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#GenLit as #Netprov

 Published on August 30, 2015 /  Written by and /  Reviewed by Chris Friend and Robin Wharton /  “the sky’s the limit” by Jordan Fischer; CC BY 2.0 /  0

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Hybrid Pedagogy is publishing a series of weekly updates and reflections about the project, collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. This week, Mia Zamora and Matt Jacobi discuss the relationship between the Generative Literature Project and networked improvisation narrative, or #Netprov.

Our reflections on the #GenLit project have brought to the foreground some new writing practices that are necessarily shifting our evolving understanding of writing process.   In many ways this work makes a case for a more expansive sense of what writing might entail in the 21st century.  One way to consider a new frame for writing process is by thinking of writing-as-making. The digitized and computational environments of our new mediascape have inherently expanded our understanding of what it means to compose. In cases like the Generative Literature Project, students have come up with innovative ways to harness the affordances of a digitized environment to envision their own creative compositions.

Photo by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr; licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr; licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As they explore with a variety of new media tools, their work leads them to new and important questions about the nature of writing itself.  Their digital artifacts (as small pieces in a larger meta narrative puzzle) indeed exemplify innovative, experimental formats — including video, websites and other multimedia interactivity.  The writing-as-making paradigm has proven a gateway for creative students interested in writing, but who might not see themselves as technologically inclined.  In the #GenLit classroom, students developed creative digital artifacts (in the context of a broader but unforeseen narrative), and in the process they developed new digital literacies through a recursive composition process.

We would like to consider yet another composing practice insinuated in the #GenLit project that also presents the potential to push beyond our traditional sense of what constitutes writing.  In the #GenLit project, students were also charged with bringing their minor characters to life online by designing their social media presence.  They were challenged with the act of breathing life into their character profiles by giving their minor characters a literal, real time voice.  In concert with the making of digital artifacts, but moving towards a form of performance, this component of the project was a new kind of writing challenge.  

Image by drewschermick on DeviantArt, licensed CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Image by drewschermick on DeviantArt, licensed CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Students were charged with online performance improvisation as they were invited to inhabit their own minor characters, impersonating their own fictive creations in the context of social media.  Admittedly, these #netprov elements of the #GenLit project have barely gotten underway.  There is much ground that may still be covered with this form of experimentation.  Our foray into online fictive impersonation via social media was an element of the project that commenced after the recursive making of digital artifacts, so the time remaining to explore this arena was somewhat limited.  Still, this new composing practice will certainly drive future stages of the project.  At this point, we look to highlight the generative power and potential of this new media writing approach as we consider uncharted territory in the unfolding #GenLit project.

#Netprov can be defined as a networked improvisation narrative.  As scholar-artists Mark Marino and Rob Wittig have written in “Netprov: Elements of an Emerging Form” in the upcoming Electronic Literature Communities, “netprov is a genre born of this media moment out of the classical Western tradition of improvisational theater and the tradition in digital culture of engaging in computer-mediated communication within theatrical and conversational metaphors.” According to Wittig, netprov is a digital art form “that creates written stories that are networked, collaborative and improvised in real time.” In the recent Hypperhiz journal devoted solely to this new electronic literary form, Lauren Burr suggests that #netprov is often compared to alternate reality games (ARGs).  #Netprov uses similar strategies of participatory transmedia storytelling but it differs in its notable ambivalence to game elements. Instead of puzzles, the focus of #netprov is character and narrative development.  #Netprov combines the instantaneous generative capabilities of the internet age with the playful spirit of artistic collaboration. As such, #Netprov is a natural next step in the evolution of storytelling. It occupies the densely populated cultural space of social media, in which so much of 21st century life takes place, and can be read in the same moment as a news headline, or interacted with just as easily as making dinner plans.

According to Mark Marino & Rob Wittig’s threshold definition of #netprov, the narrative that emerges must be a work that appears in vernacular media, initially unfolding in real time and at least partly improvised.  In these ways, the concept of #netprov is most clearly insinuated in the launch of the #GenLit project.  Both #netprov experimentation and the #GenLit project (as a murder mystery that unfolds in social media spaces) are founded on transmediated interaction. In #Netprov, writers will combine different digital platforms, and sometimes incorporate real-life elements to bring their pieces to life. Similarly, the Generative Literature Project is a digital mosaic, including artifacts made by myriad tools and hosted on many different platforms, all contributing to the greater piece. Perhaps what #GenLit shares most importantly with #netprov is the collaborative, playful spirit at its center.

The fascinating potential of #GenLit online improvisation is that it has as its goal the creation of a narrative world.  It is compelling to think of writing as a narrative game that might leak out into real life. The organizational structure of #netprov suggests an “inner circle” of writer/actors who are “in on the joke from the beginning”, along with an invited “outer circle” of reader/participant/players unknown to the inner circle.

Photo by Vincent Diamante on Flickr; licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Vincent Diamante on Flickr; licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

 Marino & Wittig have written that “the inner circle operates like a show (i.e. cabaret, improv theater, play, or episodic television)” while “the outer circle operates like a game which invites participation from anyone.” This playful and participatory arena seems just the ticket in which to unfold the murder mystery gripping the fictional Theopolis College, as a multitude of minor and major characters jockey to reveal motives, discover clues, or offer up red herrings. As writers/actors come to play with reader/participants, this new form of writing could yield text that is part literature, part drama, and part game.  The next phase of the #GenLit project (as #netprov production) might prove even more collaborative if it incorporates participatory contributions from readers. Unsuspecting reader-bystanders might find themselves straddling several simultaneous realities as they are legitimately unsure whether their communications reside in the world of fact or fiction.

Photo from SnappleTop on Wikimedia Commons; licensed CC BY 3.0
Photo from SnappleTop on Wikimedia Commons; licensed CC BY 3.0

The ambition of a #netprov turn for #GenLit would be the mark of fostering a truly participatory textual culture — an open call where writers may creatively respond to a plethora of electronic signals and cultural signs in ways that surprise their makers.  Such a culture of play and experimentation can be realized with relatively low barriers for entry, while offering communal support for on-the-fly creative contribution.  As new media scholar Henry Jenkins has written, “In such a world, many will only dabble, some will dig deeper, and still others will master the skills that are most valued within the community.”  But no matter the level of individual engagement, participatory culture as a whole reworks the rules by which cultural expression and civic life operate.  #GenLit-as-#netprov holds the potential to highlight the value of a participatory culture while recasting the traditional terms of cultural contribution, writing, and even what it means to author something.  At its heart, this work is playful, democratic, anarchic, and imaginative.

As we acknowledge the emergence of these new forms of writing, it serves to ask: Why does it matter?  What do these new practices reveal about our current cultural moment, and what value do these new writing practices hold for our collective future?  In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we must be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine pieces and build anew.  This is the generative spirit of creativity, enhanced by 21st century technologies.  While the traditional paradigm of individual authorship is still in play, the ongoing cultural shift towards valuing openness as seen in the links above, in addition to rousing the human heart to the cause of helping others, also affords opportunities for networked learning and collaboration like never before. #Netprov is an invitation to create through collective and performative remix.  We take cues, we rif and we play with identity as we recombine representation and text.  Implicit in this idea of combinatorial creativity is the admission is that nothing is truly original, at least not in the sense of being built from scratch.  Consequently, the creative ego resists such a challenging idea.  And it also follows that the ephemeral-collaborative nature of #netprov means that the entirety might not be preserved, nor entire authorship be credited.

Photo from Niels Heidenreich on Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0.
Photo from Niels Heidenreich on Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0.

 Yet there is still evidence of worth in this ecosystem of influences and inspirations.  As Steven Johnson states in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From:  “The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”  

#Netprov as a new writing practice embraces such a sensibility.  It privileges what is possible with openness and happenstance in narrative form.  #Netprov stands as a sign of our times.  Like the passion for the open-source movement today, this new methodology for writing and storytelling reveals a value for the unexpected that emerges through sharing, participation, and remix.  To quote Maria Popova, combinatorial creativity itself is the original open-source code.  Throughout our #GenLit work (at times by design and other times by accident) we have attached great value to remaining open — collaborating and sharing — and we have put a premium on what has emerged from our interconnectedness. This is one hallmark of a good humanities education.  The humanities have a central role to play in teaching students (read: citizens) how to think with a special kind of responsive agility. Humanities students learn to listen, and they learn to respond with the right kinds of questions as they reach for solutions for the community.  This cognitive agility is in turn a key foundation to democratic process.  With the rise of #Netprov and other movements that value openness, students studying writing and literature can immerse themselves in a love for language as they discover the force of dynamic thinking with others.  They learn to value what is emergent rather than pursue what is prescribed or what is to be expected. And this is a key locale for innovation and solutions that matter.

This article is the seventh in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.

This article is licensed for re-use under a CC BY-NC-ND-SA 3.0 license .

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