Hyper-text and Storytelling

16 May

Young Indian man reading on a laptop.Today SocialTimes has an article about Twitter, hyper-text, and the evolution of storytelling (Are Twitter Storytellers the Heroes of a New Postmodernism?).  It’s written by Amanda Cosco who is proving to be my social media soul mate – recently she’s written articles on foodies, citizen journalists, Lady Gaga, and super hot nerds.  Ms. Cosco discusses @VeryShortStory a Twitter feed that’s been telling an ongoing story in bursts of 140 characters over the course of the last two years.  She discusses the positives (including interactivity) and negatives (including lack of continuity) of telling a story through Twitter, but the piece really gets interesting when she talks about reading in a larger cultural context.

Twitter bird reading a book.Our cultural reading practices have trained us to consume stories chronologically: novels and even news stories contain beginnings, middles, and ends, and readers rely on these conventions in order to be guided safely thorough the patterns of plot. VSS upsets these practices by drawing attention to the ways we consume narrative and by forcing us to abandon chronology and let go of order. Instead, readers must embrace the fragmented form and swallow the fact that they’re engaging with a story that has no shape, no arc, and no intended ending. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading—Hill’s tweets are sometimes hilarious, sometimes provocative and strange, and sometimes deeply poetic.

In addition to upsetting chronology, VSS also thwarts are ability to finish a story. When reading a printed story, you know when you’re going to get to the end because you can feel the pages thinning in your right hand: Three more pages and the story is over, One more page and I’ll know how it ends. Classical modes of story telling had knowable and tangible endings,  but hypertexts are completely open-ended, boundless, and limitless. Does the story die with Sean Hill, or will he stop tweeting when he feels the story is over?

HTTP printing press stamps shown in reverseI love the idea that hyper-text changes the way we read because it changes the concept of “the end”.  We all know that stories start with “once upon a time” and end with “…and they lived happily ever after.  The end.”  (Or maybe not so happily – but you get the point.)  But, what happens when a story doesn’t have an end?  Can we ever say that we’ve read a story if we haven’t made it through to the end?  But, what if there is no end to make it to?  I guess it’ll be like consuming other forms of media – we follow it until we get bored.  You may say that you watch CCN, but that doesn’t mean that you watch all of CCN.  You may read a blog, but that doesn’t mean that you actually read every word of it in the order that it’s published.

Family Book Club reading Three Cups of TeaI guess that I always held reading a story to be somehow more sacred that this – an act to be completed.  You could close the last page and feel that you’d accomplished something.  You’d know the end and could see the whole thing in perspective and talk about the story with others that had done the same.  But what happens when there’s no end?  When we can’t ask people what page they’re on because there aren’t any pages?  I love the idea of hyper-text and the possibility of interactivity that comes with it.  I love the ideas about death of the author that it brings up.  But, I also love sitting with friends and talking about a book that we’ve all read and what we thought about the end.  I’ll miss the end.

Here’s my question for the day: Can you say that you read (past tense) a story if you didn’t make it to the end?  If not, what’s the right term?  You followed the story?  (Or, you know, you could just answer one of the many questions from earlier in the post.)


MaggieCakes is a blog about culture, social media, and what’s new on the Internet culture. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about Internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. MaggieCakes is hosted by WordPress and often draws upon Slate, Jezebel, The Hair Pin, and SocialTimes for links and inspiration. My post Social Media and the Art of Storytelling was featured on Freshly Pressed, bringing a whole new readership to my blog. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at 2maggieotoole@gmail.com.

10 Responses to “Hyper-text and Storytelling”

  1. skippingstones May 16, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

    I don’t know that I’d be able to maintain complete interest in a story that I knew would never end. I am intrigued by the idea, but would I want to invest myself in in?

    At the same time, I wonder how it’s any different than a soap opera or a sitcom that you start in the middle? Sitcoms have a contained story within the half hour, but the characters also grow and develop as time goes on, characters are added and lost, and the show will have short term and long term story arcs.

    In the regular story format, I do love a great ending and there is a satisfaction you get when you reach that point. Still, what I think of as the best stories are the ones that I care about so much that I don’t really want them to end. I finish and I think, “then what happened?” However, I think the greatness would be lost if the store didn’t end.

  2. georgettesullins May 17, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    A friend of mine introduced me to the term “liminal”…according to Webster 1. of or relating to a sensory threshold (2) barely perceptible…in not finishing what we read, we enter our own liminal space, carry what we read, and live/act/write out something new…or not. I would say I entered my “liminal” space after not finishing reading something.
    btw A few weeks ago, I listed you on my blogroll. Perhaps I should correct my chronology and ask your permission first. May I?

    • Maggie May 17, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

      Hmmm. I’ve never heard of the term “liminal” before. I feel like I’m getting dragged back into the world of literary theory (one of my favorite classes in college), but in a good way.

      And, of course it’s okay that you added me to your blogroll. Thanks!

  3. matthewhyde May 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    Thanks for a great blog – lots of food for thought (I’ve linked to a couple of your articles on my blog, hope you don’t mind).

    As for your questions… I’m not convinced I’ve read something if I don’t finish it. I’m not quite a child of the internet, so closing a book cover still gives me a nice sense of closure.

    Although that gets me thinking about the stories that I CAN’T finish, because they never got the chance. TV shows like Firefly or Angel, or, more recently, the V remake. And that’s a whole other issue, because the internet is a great forum for fan fiction, and so these stories branch off into a hundred different endings, none of them official, so there’s never a *real* ending, just an ever growing bunch of alternative histories…

    • Maggie May 17, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

      More comments like this and I’m going to have to give in and write a post about fanfiction! I love fanfic — as a form of literature, as a challenge to authority, and as a means of engaging with the text. You’re right about fanfic and alternative endings. Sometimes it’s adding an ending (grrr… Firefly), but sometimes it’s fixing an ending that went wrong (BSG, I’m looking at you).

      Thanks for commenting and for linking to me. It’s good to know that I’m not just talking to my laptop.

  4. maryct70 May 17, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Insightful post. I re-posted on my own blog, if that’s ok? I think the notion of storytelling delivered in small digestible bites (a la Twitter) with no sense of when the story might end is not all that new though. Soap Operas have been on television for decades with long-running story lines delivered in 30-40 minute segments. Even Charles Dickens followed this model, as a newspaper columnist whose novels were actually a compilation of the series of short episodes he wrote for periodicals.
    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Maggie June 14, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

      Reposts are always okay! I’ve thought of the Dickens comparison before (the elites of his day were askance, too), but hadn’t ever considered Soap Operas. They never seem to end, do they? (Although I think All My Children may be going off soon.) Some of them having been going for so long that they must have survived may writer and cast changes (and audience changes, too.)

  5. Amanda Cosco June 1, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    Thanks for reading! Check out Lady Medusa’s blog to learn more about me! http://acosco400.wordpress.com/

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Like Tears in Rain « Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth - May 17, 2011

    […] the articles on the evolution of storytelling in the digital age. The blog has featured pieces on microfiction and whether or not Twitter and Facebook will develop a native storytelling tradition, and I guess […]

  2. Hyper-text and Storytelling (via MaggieCakes) | Odds 'N Ends - May 17, 2011

    […] Today SocialTimes has an article about Twitter, hyper-text, and the evolution of storytelling (Are Twitter Storytellers the Heroes of a New Postmodernism?).  It’s written by Amanda Cosco who is proving to be my social media soul mate – recently she’s written articles on foodies, citizen journalists, Lady Gaga, and super hot nerds.  Ms. Cosco discusses @VeryShortStory a Twitter feed that’s been telling an ongoing story in bursts of 140 characters … Read More […]

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