A couple of months ago, I happened to be looking up information about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous piece, “What is man?” So, as I am wont to do, I fired up my computer and looked up the wikipedia page on it. The first line of the entry read:
“What is man?” is a piece from The Measure of a Man, a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr., published in 1959. Anyone who has attended accredited online colleges would know the same about his essay. At the beginning of the essay, King states, “What is a man? Why, a miserable little pile of secrets!”
I did a spit take (or would have if I had been drinking something at the time). I knew enough about the essay to know that Martin Luther King Jr. did not consider men to be miserable little piles of secrets. I also knew enough about terribly voice-acted Playstation 1 video games to recognize the quote from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Who knew Dracula loved him some Andre Malraux? Not I.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen history altered in an comical way. A friend of mine has made a hobby of making slight alterations to obscure wiki pages and then calling his friends up to tell us about it. My favorite of these was a listing for the “Jamaican Takings” of the movie Cool Runnings. He created a made-up sum of money which stayed on the wiki page for nearly two years before Wikipedia did their sweep and cleaned it out. Still, for that little amount of time, reality was altered.
On a more macro level, would it be possible to produce whole narratives that are entirely crowdsourced? I think that the technology is certainly there to try, though keeping it from spiralling into chaos would probably be tantamount to a 24-7 job. I for sure wouldn’t want to edit it. Imagine if everyone approached Wikipedia not as a reference resource, but as their creative playground. I can’t imagine the Wiki staff being equipped to handle that.
But is it possible? Already, we are seeing a slow but steady rise in serialized narratives, from long-lived Livejournal pages to short e-book installments released over time. As we continue to reject things like full music albums with one or two good songs, or feature-length films that are little more than long commercials, the creative economy disintegrates into a set of conclaves of like-minded people.
This isn’t a bad thing. Moreover, it isn’t a new thing. In the past, independent bookstores were more than outlets for big publishers. They were the publishers (thank Shakespeare and Co. in Paris for Joyce’s Ulysses). Pop songs were released only as singles, often really recorded in defunct garages and ramshackle warehouses.
Look on YouTube. See the same.
We’re shifting back to the past as we move into the future, only we’re doing not out of technological limitation, but because dissemination favors novelty. No more cookie cutter, pressed for success sorts of projects―at least not exclusively so. As cost of production decreases, cost of innovation decreases, thus innovation itself increases. That’s pretty exciting.
After a bit of research, I found a couple of interesting attempts at crowdsourced narrative projects on the web. One high profile project is the Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, assembled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yeah. Third Rock from the Sun guy.
While I applaud any effort to bring about new creative pieces, especially those that inject collaboration into the mix, I can’t discern any difference between a traditional edited anthology and the Tiny Book of Tiny Stories. Most of the work on Gordon-Levitt’s hitRecord site is of this nature. That’s not to say it isn’t cool. It’s very cool in that artists all over the world can work together to bring a project to fruition. But at its core, there is still curation involved. There’s an editor or art director who chooses what gets in and what is kept out.
The Interesting Choice series is more, well, interesting to me. A project by a group from Parsons School of Design in 2010, viewers were given a set of choices that determine the central aspects of the next episode.
Okay. I think this is closer to what I’ve been looking for. The viewers have an active role in determining the direction of the plot, certain aspects of the tone and genre, the set decor. Still, the choices decided upon by the viewers are interpreted by the filmmakers themselves. At best you can say that the viewers merely heavily suggested the next episode, rather than overtly determined it.
No, I actually think the best source for crowdsourced narrative is in the most unlikely of places:
There’s no other place on the internet that can boast such a huge participant base, an equally large readership, and a relatively unbiased curatorship. Other than illegal/libelous material, anyone can post anything as a comment on any item. Sure, most items don’t have much in the way of interesting narratives. But some do:
The Three Wolf Moon T-shirt page has been around since 2009, and for the years between then and now, more than 2000 comments have been left. The item’s page reads as a litany of the various life-changing effects the shirt has bestowed on its wearers. Some comments are funnier and more innovative than others. Here’s an example:
I purchased the `Three Wolves’ t-shirt for my fiancé Mary as a one year anniversary present to celebrate our vow of chastity leading up to our marriage.
You can only imagine my surprise when she came to me only days later and told me that she was with child. She tearfully swore that she had not broken her vow. Apparently, she had worn the `Three Wolves’ tshirt in bed. God appeared to her that night in the form of Kevin Costner and they laid together. Her story was borne out by our doctor, who described Mary’s conception as nothing sort of `miraculous’.
I have given the shirt only two stars, as although I am blessed to soon become the father of the Son of God, saviour of mankind, this is a little more than I expected when I purchased the tshirt. Furthermore, it is a shame the tshirt does not have more wolves on the sleeves.
This completely fulfills the requirements for a true collaborative narrative: regardless of content quality, every reader contribution left is available for other readers to view and add to. Curation, then, becomes the responsibility to the persons who post and to the readers who rate the individual posts.
Plus, it’s a pretty kick-ass shirt.