Storytime on the Interwebs

January 14, 2011 | building43

Guest post by Venkatesh Rao.

About a year ago I noticed that the cool kids weren’t saying “Web” or “Internet” anymore. They were saying “Interwebs” and “Internets.” One of my hipster friends had a status line going on his Gmail Chat: “I hear you like Internets?”

Anytime I see something odd like this pop out of the zeitgeist, my spider-sense starts tingling.  I am not talking about who coined the term or what they intended (I am sure there’s a couple of origin myths out there), but rather why it caught on.

Social mysteries aren’t interesting in the whodunit sense, but in a whyitcaughton sense. Is this a randomly amplified bit of pop-culture noise or a clue in a bigger mystery?

As it turns out, “Interwebs” is the perfect term for framing our experience of the Web today as an intricate mesh of play and storytelling that is enacted across many media and modes, an experience that is characterized primarily by its plurality.

Inhabitation and a Plural Web

Engineers generally come up with platonic, conceptual names for things that reflect the core architectural ideas that enable the continuous evolution of the Web. But when things catch on, actual users create a richer, more evocative language based on how they are using these things in life.

For example, engineers invented database-driven sites that allowed programmatic content updating and called it the “Dynamic Web.” But users turned it primarily into “e-commerce” and we got Amazon and eBay. Engineers called it “user-generated content” but users shaped it into the “blogosphere.”  You can analyze other pairs of engineering/market names the same way.

But sometime the zeitgeist leads, rather than follows, what engineering enables.

Such, I believe is the case with “Interwebs.” The World Wide Web is an old idea – Interwebs is much more accurate, today.

But the public Web is a single interconnected place, right? Why pluralize it?

We know that there are at least two ways in which the Web is a plural place. First, there are actual soft technological boundaries between certain parts of the Web (Google can’t peer into Facebook effectively; the real-time stream is sort of a different continent from the Web of “pages.”)

And second, there are patterns of use. Most of us visit only a handful of sites regularly, and even our search patterns are predictable. Communities form around similar patterns of use on the Web — and entrepreneurs come up with ideas to serve those communities, creating a virtuous cycle of self-organization.

I haunt the tech blogpsphere, while my wife knew about, and started using, Groupon and Living Social long before I did. I dislike and rarely use smart phones, while she spends a majority of her Web time on her Blackberry.

We literally inhabit very different Webs in a plural reality that contains thousands of others.

Storytime on the Web

So what are plural, interconnected and dynamic “mesh” experiences? They’re…stories. The Interwebs are really just a new kind of collective storytime.

But let’s first ask the basic question, what exactly is a story? Storytelling is a very natural instinct, and my favorite example is this heartbreakingly cute video of an adorable little French kid improvising a story about Winnie the Pooh (http://vimeo.com/14484159).

In the story, things just happen for no apparent reason, new characters appear, more events happen. It doesn’t all get tied up into what we adults think of as a story, and as a result, we’re captivated – the child’s creative freedom – audacity, even – hooks us.

Keith Johnstone, in his classic on improvisational storytelling and theater, Impro, explained how more sophisticated adult storytellers can manage to still tell captivating stories that stick (and sell) even if there isn’t a cute five-year-old involved.

How?

To start, you need that same child-like real-time improvisation to create the raw material. You need to bring in unexpected new elements to drive the story forward.

Johnstone offers the example of a “child-like” narrative: a man is being chased by a bear and he gets to the shore of a lake. He finds a boat, gets in, rows to an island, where he finds a beautiful woman….

The problem with this story is that the bear is now forgotten and the focus has shifted to the man and woman. “Child-like” can be detrimental to a story too.

What will keep the momentum developing is bringing the bear back. In his case, the bear catches up while the man is on the island interacting with the woman.  Aha! Now you’ve got two conflicts in play. Man must escape bear. Man and beautiful woman must interact in some way.

So, what does this have to do with the Web?

Simple: the real-time Web is like the French child’s story. It just goes on and on, forgetting what came before. It lacks a developing context.

When my sister and I were kids, she used to ask apparently odd questions about scenes in movies. Say two people are chatting over tea on the screen. Cut to a scene where one of them is no longer holding a tea-cup. My sister would ask, “What happened to the teacup?”

The answer is, “Who cares?”

Presumably the character put it down, and somebody later washed it. It doesn’t matter. If the teacup were significant, the storyteller would usually foreshadow events to come by noting it without explanation (such as a close-up shot of the cup after the people have left the room; perhaps signaling a potential poisoning).

So context is not merely about retaining developing momentum, it is about doing so selectively. You have to decide what is significant in the story.

How do we lend momentum, over time, to what is significant on the Web today? How do we keep the bear in the story?

There’s a final aspect to storytelling that’s missing in the little girl’s story and that is part of every masterful narrative: a sense of purpose, a drive to closure and resolution.

Stories also contain intent.

The bear wants the man. The man wants the girl (and actually, in Johnstone’s example, the bear wants the girl too). Until all that is resolved, the story isn’t over. Intentions must either be realized or fail to be realized, and we must learn how the characters react to the outcome.

This is, of course, all old news to storytellers. All wannabe scriptwriters learn about Joseph Campbell and apply it to screenplays. Journalists talk about the tempo of different news cycles.

Intent and Context for Information Organization

Stories aren’t just fun and games, or even about fiction. Stories are information-processing constructs. Any time a pile of information grows too big, complex and unwieldy, the only way you can make sense of it is to tell a story.  When the information concerns real events, people and facts, you still need stories. Plural.

We have no choice but to tell stories.  And everyone will tell a different story, by nature and by design. And these different stories will cluster into recurring patterns (there are theories of narrative that propose anywhere between 7 to 40 “basic” narrative patterns).

A powerpoint deck is a story. A sales pitch is a story. A software use case is a story. A Q&A thread on Quora.com is a story. In each case you have a purpose (intent), a context (a mental model of what’s relevant), a tempo (real-time movement and ongoing situation awareness), and a narrative structure.

That last bit involves both necessary bits of logical sequencing as well as aesthetic choices: juxtapositions and non-essential sequencing decisions.

The non-essential bits imply non-canonicity. Unless there is a priest holding a gun to everybody’s head, a single story cannot be enforced on a collection of information.

Narrative and Tempo

The Web is full of nascent stories. If you collect a bunch of bookmarks to plan a vacation, there is a story in your head that hasn’t been told.  If you collect a bunch of industry reports and news stories about a technology trend and email the links to your boss, there’s a story to be told there.

Half the stuff you pay attention to on the Web are actually part of some story in your head. Or in the collective heads of multiple people.

What sort of storytelling is this? The key is in the narrative tempo at work. The Web exhibits information evolution at all temporal scales. Big, consequential trends that evolve over years, with significant twists and turns every couple of months, and fast-paced stuff that spans a few hours, with important things happening every few minutes.

“Real time” here is a red herring. Only raw data moves around in real-time.

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and span a window of past, present and future.

Sometimes things are predictable, and the story runs faster than real time, via anticipation of predictable events and knowledge of intent. And sometimes the story lags when too much real-world chaos forces the sense-making to lag behind.

High-tempo storytelling on the Web gives us things like Storify and Dipity. These are the treble notes.

Lower tempo storytelling gives us Trailmeme, the product I manage, which is perhaps best thought of as a visual way to map the Interwebs, one piece at a time.  The bass notes.

Both are essential.

It’s like live commentary versus post-game analysis. In one case, an expert helps you make sense of what’s happening as it happens. And later other experts rearrange and retell the story with 20/20 hindsight, and situate it in the context of the longer-term past (historical games) and the expected future (games to come).

Back to the Interwebs

So that’s what an “Interweb” is. A pattern of use with content, temporal and social dimensions, that evolves, lives for a while, and dies or morphs into something else.

Each is defined by a narrative. Within each narrative there are multiple stories playing out at different tempos.

Each Interweb is a collection of stories that bleeds into other nearby stories, creating an overlapping matrix of micro-grand-narratives. An idea of a living, breathing culture that is always surprising us, always outpacing us. The whole is a vast, illegible warren that is constantly rearranging itself, rather than a grand public plaza.

Welcome to the Interwebs!

Venkatesh Rao is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Xerox, where he manages trailmeme.com. He blogs at ribbonfarm.com.

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{ 3 comments }

Jonathan Volk January 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

I agree with Deen. Social Media which seemed to of great benefit allowing people to connect is actually pushing us away by eliminating the physical contact and communication because at the end of the day you are talking to your screen either its your desktop, laptop or pda.

Deen January 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Check out my post for #postaweek2011 about have social media taken over our social life at http://ksheriffdeen.wordpress.com

Venkat January 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm

For those who are interested in the “warren” and “plaza” concepts in social design, the terms were coined by social UX designer XIanhang Zhang in this excellent post:

The Evaporative Cooling Effect.

His blog is well worth reading for those interested in these ideas. Among the most original thinkers on these matters I’ve encountered.

Venkat

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