November 11, 2008
distributed collectivity: storytelling on twitter

In recent months, everyone has been abuzz about twitter fiction, from projects to broadcast Moby Dick, 140 characters at a time, to the recent collective re-enactment of the Orson Welles radio program War of the Worlds over Halloween, more and more people are looking at Twitter as a potential storytelling engine. This should come as little surprise. After all, we humans are narrative creatures. Storytelling is central to the construction and articulation of cultures, nations, social imaginaries, publics, counter-publics, relationships writ large and small. So it seems only logical that every new communication portal be tested for its narrative capacity.

Less interesting to me are the efforts to merely fragment narratives in 140-character chunks. As compelling as some of these projects are on an individual level, structurally they present a type of reformatting or, in some cases, adaptation. Though this has consequences on reception and the reading experience, it is not a radical reimagining of narrative structure. Distributed storytelling, on the other hand, draws together a number of different narrative traditions in a way that may, at least, provide a provocative way of thinking about narrative form.

In the recent War of the Worlds example, some estimated 600 participants got together and generated around 1500 tweets about what they envisioned to be happening around them as various events within the original narrative unfolded, so that as the tripods touched down, people were encouraged to generate local narratives and fill in gaps in the story. This process already draws heavily first on RPGs, in which people perform as individual characters within larger story worlds, as well as fanfiction, in which smaller narratives and reconstructions within one narrative canon expand out the core story. The explicitly collective nature of the undertaking brings to mind also ARGs and other forms of transmedia storytelling. Its length and accretive form also takes on elements of exquisite corpse. And finally, the incorporation of the medium, the vehicle through which the story is told, as part of the story, has been a long-standing practice ranging from epistolary novels to the original War of the Worlds broadcast.

Taken together, all of these elements, especially when paired with a "real time" unfolding of a story-act, creates not only a story world, but one which is ambiguous in its boundaries, where characters can enter and leave at will, in any direction. Though the framing events in War of the Worlds follow a classically linear trajectory, the original story is merely the facilitating mechanism in the storytelling effort, much in the way that the "games" within an ARG are the means to draw people together into a collective storytelling experience. The stories that explode out of the framing device have gaps, overlaps, contradiction, temporal inconsistencies, and all forms of delay, change, surprise. We are not only talking about a multilinear hypertext narrative, but rather an entire narrative ecology that potentially explodes the structure of how we, as a collective, tell stories.

For more information on collective storytelling on Twitter, check out Bryan Alexander and Alan Levine's article on web2.0 storytelling as well as the web2.0 storytelling wiki.

Josh Lewis also has a more general blog post on twitter fiction.

The War of the Worlds postmortem can be found at Ask a Wizard.



Thanks for this post! Another iteration of twitter storytelling that's been getting some attention is twitter FANfiction. The individual characters (many of them parodic) are likewise less interesting, but collaborative, emergent narratives can develop when an ensemble of characters converse RPG-style. Notable examples include Mad Men, Buffy, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica groupings (see this page for a partial list).

On November 22, 2008 at 2:00 PM, Xiaochang Li Author Profile Page said:

Hey, thanks for the link. We're definitely big fanfic buffs here at CMS, so that was one of the first cases we noticed (the Mad Men one in particular, since we have a lot of Mad Men fans around here, including Henry). It's unsurprising too that fanfiction communities were among the first to take up twitter as a means of expanding their story worlds, since fanfiction has long been a highly innovative and experimental arena for storytelling, especially formally.