Category Archives: Social Network Services

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

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Cultural Stasis and Illusion of Modernism

The theoretical extent of the ‘digital menace’, typically described as a book-killer, has often be overrated, not to say generally mistaken, by common sense. Actually, the rise of new media in the Digital Age slightly affected the popularity of the the book as a medium and even more slightly the one of novel as a genre. Basically, Calvino offered a very wise advice when he introduced his «Six memos for the next millennium» stating that he trusted in literature and in its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools is able to do things that are otherwise undoable.
Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature has played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon, originally established in order to sell books online. Moreover, literature has found plenty of room in second generation web-based communities, even representing the main interest which very crowded web based communities of enthusiastic readers share through social network services, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads. When it comes to genres, such literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like ‘Estremistan’ as defined by Taleb in his book about The Black Swan, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment in which the novel definitely plays a hegemonic role.
So, the major environmental shift determined by the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, that looks pretty much in a good shape, and the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard. Predictions about the death of the novel, and eventually literature in general, were simply the wrong byproduct of historical approaches required to stress crucial turning points marking the transition into different, sequential stages of cultural evolution. Such frameworks necessarily periodize cultural phenomena so as to define linear scenarios in which previous stages are paradoxically explained on the basis of what follows.
Such linear continuum works as far as recent facts like, say, TV reality shows are embedded in a system entailing, say, ancient epics as if both phenomena wouldn’t be explainable apart from each other. Instead, the eventual cultural ‘meaning’ of Finnish Big Brother, say the second season broadcasted in 2006, perfectly fits even into a scenario in which Iliad or Aeneides have never been created. The opposite remark is equally true in terms that, say, the ancient Greek Tragedy doesn’t intrinsically  require to be assumed as part of an historical scenario leading to, say, current developments in electronic music.
From a novel-centered explanatory angle, cultural evolution looks like a very long period of stasis, in which events happen on a recursive basis. New genres and new media appear through such historical continuum but they seem to be unable to take over cultural hegemony. For instance, Keitai Shosetsu emerge as stories delivered on cell phones 140 kangis at a time, but they fatally end up in the top ten entries of best selling japanese novels. Readers of Harry Potter or Twilight sagas worldwide are victims of the novel as well.
Before such literary sensations appeared nobody would have bet a single penny on the chances of a novel for the youth to impact global mass markets as a cultural Tsunami right in the middle of the digital era. Cultural analysts would have rather take their chances on videogames like Tomb Raider or immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Such products are undoubtedly very popular, especially among youth on a global basis, still they convey a weaker emotional involvement in respect to characters and stories told through novels, which keep being more pervasive and deeply rooted into cultural systems.
To some extent such novel-based cultural stasis suggests that modern never happened. Rather, such abused category is a legitimate wish, an aspiration, a need which emerge on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes cultural products arise which seem very modern. Unfortunately, they are always suddenly followed by amazingly not-modern ones. The introduction of utmost silly category of post-modern just testify the typical inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.
For modernism to emerge as an actual outfall of cultural history we should probably wait for the novel to disappear, or at least to be marginalized. But how to kill the novel?  That’s probably the very question cultural engineers should be wondering about.

The Long Tail of Digital Shelves

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed by web culture and new media, literature played an essential part in the developing of groundbreaking commercial web based services as Amazon, originally established so as to sell books online. Moreover, literature found plenty of room in second generation web-based services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, aiming to facilitate interaction, creativity, sharing and collaboration. In some cases, literature even represents the main interest very crowded web based communities share through social network services, as aNobii, polarizing readers from Far East and South-Western Europe, and LibraryThing, mostly attracting readers from America, UK and India, smaller communities of english readers being even shared by Goodreads and Shelfari .

Such literary Social Network Systems make it possible for readers to upload on digital platforms the books they own, to provide personal comments and remarks and to interact with other readers according to their literary interests. That’s why a compared assessment of public data provided by such systems makes it possible to investigate the extent of literary canons from the vantage point of people self-identifying themselves as enthusiastic readers. Of course, being communities very plastic and unstable in terms of geographical distribution and linguistic identity, not to mention literary tastes of their members, the present assessment is very likely subject to dramatic changes in time. Still, some very general remarks may enlighten meaningful aspects of literary social network services that would eventually outlast plasticity and mobility of massive data provided by an equally plastic and mobile community of book-readers.

First off, interesting remarks emerge in respect of a crucial issue as the one concerning ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, literary canons established by enthusiastic readers uploading their books on digital shelves seem to stretch linguistic borders traditionally defining what national literature a novel, a poem, an essay, a literary work in general belongs to. Basically, ‘national identity’ seems to be lost in translation, being books indexed, discussed and ranked on the basis of the language they have been read in. Cultural identity of novels and other literary works is basically defined in reader-based terms, reshaping the very concept of ‘nationality of books’ so as to fit the global system of world literature. Local language-based systems «think globally and act locally», that is they glocalize themseves incorporating foreign books by means of translation.

Basically, social network services supporting bibliographical catalogues of books directly uploaded by readers credit translation as a major factor determining uneven globalization of literary canons. South-Western European and Far Eastern systems seem to be extremely permeable to literary works originally written in foreign languages. Incorporation of foreign items mostly apply to English franchised series as Harry Potter’s saga and The Lord of the Ring, or Dan Brown’s super-pop page-turners. Some more books may be accommodated into local systems, since they are perceived as universal masterpieces or because they eventually fill occasional voids. Rather, English hegemony in world literary systems seems to reflect in substantial autonomy, not to say factual isolation of English language-speaking global community and regional ramifications. Indeed, it just seems flexible enough to be incorporating a few unavoidable masterpieces from literary systems based on different languages. Such evidence seems to confirm remarks formulated by Roberto Antonelli (2000: 334-335) about strengths and weaknesses of ‘imperial’ anglo-american canon, a very powerful and effective one when it comes to pervasively invade other systems, but basically unable to self-globalize itself by acquiring foreign references.

Discussing the novel as a genre in search of his own identity, Thomas Pavel (2002, then 2006) observed that the list of nobel prize awarded authors in the last fifty years mostly include novelists from everywhere in the world, restating both the global extent of the genre and his crucial position in literary global system. Accordingly, and predictably, the vast majority of popular books owned and uploaded on digital shelves by socially networked readers are novels. Predictably, Harry Potter’s series by J. K. Rowling and The Lord of the Ring trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are amazingly popular on a global scenario, being featured among top 50 books in all far easter, european and american charts. This is of course due to franchise strategies based on popularity of blockbuster movies and reproduction of contents on all disposable platforms, exerting new convergence culture, as defined by Hanry Jenkins.

Dan Brown’s best sellers achieved the status of very global literary reference just on the basis of certified literary effectiveness, as other as in the case of literary sensations like Tuesdays with Morrie and The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruíz Zafón. Indeed, as it happens for franchised series, such books basically top every possible chart emerging from digital shelves featuring books uploaded by enthusiastic readers from Europe, America and Far East. Moreover, super-classic novels as O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, Das Parfüm by Patrick Süskind, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera are equally top ranked in every pop list. They basically emerge as masterpieces, that is typical specimina of the genre, and, accordingly, they play a crucial role in the global scenario.

Some other literary classics from the 20th century play a global role to a minor extent, being just very popular in some of the major communities, as in the case of 1984 by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (English, Spanish, Italian) or L’étranger by Albert Camus and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French, Italian, Spanish). Some novels play a crucial role in limited regional systems, as the ones by Daniel Pennac, mostly uploaded on Italian and french shelves or Isable Allende, very popular on Spanish and Italian. Popularity of many others is just limited to their original birthplace, as in the case of masterpieces by Italo Calvino and very popular ones by Stefano Benni in Italy. Likewise, novels by Yu Hua are on top of pop lists emerging from Chinese shelves, but keep been basically absent from international rankings, besides the amazing success of internationally acclaimed movies by Zhang Yimou they actually inspired.

So, the novel prevail as a genre and some novels prevail as paradigmatic specimina of the genre, the extent of their popularity being absolutely global. Still, popular novels are always included into library systems entailing plenty of unpopular other ones and of course, plenty of books that doesn’t seem to be very popular and are not novels at all. That is, single digital shelves typically feature popular novels side by side with unlucky ones and, of course, essays, scientific books, comics, gardening manuals or other references. Digital shelves basically reflect a dynamic, interactive idea of private libraries, conceived as networks of books interacting with each other to a variable extent. Since, literary canons are interactive systems based on mutual interaction of objects they include, they shouldn’t anymore be addressed as series of independent entries, that is lists of books to be read or included into syllabi, as the one proposed by Harold Bloom (1994). Indeed, they actually work like plastic networks to be surfed, their emergent meaning being defined by permanently mobile paths connecting single items, which identity and shape is not given once and for all.

Assumption of books as milestones of a static literary system has to be addressed as faulty and misleading, as far as the identity of novels, poems, literary works of any kind is defined by their interaction with readers and other books they read. Connective patterns subject to permanent plastic reshaping, questioning status, position, presence of single literary works. For instance, Raimbaud’s Une saison en enfer plays a different role into reader-specific literary systems entailing Petrarca’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta and Elliot’s Waste Land rather than, say, Wedding Season by Katie Fforde or To Hell in High Heels by Helena Frith Powell. Since the same point apply to every single literary work uploaded into a digital library, every shelf can be basically addressed as an interactive system, defining the meaning of any item it features in terms of actual or potential connections with any other listed one and they all together.

Novels are sunk into systems which borders are designed so as to include essays, memories, philosophical investigation as comics or cookbooks. Moreover, pop books are integrated into digital shelves in which readers uploaded very peculiar, individual readings that are not very popular at all. In this sense, literary canons entailed by digitally shelves have to be addressed as long-tailed systems, in the terms described by Chris Anderson in his very popular works about The Long Tail, his book being even featured as #17 in the aNobii Semplified Chinese top list and #89 in the English one! The concept has been originally coined in a ground-breaking Wired article aiming to describe niche market strategy introduced by business companies as book-based one Amazon, realizing significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.

Literary canons emerging from digital shelves may be addressed as long-tailed systems both in terms of being based on shelves featuring a few very pop books and plenty of peculiar, not-very-common other ones and in respect to the bottom-up process they arise from. Indeed, according to Anderson, the group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or ‘non-hit’ items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail. Likewise, ‘non hit’ Italian housewives as Australian free-climbers or Chinese accountants, or anybody else who may like to upload his library on a digital shelf, are basically contributing in defining plastic contemporary canons of World Literature with their own likings and personal options. If literary social network services will keep growing, future canons would hardly just depend on cultural strategies planned by critics, intellectual, academicians belonging to prestigious institutions, neither on marketing-based ones established by publishers, agents, editors, authors or journalists.

Needless to say, being the game still up and running, these very general remarks just aim to provide a first assessment of slowly emerging and self-defining system of World Literature from current point of view of digitally competent book readers. Present appraisal may be compared in the future with updated ones, so as to measure and assess variation in the literary system through time. Further investigations may even very interestingly focus on locative-sensible data, eventually describing very small local systems in respect of the general one. Moreover, emphasis on long-tailed systems may help in re-defining current literary systems as by identifying peculiar patterns of co-recurrency of clustered books on digital shelves, even taking into account locative and linguistic pertinence.

Still, even a very general assessment allows to conclude that literary social networks seem to be providing some interesting answers to the ‘problem’ of World Literature, as Franco Moretti (2000) properly defined it. In particular, collaborative nature of web 2.0 services and communities makes it possible to quickly embrace relevant segments of ‘the great unread’, as Margaret Cohen (1999: 23) defined the huge amount of literary leftovers stockpiled into analogical libraries. New paths for literary criticism emerge, while communities of readers keep sharing individual readings, so as to make it possible for everybody to surf through millions of books instead of sticking with the few hundreds listed in syllabi, histories of literatures, anthologies, typical canon in general. Indeed, huge amounts of typically unread books become part of global literary system and regional ramifications as far as occasional readers upload them on digital long-tailed shelves.

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Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with accurate data, will be published on the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo» 10/1 (2007). I am largely in debt with Alessandro Lanni, who introduced me to Convergence Culture and the Long Tail, Sergio Brunori for all the help with Chinese books, Christa Zacchei, who introduced me to aNobii, Nicoletta Costantini for plenty of suggestion helping a better understanding of literary social networks.

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Bibliography

Anderson, C. 2006
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, New York, Hyperion.

Antonelli, R. 2000
Il canone Nobel, in «Critica del Testo» 3 (2000), pp. 321-336.

Bloom, H. 1994
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Cohen, M. 1999
The Sentimental Education of the Novel, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

Jenkins, H. 2006
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

Pavel, T. 2002 then 2006
Il romanzo alla ricerca di se stesso, in Il romanzo. II. Le forme, a c. di F. Moretti, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp. 35-63, then reprinted as T. Pavel, The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology, in The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes, ed. by F. Moretti, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 3-32.

Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments

Philology and criticism usually apply to literary works that have been written and published or documented literary systems as actual genres. That is, literary studies typically focus on past or present state of the art but they hardly offer predictions, prefiguring forms that will play a role into the future development of cultural landscapes. Making a remarkable exception in respect to the norm, the present contribution aims to forecast potential development in storytelling based on locative media. That is, as part of a more general inquiry on the Ecology of the Novel and Hybrid Ecologies, it will investigate potential literary applications based on Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS) or similar geotagging standards.

People living in European cities are very familiar with tourists looking puzzled while trying to figure out why they spent a couple of paychecks to find themselves speechless in front of a pile of old stones or a very long marble sculpted pillar, say the Colosseo or the Colonna Traiana in Roma. By labeling perceived items with annotations, guidebooks and tour guides aim to orientate, to locate tourists by regulating their sensory experience of the landscape. In a looser way, the contextual reading of novels taking place in the very same place a traveler is visiting complements the sensory experience with narrative reference. Indeed, descriptions of urban or natural landscapes define potential ‘presences’ triggering a variable amount of action potential. So, bidirectional flow connecting narrative references and actual perception define an hybrid ecology, making it possible to inhabit natural landscapes by means of stories and, conversely, causing environmental features to trigger resonance of narrative references. That’s why the interplay of narrative contents and environmental experiences supported by locative technologies potentially allows a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and the environment through narratives.

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In a few years narrative artists and storytellers’ communities will be likely writing or taping stories to be broadcasted by locative media mining 2.0 websites for contents delivered by Location-based media on GPS or GIS enabled portable wireless devices. Textual narratives as podcasted stories will will invade laptop computers and mobile phones, providing readers and listeners with pertinent references or analogical interferences aimed to enriching natural environments. Presences triggered by the mirror matching of references entailed by symbolically encoded narratives, both in audio and written text formats, will invade urban and rural environments, forests and deserts, islands and hills, mountains and beaches, enhance the sensory experience of perceived landscapes. So, questions arise. What formats may be forecasted as the standards ones when it will come to the implementation of socially shared narrative art with locative tagging? Will these new narrative standards reshape interactions between subjects and environments?

While providing a permanently operative level of interaction between narrative contents and natural environments, geotagged stories will likely play a crucial role in a very fragmented and user-oriented literary system. Still, the rise of socially-networked locative narratives will hardly doom the novel to marginality, not to mention extinction. As an unifying, very generalist mainstream narrative point of view establishing the very parameters of how so-called ‘reality’ is supposed to work, the novel will outlast the next technological revolution as it did with previous ones. Potential evolution of novels may imply geocoded editions of both classic ones from the past and brand new ones intentionally developed so as to fit and be implemented into locative media. Such a process may be supported by further locatively implemented releases of wireless digital readers such as the Sony PRS-500 or Amazon’s Kindle.

However, new plastic forms will very likely arise. For instance, locative Keitai Novels, or different systems, eventually exerting collaborative web-logging tools as comments and annotation systems alongside locative technologies and defining new borders for narrative art. Certainly, web 2.0 communities of narrative artists may play with landscapes, tagging them with stories providing peculiar, literary affordances of geocoded environmental features. Being part of a community may imply writing, annotating and commenting on locatively tagged stories, that is sharing a peculiar perception of natural environments or cityscapes marked by narrative tags. In addition, being the node of a given network may entail the embracing and the adoption of peculiar locative tags to be applied to shared narratives. Both the sensory assessment of places and the reading of stories will very likely be part of an integrated, plastic, ever changing immersive experience, redefining the whole concept of storytelling and human presence in the environment at the same time. Policy-makers would eventually be required to avoid that the array of disposable geocoded stories may cause “narrative pollution”, infesting as undesired spam both the individual and collective ecological interplay of people and landscapes.

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Aknowledgments

The full paper on «Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments: Narrative Art in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media», a first draft of a potential contribution to a collection of studies about Hybrid Ecologies, has been originally presented at KERG in Tallinna Ülikool, Tallinn, Estonia. Some of the topics have been discussed during the Mobile City workshops (Rotterdam, NAI, Feb. 27-28 2008).