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.