the sprawling serendipity of what people create--we are part of an unfolding tale, a journey we all are taking. That shared expericne, provides a sense of connection to and understanding of each other (along with a distinct collective vocabulary).

    Someday I am sure we will look back on our time here as the Garden of Eden days of virtual worlds.

  10. And yes, HB, that would be very plausible, for the doctor to come through our way on his journey to Oregon. He seems like a pretty low-tech kind of guy anyhow, so I don't think the adjustment to actual historical technological context would be that hard. He still stands a great character as a medical man of limited means with a calling to serve the urban poor. Deadwood is a curiously cosmopolitan place in its own odd way--a cross roads for a surprising variety of characters.

    I like to think of it as the actual sort of Old West town that "Deep Space Nine" was based on.

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