Constructing narrative on Twitter.

Back when I first started really using the Internet (1998?) my friends and I would search AOL for chatrooms dedicated to shows or bands we liked. In retrospect, I probably spent an inordinate amount of my childhood talking to teenagers (who were really 40 year-old men) about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. But I also found a community of writers who wanted to use this new platform to new work. In one room, volunteer poets were given a topic and a few minutes to crank out a five or six lines of poetry. These pieces were, without exception, very bad. The point was to write in the moment. It followed the same logic of competitions like NaNoWriMo. The platform of the chatroom did not really allow for careful lines of crafted simplicity. These were the draftiest of drafts.

When scanning a piece like The Good Captain, a space adaptation of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (why do so many Melville adaptations take place in space?!), that was originally formatted for Twitter, I cannot help but think of the way the logic of the chatroom shaped the work produced there. (Telling you that the work was uniquely awful may not help my point. In the hands of more skilled writers, the work may have been better. ) The Good Captain follows Cereno’s plot formatting: a brief intro explaining the narrative, followed by the first person account of the ship’s rebellion, then an official document recounting the whole onboard revolt.

The shift in platform raises interesting questions about telling a story like Cereno. Print allows for shifts in point-of-view and narrative style that seem artificial on Twitter.  Much like those early chatrooms, Twitter is best when its able to provide an up-to-the-minute narrative. It allows requires a kind of storytelling not always at work in this piece. In the sections sandwiching the action of the story, the platform betrays the artificiality of the story. The middle section, however, is best suited to Twitter’s aesthetic. I’d like to see more pieces done on Twitter that actually make use of the platform effective instead of trying to shoehorn older narrative structure into platforms that just don’t fit.

An Exploration of Deena Larsen’s “Carving in Possibilities”

“Carving in Possibilities,” by Deena Larsen, allows the user to reveal the face of Michelangelo’s David by moving the cursor over the blurry image of the statue.  As the user moves the cursor over the image, speculations appear about David concerning the crowd watching David and Goliath, the sculptor, and the crowds viewing the sculpture. Staccato sounds accompany the instantly appearing text, and the sounds are similar to those of someone carving stone.

Upon reading the description for this new media, I thought I would be creating a different image with each movement of the mouse. I thought this because the description says “carve though thoughts.”  I figure that realistically, you cannot carve a statue exactly the same each time, so I thought this would reflect that assumption. After playing twice, I realized that I was only revealing an image. If it were not for the sounds accompanying each movement of the cursor, the user may forget that he/she is “carving” the image. These pounding sounds are representative of steel carving stone, and illustrate the process of transforming a shapeless rock into a statue with a human form.

This work supports the idea that a “picture is worth a thousand words,” thus having unlimited interpretations and meanings depending on the reader’s experiences, knowledge, and even his/her mood. The user is able to “carve out” different textual combinations and readings of the poem through choice and exploration. Each thought appears one by one and in no specific sequence or logical order. The user is constantly wondering the context to these thoughts, trying to link one thought with the next to find out more and more about David. Also, the thoughts appear in various colors, sizes, and fonts, which might indicate different voices.

This explorative approach allows the user to create a new meaning from each thought. “Carving in Possibilities” is not meant to reveal a meaning, but to enable the user to discover new reading paths and to experience how these readings can transform. The reader experiences acts of continual transformation, evolution, and change, in both the text and the meaning. Also, this work shows how readers can gain knowledge from the same work in different ways, and communicates that readers can interpret a work in multiple ways—neither interpretation being incorrect. Each time we create a meaning for a piece of art or writing, we are extending the legacy of that work, and thus the memory of the author or story behind the physical work. Therefore, “Carving in Possibilities” demonstrates that a person’s legacy and memory can survive through art and writing because the readers of that work will create their own interpretations and meaning based on their choices, experiences, and knowledge. Each time we revisit a piece of art, we discover stories and reveal new realities that help to solidify the existence of the physical piece of work and establish the identity and memory of the author.

“Public Secrets” and My Trip to Jail

I have never been to federal prison; I’m not a felon.  But I have been to jail, three times actually.  I am not divulging this because I am proud of having gone to jail, but I feel that by explaining one of my experiences within the system affords my discussion of Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer’s Public Secrets some (small) degree of merit.

I was arrested at a Tom Petty concert for being intoxicated in public, which led to my second trip to jail.  I spent a total of six nights in two separate institutions (the first in Prince William County and the second in Albemarle County).  I was arrested at what was Nissan Pavilion, spent four nights in the Prince William County Jail, and was then transported down to the Albemarle County Jail (on account of there being a warrant out for my arrest in Albemarle County for failing to appear in court) where I spent two nights.  The circumstances surrounding my arrest are inconsequential, and I’m sure if took the time to tell you all of the details you would laugh.  Nevertheless, during my extended sleepover at the Prince William County Jail I was put into ‘population’.  Like some of the testimonies in Public Secrets I hadn’t a clue as to what exactly was going on or how long I would be in there, so I attempted to settle in.  I made an order for the commissary (mainly snacks of the Twinkie and Cheetos variety, all of which I never had the opportunity to eat) and met a few of the other guys I would be sharing a kind of barracks with.  As I recall, nearly everyone I met was in jail (at least the minimum security sector of the jail) for failing to pay their child support.  Other than the individuals I met in my holding cell (a drug dealer, a working professional serving a 15 or 30 day sentence for a second dui, an idiotic teenager that seemed to make a hobby of driving on a suspended license, a homeless man with an affinity for defecating in public, and maybe a few others), not paying your child support seemed a likely way to land yourself up to a year in jail.  I never double-checked any of the information conveyed; fortunately I was only in ‘population’ (of the absolute lowest security) for two nights after spending an initial two nights in a holding a cell.  What happened after I left (being transported to Albemarle County Jail and spending a few nights in a kind of mass holding cell) are beside the point of this anecdote.  I have made known the above information so that you have an understanding of my experience and so that I may draw on it in my response to Public Secrets.

After exploring Public Secrets – an interactive database of first-hand accounts of the happenings (human rights abuses, drug use, etc.) at numerous women’s California State Prisons – I was left walking the line.  That is, I felt conflicted about how to respond to the various interwoven testimonials of the female inmates.  On one hand I found myself sympathizing with some of them (those that haven’t seen their children in 10 years, those that fell victim to various abuses behind the prison walls, those that fell victim to the injustices often brought on by ignorance of the law, and a few others), and on the other hand I found myself asking questions.  What did these women do to land themselves in state correctional facilities?  How are the inmates’ testimonials decontextualized in Public Secrets?  What is the authorial intent of Public Secrets and how does this intent speak to the content of the work?

I think the first question is intentionally obscured.  People don’t generally go to prison for nothing, which is evident in some of these inmates sentences (many in the range of 15-life).  Though I cannot speak to the notion of prisons as corporations and the corruption that many believe exists at the very foundation of these institutions, I can say that the individuals I met in jail are not people that I would likely invite to my home for tea (jail-mates or otherwise).  Many of my jail-mates were shifty, lying characters and the individuals running the facility seemed hardened by their day-to-day activities and interactions with criminals.  It is not adequate to not expound on this, but I can offer no other explanation than to tell you to get yourself arrested and spend the better part of a week with some of these people that ‘wind up’ in jail and others that seek to ‘control’ them.  I realize there may be discrepancies, that judges may be biased, and that the system may be imperfect, but Public Secrets offers no alternative to the current situation.  I do not intend this to be a rant on the inadequacies of adult correctional facilities or even Public Secrets, but I feel that my above response (and the rest to follow) are resultant to thinking Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer, to some extent, try to manipulate their readers emotions.  They intend to elicit an emotional and critical response (which they absolutely do) unfavorable to the institution of institutionalizing individuals, but I cannot help how I respond.

This aside, I think Daniel and Loyer’s undertaking is ground-breaking to some extent.  Through a hypertext database website Daniel and Loyer are able to call for social reform of adult correctional facilities; by making aware the sort of negative-feedback cycle perpetuated by adult correctional facilities they are able to spark forward thinking in relation to these institutions – thinking that distances itself from the institution altogether and focuses more on the needs of the individual.  Here Public Secrets bridges the gap between digital media and social revolution.  Moreover, the rhetoric in the piece is uncanny.  If you hold your mouse over a given excerpt the individual quoted begins talking and the quotation is thusly contextualized within a blurb of an interview between Daniel and the inmate speaking.  But if you nudge your mouse and the cursor goes outside of the space of the quotation, the individual is instantly muted and the quotation disappears.  One cannot help but think how this reflects how society deals with and comes to think of criminals and imprisoned persons.  I appreciate this, all of this (and realize that they are still people), but again it is hard for me to accept what is conveyed in this work of digital media whole-heartedly.  I have met some of the people that go to jail and possibly on to state or federal prison, and I believe they are in need of some sort of reformation that goes beyond the kind of group therapy hinted at in some of the inmates’ testimonials.  Our way of doing so is to imprison them, to show them what they forfeit by breaking the law and potentially offer them a way back to normalcy through improvement.  Again, I realize there are discrepancies – that individuals are wrongly accused or that extenuating circumstances may lead to harsh, unjust punishments (the latter I believe my story would fall subject to) – but such instances seem few and far between.  Going back to what I said about most of the jail-mates claiming to be incarcerated as a result of failing to pay their child support… I think most of them were lying.  Those that weren’t, perhaps they don’t deserve to be in jail.  Who knows? But maybe this is the kind of thinking that Daniel looks to completely dissolve, and if so I would encourage her to contextualize the testimonials within the crime committed and the (possible) social inequalities that led to the execution of the crime and by offering realistic alternatives to these ‘unjust’ institutions.  She does a bit of the latter, but in undertaking the former I feel people would have less resolve in siding with her on how to reform criminals.  And what exactly to do with criminals is a struggle fought across the entire world.  People often look to Europe as forward thinkers in social justice, but look at what came of Anders Behring Breivik.  Systems are flawed and justice is often ill-served.

Analyzing Strings

Creative Response to Strings

One of the things that I think makes Strings such an effective set of flash pieces is that it describes a series of human emotions with a playful disposition that makes them seem natural to the viewer. For example, in the first piece called argument the words “yes” and “no” are pulled back and forth from left to right on a single string almost as if someone was going back and forth in their mind thinking “yes” and then “no,” over and over again. This rhythm and pace back and forth are what gives the piece the feel of an actual argument, which would be impossible to generate in a traditional format like a book. The third piece called haha also starts out with a single string that forms the word “ha” and each time it shifts from one side to the other it consecutively adds another “ha” to the chain. The gradual addition of each “ha” gives it an increased amount of playfulness. Besides the fact that there is laughing, the way in which it is presented makes the piece itself kind of funny. I think the strings also make the emotions seem more alive and active. In a way the strings remind me of musical strings as the words are being played according to a certain rhythm and you don’t physically hear anything but you can hear the laughing in your head as it takes form on the screen.

The font style actually looks like manuscript handwriting, which adds a human-like quality that people can relate to and identify with instead of a more computerized-looking font style. The emotions can thus be seen as being more characteristic of real people who that aren’t perfect robots. It also gives the words more of a playful persona and sense of character in their representation of the different emotions portrayed. There is a certain level of comfort through associating different emotions with the fact that all people experience them; it’s human nature and that’s what the manuscript handwriting does for the piece. It creates a sense of realness, unity, and association.

‘Facade’ as a Modern-Day DOCTOR

DOCTOR, a program created in the 1960s,  was one of the first and most rudimentary examples of a program processing and responding to full user language input. “Facade,” a ‘one-act interactive drama,’ stands as one of the only examples of applying that sort of language parsing algorithm to a narrative piece of media.

The game begins with an unbearably awkward answering machine message from your friend Trip, asking you to come visit him and his wife Grace at their apartment. The game then asks you to choose from a set of names, teaches you the basic controls, and then play begins. You can move around the apartment with the arrow keys, and interact with objects, as well as Trip and Grace themselves, with the mouse. Most importantly however, you can type in something to say (limited to a certain character length), and have the characters respond to it.

It was difficult to figure out what exactly the program would accept. The program draws from a limited set of voice-clip responses, so vague sentences have only minor effect on the plot, something I quickly learned as I interacted with it. Playing around with the mouse, I clicked on Trip’s cheek, which apparently registered as a kiss. He, needless to say, was slightly weirded out by that ‘Italian greeting.’

That action began a quick chain of events that led from discussing a romantic trip to Italy, to major relationship issues, to an affair being admitted to, and a quiet reconciliation taking place. I tried being courteous and as reaffirming as possible, with little to no effect on the plot. Besides the kiss, the most I ended up doing using the language parser was suggesting wine over chardonnay, something that Grace didn’t seem to appreciate. ‘George,’ my player character of choice, mostly just sat, drank, and watched the sparks fly.

Playing around with ‘Facade’ is a strangely engrossing experience. I did actually feel compelled to help out a clearly tense, troubled relationship, and I did feel obligated to comply to basic conversational norms (as tempting as abusing the parser for hilarity may be). Wrestling with the algorithm, however, also makes clear the limitations of such complicated technology, even today. DOCTOR was no psychiatrist, and this game isn’t quite the complex procedurally generated drama it set out to be.

The game did, however, recommend multiple playthroughs, so I did play one more time. In an attempt to ‘make’ the game react to me, I told Trip to ‘fuck off’, and repeatedly flirted with and kissed Grace (who enjoyed the attention), all while spouting out random vulgarities. The game actually did react to me that time. I got kicked out of the apartment, and I ended up with an utterly incoherent stage script.

Back to the Future

ChronoZoom is an attempt to conceptualize the entire history of, well, everything in a way that is accessible to the average person while incorporating multiple different disciplines, including biology, astronomy, geology, anthropology, economics, cosmology, natural history, and more. Utilizing a fairly intuitive “point and click” interface, it combines video, text, graphics and other forms of multimedia into a presentation that shows the interconnectivity of these different fields in a comprehensive “grand unified theory” of creation.

In addition to being visually compelling, the interface is easy to navigate and provides a readily accessible sense of scale for events. The upper-right hand corner of the screen includes a navigational tool that also serves as a constant reminder of the totality of the project. Changing from one section to another provides  a compelling sense of motion.

Despite the cleverness of the interface, however, there are certain things that stood out to me when I dug a little deeper. Even though it is presented as a straightforward history of the universe, there is a point of view and a narrative contained within, and certain elements are highlighted over others, which became more apparent as I clicked around the site. This was especially obvious once I considered the source of the project.

There is a distinct point of view contained within the narrative, one that is dictated by the disciplines that are used as the source material. Whether you believe them to be accurate or not, they shape the narrative, and present the material contained therein as fact. Considering that even astronomical and historical facts are sometimes disputed, it is something I believe should be approached with a certain amount of skepticism.

Setting aside any questions about creationism versus evolution or other issues of science fact, there are certain sections that seem out of place in what would otherwise be a straightforward depiction of the history of the universe. For example, is the Microsoft Corporation so significant in the history of the universe that it truly deserves its own section? Why are there seven data points for the major releases of Microsoft Windows, but no data points in the entirety of Greek History? It should be no surprise considering these facts that, upon reading the “Behind the Scenes” section, I learned that Microsoft was instrumental in the production of the project. The only larger section in the area dedicated to “United States” was “University of California, Berkeley”, where the project originated. Both were larger than the section on U.S. Presidents, and dwarfed the section on World War II. The visual representations are therefore more than a little suspect in terms of both timescale and relevance.

Poetry and poker

Poker was never my cup of tea. It was one of those things I wanted to be good at just to look cool, but it failed as I still remain a horrid poker player. I was given a second wind, however, when I spent about an hour with Stud Poetry by Marco Niemi. In the game only your words have values because the goal is to construct the strongest poetry–and win money, too!!–line you can muster with the cards you are dealt.

The objective of Stud Poetry is to create the best poetry line possible, using words that are “dealt” to you. The player is only given the option to “call” “raise” or “fold,” and, from this, the player determines the value of the words dealt–just as in poker and how the many combinations of suits have a particular value–which is interesting because all writers use specific words for their particular writing style and most writers have a unique style and vocabulary. When you have a bad hand, however, the only logical option is to fold, but at times, I felt as though my words were decent–I could have smashed together something creative, poignant and deep with the words I was dealt; however, compared to the other AI-controlled players, their word combinations surpassed my own.

After my short time with Stud Poetry–I still, unfortunately, suck at poker, and I’m a pretty bad poet, as well–what I took from this work is a better understanding of how difficult it is to create great poetry. Before taking this class, my view of poetry continued to flip-flop; either it was a bunch of words slammed together, luckily creating a work that filled the souls of readers with intellectual satisfaction, or the words are personally and specifically chosen by the poet, so that his or her emotions aren’t misinterpreted. Poetry and poker is an awkward mix, but then again, what isn’t awkward in new media?

String Theory

Strings is a piece of electronic literature based on human relationships and is presented through handwriting.  The Flash program goes through various human emotions, actions, or dialogues that occur within a relationship, such as arguments, flirtation, and laughing, which take form as animated and morphing lines of cursive writing.

Two arguments are presented that vary from a linear yo-yoing back-and-forth between “yes” and “no,” and a floating “yes” and “no” that is accompanied with a lingering “maybe.”  One form of flirtation is presented as a slowly scrolling “no” that morphs into a “maybe” (there is no “yes”), while the other is dominated by “yes” that flirts with the screen by “dancing,” twisting, and turning about.  In arms, a squiggly line forms into four items: “your,” “arms,” “O,” and “me.”  Audiences are left to interpret the meaning of “O,” however it is somewhat apparent that it means “hold” or “embrace” given that the “O” rotates (when the other words do not).  The last animation the program leaves you with is entitled poidog.  In it, a single squiggly line rapidly morphs to form the words/sentence “words are like strings that I pull out of my mouth.”  This final thought connects with how this piece is presented: all the emotions seen are represented as strings of thought and manifested as strings of writing.  The choice of cursive font over standard type is appropriate because, requiring unbroken and continuous flow, it mimics both the appearance and movements of string.

The fact that this piece of electronic literature is presented in handwriting at all and not an obvious computer font lends to the personalization of the experience.  Contrary to “killing off the author,” Strings is dependent on its author to convey the presence of “the hand” and the human in an interface/medium that is notoriously devoid of it (meaning completely computer-focused).  This piece is a great example of what Lev Manovich referred to as surface and deep data in “Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data.”  Strings was generated as a type of “deep data” to convey the emotions about a select few individuals (namely its own author).  But, in being posted and shared with the internet, it has transformed into a sample of “surface data” that is representative of how similarly its audience may feel.  As Manovich puts it, “one pixel comes to represent one thousand” (462).

Inanimate Alice: Storytelling of the Future

Inanimate Alice, written by Kate Pullinger is an “educational digital game.” However, while going through the first eight minute episode, it didn’t feel like a game. Other than one interaction where the “player” has to click on flowers in the field to take a picture (which didn’t really seem to work that well, but my computer could be at fault), the player doesn’t really play the game. As far as I could see, the only other interaction was the clicking of arrows to go further in the story. Nonetheless, this works as effective interaction.

While Inanimate Alice lacks the interactive structure that I’m used to finding in a game, it does work successfully to show how our lives are intertwined with technology.

Alice and her parents live in a rural environment where I would imagine that technology would not play that great of a part. Instead, Alice finds refuge in her imaginary digital friend Brad that she can view on her phone device. When her father doesn’t come back from his job, Alice and her mother take their jeep and go looking for him. A good part of the narrative is Alice exploring her device by taking pictures, looking at Brad, and stating what she’d rather be doing than searching the desolate and frightening landscape for her father. Alice uses technology the same way I do: when I’m bored and in a sense, when I want to escape reality.

While commenting on our near-future, if not already present digital age, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph use a mix of images, music, text, and easy puzzles to create Alice’s story. I believe that Inanimate Alice could be very effective way of storytelling for future children born in the technology era by communicating with them through the medium which they are most used to.


This is How You Will Die by Jason Nelson. Once again I partook in a Jason Nelson experience, and it was absurd, and refreshingly disorienting. The way it works in one sentence is you press a button on the right labeled “Death Spin” which throws the digital slot machine into motion, which shortly weaves together a 5 part narrative of your death  including post death happenings, as well as specific and absurd death realities and you can only find the right one if you satisfy the game’s criteria that is, you must have fewer than 10 death credits to stop. I stopped with 2 death credits and therefore could not continue to “forecast my death.” I was left with an interesting post death detail: “And sperm you donated in college accidentally impregnates a tornado victim.” Even though the author is now dead, (brutally murdered by Engl376/508  a few classes ago), I can’t help but wonder about Jason Nelson’s intentions for this piece of new media art. He seems to have an attraction to the absurd in his work, and I think that dark humor is also a component as well; I feel like he wants me to bask in the rays of confusion that the death machine generates. However, thinking of Nelson as the author allows me to make more sense of the piece; it lets me place the work in a grounded time. Therefore, maybe I should not be thinking of him at all, and truly embrace the full reduction to absurdity by participating in the slot death free of authorship; as a separate entity of the internet world capable of transporting me to a place where I can ponder paradox and existential questions. I thought about making a narrative map of the many possible death sequences, but then also questioned its effectiveness: is slot death meant to be unraveled? I don’t understand the death videos, but, they are a nice bonus to getting me to that special place.