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Narratives and Identities in a Produsage-Based Environment?

After my guest lecture at the University of Lincoln the other day, one of the students, David Lawson, sent me an email with a couple of very thoughtful questions. I thought I might as well answer them publicly - further comments are, as always, invited...

After thinking about your lecture and how it may relate to the work that I'm doing, I saw the connection. The new publishing mode that you propose, 'produsage', throws up the question of Does this model better fit today's society, with relation to people's attraction to media that has no set narrative trajectory? If users are finding, contributing to and distributing the news then where is the narrative structure of this medium?

Good question. I think that much more work needs to be done to explore the network as a framework for narrative. Traditional narrative structures (whether in fiction, in news, in academic essays, or elsewhere) are necessarily linear because that's what appears to make most sense in oral narration or printed texts. So, there's the standard exposition-conflict-resolution model for narrative structure.

As far as non-fiction goes, though, this linear model isn't necessarily the best for presenting facts - most non-trivial topics (say, the causes of World War 1) arise from a complex combination of facts, and by pressing their description into a linear framework we are likely to overplay certain aspects or claim a simple causality which doesn't fully represent the topic (for example, the shooting of the Austrian Archduke might have triggered WWI, but certainly isn't its primary cause).

So, I'd suggest that a non- or at least less linear, networked structure for presenting and connecting facts might be more appropriate and more effective in the long run (even though, after half a millennium of printed texts, we're very unaccustomed to this kind of non-linear presentation). Of course, that's what hypertexts including the Web can do very well (and what wikis do perhaps even better, if on a smaller scale). Individual pages in the hypertext might still follow a linear structure, but they're now massively interlinked and interconnected, enabling readers to make their own way through the material (by following links, at their own discretion) rather than following a course pre-set by the author of a book or other long-form text.

News is a particular culprit in this regard - news reports are very thoroughly pressed into a linear framework, mainly for operational reasons. This is what's called the inverted pyramid - present the most important information at the top, and then follow on with progressively less important stuff -, and it's been done originally because it enables editors to cut the article or audiovisual report if there wasn't enough column space or airtime for it, without losing the most important facts. Additionally, news is usually based on a conflict narrative (left vs. right, establishment vs. protesters, etc.) because a 'good story' is believed to be more attractive to audiences. (I think I said this in the lecture - global warming, for example, only becomes reportable when there's a conflict between believers and sceptics; if everyone agrees that it's happening, there's the sense that there is no story for journalism to report.)

Especially in the context of news, though, this cuts out a great deal of important background information, and introduces apparently simple causal links where in reality there are a number of complex interconnected reasons for an event. (You could compare news stories just before the start of the Iraq war - when according to the news the main reason for the war was that Saddam had WMDs - with the Wikipedia entry about the war, which I bet would include links to a very wide range of other entries going back as far as the start of the last century, or further. I realise that the Wikipedia entry has the benefit of hindsight, but I imagine the page history would show that even at the time it listed a far more complex set of causes for the war.)

It would require a great deal of adjustment from audiences, but a network-based form of news reporting would provide them with a far more in-depth understanding of not just what's news, but what's behind the news... (Have a look at my article in Scan Journal, if you like, where I make that argument in more detail and use Wikinews as an example for the failure to make that change.)

I'm also looking into stable identities and their relationship with set narrative media such as newspapers, and the evolution of unstable identities with its relationship with unset narrative media such as the internet. I discuss this by using the work of Sherry Turkle, MySpace as a case study, and blogging as a point of special interest.

It's been a while since I've dealt with online identity in any detail, so I'm not going to claim much expertise here. I would say that I think online identities are necessarily so unstable, though - without wanting to claim that they're schizophrenic, they might be multiple rather than unstable (I may exhibit a different online identity in an online discussion group that I participate in regularly than I do when I exchange emails with work colleagues, for example, or when I write my blog).

In themselves, however, these individual identities may well be entirely consistent - and this existence of a number of distinct identities for distinct communicative contexts may simply mirror offline life, too (you act differently in class than you do in the pub with friends than you do at home with family). That said, I do agree with you that the shape of these identities is influenced (though not determined) in good part by the ground rules of the communicative/narrative context - an individual blog, for example, privileges the author's voice (though some blog and similar spaces - such as Myspace, LiveJournal - are very much community-oriented), which is different from a collaboratively authored wiki entry, which is different again from the discussions in an email mailing-list.

Perhaps we could say that identities (online or offline) are shaped by the narratives which are available for them to take part in? (As a side-note: this is probably true most of all in immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games - MMPORGs like EverQuest - where narratives are now often very much left to the players to shape, and where participation in such narratives also directly shapes the player character...)

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