Written to be changed: on project management and planning

Part of my postdoc duties at the CulturePlex Lab is managing the ongoing projects. To be fair this was already a big part of my RA job while I was still a candidate. The difference now, though, is that without the mental burden of the dissertation, a lot of my reflective thinking is going into how I can do things ‘better’ for the team and the projects, and what that ‘better’ means. So some of the factors that I’ve been considering are the things I believe to be hardest to deal with: deadlines, effective collaboration, and steady development of projects – plus a million little things embedded in each of those three and crossing over all of them. There is a lot of complexity and details within details just in the way projects get planned and many more as they move forward. Thus, I was immensely lucky when this weekend I found myself listening to Lynne Siemens talk about collaboration and project management at both the INKE project meeting and the inaugural gathering for the NYCDH group.

On Saturday, Siemens’s definition of a team as “a set of individuals who work interdependently and are jointly accountable for outcomes” clicked perfectly to how I want to think about project management. Collaboration requires a lot of “being a good colleague” personally (as in respectful and considerate) and professionally (as in committed to the team’s work) as Siemens herself explains in her “Reply all” article. Of course, the question coming out of this is whether ‘being a good colleague’ is something that happens organically or is it something that we can foster: the conclusion seems to be that collaboration does not just happen. Later on, during the coffee break we were talking about the difficulties of even planning for collaboration and how many times teams do not necessarily realize that someone (ideally someone who is not busy with everything else) needs to be facilitating team communication, monitoring project development, setting realistic and encouraging deadlines, etc.

From my experience in my current team and in others, I have observed how among members there might be a sense of overall and larger objectives and goals (publish a joint paper, organize a conference, get a grant, close a journal issue), but these might not be reflective of more immediate manageable ones. Furthermore, without a clear idea of how many steps (goals and objectives in their own right) are involved in achieving those things, it becomes close to impossible to split tasks, meet long term deadlines, and bring all of the projects’ components together into something people might be interested in. And as if that wasn’t enough, or perhaps at the bottom of it all, I have seen my own mesmerized look of confusion reflected on my colleagues’ when we are just unable to speak a common language.

In a hyperactive research team like the one I work with there are always many simultaneous projects, and they tend to feel equally urgent all the time, which we all know is, to say the least, a dizzying experience­. Immense doses of generous willingness (working on a Friday past 11pm) and a borderline healthy level of workaholism have always ensured that we finish projects, submit papers, get demos ready, etc. but I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been tense and scary moments when we weren’t sure things would work out. Because of the methodologies and approaches we follow we usually struggle with four key block stages: definition of the project (research questions, corpus and metadata design), data collection, bibliographic research and data analysis, and writing. Put in this way it seems pretty straightforward. The problem (that black hole feeling of academic work) comes when this process gets multiplied by ‘x’ number of projects –all deceivingly moving at the same time, and divided by ‘y’ number of team members – all equally busy.

This seems to be a recipe for a great nerve-racking “everything is due tomorrow”. Because of this, the question that’s been wandering around my head is: can project management strategies not only ensure project continuity and development but also make, at least, part of the academic stress go away? Or even, should project management concern itself with that or stick to the more ‘practical stuff’? I think it should aim to do both. And, of course, though I have no definitive answers to any of those questions, I do believe that the first step to be gentler on the emotional side of work while still being efficient and accountable and productive, is to prioritize projects differently, or better said, prioritize aspects of projects at different times, conclude manageable portions, and move on to the next – there’s always a next one. In order to do that, however, there needs to be a map taking into account both long and short term goals and deadlines and making it clearer for everybody where we should be focusing our individual and collective energies. I’m also convinced that every member of the team has to agree on and commit to such map so that both infrastructure and human resources are not taken up by less urgent projects – there’ll be time for them even if there’s no time. But, and this is the single most important lesson I’ve learned as a project manager, (and which was also discussed this weekend): it is key to manage change, or as Siemens put it “Keep Calm and Manage Change”. A map and a set of deadlines should not be taken as a sign of team or project inflexibility. In many cases, it might be a bit of a ‘wish list’ written down with the best intentions, but which will, without a doubt, change. Or even better, will be written to be changed.

Content or platform? What is making readers read differently?

Up to now I had mostly looked into the influence of readers who have commented on Orsai constantly. Though a small group, including Hernán Casciari, they keep the dialogue flowing and in many ways have been in charge of the project’s housekeeping, for example, teaching newcomers the community’s – ie. the project’s – organization, practices, and games. Some readers have crossed over and became authors published by Orsai: you can read about that here and here (both in Spanish)

As it usually happens, once one comes across a good dataset full of all kinds of information, it is impossible to analyze everything. One of the questions I have only started to explore is the exploration of the role of incidental readers. What do I mean by incidental? It refers to over half the total number of readers in my Orsai dataset (+6500) who have commented only once or twice over the +2 year period under analysis. Because of their huge variety, it turns out to be pretty much impossible to go and look at each one of them and see their particular relevance to the larger reader community and the whole project. In other words, isolated, incidental readers appear to have little impact over what goes on in Orsai: basically the only conclusion that I managed to get to was an unhelpful “there are a lot of readers who have commented throughout the years in a totally random way”. The only way to look at them significantly was as a whole, not paying attention to whether it was made by someone who comments a lot or a one-timer, and they do turn out to offer a rather different picture. So, with that in mind, data cruncher super hero versae and myself devised a visualization that orders all of the comments left in a particular post both chronologically and according to our own depth parameters (-20 words, -50 words, -150 words, +150 words). Depth parameters, though arbitrarily established sought to account for patters observed in close reading explorations of the comments. We tested three hypothesis, the first is whether comments increase in length – and thus depth – from a simply greeting, for example, into a text’s gloss, in a patterned way. The second hypothesis had to do with a higher recurrence of a given type of comment in one of the four publications media under consideration (Orsai Blog, Redacción, Bar, and Web Magazine). And finally, more a question than a hypothesis: is it content or platform that is directing readers practices in this project.

FreqsSamplesIn these visualizations comments are put together in groups of posts with similar numbers of comments. Apart from what we already knew – that Orsai and Redacción blogs are the ones which consistently get higher numbers of comments, the first hypothesis is partially confirmed as, with some exceptions, it is indeed shorter (-20 word) comments that tend to be posted first, usually right after the text has been published, and then there is an unordered progression in length-depth, but a progression nonetheless. The second hypothesis is quite clearly confirmed, and it is impressive how, proportionally, posts in the Web Magazine (i.e. magazine articles) get longer comments, i.e. even with a reduced number of comments, these tend to be longer than those in other publication media. These results seem to point to the fact that reader involvement is indeed much different according to content in otherwise ‘twin’ platforms like the blogs and the web magazine. By ‘twin’ I mean having the same sort of interactive feature: comments, meant to be read on a screen, and published periodically (print magazine articles were included in the web version daily during a couple of weeks after the print edition was shipped to subscribers). Furthermore, a scarcer but longer and arguably more thought-out reader involvement with the print magazine contents, even in its web version, suggests that readers are actually enacting the slower rhythm of reading associated with print materials. The question, however, still is whether that is something we can attribute to the publication medium or to readers expectations and historically ingrained practices.

P.S. This is likely the last post on Orsai and the remains of my PhD thesis dataset & project. Also, I will be presenting a fuller version of this project at the upcoming INKE NYC gathering.

The end of a project

Yesterday I successfully defended my thesis: the thesis that has been under development in this very blog for the last three years. Two days before, I emailed Casciari (the editor of the magazine I’ve been studying) telling him how my project had come to an end and thanking him for his support. I also said I wished Orsai a long life and many new facets.

One of the questions I was asked during the defense was how I thought the story of Orsai would end. I said I didn’t know, but the forward movement of the the narrative suggested that it’s aim was to go on and keep on mutating the same way it has in the past three years but that its sustainability depended on maintaining a healthy community of readers following and supporting it.

As it turns out, while I was answering questions at the exam, Casciari announced that the 16th issue will be the last. Part of the reason, Casciari explains, has to do with how Orsai has come to be “expected” – a washing off of the story, I would say. The other is, indeed, related to a decline in readership, at least the readership that sustains the project economically.

I can’t say I’m not saddened by the news. After all I’ve spent over two years thinking about Orsai and indeed, this feels like reaching the last pages of a long novel. In the end, however, it is also a bit poetical (and meta) that this happened right now as my own project came to a close.

 

 

A short dialogue with the Transmedia Manifest

A few days ago I noticed the nine-author Transmedia Manifest (2011) was going around in social media. It was Carlos Scolari – very much a pioneer in transmedia studies in Spanish language – who, I believe, fished it out again after twenty months since its original presentation and publication at the Frankfurt book fair. I remember going over it shortly after it was presented along with Jenkins’ and others’ ideas on transmedia storytelling. Today, my dear friend Susana González Aktories, with whom I’ve had very very long conversations about storytelling in media convergence reminded me of it. I re-read it nodding along the many many overlaps my characterization of interstory has with the transmedia storytelling model proposed by Jenkins, Miekle and Young, The Manifest, and others. Despite these overlaps, those reading my thesis (which I hope to make openly available as soon as it has been approved) will realize that I decided not to base my characterization of narrative in media convergence just on the transmedia model but to expand it to better suit the inner textual (though not just text-based) networkings of narrative. The reasons are subtle but, as I, of course believe, are worth exploring.

Transmedia Manifest

Image borrowed from original site.

1) The first is right in their logo, the authors’ use of the trope of ‘the future of…’, as they “propose eleven theses on the future of storytelling” (emphasis mine). All of the debates surrounding, books, literature, narrative, publishing, and media in general are way too concerned with what the future will look like. The problem is, these phenomena are already – and for a while have already been – happening in a most unstable and spontaneous manner. The futurist trope has always seemed to me damaging to the discussion and conductive of extreme positions leading to all kinds of stale binary debates (you chose which). Most importantly perhaps is that it is current narratives that are ‘test driving’ new models – at least new for now – which because of their very unstable and fluid characteristics can hardly be sketched as the path narrative is bound to follow. In his short study of the newspaper industry Clay Shirky, states: “old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place…. Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as… Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did” (28-9). I see a similar landscape in narrative, where many different models are being tried out and some of them, or some of their characteristics will become successful and some others won’t. The transmedia model has been gaining a lot of momentum, but that does not ensure its permanence.

If we take media convergence as the reigning principle of our current media ecology, why would we lean in favour of one particular narrative model, be it the transmedia model or any other? The media landscape seems rich enough to me to allow for the emergence and the permanence of other kinds of models. It, again, should not be thought to mean the supersession of narrative models existing previously, but establishing a continuum with all of them.

2) The issue of transmediality. Those of you following this blog for at least a year will have witnessed my struggle with the concept of medium. Any discussion of transmedia storytelling has to come with a definition of medium as clear as possible. In the manifest this is not present and I’m left wondering if they mean semiotic, channel of communication, cultural practice, other kind, all of them?

I believe that a narrative model in media convergence has to include all of them. A particular kind of channel of communication might likely involve certain semiotic material(s) proper to it or shared with others, and thus require distinct practices. This is the main reason why, though my concept of interstory is closely related to transmedia storytelling, it also diverges from it inasmuch as a shift in devices, semiotic material or cultural practices necessarily entails a transformation of all the others. Media convergence is not just transmedia, it is also intermedial.

Because of the very rhetoric characteristics of a manifesto, The Transmedia Manifest is both descriptive and suggestive, and does a great job at being provocative and non-authoritative. It invites dialogue and further development into the ideas proposed there and as any product and insight of our times is fluid, mashable, unstable. I would’ve love to see the manifest allow for more interaction with its readers other than just the possibility of signing it.

The presentation of the manifest is available in video in German.

Reference:

Shirky, Clay. “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Risk Management 56.3 (2009): 24–29. Print.

With or without readers

OrsaiColores

Clear author-text-medium relationships.

 

Do you remember how clear my Orsai graphs were?

Well….

Not anymore.

Now, I call it the Orsai mess.

But before you see it, here’s an introduction of what happened.

The graph above includes only the ‘input’ from authors and editors, and is organized according to what medium they were published on (Orsai Blog, Bar Blog, Redacción Blog, Web Magazine, and Print Magazine). This is, so to speak, the text, the narrative of the project and, as any narrative, it relies on a million different strategies aimed at producing a reading effect. Well, in the case of Orsai, it is also a buying effect, otherwise all kinds of bad things happen: authors don’t get paid, magazines don’t get delivered, people get angry and, in short, the project dies.

Well, all of that, as it can be read in the narrative (the graph) is clearly orchestrated and maintained. It is a well-oiled machine.

Then come the readers.

About 400 articles, 5000 readers and +40,000 comments

About 400 articles, 5000 readers and +40,000 comments

Studying the figure of the reader has always been messy. It has also always been my thing. From the earlier posts here, you’ll see that I’m interested in what happens when we read, on what happens when others read the same. Well, what happens when 5 thousand readers read the same? This happens:

This is what I *love* about the possibilities of reading in participatory media platforms. There are traces of people’s readings. And what I *love* about my project: I can study those traces, I can study ‘readings’. So in this case, the original dataset was sliced to leave only those ‘pieces’ with a commenting section enabled – only the print magazine pieces were taken out really. The figure of  the reader is considered not someone who reads Orsai, but someone who comments on Orsai.

Now, from whatever’s going on the the Orsai mess, for now I just want to mention that if we put together each article, blog post, chronicle, short story, and reader comment as one item, readers have produced 99% of that. This is only a +2 year project, and it amazes me how much it is both dwarfed and impossibly expanded by those who read it.

Imagine the possibilities!

*As always, many thanks to versae for all his help. And special thanks to Hernán Casciari for the huge dataset he so generously gave me.

CompLit & DH: some thoughts from the conference road

It would seem that an endless source of blog content is going to conferences. Two weeks ago it was HASTAC, this week it was the Comparative Literature Colloquium at UNAM in Mexico City. This occasion marked some sort of a homecoming for me.
Masterly co-organized by Dr. Susana González Aktories and Dr. Irene Artigas – the professor that taught me my very first undergrad class – the colloquium gathered many professors from my years at the Modern Languages College and the Literature Grad Program and other CompLit luminaries from the institution. The occasion also marked my return to an all literature audience since I started doing digital humanities, or so I thought. Instead I came across the fundamental reflection around questions such as what makes Comparative Literature distinct? Is there a methodology proper to it? How much it relies on collaboration? and how, in the middle of many and diverse interdisciplinary approaches, we manage to come back to literature? The discussion echoed much of the current debates in digital humanities and, I couldn’t help identify really, really closely with CompLit concerns as much as I do with DH. Even more, I wonder to what extent the discussion, so similar in both fields is, in fact, about what it means to, and how we can study humanities – literature in particular – in our days.

In my talk, I launched a provocation – which unfortunately didn’t get any replies for lack of Q&A time – that, in the present, we can no longer think of media (semiotic, platform, and the individual and social behaviors attached to them) as separate from all the others, but instead as complementary. In context, this idea only had to do with the narrative I’m currently studying. In the larger sense, however, it was also meant to appeal to the endless possibilities and complexities that literature itself seems to offer us within the text, of course, but also outside of it. The three-layered notion of medium, I think, offers an interesting branch leading up to different levels of interdisciplinarity to include other arts, diverse materialities and what people – authors, scholars and readers – do with all that. But really, the thought underlying this idea is that literature is way too multifaceted not to be approached from diverse perspectives. All of that has been taken advantage of by comparatists since the field was first instituted at UNAM, and by others like me: unaware comparatists.

In light of this, it is not difficult to agree with Dr. Angelina Muñiz-Huberman who proposed in the very first session that Comparative Literature is the locus of literary studies in the present. Interdisciplinarity and cross-pollination can only lead to unearthing some of literature’s complexities textual and otherwise. Her approach was echoed later on by many, but with special clarity by Dr. Gabriela García Hubard who sees CompLit as the place for exchange between not just different literatures, but also between literature and other disciplines. Benefits and affordances granted by the web and other digital technologies, even at UNAM where issues of institutional digital infrastructure are hard to navigate, were also part of Gracía Hubard reflection as avenues of current research.

As a matter of fact, many of the projects that were presented during the conference have a substancial digital component. Most notable among them and the one that brought us together, the new website for the Comparative Literature Graduate Program. Far from being just an information site outlining the program, its aim is evidently to become a gathering place for both professors and researchers and students that honors the history of Comparative Literature at UNAM, aids in the development of current projects and paves the way for the future evolution of the field. Such a tool is not just an end product but a processual exploration of what goes on currently and how it feeds from the past. To take a quick glimpse of some of the information available on the website and the possible insights into what goes on in CompLit at UNAM I took the titles of all the MA and PhD thesis contained in the database and ran them through Voyant Tools. We might not be getting the most accurate idea of what some of the research lines are just from the titles, but we can see some recurrent authors, and larger scale topics, areas or approaches studied in roughly the last twenty years.

UNAM CompLit MA and PhD theses' titles.

UNAM CompLit MA and PhD theses’ titles.

Coming back to the correspondences between concerns of both CompLit and DH, it seems to me that both fields at UNAM are ready to start a theoretical dialogue regarding common practices, approaches and larger research questions. The result of this will, doubtless, be (as it was during the three days the Colloquium lasted) enriching not only to individual participants, but also to literary studies in general, especially when it comes to interrelations of methodologies, approaches, and diverse literatures produced not only around the world but also across time.

Where is the story?

Just got back from Toronto where I attended HASTAC2013 and had the chance to present a good chunk of my dissertation research and got a lot of good feedback. It was a really intense but productive weekend where I got to meet some very interesting colleagues, hear about amazing projects and even, surprisingly, find people who were into my own research! Thank you very much to all the organizers and participants for making it a great event!

I should also thank everybody that came to my presentation, and everybody that complimented my slides. I feel like I should say a bit about why I did them the way I did. More than making a statement on conventional softwares, the reason is I’ve been trying to give my presentations a more personal touch and a more organic sort of flow. The idea behind that is to use them both as aids to those attending the presentation but also aids for me to go along them more naturally. So for the past few months I have been experimenting with Paper and have managed a certain level of control over the handwriting and the drawing on the iPad. I especially like that the format is a small notebook and has really forced me to come up with concrete, to the point slides. Also, along the way I realized that it was weird that I was presenting the results of the empirical data in drawing, but went along with it just to be playful about the idea of visualization and representation. The really complex networks are definitely way beyond my level of proficiency on Paper. The one problem with Paper I had was that it does not allow to import other images into the notebook, so I had to export them into prezi instead and then put the slides together with the other images. The result, I thought was pretty neat, so I will probably try it a few other times during this Summer’s conference season.

Those following this blog from before will recognize much of what has been posted. For those just joining in, this might be a good introduction. I have tried to embed the slides into the post but failed miserably and time is pretty tight to go around twitching things here and there to make it work. So, instead, here is a link to the prezi that goes along with the text below.

 

Where is the Story? Textual and Social Network Analysis of Interstory

Interstory is characterized by one self-reflexive, interactive and immersive narrative delivered through different media platforms, and usually involving the ‘reading’ of different media. Because of the spreading out of the content, readers have a lot to do with the compilation, and in crowd-funded efforts the materialization – of the global narrative.

To understand a complex narrative and social phenomenon like this, I have explored Orsai a Spanish-Argentinian project deeply inserted in convergence media dynamics and truly benefitting from them as well. Through a very innovative distribution system including a currency of its own and print on demand, Orsai has reached not only the Spanish-speaking world but also the more ‘isolated’ Spanish-speaking communities around the globe.

The development of Orsai is also the narrative of Orsai. It started as Hernan Casciari’s personal blog in 2004, until 2010 when he associated with his life-long friend Christian Basilis to turn Orsai from a blog into a print literary-journalistic magazine. From here the project took the transmedia path morphing almost immediately into electronic Orsai in a variety of platforms: kindle, ipad and issuu, a publishing house and more interestingly a Bar. Through all of those changes the original blog, later on divided into three, remained a backstage where new developments, and media additions where narrated resulting in a highly self-referential and interlinked narrative. Through this period a large community was forming around the project – not necessarily interested in the magazine contents, but in Orsai as a story in itself. The reading community has made itself heard through the very simple yet powerful comments tool in the blogs and the web magazine. This has made the project quite successful and, impressively for such a grass-roots initiative, economically sustainable.

I have modeled this complex phenomenon in the following way: 5 media: print magazine, web magazine, 3 blogs amounting to a total 708 ‘pieces’ that include all articles, chronicles, short stories, blog posts, etc. published under the Orsai name. These texts have been written by 103 authors and have gathered the astounding amount of over 41 000 comments just in the period from 2010-2012. From the comments poured over the texts we have extracted a network of about 12 thousand readers many of whom not only comment on Orsai but arguably also buy any of the versions of the magazine and attend events at the bar. Arguably as well, many more visit the different sites.Using of all this data we have built a graph database following this schema where author writes piece, piece is published in medium, and reader comments on piece.

The textual graph has showed the centrality of the editors as authors as well as the centrality of the main project: Print Orsai, which nonetheless is surrounded by a heavy supporting textual apparatus responsible for eliciting the readers’ participation and, of course, economic contributions. From here, I have queried issues of authorship, genre, and readership to understand the narrative and social dynamics of the project.

In terms of authorship it has become clear that both editors, Casciari and Basilis have penned a large number of the pieces. This is expected of the blogs, of course, but it becomes significant when their pen is pretty ubiquitous in the print magazine, but not in the web magazine, which are supposed to be twin publications. We suggest that the reason for this is that many of the texts written by them are information about the magazine itself or promotional writings aimed at getting the readers’ appetite going. They are also the story of the project and, interestingly, heavily self referential.

Following Orsai’s own these texts have been marked as self-referential, including leaks about the magazine contents, profiles of featured authors and readers, editorials and two interesting textual additions of Orsai that keep its own narrative going ‘entradas’ and ‘sobremesas’. Using a ‘three-course meal’ as an analogy for Orsai reading, the editors include one ‘appetizer’, an introduction to an article; then a ‘main course’, the actual article; and finally a sort of ‘dessert’, a discussion of the article. These frame pieces are published in the print magazine but taken out of the web version arguably due to the presence of the blogs where much of this content is reiterated. Nevertheless, self-referential texts appear in all media and are the thread keeping the cohesion of the project by referring to each other. It is not insignificant that self-referential texts amount to over 30% of the whole published material in the two-year period.

The large amount of self-referential texts has proved more than effective not only in terms of keeping the project tight and alive, but also in terms of building a community that has made it their own and as such relate to and take care of it. Readers have poured over 41 000 comments constituting in total numbers 99% of all the items related to the project included in our database. Reader behavior follows, as it would be expected, a long tail pattern. Measures that have caught our attention are: only two readers have commented in 300 or more pieces, 10 have commented on 150 pieces, 50 have commented on 100 pieces; and 100 readers have commented on 25 texts. Contrary to my initial intuitions reader participation seems a lot more varied.

Comments vary widely, from a permanent competition to be the first to comment up to more serious discussions on digital publishing just to mention a couple. Word frequency analysis allowed us to see things that were expected, such as a very high level of direct mentions to Hernan Casciari, and much discussion of Orsai – whether it is referred to as orsai, revista, blog, bar, etc. in a very constant patter. And returned unexpected results such as a huge proliferation of “gracias” suggesting high levels of sociality in the readers’ network.

To wrap up some of the conclusions we have reached are.

Given that the global narrative is the story of the project itself, Orsai is sustained by the self-referential texts. They are the instances inviting larger reader participation and as a consequence of this are the ones receiving more comments. Self-referential texts are persuasive and keep the main project sustainable, that is, they are powerful marketing tools.

Interstories thus rely on their community to keep going, and since they have no huge media conglomerate pushing them, are vulnerable to community fluctuation. And lastly, because of the high levels of reader involvement an interstory like Orsai proposes a new kind of engagement oscillating between the purely narrative and the actual.

What a story looks like

One of the reasons why I studied literature is, well, because I like reading. My story is everybody’s story: spending childhood days alone and reading instead of playing around. I got my first computer pretty late, I must have been 15 or even 16 years old, and I didn’t have Internet at home until I was 18. So when I think of reading I still largely mean print reading, and perhaps especially, alone reading. That is why the idea of large groups all over the world reading a single story, and in a live fashion over the Internet fascinates me so much so as to write my phd thesis on it.

How a story is built, how it is experienced in our heads has been a concern in literary theory for a long time and, Reader Response theorist, for example, sought to systematize this process. Wolfgang Iser suggested a principle of expectations that are either fulfilled or frustrated, which keeps us advancing through a narrative without forgetting what came before. Others like Norman Holland sought to explain narrative transportation through psychological mechanisms. I always liked reader response theories, precisely because readers were important in them. Authors and books were there, but they weren’t there by themselves anymore.

Because of the way things move around so fast on the Internet, an analogue process seems to be happening. Millions of people are writing and publishing online, but not all of them are getting the company of readers. Why? That’s what I’m trying to find out. For one, not all of them could possibly be good writers; for another, not all of them can be offering the kind of literary/narrative experience that readers are looking for now. What this experience looks like is the other question I’m trying to answer. The good thing is there are some really good examples of stories that people have been more than willing to follow as they develop. Even better is the fact that we are all leaving a huge electronic footprint giving freaks like me a fighting chance at understanding how people come together because of a story, and observe how that story gets built.

Many might be scared of how much their footprints can be followed, but the possibilities granted by them are really wonderful. When it comes to stories, people leaving a trace of reading it will help get an idea of how that story came to be, or continue to happen, for lack of a better expression, outside my head.

What does a story look like? Well, using the ubiquitous network metaphor of our times, I have looked into what Hernán Casciari’s Orsai looks like. It looks a little bit like this:

One ‘chapter’, the shape of the Web magazine where readers can leave their comments on the pieces published:

RevistaWebSmall

Another ‘chapter’. The print magazine, with a surprisingly different structure to the Web version of the “same” magazine:

OrsaiImpresa_Small

Three other ‘chapters’. The blogs readers flock to and in which they tirelessly comment:

Blogs

All of them together. From the last post.

And the story keeps going. That’s the other issue I love, many stories on the internet are not finished yet. They keep moving, forward and backward, and sideways and in every other possible direction. Readers have to keep coming back; they have to keep digging and finding it where it goes. In return authors also have to keep the story going; they have to keep the readers attention.

Now the final question: where are the readers in this story? They are there! Many! and they are very active. This part of the research is becoming the most difficult one, not just because its complexity and scale, but also because using others’ data, even if it’s publicly available is not something institutions like to do. After a long phone call with Western’s ITS during which I explained that I’m a good person and won’t be attacking anybody’s system and there’s no need to ban my computer from the university’s network, I still have to wait for another phone call. I also have to clear out that all of the data will be treated respectfully and with no profit in mind at all (unless you think getting a phd is profitable, but nobody thinks that). I might need some sort of permission from Hernán Casciari as well to avoid ITS people come to get me or Javi.

Once this gets sorted out, something very exciting is going to happen: we will data mine the information of over 200K comments (yes, 200K blog comments!!) on the Editorial Orsai site, and turn them into graphs a bit like these and play around with them to get even the faintest idea of why and how people are so hungry for a story like this.

Preliminary visualizations of Orsai

It seems that I’ve reached the final stages of my dissertation research (The writing stands at about 45%). Last weekend (yes, we were working late on Friday) my lovely collaborator and myself finally sat down to outline the data mining process we’re going to carry out and what we’re going to do with the data. The problem is not going to be actually getting the data, which seems pretty straightforward and it should *only* take about 28 hours in one computer, 14 in two, 7 in four, and so and so on. The problem is how we are going to process and visualize what is promising to be a network of about 70 000 nodes and 100 000 edges without burning up all of the Cultureplex computer infrastructure and, more importantly, so that it tells us something. We are working on that.

During the process I’ve started outlining my hypotheses for the

OrsaiMarzo

Fig. 1. General network view

experimental part of the research, based on the data I already have. And this is what it is, so far.

The structure of the Orsai network based on data gathered so far considers year 1 and 2 of the print publication, ie. issues 1 to 10 and all blog entries from September 2010 to Jan 2013 and is organized according to this schema:

‘author’ (in blue) writes a ‘piece’ (in pink) that is published in a ‘medium’ (in red). Fig 1.

 

Orsaiauthors

Fig. 2. Casciari and Basilis clearly stand out from all other collaborators

Up to here, the network is pretty shallow and straightforward to follow. From here, it is evident that both editors are also the most active ‘authors’. In a different visualization, other authors start to stand out as the recurrent collaborators, while the large majority remain one time contributors to Orsai.

The hypohtesis pretty much sustained by this is that Orsai can be read, largely, as a ‘one-pen’ narrative, at least as individual as we can expect in these days and in these media. Hypothesis to explore in the near future: Names will fluctuate more as I include the readers – as the commentators of the project. Our estimate so fat is that on average, each of the almost 500 ‘commentable’ pieces has 100 comments.

Now, not only is Orsai more stable in terms of authorship than it would seem at first, but also, although there are many genres within the different media: profile, narrative chronicle, popular arts, comic, fiction, folletín, etc., the self-referential genres (leaks, editorials, sobremesas and entradas, etc.) amount to over 13% of the total of the pieces. This confirms my early intuition that Orsai is largely about Orsai, and that readers expect to read about Orsai in Orsai. Hopefully you’re still following. (Fig. 3)

GenerosOrsai

Fig. 3. All the pieces marked as belonging to a self-referential genre are presented in pink. All the other genres in blue.

OrsaiColores

Fig. 4. Self-referential pieces (still in pink) are connected not just to the editors, as expected, but more interestingly to all five different media.

From here, I started wondering where all the self-referential pieces were coming from: From the editors is the first response, and I’m right about it. But, I also found out that they are pretty much scattered proportionally in all the five media, which again confirms my earlier hypotheses about how Orsai keeps its cohesion among all its different manifestations. (Fig 4). This is an interesting insight up to know. What will be even more interesting is to see what other pieces can be marked as self-referential from the natural language analysis that’s going to come. What other authors are commenting on Orsai as they publish in it? And still even more interesting, to what extent are readers commenting on Orsai itself? Is the graph going to end up all died in pink? Maybe

So what’s next. After the data mining super session. This little (800+ nodes) graph will become a  monster to include all the readers, all their comments and the super intricate relationships between them. Basically, Who comments on what? Who replies to whom? How much? etc. And these are some of my hypotheses:

1. During the first year of Orsai more readers were making fewer comments but amounting to a larger volume (many comments-many readers). This tendency has likely reverted, and for the second year, or for the second half of the second year, fewer readers have amounted for the majority of comments (many comments-fewer readers).

2. Self-referentiality, ie. talk about Orsai itself has been a constant through the two years of publication. The terms to refer to it, however, have changed along with the project(blog, magazine, bar, editorial, etc). What has been the development? I want to suggest it has increasingly been referred to in more concrete terms and notions that the readers can more closely relate to. This question will be solved with NL analysis during the latest stages.

3. A tight community with very clear ‘code’ markers of interaction (like the PRI game at the beginning of each comment thread) has taken shape. What the development of that community is, I can’t tell yet.

4. Because of place-specific ‘props’ (pizzeria, bar) in addition to distribution issues, the readership of Orsai has become more local than it was in its earlier days. Answers to this will also show up after the data mining session.

Does anybody want to put some money on any of them?

Also, for more, you can visit my poster on Research Day to be held on March  25. Western University, Great Hall. I will be there, and there will be cookies and hummus.

Metafiction, Theory of Mind and Unamuno

It’s been a long time since I last wrote anything about neuroscience and storytelling. The reason is pretty simple. It’s the thread in my research with which I struggle the most. Nevertheless I keep pursuing it because of two things: 1) to ground why I’ve never considered stories or fiction to be “different” worlds but parts of our world; and 2) to establish a correlation between metafiction – as fiction about fiction making – not just with the acts of writing and reading as it has conventionally been studied, but also with the actual cognitive processes through which we apprehend fiction in our minds.

Norman Holland has also approached metafiction through neuroscience [1]. His proposal, however, is quite different. Holland’s basis rests on the materiality of the fictional artefact – mostly a book – that, still in the hands of a reader, becomes part of the story. He uses as example of this, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The cognitive problem posed by metafiction, according to Holland, is that the artifact becomes a conflicting entity between the two separate levels of reality belonging to the fictional world, on the one hand, and our own, on the other.

While this is true of many metafictions, as mentioned above, I also see a tight relationship between the cognitive process undergoing our engagement with fiction and the making of fiction staged in many metafictions. In other words, on top of exhibiting the processes of reading and writing, metafiction has also managed to evidence the underlying cognitive processes. Regarding the fiction/reality divide, evolutionary biologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides [2] conducted a series of studies that lead them to state that:

…although fiction often embeds real facts, places, events, and people, they are not necessarily or even usually marked off from the nonexistent ‘facts’ […] within a fictional narrative, everything (whether true in reality or not) has the same undiscriminated and largely indiscriminable standing, and all propositions are freely interwoven without the least regard to their extrinsic accuracy. (13)

This would seem to imply that we could get lost between the distinct reality levels of “fiction” and “reality”. As we know, this usually doesn’t happen. A separate cognitive process called theory of mind (ToM), also known as metarrepresentation, makes sure that we are able to tell when something is a representation and where or who it belongs to, so that we can map them accordingly [3]. Without metarrepresentation we would also get lost and be unable to tell from what we think to be the reality, and others’ perception of it – usually not diametrically, but subtly, different, (try to agree with anybody what the particular color of any given object is, or whether a room is cold/hot, to test this). Still what fascinates me about Tooby and Cosmide’s conclusion is that there seems to be a continuum of reality levels that can hardly be accounted for by the ontological divide of “fiction” and “reality”. This is where the whole thing becomes relevant for literary studies of metafiction.

Towards the end of Niebla (1914) [4] — Miguel de Unamuno’s master piece — the protagonist, Augusto Pérez is heartbroken and decides to commit suicide. Before doing it, however, he consults the author of the story. Without going into details, what comes after that is a dizzying deep philosophical dialogue on the existence, via the fictional or real status, of each man and the leaks of literary imagery in our everyday lives with fascinating highlights such as this:

– No, no existes más que como ente de ficción; no eres, pobre Augusto, más que un producto de mi fantasía y de las de aquellos de mis lectores que lean el relato que de tus fingidas venturas y malandanzas he escrito yo; tú no eres más que un personaje de novela, o de nivola, o como quieras llamarle. Ya sabes, pues, tu secreto. (279)

To what Augusto replies

– Vamos a cuentas: ¿no ha sido usted el que no una, sino varias veces, ha dicho que Don Quijote y Sancho son no ya tan reales, si no más reales que Cervantes? (279)

As it can be seen from the quote above, Unamuno termed his novel a nivola. The concept of nivola opposed the novel genre to realistic prose writing. Unamuno establishes an antagonism with realism not by means of fantasy or magic, but through the concept of reality itself and the way we apprehend it vis-a-vis fiction. Regardless of the conclusion the author and protagonist — or even us — might reach at the end of the dialogue, what we are witnessing in those pages is an essay on metarrepresentation. Both Unamuno and Augusto discuss the ways in which one or the other can be seen as more or less real/fictional. There is a mapping of their perspectives and the way in which they fit into them as either fictional or not.

Almost a hundred years after its publication it is not only possible but, from my perspective, even desirable to think of Niebla as a metafiction. All the conventional elements are there: prominence of the reader, self-consciousness, evidence of the story-making process, etcetera. However, in addition, Unamuno deals thematically — and very likely unknowingly — with the cognitive processes that go on when we engage with fiction: the lack of discrimination between reality and fiction in our minds and the processes that “put things in order”.

The approach to metafiction by means of neuroscience I wish to pursue is not only useful to see into the guts of these texts, but specially relevant to explain why metafictional traits have always been a part of literary production, i.e., I argue, because of our human concern with the very possibility of making fiction. At a basic level metafiction is self-conscious of its status as fiction, but in the larger picture it can also be seen as self-conscious of why/how humans make fiction. Finally, my other goal through this approach is help explain why there have been times in history when metafiction has occupied a more prominent place due to, perhaps, philosophical concerns reflected on a dominant genre, or, as we are currently witnessing, technological shifts that have not settled yet.

REFERENCES

[1] Jaén, Isabel and Julien Simon. 2012. Cognitive Literary Studies: Current Themes and New Directions. 1st ed. Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture Series. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[2] Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 2001. “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction, and the Arts.” SubStance 30 (1): 6–27. doi:10.1353/sub.2001.0017.

[3] Zunshine, Lisa. 2006. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP.

[4] Unamuno, Miguel de. 1982. Niebla. 2. ed. Letras Hispánicas 154. Madrid : Cátedra.