Sunday, 29 November 2015

Narrative transformation: stories and propaganda

In last week's blog – about the boundedness of books, the satisfaction of finishing them, and whether the satisfaction of completion may correlate with the number of possible endings – I started contemplating how I want HayleyWorld's audience to feel when they finish (or finish with) the app.

Overall, I decided, I'm aiming for engaged, amused and informed.

Then marketing specialist and data modeller Dr Stephan Ludwig suggested that what I'm really going for is narrative transportation, and suggested I read The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers' Narrative Transportation*.

Marketing and literary theory

Narrative transportation is a concept adopted from literary theory by academics exploring marketing techniques and developing theories and frameworks to underpin business practice. It describes what happens to readers  – or "consumers", who interpret stories, where interpretation "constitutes an act of consumption through which a story is converted into a narrative." (p799). In other words, the story is what the author creates, the narrative is what the consumer/reader interprets the story into.

For the marketers, it's about how you use story to induce changes in consumers' feelings, thoughts and beliefs so they buy your product. As the authors of the above essay write: "Given the implications of stories for the narrative persuasion of consumers, nothing is less innocent than a story." (p798). In fact it's surprising that the word "propaganda" fails to appear anywhere in their paper…

That's a digression that I may follow at a later date (in the meantime, Eliane Glaser's Guardian article "The west's hidden propaganda machine" is worth a read). For, now, I want to concentrate on the aspects of Stephan's analysis and the paper that helped me think about how I can make HayleyWorld good enough to enable readers to achieve narrative transportation.

Encourage/manipulate readers to suspend disbelief

 Hayley's story (/stories) needs to be structured, written, edited and delivered in ways that are seamless and persuasive enough influence my readers' feelings, thoughts and beliefs. And to make them want to be influenced. For that to happen, I need to create, edit and deliver the content in ways that spark both their empathy and their imaginations (p799).

In Winning Minds: secrets from the language of leadership, speechwriter Simon Lancaster lays bare the techniques that people devising and delivering persuasive communications use to help/manipulate their audiences to achieve this. The word "minds" in the title doesn't refer only to the plurality of audiences. It also relates to what he defines as our "instinctive", "emotional" and "logical" minds. At each level, we respond better to particular approaches than to others: some metaphors, for instance – those invoking nature, family and journeys – tend to resonate more positively than others invoking, say, war, cars or computers. Repetition helps, rhythm and rhyme impact, as do flattery, humour and alliteration.

Walking the walk

Now it's time for me to put all this into practice. Which means it's likely my next few blog posts will focus on what I'm writing about, rather than about how I'm doing it…

* In the Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 40, No. 5 (February 2014), pp. 797-817, published by the University of Chicago Press

Sunday, 22 November 2015

How will it end? Boundedness, the satisfaction of completion, and never finishing the internet

After a short hiatus (I won't bore you with why*) I've had a chance to catch up with Michael Kowalski and review progress on the HayleyWorld zoeography app.

He's (hopefully) about to finish both implementing the algorithm and optimising the way the app works. And I'm going to continue writing commentaries, adding other content and thinking through the big question he asked me: How does it end?

When is a book a book?

Back in 2011 I interviewed Theodore Gray, author and co-founder of Touchpress, Wolfram Research and Wolfram Alpha for a feature in the Independent on Sunday about digital literature. Theo listed three characteristics that mark a book out as a book. If
"it’s bounded and user-paced and it’s narratively directed, then you can call it a book. Otherwise, it might be an encyclopaedia or it might be a website."
Theo Gray talking about books and apps back in 2011

By user-paced, he meant that it's not like a linear video,"that you are forced to watch at a certain rate. It’s a piece of text that you choose to read at whatever speed you want to read it at." He also states that the choice of navigation through the material should be entirely at the reader's discretion, while an author "takes you by the hand and shows you the things that [s/he thinks] you should read in a reasonable length of time, to get a good introduction, or a good overview, or a good in-depth analysis or whatever of this topic."

The boundedness of books is key to what I'm pondering in this post – and to how this digital biography of William Hayley will finish. Books, says Gray, "have a beginning and an ending and a discoverable way of knowing that you’ve read the whole thing. By which I mean that you can start, you can consume and finish it and say I’ve read this book.
This is typically not the case with websites. It’s an important and valuable and good thing about websites that they’re open-ended and they keep going. You don’t finish a website. You don’t finish the internet. That’s a wonderful thing. But it’s not a good thing in the case of a book. Because the valuable sense of accomplishment that you can have that I’ve read this book. And you can tell your friends. Part of it is the sense of satisfaction of completion."

Reading vs not reading endings

Tim Parks wrote a fab essay in The New York Review of Books on whether it's important for readers to read to the end of (good) books. One conclusion he reaches is
"even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer, the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end."
"it’s worth noting that stories were not always obliged to have an end, or to keep the same ending … It was only when myth became history, as it were, that we began to feel there should be just one “proper” version, and set about forgetting the alternatives."

A paradox?

Perhaps offering readers the opportunity to feel that "sense of satisfaction of completion" involves communicating the range of possible endings which would

a) explain my invarible dissatisfaction with forking path narrative
b) much more significantly, signal a paradox: to experience that a feeling of completeness, the work needs to we need a sense of incompleteness. Of potentials untapped, perspectives beyond the protagonists' storyworld…

 Tim Parks again:
"With novels, the endings I’m least disappointed with are those that encourage the reader to believe that the story might very easily have taken a completely different turn."
The conclusions Tim Parks draws concerning the relationships between reader, writer and text link neatly with a realisation Michael Kowalski's question provoked. The way we bound and/or end HayleyWorld needs to take into account not only how biographies finish, but also how, in general, relationships finish and, in particular, how William Hayley's key relationships finished.

How relationships end

While both his marriages ended badly, and his first love dumped him, most of Hayley's friendships either ended with the death of one party (his university friends), or with an illness that disabled communication – George Romney and William Cowper. A few others petered out over time. Only one or two – that with George Steevens, for example – terminated in high dudgeon. His professional relationships tended to follow similar patterns. Even though William Blake's three-year stay in Felpham ended in a colossal row, later communciations between the two men, if not overly intimate are courteous and amicable.

This also raises the question of how I want HayleyWorld's audience to feel when they finish – or finish with – the app. Overall, I'm aiming for engaged, amused and informed. But do I want them to feel about William Hayley and other key players in his story as I feel about them? Or do I want them to make up their own minds? What do I feel about William Hayley and co?

And how do I ensure that these questions – and all the others that pop up when I'm thinking about relationships between protagonists, narrative journeys and the user experience – inform both content and technical development rather than simply running along on a parallel track…

* oh, all right: work, ill teenager, divorce and building work demanding the Movement of Many Things. All on-going (although most of the Things have now been Appropriately Moved)…

Monday, 9 November 2015

Happy 270th birthday, William Hayley

As it's Hayley's 270th birthday today, I thought I'd write a quick celebratory post on why – despite his relative obscurity– he's both worth writing about, and an appropriate subject for the new approach to biography I'm attempting

  • was the first person to publish any of Dante's work in English translation
  • wrote one of the late eighteenth century’s bestselling self-help books: The Triumphs of Temper, advising young women on how to attract and keep a husband. Composed in rhyming couplets, it was modelled on Pope’s The Rape of the Lock
  • supported and championed writing by women, reputedly praising Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and negotiating book deals for Charlotte Smith
  • persuaded William Blake to leave London for Sussex, and probably saved his life by providing both financial and personal support before and during his trial for sedition – a capital offence. He also provided inspiration (but not in the way he hoped) for Blake's prophetic poetry
  • turned down William Pitt's offer of the poet laureateship in 1790 because of "the absurd duties annex’d to the office" and "the very shattered state of my own Health & Faculties"
  • was an amateur doctor with an active and practical interest in the relationship between creativity and mental illness, who provided medical assistance to the villagers around his home in Eartham and both supported and attempted to cure William Cowper, George Romney and Joseph Wright of Derby of their mental health problems. He had much less success with his wife Eliza's "marvellous mental infelicities".
  • was an early adopter of medical technologies: particularly the "electrical machine" and the cold shower bath
  • had an interesting personal life: whilst supportive of women professionally, his behaviour in his most intimate relationships with his wives Eliza and Mary (Wellford) and the mother of his child (Mary Cockerell) wasn't as blameless as his Memoirs show he'd like us to believe
  • was a consumate networker who understood that by assisting and advancing the careers of his friends, he would also do no harm to his own
  • was realistic about the extent and limitations of his own talents
  • was probably instrumental in saving the manuscript of Christoper Smart's Jubilate Agno
    It was this last  point that first sparked my interest in William Hayley: according to the first editor of Smart's poem – William Force Stead – Hayley and Thomas Carwardine, both friends of Cowper
    "regarded this manuscript by the demented Smart as a fair specimen of the nature of poetic insanity, and therefore of some value when they were dealing with Cowper, who had been attacked by the same disease."
    Some twenty years on, I'm still fascinated by him, his relationships and the way he worked.

    Happy 270th birthday, William Hayley.

    Friday, 6 November 2015

    Papers, Please: gaming, story and motivation

    Naomi Alderman – who knows what she's on about – wrote a recent column in the Guardian on the lack of understanding and appreciation "arts and literary types" – specifically those of us with an interest in the use of digital media for storytelling – tend to have for video games. There are, she said, games that experiment "with more interesting storytelling than any 'digital literature' project" she's seen, and "if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them."

    She has a point. So I thought I'd try working my way through the 10 games she mentions. First up was Portal. Released in 1986, it's only now accessible through an emulator, and no amount of pressing left and right arrows or the space bar could get me past the first stage of the game. I have no idea whether this is because I am doing something wrong – pressing things in the wrong order, perhaps? – or because the emulator isn't functioning. In those far-off future days of which I dream, the ones where I have the time to either contact the person who runs the site or explore more permutations and combinations, I'll have another go.

    Papers, Please

    After that first failure, I bought and downloaded Papers, Please, a recent game that's accrued a long list of awards and commendations. And I started to play. It is, as Naomi wrote "sombre and engrossing". You – the player – employed as a border guard at a newly opened checkpoint, during an uneasy peace. It's November 1982, and relations between your country, Arstotzka, and neighbouring states are difficult. The introductory music is suggestive of a Fascist or Stalinist regime: the fact that the job comes with cheap, low-grade accommodation for you and your extended family points to the latter.

    The game basically comes down to who you let into Arstotzka and who you keep out, how you do that, how much money you manage to earn in the process, and how you spend that.

    I played twice: each game took about an hour (because I wasn't very good at it). On my first go, I lasted six Arstotzka work days, all my family died and I was sacked. On my second, I lasted seven days, kept my family alive and was sent to prison for getting into debt. These were (respectively) endings two and one of around 20. The game can last 31 Artotzka work days, and the tasks the player needs to complete to assess whether someone should be admitted or not (or arrested, if you get a lot further than I did) become more numerous and complicated over time. From the start, you need to sustain your focus and pay close attention to detail.

    Playing and thinking

    Repeatedly distracted by work, personal life and the nice man fixing the roof, I couldn't concentrate properly on playing. Add into that mix my poor hand-eye co-ordination and a general lack of interest in games per se, I soon found myself lacking the motivation to try again.

    And that set me thinking about Naomi's article. About why, despite my engaged involvement in using digital media for telling stories in different ways, games don't appeal to me. It's not because I think they are a lesser art form. It's more that I can't find my way in. At least, I can't find a way in that satisfies me in the ways really good writing, film, theatre, music and audio do. Even with something as compelling as Papers, Please, I don't care enough about the story being told to solve the puzzles I need to solve in order to properly experience it.

    This isn't, in any way, a criticism of the form. I would never claim that because I'm unmoved by video games they are a lower form of culture. On the contrary: I am awed and fascinated by the complexity of thought, design and technical processes required to create them. In fact, I could – and can – easily maintain focus and attention through an exploration of the mechanics and processes behind the games. That excites and entertains me. Playing doesn't. That's not limited to video games. I have a similar reaction to board (with the possible exceptions of Pictionary and Apples to Apples) and team games. So, in what way should I engage with the form? Is it a failure of literacy, or simply a preference? If I devoted more time and energy to the medium, would it start feeling more accessible and ?

    Immersion and omniscience

    Reflecting on my experience with Papers, Please, I wondered if this is partly about a desire to avoid immersion. To be able to keep an overall perspective, to figure the story out, think about connections, ramifications and consequences from an uninvolved POV. In other words, with the stuff I do for fun, I want to leave my mind more freedom than playing video games allows it. Taking this further, it's a plea for a particular kind of liberty: one that a disadvantaged border guard, working for almost nothing for a state that has control over his family's life and death can't possibly experience.