essay

A Web of Narrative

As I go deeper into looking at the problems of considering narrative in the face of digital systems, the more I see it as a fight, at times, between the old ways of storaing data and the new ways. Part of what came out of my writing my way through Manovich’s “Database as Symbolic Form” was that there is this underlining fear in many academic circles that the very storage that allows traditional media objects to continue existing into an increasing less print future means that they might be losing their meanings — or, even worse, that their importance might be twisted by its placement next to other material on platforms like websites.

One of the most fascinating examples of this is to do a simple search for classical poems that might show up in an English class. You will find them intermixed with comments, on blogs, or surrounded by advertisements. For academics, or even just fans of certain authors, this is the downfall of that poet’s works. Instead of being treated as “high” art, it is mixed into a stream of content and corresponding brands that might devalue it as a work — ads for porn could be alongside the works of Poe, for example. It is presented as just another object among a web of others, often overwhelming with their audio and video components. The simple text is lost to all the flashing lights around it.

In considering this marginalia, it’s worth considering if what is really happening is the devaluing of a work, or the reevaluation of it within a different context. For those without a print medium past, this is nothing new. All web content is placed within a box, often placed on a grid too. Web pages are rendered in widows and often nested together. Quickly swapping from one view to another is commonplace and searching for meaning among numerous messages or even mediums is just content is parsed. Everything is placed, not according to its meaning in a linear chain either horizontal or vertical, but as icons that represent possibilities to move to another view of content; the interface is the key.

It’s not just print medium conveys a logical and linear structure, it’s that the same pattern has been grafted into other mediums like television and film as well. Progression along a track is the common way to understand narrative. The structure of the text, read from front to back in the case of a novel, gives itself over to the consumption of the same chronology as it was published. Films too run as frames feed out from a circle, one at a time shown and then dismissed. Until the advent of electronic storage, it was difficult to rewind film or even loop different sections. The introduction of access speed over cultural important with general purpose computers brought with it a time of non-linear editing of each medium and, in turn, an emphasis not on linearity or placement, but perception.

It’s not only an overall effect of composting signs one after another, as one might do in the construction of a sentence, it’s now also the signs around something too. A wall is no longer just a support for a building, it is space for advertising of different kinds at various levels: the top may sport a billboard while the bottom shows up an upcoming band. The sidewalk collects not only gossip in speech, but carved performances too. Trees holds promises of love and benches gather times of remembrances. Public places get transformed into competing venues of thought; no longer just a forum of shouting people, but different languages, schemes and even messages encoded in numerous ways. All of these not unlike, in their own way, a web page too.

If the idea to paint a city like a webpage came first or second to the very virtual existence that most face is a question of timing. Regardless, the worlds of boxed screens exists in both worlds. Just as businesses might have their place of business advertised across city blocks, they can have their billboards in the virtual space too. Competing discourses run rampant as different messages as placed alongside others. The equality comes not from content, but size. The bigger they are, the more visual space they consume. This is true in both places, real and virtual as the brightest and most distracting get the attention over those of a more simple form factor. The user’s eyes wander from one to another as an endless chain of personal narrative is created from the objects, their relationships, real or imagined, and what it might mean to the user in context.

This is not the world of print. Contained spreads and edited texts exist in that domain. Works put together not because of space, speed or even commercial reasons, but because of constructing a theme or building an anthology. Authorial intent takes the lead in placing things in a certain sequence for a specific reason. The web, however, is not that. It is rendered, generated content placed to be viewed not for aesthetics quality, but because it might attract a single click in hundreds if not thousands of visitors to that space — it’s targeted to users. Not only is content shifted to the margin, in terms of importance, it is often sidelined by the competing voices and discourses around. While print invites a person to come to it, advertisements on the web are often pushed to the user.

Yet, it is in these mixing signals that users develop ways to filter out what they want. In small steps, we become part of the medium itself. We search, index and categorize the content we view and associate it with others not for importance, but proximity and relevance too. As we read a page, we parse it into units that we can understand and throw some of them away in the process. Not everything is important to how we view it, even if it is all part of how we experience the content, surrounded as it is by other ideas. We prioritize input in order to get the correct output; we build chronologies over time as well as through space.

The narrative comes not from the text itself, but the fight to understand it. We put together pieces, parse the interfaces and rearrange events to fit new models as we build them. We become organic machines that take in objects bit by bit and create our own virtual worlds in which we shift what has happened, what is happening and what will happen into a non-linear, networked graph of thoughts that branch and reach out to other collections. We might be viewing databases through out interactions, but we use time to understand them and, in turn, weave a narrative one object at a time.