SJ’s World

You’re just living in it

Exploring the evolution of interactivity between people and stories on the internet

In the age of the internet, a classic human practice has taken on a brand new form- or forms. Digital storytelling- a phrase which usually refers to stories told using computer-based tools, but which I take more loosely to include stories made and shared online- has given stories a new, more flexible shape. Nowadays, stories can be told in comments, in blogs, and in twitter threads. The options are virtually limitless, and innovation abounds. And while some may be tempted to look down their noses at stories told in the “reviews” section of an Amazon product, for example, I must insist that there is true value in digital storytelling.

Not only does the diversity of digital storytelling mean that storytellers have more forms to select from when telling their stories, but overall, digital stories are often more accessible and more easily consumable than are traditional stories. And moreover, just as the internet has increased connectivity among people, it’s also afforded us a new level of interactivity between stories and people- so much so that, on occasion, we become storytellers ourselves, drawn into the creation of stories we didn’t even know were being written.

Obviously, sharing stories online increases accessibility by opening stories up to a much larger potential audience. Thanks to the internet, stories are always at our fingertips, no more than a Google-search or a Twitter-scroll away. But moreover, the internet does storytellers the great favor of constantly inviting readers in. Thanks to more recent developments in technology like cookies and algorithms, audiences are constantly invited to engage with more storytellers, and to consume more stories. The internet is always prompting us, offering up content like a gift- “here, I found this for you. It’s similar to the other things you like.”

Digital stories are also often more easily consumable. Some forms- like a Tiktok video or a Twitter thread- are more easily consumable because they are brief, taking up only a few minutes of your time, if that. Their brevity is practically an invitation to read or watch just one more- and 30 minutes later, one finds themselves still scrolling. For other forms, it’s the mixed-media format which makes them more consumable. Stories told through both pictures and words, like an Instagram post for example, are perhaps more easily consumable than stories which rely on the use of just one or the other.

Not to mention, the diverse forms of digital storytelling allows authors more options when it comes to selecting a form which best suits their stories, or best delivers their message. A poem about the ephemeral quality of memory might, for example, be delivered in a file that self-destructs after being read, thereby making the poem as transient as the poet thinks memory is. Authors can even invite readers into the story. Interactive narratives- like Photopia or Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch- allow audiences to step inside of the stories they consume, to navigate a new world, and even direct the outcome of the story.

It is also worth pointing out that some digital platforms force storytellers to hone in on one specific element of their craft. In an interview, Teju Cole, an innovative writer known for his Twitter fiction, says “Twitter engages the part of me that makes sentences… When you’re
writing fiction and longform prose, you think about the best sentences, of course, and you work on them. But when you’re tweeting, the sentences are isolated, they’re naked, and so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work.”
It’s interesting to me that a non-traditional, digital medium for storytelling actually forces a writer to grow in ways that a traditional, non-digital medium might not (or might not to the same extent).

Three Decades of Digital Storytelling: A Four Story Review

For this article, I’ve selected four digital stories to review and discuss, each of which leverage digital forms to engage their audience and drive home the theme of the story.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

Of the four digital stories I selected, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) is far and away my favorite- and I think it’s the most artistic of the bunch. The work consists of a poem by William Gibson, which was stored on a floppy disk, and then hidden inside a physical book made by artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Sounds simple enough, but here’s where things get interesting: when the floppy disk is played, it scrolls through the entire poem once before self-destructing; at the end of the poem, the entire file encrypts itself, and the poem vanishes. So too, do the pages of the physical book; the pages were treated with chemicals that caused each page to permanently fade as soon as exposed to light.

The poem itself follows the story of Gibson’s youth, as well as his father’s. In the first of the poem’s six sections, the speaker (presumably Gibson) finds a photo album dating back to 1919, full of photos taken and captioned by his father. The photos follow his family’s story, and the speaker painstakingly describes each photo and reads each caption- or, what remains, as much of the album has faded into obscurity.

My favorite part of the poem comes in the second verse, with these lines:
“The shutter falls
Forever
Dividing that from this.”

Now, in the actual poem, these lines aren’t punctuated. As a result, there are two ways to read these lines. We could first read them as: “The shutter falls, forever dividing that from this.” Read this way, the lines speak to the camera’s (the mechanism’s) role in creating memory, however transient. Or we could read them, as is my preference, as: “The shutter falls forever, dividing that from this.” Read this way, the lines highlight the constant turning over of present into past, faded and gone.

The brilliance of Agrippa comes directly from its form as a digital story. In the poem, the central idea is that the present is an inherently ephemeral thing, already fading. When we try to capture the present- in memory or in photograph- we find, sooner or later, that ephemerality is a catching thing; whatever you try to capture the ephemeral with becomes ephemeral itself. Photos and memories are destined to fade, just like the past. Notably, literature is not typically an ephemeral thing. Since the invention of the printing press, great works have been (somewhat) easily copied and distributed, without anything being lost. But through digitalization, Agrippa becomes an inherently ephemeral piece of literature. By the time the file starts scrolling, the poem has already started vanishing. By its end, the audience is left with only a memory (also fading) of the poem, just as Gibson is left with only fading memories of his past, as well as his father’s.

“Photopia”

Released in 1998, “Photopia: is an early attempt at computerized interactive fiction, developed by Adam Cadre. The work, which the audience interacts with much like one does with a video game, presents several intersecting stories, and is told non-linearly. In the midst of each chunk of the story, the reader is allowed to direct the story, in a sense, by giving basic commands such as “Examine,” “Go North,” or “Talk.” Eventually, by giving the computer the right commands, the chunk of the story ends, and you are rather jarringly thrown into the next chunk (denoted by a fresh page, and text in a new color).

Some of the mechanics of the game were quite frustrating for me. At times, it was difficult to communicate with the game in a way it could understand. At other times, I struggled with finding the “solution” to the scene. One scene in particular (the garage scene, for those who have played the game) had me nearly bashing my head against the wall, as I struggled to step outside of the garage (the direction controls from other scenes had been deactivated for this scene). This struggle took me entirely out of the story, whereas most interactive fiction I’ve experienced is much more absorbing.

Mechanics aside, I struggle with “Photopia” insofar as it is labeled interactive fiction. True, the digital aspect of developing a story through commands is interesting, but in truth the impact of those commands is so limited. The reader may be able to tell characters where to move, or to pick up a shovel, but it is impossible to shape the game in any meaningful way when there is only one possible ending to each story chunk, and to the game overall. That, combined with the somewhat challenging mechanics of the game, almost make me wish that this story hadn’t been digitized. I think I may have been more absorbed and appreciative of the plot had I not been so taken out of the story.

Teju Cole’s “Seven short stories about drones”

Published on Twitter, Teju Cole’s “Seven short stories about drones” was, without a doubt, the digital story which challenged me the most throughout this review project. The work, which consists of 7 tweets, makes use of the succinct nature of Twitter/tweeting to highlight the devastation caused by drone strikes.

The first tweet opens with a familiar sentence from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” As a big fan of Mrs Dalloway, my brain was immediately expecting some sort of excuse for the housemaid, who already has enough to do in preparation for the party. But instead, I was met with Cole’s twist in the next sentences: “Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.”

Each of Cole’s seven stories shares an opening line with highly revered novels, from Moby Dick to Things Fall Apart. And, just like in the first tweet, each of these famous first lines is followed by destruction- Ishmael is immolated, Buck Mulligan is bombed, Josef K. is killed by a Predator drone. And that’s it- story over.

Like I said, this set of digital stories challenged me. Initially, I found the project a bit plagiaristic and gimmicky. It seems cheap to rob a classic novel of its first sentence, only to bring down destruction on the story- but that’s exactly what makes Cole’s stories work. Cole’s tweets are genius because they employ drone strikes against our classics. We are forced to consider, for a moment, the destruction of entire worlds- worlds which are familiar and loved. The loss is profound and deeply felt, just as is the loss caused by actual drone strikes.

It’s important to note that Cole’s project wouldn’t be as effective had he carried it out on any platform other than Twitter. When we read tweets, we expect brevity, we expect an entire story in 280 characters or less (at the time of publication, the character limit per tweet was half that, at 140 characters). It is this brevity, partnered with the figurative drone strike, which tells us the story is over, done, completely destroyed. The stories are also available through The New Inquiry, where each story is numbered, and the entire project is published as a list. Published in this way, I don’t think the stories work as well. There’s a certain finality missing in #1-6, as the list continues on. And so, it is the medium of the stories which delivers the meaning of the story.
Overall, Cole’s Seven short stories about drones stands as an excellent example of the ways platforms like Twitter can be leveraged to add meaning to stories.

The NYT’s Homestyle Spaghetti Carbonara Recipe Comments

In 2022, Todd Levin published “Reader Comments for The New York Times’ ‘Homestyle Spaghetti Carbonara’ Recipe.” I found the parody of a comment section to be an absolute delight, and a hysterical commentary on human behavior- specifically, how the human desire for connection paired with access to open internet spaces often results in a tendency to overshare, to speak a little too freely.

What interested me the most about this piece was the way it captured the unintentional interactions that so often arise on the internet. In the very first comment, “Angela” says “I followed the directions exactly, except for cutting the parmesan cheese in half because the amount called for in the recipe is insane and repulsive.” The comment, while tinged with humor, is not especially funny or even noteworthy. In the second comment, which is even plainer than the first, “kareem” notes: “Simple, and delicious as written. Tripled the cheese.” In isolation, neither comment is notable. But, taken together, the two comments become a funny little testament to the idea that you can’t please everyone, and yet everyone expects to be pleased. In other words, these two comments tell a story of their own, a story which wouldn’t exist if “chef dorothy” had commented before “kareem.” And isn’t that so fascinating? The internet almost becomes our co-author in stories we don’t realize we’re writing, stories that form out of the unintended conversation that sometimes happen when comments (or posts) appear in a sequence.

The Future of Storytelling

I think it’s fairly obvious that digital storytelling will never replace our more traditional forms of storytelling. Personally, nothing will ever beat curling up with a good book. Even my Kindle (which I cherish) cannot hold a candle to physical copies of my favorite novels.

That said, I do think digital storytelling will- and should- play a large role in directing the future of storytelling. Most notably, I’m interested to see how digital storytelling stands to open storytelling up to a broader range of people- both as audience members, and as authors. I think there’s a good chance that digital storytelling makes storytelling overall a more inclusive practice, and less of an echochamber. And that seems like a really, really good thing to me.