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:


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


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


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


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.



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)


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


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.